America, not for the first time, stands at a racial crossroads. The crisis of race and democracy unfolded before a global audience on Monday night as hundreds of demonstrators set police cars on fire and engaged in sporadic looting in the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the death of 18-year-old teenager Michael Brown.
The split-screen television image, which showed President Barack Obama calling for peaceful demonstrations alongside live footage of protesters overturning a police vehicle offered a poetic juxtaposition of the yawning gap between substance and symbolism.
The Age of Obama, once heralded as the dawn of a new “post-racial” America, has proven to be far more complex than his supporters and critics could have imagined just six years ago.
Ferguson has exposed racial and class divisions in the nation that Obama’s soaring rhetoric gracefully elided during his miraculously successful 2008 presidential campaign. His campaign mantra of hope and change offered both whites and blacks a new hope for political transcendence, however vague and ill-defined, based on a shared set of progressive values related to health care, jobs, the environment, equal pay for women, and ending two wars.
Obama’s famous “A more perfect union” speech, delivered in 2008 against the backdrop of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, hinted at his deliberative approach to racial politics. He presented the U.S.’ tragic history of slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary racism as morally equivalent to white fears of Affirmative Action, reverse racism, and black protest.
The vast majority of the African-American community, however, refused to pay attention to such details. Instead, they basked in the reflected glow of Barack and Michele Obama, as they made their extraordinary ascension to a political office many had never dreamed could be occupied by black people.
Obama’s decision to marry a brown-skinned black woman, his obvious love and affection for his two daughters, and his candid discussion, in his best-selling memoir “Dreams From My Father,” of his struggle to find a usable racial identity helped to cement his relationship with the larger black public. In 2007, he described himself as part of the “Joshua Generation,” the group of blacks who were well positioned to succeed thanks to an earlier generation of civil rights heroes.
On this score none loomed larger than Martin Luther King Jr., who Obama leaned on, invoking the “fierce urgency of now,” when asked why a junior senator was running for president.
During the course of the 2008 presidential election, Obama and the black community entered into an unspoken agreement. Blacks, for their part, would defend the president from right-wing assaults on his background, patriotism, character, and policies. Obama, in turn, would help the community through the vast powers of his executive office and also, less tangibly, through reverberations caused by the symbolism of having an African-American leader of the free world.
The devil, of course, is in the details.
Obama proved so enormously popular in the black community that he could virtually ignore the Congressional Black Caucus and mainstream civil rights leadership. Over the course of six years, issues that constitute what might be called a black agenda (jobs, public schools, mass incarceration) have received scant attention from him.
When, in 2009, police arrested the African-American Harvard scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates at his own home, after receiving a 911 call about a potential break-in, Obama said the police had acted “stupidly.” The media pilloried him for the comment, which has also fueled the president’s caution on race matters.
Obama’s second term found him publicly and personally commenting on the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, and launching the My Brother Keeper Initiative with private money to help at risk black boys gain educational opportunities.
However, this pales in comparison to executive orders passed on the environment and immigration, as well as Obama’s evolving support for gay marriage.
Obama is too intelligent not to understand the enormous issues facing not only Ferguson but the entire black community.
The Ferguson Crisis is an American crisis — one rooted in racial slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism. Key to all of this is denial. Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the way in which the disease of racism infects our entire body politic, along with its institutions, structures, and culture, is a tragedy.
Over 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy characterized civil rights as a “moral issue” that threatened to destroy the nation. National civil unrest compelled Kennedy to speak and Lyndon Johnson to act.
That historical landscape featured grassroots and national civil rights leaders who pressured political leaders into doing the right thing, even when public sentiment remained overtly hostile to racial justice. By conflating Obama the president with the community organizer he was in a past life, the black community has abdicated a long tradition of radical and prophetic activism and witnessing against the powerful.
Ferguson may prove a tipping point that changes things.
Unfettered and explosive black anger, 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and just a few days before Thanksgiving, may finally prod a reluctant African-American president to come to terms with the hard truth that a ‘black agenda’ is, in the final analysis, not only good for one community but for the entire country.
Peniel E. Joseph is Professor of History and Founding Director, Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Tufts University in Medford, MA. His most recent book, Stokely: A Life, was published earlier this year. He can be followed on twitter at @penieljoseph.
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