Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Obama's national narrative is a bit less triumphal these days

It's hard to wax lyrical about Obama waxing lyrical when he seems on the point of launching an attack on another country with no clear end and to advance no clear U.S. interest. 

But I did think that his speech at the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was a good one, better than the Twitter chatter on my feed would lead you to believe. It was familiar: the always perfecting/never perfected frame, offsetting progress made with challenges yet unmet -- but this time with an edge, an emphasis on the lack of economic progress, for the middle class generally and African Americans specifically, over the last fifty years.

I was moved by his account of the ordinary people who drove major social change, though I've heard it before. And I found his account of the political forces militating against opportunity and shared prosperity satisfyingly meaty:

Since 1963, the economy has changed. The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class -- reduced the bargaining power of American workers. And our politics has suffered. Entrenched interests, those who benefit from an unjust status quo, resisted any government efforts to give working families a fair deal -- marshaling an army of lobbyists and opinion makers to argue that minimum wage increases or stronger labor laws or taxes on the wealthy who could afford it just to fund crumbling schools, that all these things violated sound economic principles. We'd be told that growing inequality was a price for a growing economy, a measure of this free market; that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.
And then, there were those elected officials who found it useful to practice the old politics of division, doing their best to convince middle-class Americans of a great untruth -- that government was somehow itself to blame for their growing economic insecurity; that distant bureaucrats were taking their hard-earned dollars to benefit the welfare cheat or the illegal immigrant.
Something implicit in Obama's rather caustic critique of progress made to date in race relations chimed (for me)  with a theme in Timothy Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, which I read recently. Recounting the efforts of the NAACP and other advocacy groups in the 1950s and '60s to create economic opportunity for black youth in Detroit, Sugrue suggest that the efforts were too focused on improving the social skills of disadvantaged youth -- making them "worthy" -- rather than countering the racism that shut them out of all jobs but the hardest, dirtiest, lowest-paying and least secure. Similarly, according to Sugrue, relatively too much effort was focused on tokenism -- securing the occasional white collar position for an African American -- rather than on African Americans' systematic exclusion from, say, the skilled crafts guilds. Obama seemed to touch obliquely on that focus:
Yes, there have been examples of success within black America that would have been unimaginable a half century ago. But as has already been noted, black unemployment has remained almost twice as high as white unemployment, Latino unemployment close behind. The gap in wealth between races has not lessened, it's grown. And as President Clinton indicated, the position of all working Americans, regardless of color, has eroded, making the dream Dr. King described even more elusive...

And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life.

The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many -- for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business. 
There's a conceptual two-step here: a step not only away from tokenism in the search for racial justice, but away from race per se as the focus. That's been much commented on: that it's something of a political imperative for Obama to focus on class and economics more than race. While he's able to tie the economic segue back to King himself, there is perhaps some sleight of hand in a shift of emphasis --necessary, perhaps, to a president of all the people:
In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination -- the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the March. For the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. 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?  This idea -- that one's liberty is linked to one's livelihood; that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security -- this idea was not new. Lincoln himself understood the Declaration of Independence in such terms -- as a promise that in due time, "the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." 

And Dr. King explained that the goals of African Americans were identical to working people of all races:  "Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community."

I sensed on Twitter some progressive frustration, too, with another long-standing Obama trope: That excesses of liberalism opened the door to the Reagan revolution . And of course, a bit of obligatory own-group hectoring of African Americans is salted in:
And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. 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.
This critique is in The Audacity of Hope -- though there, the hat-tip to the ensuing Reagan revolution is less grudging. That's probably because Obama still then believed in his ability to win cooperation and a renewed measure of moderation from Republicans, and perhaps also because he  now has a deeper understanding of the 30-plus-year gallop of income inequality and middle class stagnation.

One final gift: if National Journal typescript is complete, Obama forbore the obligatory "God bless the United States of America" sign-off that so aggravates James Fallows. Perhaps that's just an omission in the reprint. But I'd like to think that Obama is laying on the national flattery a bit less thickly in these latter days.

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