Obama after Ferguson

Protester, Ferguson, Missouri

Michael Eric Dyson, "Where Do We Go after Ferguson?" (New York Times, November 29, 2014):

On Tuesday, the president doubled down on his indictment of “criminal acts” and declared, “I do not have any sympathy” for those who destroy “your own communities.” While he avoided saying so, it was clear that his remarks were directed at the black people who looted and rioted in Ferguson. But their criminal activity is the effect of going unrecognized by the state for decades, a crime in itself. As for the plague of white cops who kill unarmed black youth, the facts of which are tediously and sickeningly repetitive and impose a psychological tariff on black minds, the president was vague, halting and sincerely noncommittal.

Instead, he lauded the racial progress that he said he had witnessed “in my own life,” substituting his life for ours, and signaled again how his story of advancement was ours, suggesting, sadly, that the sum of our political fortunes in his presidency may be lesser than the parts of our persistent suffering. Even when he sidled up to the truth and nudged it gently — “these are real issues,” the president acknowledged — he slipped back into an emotional blandness that underplayed the searing divide, saying there was “an impression that folks have” about unjust policing and “there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion.”

Whose impression is it, though that word hardly captures the fierce facts of the case? Who feels it? Who is the subject? Who is the recipient of the action? Mr. Obama’s treacherous balancing act between white and black, left and right, obscures who has held the power for the longest amount of time to make things the way they are. This is something, of course, he can never admit, but which nevertheless strains his words and turns an often eloquent word artist into a faltering, fumbling linguist. President Obama said that our nation was built on the rule of law. That is true, but incomplete. His life, and his career, too, are the product of broken laws: His parents would have committed a crime in most states at the time of their interracial union, and without Martin Luther King Jr. breaking what he deemed to be unjust laws, Mr. Obama wouldn’t be president today. He is the ultimate paradox: the product of a churning assault on the realm of power that he now represents.

No wonder he turns to his own body and story and life to narrate our bodies, our stories and our lives. The problem is that the ordinary black person possesses neither his protections against peril nor his triumphant trajectory that will continue long after he leaves office.