The images of Barack Obama urging peace alongside footage of angry protesters shows the yawning gap between substance and symbolism, writes Peniel Joseph
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.
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 healthcare, 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 America’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 Michelle Obama, as they made their extraordinary ascension to a political office.
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 fuelled 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 neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, and launching the My Brother’s 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.
. By conflating Obama the president with the community organiser 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 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.
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