One wonders what Martin Luther King Jr. would have made of Wednesday's event at the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of Aug. 28, 1963, is remembered partly for his "I Have a Dream" speech. Could he have dreamed that within two generations a black American president would stand at the lectern to praise his vision? And how far would that remarkable fact atone, in his view, for the country's lingering failure to give black Americans their full measure of economic and social equality?
Barack Obama has often emphasized the paradox. The country that elected him to its highest office is still divided by race — culturally, socially and economically.
There has been progress, and not just in attacking legally sanctioned discrimination. Physical segregation has gently declined, decade by decade. Blacks go to college, advance to the middle class and hold political office in vastly larger numbers than in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the black-white gap on measures such as income, employment and intergenerational social mobility persists, and in some respects may have worsened in recent years.
So complicated an issue resists simple prescriptions, but I'll venture one anyway: Dethrone race as the organizing principle for social reform.
This isn't to say that race doesn't matter. Explicit discrimination in housing and employment may be illegal, but the persistence of disguised — maybe even unintended — discrimination on grounds of race is a documented fact. Even if discrimination had vanished, blacks would still be at an economic disadvantage because of the burden their parents and grandparents had to carry. This legacy continues to provide an ethical justification for what King called "compensatory consideration," or what came to be called affirmative action.
The problem with explicitly race-based policies is that they're increasingly beside the point or even counterproductive. Affirmative action mainly helps blacks from better-off families: It's of little use to persistently unemployed blacks in depressed inner cities. In higher education it can put students in situations where they can't learn effectively, contributing to dropout rates that are high even by U.S. standards (and that's saying something). One of its most pernicious costs is that it casts suspicion on the achievements of successful blacks.
It also entrenches race consciousness, which militates against the long-term goal that King articulated a half-century ago: to create a color-blind society. King wasn't naive about what it would take to get from here to there — that's why he advocated affirmative action. Nor should we be naive. Nonetheless, the aim is to eradicate race consciousness, not institutionalize it as a permanent feature of American society. At a certain point, rather than advancing that goal, affirmative action sets it back.
Race consciousness creates political energy, it's true. Disgust at racial injustice is a powerful motivator for good, as today's event demonstrates. But race consciousness also creates division and resistance. If only from a narrowly tactical point of view, that balance needs to be kept in mind. If poverty is framed as a problem of racial injustice, does that move it higher or lower on the political agenda?
In 2013, poverty is no longer exclusively or even mainly a problem of racial injustice. The factors that deny opportunity to poor blacks — bad schools, underfunded public services, broken families and a criminal-justice system that too often forgets what justice means — affect all poor people.
It's at least worth asking whether the country would make better progress in righting these wrongs by talking a bit less about race and a bit more about class. As the Brookings Institution's Isabel Sawhill puts it, "If we were once two countries, one black and one white, we are now increasingly becoming two countries, one advantaged and one disadvantaged."
The best way to help poor families is to help them get jobs and to ensure that work pays. Securing and sustaining the strongest possible economic recovery would help. This requires continued monetary accommodation and a more intelligent fiscal policy — less short-term tightening and more attention to long- term consolidation. When it comes to labor markets, the U.S. already has a suitable policy in the earned income tax credit, a subsidy paid to low-income workers. The credit is good, but it could stand some improving. It needs to be made simpler (two- thirds of families claiming it pay tax-preparers for help). It should treat childless workers more generously. And despite a series of tweaks it still involves a marriage penalty — hardly conducive to stable households.
School reform is a sprawling agenda in its own right, but it would be hard to overstate its importance. Inequities in district-by-district school funding need to be addressed. Excellent teachers should be paid more to work in schools serving poor children. Vouchers and other methods should be used to empower parents and force schools to compete.
The country's insane devotion to incarceration strips families and neighborhoods of fathers and potential breadwinners. It's true — and scandalous — that this injustice falls disproportionately on blacks, but the policy is wrong, first and foremost, because it is a travesty of justice to lock people up for years for nonviolent offenses. Recently Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general, announced changes in prosecution policy that should help a little, but the issue requires new laws to roll back mandatory minimum sentences and hold prosecutors accountable. Americans should see the present system as an assault on the rights of all, not just on one racial group.
What goes for criminal justice applies to most other areas of social policy as well. It will be a long time, if ever, before the U.S. can be entirely colorblind. But things have changed. In 1963, race-based policies were a moral imperative: Rising to King's challenge required them. In 2013, they're an ambiguous ally, at best, in making his dream a reality.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.