Even Obama seems trapped by racial divide
Some of President Barack Obama’s supporters sound notably disappointed by his third speech on the Ferguson, Missouri, crisis. Too timid, they say. Here are some representative tweets.
Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic: “Feel like he is utterly exhausted. Actually feel bad for him. Not sarcastic pity. Like really feel bad.”
Jamelle Bouie of the Daily Beast: “Barack Obama is either very tired, doesn’t believe a single word he’s saying re: Michael Brown, or both.”
Saeed Jones, editor of BuzzFeedLGBT: “He does know he’s not running for a third term, right?”
Tepid reviews from three of the brightest young African-American lights in punditry doesn’t make the best day for Obama.
His opponents are disappointed, too, if only that he didn’t give them more evidence to support their bogus charge that he’s “dividing Americas by race.”
Obama’s supporters often want to see their president “leading.”
But as Vox editor Ezra Klein wrote responding to his fellow disappointed young pundits, “The problem is the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge divides. They believe — with good reason — that he widens them.”
That sounds about right. Since 2009, for example, political scientist Michael Tesler of Brown University has studied the “racialization” of issues in the Obama era. Topics unrelated to race (like taxes or health care) stir a racially polarized reaction in polls, Tesler finds, as Obama stakes out positions on them.
Racial conservatives even liked photos of the Obama family’s dog less, Tesler found, after they were learned the identity of his owner.
Well, there probably were more than a few hardcore liberals who didn’t care for the Bush family’s pets either. That’s pooch politics.
But neither presidents nor the nation’s future can afford to have chief executives who are too daunted by the potential for backlash. Obama’s presidency was born in more crises — two wars, a deep recession, polarized Washington politics — than his predecessors faced.
Obama sounded almost gloomily cautious in his third statement on the Ferguson crisis, after a week of sporadic street unrest in the Missouri town following a police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black youth.
It was a sad contrast to 10 years ago when, as a state senator from Illinois, he energized the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston with an inspiring call to bridge racial divides:.
“There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America,” he said to vigorous applause, “There’s the United States of America.”
In fact, our politics already were so polarized that the very success of Obama’s come-together theme — like his even more pointed 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia — showed how much we Americans yearned for a break in the fighting.
Ten years later, you could almost read the disappointment on President Obama’s face in the White House press room as he grimly described “a gulf of mistrust” between local residents and police in “too many communities around the country” and called for an end to our shouting at one another.
In an attempt to end on a note of prescriptive hope, he made a pitch for his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The mentoring program for black boys is admirable and needed, but not very far-reaching compared to the mammoth social ills it sets out to remedy.
That’s probably what led Aminatou Sow at Tech LadyMafia to tweet a sarcastic: “Barack Hussein Cosby.”
Alas, if Obama’s speeches aren’t as dramatic as they used to be, especially on racial topics, it may be because his “leading” makes his critics all the more determined to push back.
Even when he doesn’t give them fodder, they start making stuff up.
But, as I have often said, we never promised him a Rose Garden except for the one behind the White House. I understand why the president would want to avoid the sort of gaffes or pseudo-gaffes on which his conservative critics have pounced, legitimately or not. But just as the nation looked to him as a voice of reason on race, among other group relations, as a candidate, we still look to him for some guidance as president — even if it is only to help steer the arguing.
Email Clarence Page at email@example.com.