Nice Speech, Obama, but What About Policy?

The president's speech was long on soaring rhetoric but stopped short of solutions that our community needs.

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The Obamas' move into the White House offers a compelling portrait of racial progress and change, but underneath this surface is the harsh reality that racial oppression continues -- in fact, flourishes -- in many parts of American society.

 

"On the battlefield of justice, men and women without wealth, title or fame would liberate us all," observed Obama. The president criticized those who "dismiss the magnitude of progress" as "dishonoring the courage" of martyrs including Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and King.

Obama candidly spoke of the need for vigilance to challenge racial discrimination in the criminal-justice system and new barriers to voting. This was the most powerful part of the speech, since the president has, through Attorney General Eric Holder, connected a passionate call for justice with concrete policy. The Justice Department's efforts to repeal voter-ID laws and wind down the war on drugs' racist impact on black incarceration offer an example of substance matching symbolism.

Obama conceded that, despite significant advances, black unemployment has grown since the march, "even as corporate profits soar." What the president called the "shadow of poverty" continues to negatively shape the life chances of millions of African Americans a half-century after King's "I Have a Dream" speech. But rather than offer to launch a new war on poverty or outline a new vision of a Great Society on the anniversary of King's iconic speech, the president remained silent about how to bridge the yawning disparity between the rich and the poor.

"We shouldn't fool ourselves; this task will not be easy," admitted the president. Obama cited growing economic inequality as the primary threat to fulfilling the promise of democracy envisioned in 1963.

Where Is the Government Action?

The president followed his critique of proliferating corporate power and the ignoring of the poor by chastising the tendency for "poverty to be an excuse for not parenting." This was an unfortunate aside, since it focused on individual behavior and, in the process, continued to pathologize black poverty. Poverty is a result of institutional and system inequality, and the sooner Obama realizes this fact, the closer we will come to formulating policy proposals and identifying government actions to address it (such as signing an executive order increasing the minimum wage of federal contract workers).

A nation rife with political, racial and economic divisions requires "courage" to form coalitions based as much on empathy as on politics. Young people "unconstrained by fear" helped to change America, said Obama. That same creative energy and thirst for freedom is what our contemporary moment requires.

Obama concluded his speech by describing Americans who raise their kids, serve their country and fight to end poverty and oppression as continuing the march. "That's the lesson of our past," said Obama, "in that in the face of impossible odds, our country can be changed."

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