(The Root) — While the nation's attention was riveted on last Saturday's massive March on Washington demonstration, the pursuit of racial justice quietly continued in two remarkable instances. The day before the NAACP-organized demonstration that featured 70 speakers and a keynote from MSNBC host and National Action Network leader the Rev. Al Sharpton, President Barack Obama discussed the nation's uneven racial progress during a town hall meeting at Binghamton University in New York. While acknowledging the "enormous strides" since the Jim Crow era, including his own election, Obama said that "discrimination still exists, although nothing like what existed 50 years ago." The last part of his comment is open to debate.
The president's speech was part of his continuing push, over the last two months, to highlight the persistence of growing economic inequality in America. What makes Obama's latest discussion of economic recovery for the poor and middle class especially notable is his open discussion of race. Race and class are tightly bound in our nation, but we rarely admit this relationship or are willing to discuss it in public.
Poverty and economic insecurity affect all Americans. Yet given the disproportionately large number of African Americans facing economic misery — in the form of unemployment, low wages, homelessness and welfare benefits — the racial face of poverty in this country is considered black. The president, on two recent occasions, has spoken of how economic crises increase racial anxiety. One was during a July discussion about the 1963 March on Washington, when he emphasized the dual nature of the protest, which included a desperate plea for "jobs and freedom."
Another occasion was his Binghamton speech. For middle- and working-class Americans today, the economic recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 has been slow or, in many instances, nonexistent. The tepid recovery has intensified competition for jobs and resources. Although fierce competition is a part of living in a capitalist society, the recovery has been marked by an uptick in wealth and income for the top 1 percent, coupled with the continued erosion of economic opportunity for large sectors of society. This scenario of growing inequality is ripe for racial scapegoating.
"We've seen … over the last couple of years, the tendency to suggest somehow that government is taking something from you and giving it to somebody else, and your problems will be solved if we just ignore them and don't help them," he said in Binghamton. "And that, I think is something that we have to constantly struggle against, whether we're black or white or whatever color we are." This statement is, perhaps, as close as Obama will ever come to repudiating the race-baiting of the Tea Party, right-wing conservatives and some Republican members of Congress.
Obama's use of measured rhetoric (the president runs cool even when passions are hot) has a tendency to obscure the power of his words. But in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, he has gone rogue, in the best sense: He has spoken more candidly about race and economic injustice during the first months of his second term than he did in his entire first term. In his speech in Binghamton, the president discussed important themes of economic justice and racial equality that require strong public policy. The hard work of democracy always continues, even if it's sometimes obscured by the shadow of national celebrations.
The Justice Department's move last Thursday to sue the state of Texas for passing voter-ID laws that discourage minority voting adds teeth to Attorney General Eric Holder's recent vigorous defense of racial equality during a speech before the American Bar Association in San Francisco. In that speech Holder focused on the war on drugs and its pernicious effect on the exploding numbers of black and brown men and women in federal prisons.
Holder's forceful action to restore full voting rights for African Americans and other minorities in Texas is an important step in protecting the black vote, which the Supreme Court's Shelby decision greatly weakened by ending preclearance provisions designed to ensure that individual states did not enact the kind of voter restrictions that are suddenly in vogue around the nation. "Today's action marks another step forward in the Justice Department's continuing efforts to protect the voting rights of all eligible Americans," said Holder in a written statement. "This represents the department's latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last."
In one week, during the run-up to two national celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (the second will occur on Wednesday when Obama makes a speech at the Lincoln Memorial, joined by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and members of the King family), we have witnessed two remarkable events: A black president in a nation founded on racial slavery promotes racial healing and economic equality. And an African-American attorney general vows to wage a robust struggle to defend and restore voting rights that were thought to have been won two generations ago.
Both of these instances attest to how far we have come as a nation since 1963 and the long road that lies ahead.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.