President Obama on Monday lamented the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., saying the episode showcased the distrust that minorities in many communities have of their local police officers.
“In too many communities around the country, the gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” Obama said, weighing in on the raging controversy. “In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.”…
Despite their anger over the death of black 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot to death by local police, Obama said protesters had no right to use violence against police or loot area stores.
“Let’s seek to heal rather than to wound each other,” the president said.
On one level, Obama’s decision to watch and wait on high-profile incidents in which race seems to play a role makes perfect sense. As president — and particularly as the country’s first African American president — his words carry huge weight. He and his team know that and want to do everything they can to help calm situations while allowing those in charge on the local level to do their jobs. At the same time, Obama is caught between a genuine — and much-expressed — desire to use his unique experiences to move the country beyond its divisive racial past and the realities on the ground, which suggest we aren’t in that post-racial America just yet.
In many ways, Obama’s difficulty in navigating matters of race as president mirrors his struggles in other areas. He has repeatedly and eloquently spoken about race — and his experiences in making his way in the world as the son of a white mother and a Kenyan father — over the past decade. But those words have done little to heal the racial wounds in the country. Perhaps it’s too much to expect any one individual, even the president, to help finally close such a deep and long-standing gash on the country’s conscience. But such is the historic nature of Obama’s presidency that many people, both white and black, expect him to do just that.
As violence raged in Ferguson, Mo., last week, President Barack Obama was hobnobbing with high-class political friends at an exclusive country club. On Sunday night, as the situation on the ground hit new lows, he and First Lady Michelle Obama were enjoying a jazz concert followed by dinner on Martha’s Vineyard, where they were vacationing.
The death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer, and the subsequent violence by police and protesters, has once again put Obama on defense over his handling of crisis situations, coming under fire from all corners of the political spectrum for a slow response to the controversy. In recent days, Obama has faced calls to visit Ferguson first-hand to see the violence and attempt to bring about a peaceful end to it. But Obama, wary of being seen as diverting law enforcement resources, is unlikely to make the trip until the situation calms down…
“Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” Obama said, calling for a national conversation on both the progress made since the Civil Rights era and the work as yet to be done.
But once in office, Obama abandoned that conversation for more pressing priorities, from the economy to health care to pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq. His race, he hoped, would be a footnote to his policy agenda. And when he did try to engage in that conversation, he got burned.
To make matters worse, blacks face additional challenges at home and in the streets. There is a crisis in black fatherhood: while just 29 per cent of whites are born out of wedlock, the figure is 72 per cent for blacks. One result is a racial imbalance in welfare dependency: African-Americans make up about 13 per cent of the population yet 39.8 per cent of those on welfare rolls. Other frightening statistics point to a serious cultural malaise. Four out of five black women are overweight or obese; black women account for nearly 36 per cent of all abortions performed in the United States.
All of this is made worse by a police and judicial system that seems not just imbalanced against blacks but actually designed to put more of them in prison. The War on Drugs and mandatory sentencing has gone hand-in-hand with racial profiling to send large numbers of African-Americans to jail for small infractions: they now account for around 40 per cent of the prison population. For a sense of how, for many blacks, the police are an agency of state repression, consider this alarming fact: in Ferguson, 67 per cent of residents are black but 94 per cent of the local police are white.
Why has electing a black president not changed all of this? One answer is that while Obama is a president who is black, he has never sold himself as an expressly black president – that is, he tries to operate outside of the racial narrative rather than play a leadership role within it. He is evidence to the young black child that, yes, anyone can make it in America.
But what he was never going to be was someone who would confront racism head on or seek a substantial redistribution of power and money of the variety that many civil rights leaders feel is necessary to help the poor.
To be clear, I didn’t have any unrealistic expectations for Obama. I didn’t expect him to pump a black fist in solidarity or scream “fight the power” from the makeshift press room. I didn’t even need him to take a clear side on the issue. I did, however, expect him to tell the truth. Instead, the President delivered a polite but ultimately dangerous message to the American public…
Obama has also placed the highest priority on remaining calm. While this may seem reasonable on its face, particularly against the backdrop of rioting and looting, his words failed to acknowledge the legitimacy of black anger. Black people die violent deaths way out of proportion to their numbers, sometimes killed by rogue cops and even more often each other. Why would we not be angry?
But unlike black-on-black violence, which is tragic but typically punished through proper legal channels, killings of unarmed young people by law enforcement continue to happen with impunity. Instead of acknowledging the legitimacy of black anger over this, the President simply told us to calm down and stop looting. In doing so, he joined the chorus of far too many politicians and civil rights leaders who understate and trivialize righteous anger in order to show the public that they have “the people” under control.
The problem is the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge divides. They believe — with good reason — that he widens them. They learned this early in his presidency, when Obama said that the police had “acted stupidly” when they arrested Harvard University professor Skip Gates on the porch of his own home. The backlash was fierce. To defuse it, Obama ended up inviting both Gates and his arresting officer for a “beer summit” at the White House…
Making matters worse, Obama’s presidency has seen a potent merging of the racial and political divides. It’s always been true that views on racial issues drive views on American politics. But as political scientist Michael Tesler has documented, during Obama’s presidency, views on American politics have begun driving views on racially charged issues…
If Obama’s speeches aren’t as dramatic as they used to be, this is why: the White House believes a presidential speech on a politically charged topic is as likely to make things worse as to make things better. It is as likely to infuriate conservatives as it is to inspire liberals. And in a country riven by political polarization, widening that divide can take hard problems and make them impossible problems.
President Obama might still decide to give a speech about events in Ferguson. But it probably won’t be the speech many of his supporters want. When Obama gave the first Race Speech he was a unifying figure trying to win the Democratic nomination. Today he’s a divisive figure who needs to govern the whole country. The White House never forgets that. There probably won’t be another Race Speech because the White House doesn’t believe there can be another Race Speech. For Obama, the cost of becoming president was sacrificing the unique gift that made him president.
I’m not saying the protests in Ferguson aren’t justified—they are. In fact, we need more protests across the country. Where’s our Kent State? What will it take to mobilize 4 million students in peaceful protest? Because that’s what it will take to evoke actual change. The middle class has to join the poor and whites have to join African-Americans in mass demonstrations, in ousting corrupt politicians, in boycotting exploitative businesses, in passing legislation that promotes economic equality and opportunity, and in punishing those who gamble with our financial future.
Otherwise, all we’re going to get is what we got out of Ferguson: a bunch of politicians and celebrities expressing sympathy and outrage. If we don’t have a specific agenda—a list of exactly what we want to change and how—we will be gathering over and over again beside the dead bodies of our murdered children, parents, and neighbors.