The Fire This Time: Race Explodes at Last on Obama’s Watch

After Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, after the killings of unarmed and unresisting African Americans—one a child of twelve—in New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Charleston, the murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore on April 12 at last sparked serious rioting in a major American city. How has our first African-American president responded to this?

After Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, after the killings of unarmed and unresisting African Americans—one a child of twelve—in New York, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Charleston, the murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore on April 12 at last sparked serious rioting in a major American city.

How has our first African-American president responded to this?

In his first statement on the killing of Freddie Gray, Barack Obama characterized the rioters in Baltimore as “criminals,” as though their behavior was the source of violence rather than the reaction to it. Rush Limbaugh says the same.

When the President spoke again, it was as follows:

“If our society really wanted to solve the problem [posed by the riots], we could. It’s just that it would require everybody saying, ‘this is important, this is significant.’ And, that we just don’t pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we just don’t pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids.”

Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union sent this statement to me, nodding his approval. I wonder if he read it first. The President, you will note, cites an act of vandalism against property ahead of an unjustifiable homicide. In doing so, he reverses the sequence of events. Freddie Gray was killed, and because of that a CVS pharmacy was burned. It wasn’t the other way around, and it wasn’t, as the President’s statement reads syntactically, as if the events weren’t necessarily unrelated at all. Indeed, he couldn’t, or wouldn’t even characterize what had happened to Freddie Gray properly. Gray wasn’t a victim who had been shot or had his spine broken. He was specifically the man who had his spine broken, that very particular man with his own name and no one else’s. By turning Gray into a generic victim, moreover, Obama’s rhetoric clouds the sequence of events still further. You can’t tell which event is cause and which effect, or even if the three examples run together—the burned pharmacy, the (hypothetical) young man shot, and the (hypothetical) young man with the broken spine—are causally related at all.

This isn’t just careless speech, it is speech designed to obfuscate. Barack Obama is a man who prides himself on precision, a lawyer who knows the importance of stating the case exactly. So, who is it the President is really speaking to, who is it who equates cause and effect, action and response, offense given and offense taken—who is it, in short, who blends everything into an undifferentiated blur of “violence,” the sort of thing that happens to you-know-whom and you-know-where? Correct: the President is speaking to, if not indeed for, racist America. The message may be subliminal but it is no less clear.

The rest of the President’s statement invites us to consider what we might do if we actually gave a damn about it all in the first place: “If our society really wanted to solve the problem [of poverty? violence? racism?—something in there], we could, it’s just that it would require everybody saying, ‘This is important . . .’” This is Barack Obama’s call to arms on the subject of race in the seventh year of his presidency.

Let me say it plainly: no white president could get away with a statement like that in the epidemic of police violence against African Americans we have been swept up in—or, more accurately, that the public at large has just begun to notice, thanks to cell phone cameras. Let’s translate it into the first person, where presidential leadership belongs: If I really gave a damn about poverty, violence, and racism, I’d issue a call to action and back it up with everything that’s in the power of the presidency to enforce and accomplish.

If race is the third rail of American politics, though, for Barack Obama it is the first and second rails too. And he’s not going to come within a million miles of touching any of them. If, for white America, Obama is the first black president we’ve had, for black America, he is the whitest president since Andrew Johnson.

It isn’t just a matter of pursuing a Nixonian policy of benign neglect. It was Barack Obama who decided to leave Black America to suffer the worst of the Great Recession while he ministered to Wall Street. It was Obama’s Defense Department that turned local police departments into armored cavalry, and civilian communities into war zones. It was his Justice Department that couldn’t be bothered to keep statistics about those who die in police actions or in police custody. It was Obama personally who called for the expansion of the death penalty, wielded disproportionately against people of color, and oversaw the imprisonment and deportation of more immigrants of color, children included, than any other president in history. This is Barack Obama’s record, and it will be his legacy.

White liberals like Anthony Romero may grasp at any straw to see Obama as other than he is. Black Americans don’t voice their profound disillusion and disgust for fear the guy might turn on them even worse.

Obama will hope to get through the remaining twenty months of his presidency without having to turn Bull Connor’s fire hose loose, or send tanks into the streets as Lyndon Johnson did in Newark and Detroit. It wouldn’t look good on his resumè. But if we are going to have a “conversation” about race again, let alone anything more substantial, it will have to wait for a future administration.

The fire this time, though, might just not wait for that.

About Robert Zaller 53 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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