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Gary Orfield Headshot

The President's Speech and Dr. King

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President Obama had Martin Luther King's Bible but needs more of his vision. His speech offered a progressive vision but was silent on issues central for Dr. King. Forty-five years after the assassination of Martin Luther King we are a very long way from the promised land of racial equality and the "beloved community" of King's dream. I was a student in the March on Washington 50 years ago near the peak of the civil rights movement. I followed Martin Luther King across Chicago when he was fighting segregated housing in his last great campaign, the Chicago Freedom Movement. I walked through the muddy encampment on the Washington Mall of the Poor People's campaign, the last movement he had planned before he was assassinated. I have been working on and studying issues of racial equality and civil rights ever since. Today the lunch counters and buses of the South are integrated but the neighborhoods of Chicago, including those where Barack Obama was a community organizer, are still highly segregated and profoundly unequal and in too many states most of our families are so poor now that they cannot afford to buy their children's school lunches, even if they work full time. We have saved the banks but not the jobs, we've lost the vision of the War on Poverty. The march where Dr. King gave his immortal speech was called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." We have a lot more freedom today but we don't have the jobs or any equality in the education that leads to jobs.

President Obama's second inaugural address calls for a society where we work together "as one nation, and one people" to accomplish common goals such as caring for the vulnerable and creating a society where "every person can find independence and pride in their work." We must, he said, unite to invest in "the generation that will build its future." The president began his speech and returned near the end to the words of the Declaration of Independence, to the fact that all are "created equal" and have God-given rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I often heard Martin Luther King speak those words from the Declaration in churches in black Chicago. They came together with the words of the prophets and the songs of faith, they came together with his urgent moral demands for justice. Martin Luther King would be challenging us now about the loss of energy, our backward movement on racial justice.

Of course, there have been large positive changes. There is a black president and Fortune 500 CEOs and there are millions of middle-class blacks living in suburban communities that were closed when King died (though many are resegregating). Black women have made major educational progress and achieved greater equity in the job market. Health care is more available. The old structures of state-imposed segregation laws in the South are long gone and no one wants to bring them back. Blacks have achieved so many "firsts" that what would have been considered breakthroughs no longer make the news. Our leading universities have now had a significant black presence for a half century though it is fading in some. But, in some vital ways, things are worse and there is neither a significant social movement nor a major political agenda to address these issues.

The president talked about the women's movement, the gay movement, and the immigrant rights movement but he did not talk about decaying cities, about continuing housing job discrimination against blacks and Latinos or the neighborhoods where most students drop out and are more likely to graduate to jail than to a degree or a job. The "law and order" campaigns of the conservative movement have produced incarceration and disenfranchisement of generations of black men on a scale that could not have been imagined. The peak of equity in college access happened back in the 1970s and there are very large gaps today. Black men have fared very badly in the job market and many cannot support families. Three fourths of black children are now born into single parent families, families much more likely to grow up in poverty and bad schools. The schools of black children have been steadily resegregating since the Supreme Court ended desegregation efforts 22 years ago; they are segregated by both race and poverty and have weaker graduation rates, less qualified teachers and weaker educational offerings and there is no significant leadership against this deepening inequality. Black teens face staggering levels of joblessness. The welfare and job training systems have been severely weakened. Affirmative action has been cut back and eliminated in some states. In contrast to robust housing and urban reform programs in the late 1960s there are no serious federal efforts to upgrade urban America today.

The Obama Administration has no coherent urban or civil rights strategy. It has ended the Bush attack on civil rights and put positive officials in charge of the key civil rights agencies and tries to defend the law in the courts, there have been better policy guidance and some cases filed, but it has no major agenda for serious positive changes and it has not informed the country about the severity and consequences of racial inequalities and injustice or built any basis for a serious policy initiative. Most whites believe minorities already have equal opportunity.

The driving force in civil rights policy now is the Supreme Court. Martin Luther King died near the end of the most liberal Supreme Court in American history, the Warren Court. There were no nominees of Democratic Presidents added to the Court for the next quarter century and President Reagan named William Rehnquist, a consistent civil rights opponent, as Chief Justice as is his successor, Justice Roberts. I'm sure that Dr. King would have been astonished that for the last two decades the only black member of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, has been a fierce opponent of the goals of civil rights. Today we have by far the most conservative Court since the early 1930s. It has decimated school desegregation, the basic legacy of Brown and is now considering cases that could virtually destroy the remaining pillars of the civil rights era -- affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. It is as Court that recognizes unlimited rights of corporations to try to buy elections but will not defend the right to an equal or integrated education, even when local officials want to provide one. Civil rights groups shudder when this Court takes a civil rights case. It is a Court divided by a single vote majority which is one of the reasons the presidential election was so important.

In most political campaigns today the talk about helping the poor has been replaced by helping the middle class, a middle class defined to include 98 percent of the population, so it is good to hear the President mention poverty in his speech. The vast bulk of the Reagan-Bush social and educational policy has, however, been accepted so far in the Clinton and Obama presidencies. The role of government, apart from care of the elderly and health care, has been radically cut back and the safety net shredded. Obama has struggled to keep some programs alive, such as student aid, but we are headed into another time of bargaining over serious cuts. With temporary funding from the financial emergency Obama was able to do some short-term good but that money has dried up and the administration has already conceded that there will be further substantial cuts in any deal with the Republicans over the deficit.

Aside from health policy the Obama Administration claims most credit for its education policy. The education policy, under the name of "Race to the Top" has the basic strategy or trying to raise and equalize educational success through the use of testing and accountability and creation of schools in poor areas not under the control of public school systems. In terms of its basic assumptions and strategies it is a continuation and expansion of the Reagan-Bush strategy initiated in the 1980s -- more tests and sanctions on schools and teachers in high poverty areas and very strong encouragement of charter schools that drain money from public schools and perform no better. It is based on sound bites, not research on what actually works. Arne Duncan, who managed school politics for City Hall in Chicago, where he was far more successful in public relations than educational performance has been in charge of trumpeting the value of still more testing and accountability and using his "Race to the Top" to force states and school districts needing federal funds to adopt an agenda that will make teachers and administrators even more likely to avoid the high poverty schools that need them the most. Mitt Romney and other conservative have praised the Duncan agenda but educators have been depressed by a strategy that privileges politics over experience.

Obviously Barack Obama is and wants to be seen as president of all the people, not only blacks or people of color. That accounts for the great caution on civil rights issues from his White House. His reelection by a broad coalition of Americans shows that he has achieved that goal. His campaign also showed, however, that when he had the courage to lead on immigration and gay rights, it did not hurt him, it mobilized constituencies that had been dismissed and many who agreed with their needs and it expanded social justice in our country.

Now is the time to take a serious look at the communities like those he knew in Chicago's South Side, the ghettos and barrios that have not recovered from what was, for them, a true and deep depression. It is time for serious proposals about how to raise those communities up and how to offer their residents and those of the many declining inner suburbs access to broader opportunities in a more open and integrated society.

No president has done this seriously since Lyndon Johnson. It is time for this president to explain to the country what has been going on, what the costs to a society where the young are almost half nonwhite have been, and what he sees as the immediate and long-term goals we must set for the country. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson made very large impacts on the national agenda when they commissioned independent experts to make official reports on what needed to be done to realize the great constitutional goal of "equal justice under law" in our times. Truman's had little impact immediately but helped shape a great agenda for a generation. Johnson's led to policies that transformed race relations in many ways. President Obama should do the same. What a president gets enacted is very important but so too is the way in which he deepens the nation's understanding, legitimizes the issues of the excluded, and broadens the agenda for the nation's future. Great leadership must include prophecy. The reason there is a monument for Dr. King is that he addressed the deepest divisions in our society with the weapons of truth and with a vision that we could become much better than practical people believed was possible and he helped us do that in some very important ways. It is time for the President to tell the truth about the way things have slipped backward, to renew the vision and help us find a path to a more equal society.