By Catherine Hanssens & Iván Espinoza-Madrigal
This week marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The historic march – masterminded by a brilliant and courageous Black gay man, Bayard Rustin – featured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. A half-century later, many of us forget that employment was the front and center issue of the day.
Dr. King and Mr. Rustin both knew that anything approximating racial equality hinges on the ability of Black men and women to have equal access to employment opportunities available to White people. As President Obama reminded us, "what does it profit a man…to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can't afford the meal?"
The 1963 March's vision of workplace justice remains largely unfulfilled. Blacks earn about half as much as White people, and their unemployment rate is twice as high. But current-day employment discrimination does not end with race. Today, prejudice-based exclusion from opportunities based on unfounded fears, assumptions, and stereotypes about sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV status stubbornly persist.
The movement for gay and lesbian equality transformed military practice with the dismantling of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and same-sex spouses of uniformed service members and civilians are receiving benefits thanks to the Supreme Court's recent gutting of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). But it is premature to claim victory and move on when HIV positive and transgender people are still not permitted to enlist. The federal government and President Obama, as the leader of the armed forces, still have some house-cleaning to do on this front.
As President Obama aptly noted, "the arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn't bend on its own." The Department of Justice deserves real credit for its active enforcement of public accommodations laws and prosecution of HIV and racial discrimination across the country. But justice begins at home – in this case, the White House – and perhaps it's time to remind President Obama that there's a bit more bending to be done right in his backyard.