Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is class the new race?

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 11:37 AM EDT, Wed October 30, 2013
August 28, 1963, was one of the most important days for the civil rights movement. Over 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Magnum photographer Leonard Freed (1929-2006) was there documenting that historic day. August 28, 1963, was one of the most important days for the civil rights movement. Over 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Magnum photographer Leonard Freed (1929-2006) was there documenting that historic day.
HIDE CAPTION
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
Leonard Freed's March on Washington
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fast-food workers scheduled protests across the country this week
  • John Sutter: Class seems to be the social justice issue of our time
  • It's been 50 years since the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom"
  • Economic justice remains a distant dream for many, Sutter says

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- Let's play a little game.

Which of the following signs did protestors hold at the March on Washington, 50 years ago this week, and which were held up this year by fast-food workers:

1. "WE MARCH FOR HIGHER MINIMUM WAGES
COVERAGE FOR ALL WORKERS NOW!"

2. "WE ARE WORTH MORE"

3. "I AM A MAN"

4. "WE MARCH FOR JOBS FOR ALL
A DECENT PAY NOW!"

The exclamation points, which apparently were more popular in the 1960s (despite what Twitter would have you believe!!!), are your best clue.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

Signs one and four are from 1963. Two and three are from 2013.

Fifty years later, it's easy to forget that the full name of the 1963 "March on Washington" was actually "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

Sutter: 99 must-reads on economic inequality

But flip through some pictures from that rally, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech and where civil rights leaders, to borrow his words, bent the arc of history towards justice and greater equality, and you'll see protest signs that put the economy as a front-and-center issue, just as it is now.

"CIVIL RIGHTS
PLUS FULL EMPLOYMENT
EQUALS FREEDOM."

Fast food workers demand fair pay

President Obama, in commemorating the 50th anniversary of that march this week, smartly picked up on the theme that economic equality is "the great unfinished business" of King's vision for a just and fair America.

"...[A]s 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 had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life," Obama said Wednesday. "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."

The subtext of his argument: Class may be the new race.

It's not that all battles for racial equality have been won -- they haven't -- or that we live in a post-racial society. But, in some remarkable and troubling ways, class has become an increasingly significant barrier to equality in modern America. The gap between rich and poor has been growing in the United States since the late 1970s, and our level of income inequality, one proxy measure for that gap, is now on par with many sub-Saharan African countries.

Sutter: Who cares about the economy? ... You!

It's become more difficult for the poor to move up into the middle class and more difficult for the middle to dig in its heels to stop from slipping into poverty.

The American mantra of "work hard and you'll get ahead" is not always enough to sustain people. It's harder now to secure a financial future.

This is the theme that underlies much of what's happening in America today. And it's something that goes back much farther than the recent recession.

The fast-food workers, for example, who scheduled demonstrations across the country on Thursday, are frustrated by the fact that they can't make ends meet on $7.25 per hour. If you doubt whether that's true, please take a look at one fast-food worker's budget. Some workers, as Forbes reports, have to choose between paying for rent or food. "Should I pay my light bill (or) should I pay my gas?" one fast-food worker asks in this CNNMoney video. "I never can pay it all at once."

"Right now the gas is off," she says.

The workers demand a living wage of $15 per hour.

I'm not sure what the fair wage would be. That's the subject for another column...or perhaps a book. But I do know that, as The Atlantic reports, fast-food workers in Australia make $14.50 an hour, about twice the U.S. minimum wage.

And burgers haven't become too expensive Down Under.

Some context is helpful for understanding that movement as well.

The U.S. minimum wage is actually lower than it was in the late 1960s. Five years after King's speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the federal minimum wage, when converted into 2013 dollars, was $10.70, compared to $7.25 now. (The nominal minimum wage, according to the Congressional Research Service, was only $1.60 per hour in 1968. The $10.70 amount is adjusted for inflation).

Sutter: White House should pay its interns

Education is another example. There's evidence poverty is a better indicator of educational achievement than race.

"According to a 2011 research study by Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon, the test-score gap between the children of the poor (in the 10th percentile of income) and the children of the wealthy (in the 90th percentile) has expanded by as much as 40% and is now more than 50% larger than the black-white achievement gap -- a reversal of the trend 50 years ago," Sarah Garland writes for The Atlantic.

"Underprivileged children now languish at achievement levels that are close to four years behind their wealthy peers."

Four years behind their peers.

Just because of their income.

That challenges the very notion of who we are as Americans.

We see ourselves as a middle-class country -- a place where anyone can work hard and succeed. And many do. We're a country of fighters.

But it's become more difficult for the non-rich to make it.

The country has made great strides toward racial equality since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But, in the 50 years since King's speech, economic justice seems to have become the more distant dream.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT