Obama and the Search for Racial Justice

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.

Obama's efforts to link the contemporary crisis of racial injustice, poverty and unemployment to the March on Washington are especially important as we approach the 50th anniversary of the demonstration. As civil rights activists organize a massive demonstration scheduled to take place in the nation's capital on Aug. 24, 2013, the president words tacitly approve and acknowledge these protests.


Martin Luther King Jr. remains an unappreciated champion of poor people in this regard. King's status as the civil rights movement's prophet of nonviolence and racial justice allows us to ignore and overlook his commitment to economic justice. In the aftermath of the passage of the civil rights legislation, King moved north to Chicago, where he focused his attention squarely on the issue of poverty, which he blasted as an immoral blight in the richest nation on earth.

In 1968 King helped organize a "Poor People's Campaign," a sit-in in Washington until Congress passed meaningful employment and anti-poverty legislation. The genius of King's vision resided in his appreciation of America's diverse racial and ethnic character, so he purposely recruited poor whites from Appalachia, Mexican Americans from the Southwest, blacks from the Mississippi Delta and Native Americans to highlight the plight of millions living in desperate conditions. King's death in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, came in the midst of his efforts to help 1,000 striking black sanitation workers in a local movement that he considered an expression of the national crisis of race and democracy that gripped the nation.


President Obama's forceful acknowledgment of the link between racial equality and economic justice echoes King's understanding that these issues were intertwined. The president's unusual candor on this vitally important matter deserves our praise, encouragement and action. His bold words should be followed up by a stream of executive orders designed to promote jobs, racial justice and economic security for Americans whom this economy has left behind, including a candid conversation about capitalism's jagged edges and its impact on poor communities of color. The national commemoration of the March on Washington offers the nation a rare opportunity to connect a national conversation on race and democracy to public policy that can transform democratic institutions and the lives of all of our citizens.

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.