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Often overlooked is the fact that the massive 1963 civil rights demonstration at which Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" was a March for Jobs and Freedom. It is concerning that first part - jobs - "that the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short," President Obama correctly observed last week in his anniversary address. For while great strides have been made in terms of eliminating institutional racism, one thing has not changed since Rev. King delivered his historic speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: The unemployment rate among blacks has remained about double that among whites.
While whites have experienced times of high unemployment during the past five decades, blacks have moved between extremely high unemployment and merely high unemployment, never really achieving a low unemployment rate even during times of strong economic growth. This would certainly have disappointed Rev. King who closely tied the fight for equality and respect to the ability to obtain economic security.
"The men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice. Not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can't afford the meal?" observed President Obama.
In his address the president used this unfulfilled goal of the long-ago march to deliver a populist message.
"The gap in wealth between races has not lessened, it's grown," said the president "Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this country in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence."
Yet the president has been tepid in his response to this reality, perhaps calculating that an aggressive attempt by the first black president to attack this gap, particularly acute in the nation's cities, would appear too self-serving. It also may be that having expended so much political capital during the first two years of his presidency in passing a universal health care law - and the resultant loss of control of the House to Republicans in the 2010 election - he was left without the political means to forge a policy.
In any event, it is disappointing.
To his credit, President Obama last year proposed the American Jobs Act, portions of which had the potential to boost employment among African-Americans and Latinos - including $25 billion to revitalize urban neighborhoods, provide job training, and improve the energy efficiency of older-stock housing; and $20 billion in school facility repair and modernization. But Republicans have shown no interest in the $300 billion jobs package, even though it would include $175 billion in payroll and business tax cuts.
Republicans have a different philosophy, a trust that when government is slashed and taxes cut, jobs will be created and the market will solve the problem. Yet the persistence of the employment gap suggests a targeted policy approach is necessary.
The administration's Race to the Top initiative, pursued under the leadership of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has effectively used competition for federal dollars to motivate needed education reforms in states across the country, with the aim of improving underperforming schools. The academic performance gap between inner-city and rural poor students and suburban middle-class and affluent students certainly feeds the employment gap.
Jobs remain a vital civil rights goal, one that deserves renewed attention.