Why Did Obama Say So Little About Ferguson?

We hoped he would bring racial understanding. But with two years left, there’s nothing Obama can say about race that doesn’t lead to more rancor.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

President Obama speaks about civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, from the White House on Aug. 18, 2014. Not that it does him much good.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

Last week, the Rev. Al Sharpton called on leaders in both political parties to speak on the shooting of Michael Brown. “Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton,” he said, “don’t get laryngitis on this issue.”

I don’t have much to say about Bush, but as much as Clinton deserves criticism for her silence—even as she relies on black voters for her presidential hopes—there’s one more name to add to Sharpton’s list.

Barack Obama.

In fairness, the president hasn’t been silent on Brown. He’s given two statements: one after the shooting and initial demonstrations, and another after an especially violent night when police used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters. But both were lackluster. In the first, Obama gave a short comment on the death of Brown, ignoring the civil unrest in Ferguson. “I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding,” said Obama

A week later the president gave a fuller statement on the situation, announcing a federal civil rights investigation of the Ferguson Police Department and giving an almost obligatory “both sides” condemnation of the violence. “While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving into that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police, only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos. It undermines rather than advancing justice,” he said.

Obama ended with a brief plug for My Brother’s Keeper, a White House-led program to improve outcomes for young, at-risk men of color. The program, he said, would work with the Justice Department in “local communities to inculcate more trust, more confidence in the criminal justice system.” It’s a worthy aim, but it’s not relevant to Ferguson, where Michael Brown had parental guidance and a loving family, and where police mistrust came from egregious police misconduct.

It’s worth a comparison to Obama’s 2012 remarks on Trayvon Martin. “[M]y main message is to the parents of Trayvon. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

Nowhere in his comments on Michael Brown’s death do we see the same resolve, or even the same empathy. Likewise, there’s nothing that echoes the broad perspective of his 2013 remarks on the George Zimmerman verdict, where he gave a personal account of racial discrimination and tried to voice the concerns of the black community. “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me,” he said. “Those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote that Obama is the “first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class. He is fully versed in the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X.” From the new, nationwide conversation on police militarization to the disturbing pictures of tear-gassed protesters and civil disarray, Ferguson is probably the most important racial event of the Obama administration. In which case, why didn’t Obama—elected on the promise of greater racial understanding—address it with the wisdom we know he has? Why the cautious words?

One answer is that the White House is keenly aware of the president’s poor standing with large parts of the public. “[T]he White House,” writes Vox’s Ezra Klein, “no longer believes Obama can bridge divides. They believe—with good reason—that he widens them. They learned this early in his presidency, when Obama said that the police had ‘acted stupidly’ when they arrested Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates on the porch of his own home. The backlash was fierce. To defuse it, Obama ended up inviting both Gates and the arresting officer for a ‘beer summit’ at the White House.”

This is an important anecdote. Not just because it shows how Obama’s interventions can be divisive, but also because it shows the fault lines for those fissures. The Gates incident marked the beginning of Obama’s free fall with white voters. “In interviews conducted Wednesday and Thursday night,” noted the Pew Research Center at the time, “53% of white non-Hispanics approved of Obama’s overall job performance, compared with 46% of those interviewed Friday through Sunday,” after Obama’s comments blew up. “Disapproval among whites edged up from 36% on the first two nights to 42% Friday through Sunday. And the share of whites who say they like the kind of person Obama is slipped from 75% to 69% over the same period.”

A subsequent survey confirmed the results: Whites disapproved of President Obama’s handling of the Gates incident, with greater disapproval among whites who heard a lot about Obama’s comments. By contrast, neither blacks nor Hispanics changed their views of the president following his intervention.

Polling is highly contingent, and we should be careful about drawing conclusions. Still, I think this shows something profound. By siding with the black Gates against the white police officer, Obama gave greater salience to his race. Put another way, Obama entered office as a president who was black, but ended that summer as a black president. Here’s Coates again, “The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear … and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches.”

At last week’s press conference on Ferguson, Obama was weary. He was tired. Part of that, I imagine, was the circumstance: yet again, an unarmed black teenager, killed on the basis of suspicion. But part of it also, I’m certain, was self-awareness.

With two years left in his presidency, Obama is thoroughly racialized. There’s nothing he can say on race that won’t lead to rancor, fractured on racial lines. And so, he avoids the subject.

For many supporters, it’s frustrating. But there’s a silver lining. The same president who doesn’t want to talk about race has taken genuine action to combat racism. Under Obama, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is more active than it’s been in a generation, fighting voter suppression and tackling lending discrimination. And most notably, it’s led by an attorney general who—unlike his boss—is eager to take the stage with blunt talk on race.