Obama and the Search for Racial Justice

In a Sunday interview, the president discussed a fraying social contract between government and citizens.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

(The Root) — President Obama boldly acknowledged the connection between institutional racism and economic injustice during an interview with the New York Times on Sunday. Obama’s robust comments on the links between racial justice and economic opportunity came on the heels of a week in which the president tried, once again, to shift the nation’s attention back to an economy that is struggling for millions of working-class and poor Americans.

In the interview, Obama openly discussed the fraying social contract between government and citizens, a phenomenon that he correctly observed as having occurred decades “before the financial crisis.” But then he went further, linking increasing economic anxiety and poverty to national race relations. “Racial tensions won’t get better; they may get worse, because people will feel as if they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot,” observed Obama. On this score the president again made the case that a growing economy is vital to the future of American democracy.

What made these words resonate even more deeply was their timing, in the aftermath of the massive demonstrations that have gripped the nation in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, and the historical context that Obama attached to his analysis.

The president revealed that he keeps a framed copy of the original March on Washington program in the Oval office as a constant reminder of what people struggled for during the civil rights movement’s heroic period. Noting “that was a march for jobs and justice” and the “massive economic component” to the historic demonstration, Obama elegantly connected contemporary struggles for racial and economic justice to this watershed event in American history. “When you think about the coalition that brought about civil rights, it wasn’t just folks who believed in racial equality,” observed Obama. “It was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot.”

Adopting the role of historian-in-chief, Obama distilled the devastating impact that postindustrial transformations have had on the American working class, shutting down whole industries that in an earlier era provided jobs, benefits, homes and a way of life for millions of people. On this score, the president vowed to use all of the power of the Executive Office to stimulate the economy in the face of intransigent Republican opposition in Congress.

These words offer much-needed solace, comfort and inspiration to the millions of Americans who voted for Obama in 2008 expecting bold leadership, racial justice and democratic renewal in the aftermath of the disastrous George W. Bush presidency. While conservatives may accuse Obama of fomenting “class warfare,” his comments acknowledge the debilitating reality of race and poverty in contemporary America.