It is the privilege of every generation to think itself more enlightened than the one that preceded it. Occasionally, this thought is even true.
So in anticipation of President Barack Obama’s speech marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the commentary has been all about how far and how little the nation has traveled since that day in August 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. described his dream of racial and economic equality.
No, there are no longer blatantly racist literacy tests for black voters — but attempts to restrict the right to vote persist. Yes, the poverty rate has declined — but it remains far higher for black Americans than for whites.
And then there is the president himself: the personification, if not the proof, of racial progress in America. Obama’s 29-minute speech will not be remembered the way King’s is. Nevertheless, it was in its own way historic.
Rhetorically speaking, it was vintage Obama, which is to say it was well-wrought and allusive, and the closing litany of “marching” Americans was (forgive us) moving if (forgive us again) pedestrian. Substantively, it was judicious, with a history of the last 50 years that delineated how much the struggle for civil rights has achieved and how far it has yet to go.
What the speech was missing — this is not quite a criticism, because the occasion demanded the kind of wide-angle focus Obama brought to it — was specificity.
Part of what will make Obama’s presidency historic is what it achieves. And its signature domestic accomplishment, thus far and probably for all time, is health-care reform.
Fifty years from now, when commentators are filling computer screens with analyses of America’s racial progress in the century since King first described his dream, Obama’s presidency will play a prominent part. Maybe they also will be struck by how it took the United States until the second decade of the 21st century to realize that health care also has its place on the arc of social and economic justice.
Bloomberg News (Aug. 29)