President Obama called on Americans to keep working toward making Martin Luther King's dream a reality on Wednesday, saying, "The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn't bend on its own." But for the most part, in his speech marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Obama seemed to be avoiding controversy: calling on people to have empathy for each other, praising volunteerism, pointing out the importance of good parents.
Though he pointed out that the 1963 March on Washington was about jobs, Obama spoke about struggling working Americans in pretty much the same terms he used in a series of speeches he gave this summer to convince congressional Republicans to agree to some deal on funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. The wage and wealth gaps between black and white Americans has grown, Obama noted, but stagnant wages affect everyone:
For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate. 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.
Obama said those who were carrying King's dream forward — "marching" — were hard-working teachers, the businessman who "pays his works a fair wage," the mom who teaches her daughter she can break a glass ceiling, veterans who help other veterans, the "father who realizes the most important job he'll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn't have a father, especially if he didn't have a father at home."
Obama already gave a big speech about race this summer. A week after George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder in the killing Trayvon Martin, Obama asked whether the outcome of the case would have been different if Zimmerman were black and Martin were white. This was controversial. By contrast, on Wednesday, Obama said something that echoed some of his critics' arguments. Obama said:
Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.
After the speech, CNN's commentators called this "tough love."
In his first term, Obama avoided talking about race for the most part. According to The Grio's Perry Bacon, Jr., before he won reelection last fall, Obama met with aides to sketch out his second-term agenda. "One conclusion, according to aides who attended the sessions, was that a second-term president could speak more openly about some of the issues that had animated Obama’s career before he reached the White House, particularly questions of class and inequality," Bacon writes. But he did not want his whole presidency focused on race, or speak about policies specifically targeting minority groups. This year, the Justice Department announced it would try to work around mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. And it filed suit against Texas's new voter ID law last week.
Obama briefly referred to those policies:
To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether it's by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all in the criminal justice system and not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance.