August 22

Michael Eric Dyson is a sociology professor at Georgetown University and an MSNBC political analyst.

If President Obama’s comments on race in the anguished aftermath of the not-guilty verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial gleamed in light, his words on the rage that has thumped Ferguson, Mo., were shrouded in darkness. They revealed a gifted leader whose palpable discomfort with discussing race has made him a sometimes unreliable and distant narrator of black life.

When Obama gave his fullest statement yet on the cataclysm in Ferguson, he was cautious to a fault. The president understandably didn’t want to fan the violence. He had also learned his lesson after he lamented the stupidity of the police officer who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for breaking into his own home; the blowback from that intervention pushed an already reticent Obama into monkish silence on race. Now the president mostly weighs in only when exigent demands leave him little choice.

That was the case when Obama eloquently explained the grief and anger that swept black communities after Zimmerman, the killer of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, went unpunished. It was also true with Ferguson. If Obama felt and looked weary at the prospect of repeating himself — “I’ve said this before,” he reminded us — it hardly matched the moral weariness of black victims witnessing history tragically repeat itself. Like a Hollywood film franchise, race in the United States — especially police violence against blacks — is haunted by sequels: The locations may change, the actors are different, but the story remains the same.

Given Obama’s extraordinary talent for talking the nation through tough times, his remarks on Ferguson were extremely disappointing. Obama justified his reluctance to say too much for fear that he would put his “thumb on the scales one way or the other.” The president was right about the need to let the Justice Department’s investigation run its course, but one can’t ignore how the scales of justice have been badly tipped against the people of Ferguson, and against millions more across the nation who have a difficult time getting the state that Obama represents to work on their behalf.

During a speech in Massachusetts on Thursday, President Obama addressed the continued protests and clashes in Ferguson, Mo., following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. (The Associated Press)

To his credit, Obama acknowledged that “a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement” and that “too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.” He spoke of “communities that feel left behind, who . . . often find themselves isolated, often find themselves without hope, without economic prospects” while their young men “end up in jail or in the criminal justice system” rather than “in a good job or in college.” Later Obama briefly cited a set of “tends”: Black and Latino youths tend to face higher rates of school suspension, tend to have more frequent interactions with the law and may be subject to “different” trials and sentencing.

Like the president himself, the language was careful and qualified, cautious and perhaps a tad too clinical; he is ever mindful of not favoring black folk in his analysis lest he be seen as giving them the upper hand, something the far right never tires of charging. And yet that hardly captures the fiery realities that burn in black bodies and communities.

What Obama said is true but incomplete. Injustice is not simply a matter of perception, an instance where blacks “feel” left behind or are subject to “different” — rather than inferior — brands of justice. The brute facts say it’s so, and those facts help explain why Ferguson combusted into shrieking anarchy. Decades of police aggression. The repeated killing of unarmed black people. The desperate poverty of black citizens. The bias in the criminal justice system. The raging social inequality. The intended or inadvertent disenfranchisement of large swaths of the citizenry. The dim prospects of upward mobility that grow bleaker by the day. Blacks must often use extraordinary measures, including protests in the streets, appearances in the media and appeals to local and national leaders to amplify their grievances, just to end up where white citizens begin. In psychological terms, that’s why Ferguson blew its id.

In the face of it all, Obama pivoted to the personal and suggested that his program to lift up black boys, My Brother’s Keeper, would work with the Justice Department in “local communities to inculcate more trust, more confidence in the criminal justice system.” But black youths don’t need more trust; the justice system needs fundamental transformation. Obama proceeded to kick black youths while they’re down by directing his law-and-order spiel against their already over-policed and under-protected bodies: “There are young black men that commit crime” who “need to be prosecuted because every community has an interest in public safety.”

True, but tremendously tone deaf in light of the fact that the unjust criminalization of black people led to a national crisis — for which Obama’s most prominent answer was the recommendation of a social, not political, program. Obama’s defenders often claim that he is a president and not an activist, yet he sounded like an activist here, and a bad one at that. In one rhetorical swoop, Obama leveraged the authority of the state against black youths, played to stereotypes of their criminality, maintained an emotional distance from the desperation of a group of Americans who happen to be his people and offered them moral lessons in place of public policy.

The best thing Obama did was to send Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson, although he should go himself, just as he went to Newtown, Conn., and to communities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Holder isn’t president, but he sure looked like one: reaching out to a bruised constituency, promising fairness and the backing of the state to achieve justice, and reassuring a demoralized population that the government cares for them. For all of his lectures about responsibility to black audiences across the land, the president could use a dose of it himself.