Seldom in Barack Obama’s presidency has he looked quite so impotent as he did last night, pleading from a podium in the White House for calm while the cable news split screens showed clouds of tear gas enveloping the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. He repeated the same themes as every time he has spoken about this subject — people have legitimate grievances but there’s no excuse for violence, we’ve come a long way but we have a ways to go, and so on. It never rang more hollow.
But what should he have said? Obama never actually promised to bind up the nation’s racial wounds — that was a hope others placed upon him, far too naively. Even before taking office, Obama found that no matter how hard he tried to be unthreatening, to incorporate different perspectives into his rhetoric, and to stress what Americans share, many of his opponents would never see him as anything but an agent of racial vengeance. No matter what he did, whether passing an economic stimulus or reforming health care, some would spin a story of race around it, one in which whites were under threat.
If anyone ever thought that with little more than the power of his example Obama could mitigate racial resentments, let alone fray the institutional ligaments of racism, they were quickly disabused of those ideas. His presidency has seen an extraordinary backlash against racial progress, from the Supreme Court to the statehouse, where affirmative action is dismantled, the Voting Rights Act is gutted, one Republican legislature after another passes laws to make it harder for people (mostly minorities) to vote, and conservatives are told again and again that they are the racial victims whose problems are the fault of the black president coming after them because of the color of their skin.
And when Obama even dipped a toe into the waters of racial controversy, it sparked an eruption of outrage — how dare he express solidarity with the black college professor accused of breaking into his own house, or with the parents of a black teen shot down by a vigilante wannabe? How dare he?
What could Obama have said to calm things down in Ferguson? It took cooperation to create last night’s conflagration, a conspiracy of failure that ran deep and wide. It took a local political system constructed to keep power in the hands of a white minority. It took police practices designed to degrade, dehumanize, and intimidate people. It took a criminal justice system that makes it all but impossible to hold police accountable when they kill, as they do hundreds of times every year in communities across the country. And it took a set of local officials of truly spectacular incompetence — the police chief who from the beginning treated the citizens he was sworn to protect like an enemy army, the mayor who simply disappeared, the prosecutor who made the unconscionable decision to wait until nighttime to release the grand jury’s verdict, when he knew exactly how people would react.
So there were no words that would have diffused people’s frustration, fear, and rage. There was nothing that could be said from the White House, by this president or any other, that would have made everything okay.
Healing is not going to come from words, and it won’t be delivered from above by the president. It will come from the creation of a system that produces justice, a system where police treat citizens with respect, where power is distributed equitably, where people can have a modicum of faith that their lives and those of their children are considered to have value.
Like all politicians, Barack Obama calls himself an optimist and expresses hope that things are getting better. Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps in ten or twenty years, we’ll look back at the events in Ferguson and say that they produced real change. We should all hope so. But from the vantage point of this morning, optimism is hard to come by.