Obama Should Go to Ferguson and This Is What He Should Say

What he couldn’t do for red and blue America, Obama can still accomplish for the whites, the blacks, and the browns.

President Barack Obama holds a press conference in the James Brady Briefing Room in the West Wing, March 6, 2012.
©2012 Ricjard A. Bloom
Nov. 25, 2014, 3:18 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama should go to Fer­guson, Mo., stand amid the broken glass and smoking em­bers, and speak to the two Amer­icas—whites and blacks, the des­cend­ants of slaves and the des­cend­ants of the im­mig­ra­tion ex­per­i­ence. The ad­dress should go something like this:

“For all those (Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans) who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the Amer­ic­an Dream, there were many who didn’t make it—those who were ul­ti­mately de­feated, in one way or an­oth­er, by dis­crim­in­a­tion. That leg­acy of de­feat was passed on to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions—those young men and, in­creas­ingly, young wo­men who we see stand­ing on street corners or lan­guish­ing in our pris­ons, without hope or pro­spects for the fu­ture.”

The son of a black man from Kenya and a white wo­man from Kan­sas could ex­plain how hu­mi­li­ation and doubt and fear still gnaw at blacks old enough to re­mem­ber se­greg­ated schools, ho­tels, res­taur­ants, and wa­ter foun­tains.

“That an­ger may not get ex­pressed in pub­lic, in front of white cowork­ers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barber­shop or around the kit­chen table. At times, that an­ger is ex­ploited by politi­cians, to gin up votes along ra­cial lines, or to make up for a politi­cian’s own fail­ings.”

His em­pathy shouldn’t stop there. A na­tion­al story that began with the ori­gin­al sin of slavery writ­ten in­to its Con­sti­tu­tion is en­dur­ingly com­plex.

“[A] sim­il­ar an­ger ex­ists with­in seg­ments of the white com­munity. Most work­ing- and middle-class white Amer­ic­ans don’t feel that they have been par­tic­u­larly priv­ileged by their race. Their ex­per­i­ence is the im­mig­rant ex­per­i­ence—as far as they’re con­cerned, no one’s handed them any­thing, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped over­seas or their pen­sion dumped after a life­time of labor. They are anxious about their fu­tures, and feel their dreams slip­ping away; in an era of stag­nant wages and glob­al com­pet­i­tion, op­por­tun­ity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my ex­pense.

“So when they are told to bus their chil­dren to a school across town; when they hear that an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an is get­ting an ad­vant­age in land­ing a good job or a spot in a good col­lege be­cause of an in­justice that they them­selves nev­er com­mit­ted; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urb­an neigh­bor­hoods are some­how pre­ju­diced, re­sent­ment builds over time.”

Obama should ac­know­ledge that polit­ic­al cor­rect­ness dis­guises, but does not di­min­ish, the re­sent­ments har­bored by blacks and whites. The an­ger sim­mers un­til it boils—un­til it spills out in­to the open, as it did last night in Fer­guson. And as it did dur­ing an ugly mo­ment in the spring of 2008, when he said: “I be­lieve deeply that we can­not solve the chal­lenges of our time un­less we solve them to­geth­er—un­less we per­fect our uni­on by un­der­stand­ing that we may have dif­fer­ent stor­ies, but we hold com­mon hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same dir­ec­tion—to­wards a bet­ter fu­ture for of chil­dren and our grand­chil­dren.”

That para­graph was pre­ceded by this clause: “I choose to run for the pres­id­ency at this mo­ment in his­tory be­cause “¦” In fact, every quote in this column comes from the March 18, 2008, ad­dress that Obama de­livered at a mo­ment when his bar­ri­er-bust­ing pres­id­en­tial cam­paign seemed de­railed by the hate­ful views of his min­is­ter, Jeremi­ah Wright.

Obama should go to Fer­guson be­cause he is uniquely skilled and situ­ated to this time. After fail­ing miser­ably to unite the reds and blues of U.S. polit­ics, Obama can still bring calm and un­der­stand­ing to the ra­cial shades of Amer­ica—the whites and blacks and browns, etc.

He should bring to Fer­guson the con­sist­ent mes­sage he es­poused again Sunday and Monday night. For years, Obama has urged whites to “ac­know­ledge that what ails the Afric­an-Amer­ica com­munity does not just ex­ist in the minds of black people.” He has told blacks they can’t pre­tend that our so­ci­ety is stat­ic; “as if no pro­gress has been made.”

Pro­gress has been made, he said in 2008. Pro­gress has been made, he said Sunday and Monday. Pro­gress has been made, he should say in Fer­guson—and much more must come. “This uni­on may nev­er be per­fect,” Obama re­minds us, “but gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion has shown that it can be per­fec­ted.”

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