Barack Obama and Ferguson: The cost of being the reluctant black president

November 26, 2014

Police officers shadows are cast onto graffiti on the wall of a Subway during the second night of demonstrations in Oakland

America, not for the first time, stands at a racial crossroads. The crisis of race and democracy unfolded before a global audience on Monday night as hundreds of demonstrators set police cars on fire and engaged in sporadic looting in the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the death of 18-year-old teenager Michael Brown.

The split-screen television image, which showed President Barack Obama calling for peaceful demonstrations alongside live footage of protesters overturning a police vehicle offered a poetic juxtaposition of the yawning gap between substance and symbolism.

The Age of Obama, once heralded as the dawn of a new “post-racial” America, has proven to be far more complex than his supporters and critics could have imagined just six years ago.

Ferguson has exposed racial and class divisions in the nation that Obama’s soaring rhetoric gracefully elided during his miraculously successful 2008 presidential campaign. His campaign mantra of hope and change offered both whites and blacks a new hope for political transcendence, however vague and ill-defined, based on a shared set of progressive values related to health care, jobs, the environment, equal pay for women, and ending two wars.

Obama’s famous “A more perfect union” speech, delivered in 2008 against the backdrop of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, hinted at his deliberative approach to racial politics. He presented the U.S.’ tragic history of slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary racism as morally equivalent to white fears of Affirmative Action, reverse racism, and black protest.

The vast majority of the African-American community, however, refused to pay attention to such details. Instead, they basked in the reflected glow of Barack and Michele Obama, as they made their extraordinary ascension to a political office many had never dreamed could be occupied by black people.

Obama’s decision to marry a brown-skinned black woman, his obvious love and affection for his two daughters, and his candid discussion, in his best-selling memoir “Dreams From My Father,” of his struggle to find a usable racial identity helped to cement his relationship with the larger black public. In 2007, he described himself as part of the “Joshua Generation,” the group of blacks who were well positioned to succeed thanks to an earlier generation of civil rights heroes.

On this score none loomed larger than Martin Luther King Jr., who Obama leaned on, invoking the “fierce urgency of now,” when asked why a junior senator was running for president.

During the course of the 2008 presidential election, Obama and the black community entered into an unspoken agreement. Blacks, for their part, would defend the president from right-wing assaults on his background, patriotism, character, and policies. Obama, in turn, would help the community through the vast powers of his executive office and also, less tangibly, through reverberations caused by the symbolism of having an African-American leader of the free world.

The devil, of course, is in the details.

Obama proved so enormously popular in the black community that he could virtually ignore the Congressional Black Caucus and mainstream civil rights leadership. Over the course of six years, issues that constitute what might be called a black agenda (jobs, public schools, mass incarceration) have received scant attention from him.

When, in 2009, police arrested the African-American Harvard scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates at his own home, after receiving a 911 call about a potential break-in, Obama said the police had acted “stupidly.” The media pilloried him for the comment, which has also fueled the president’s caution on race matters.

Obama’s second term found him publicly and personally commenting on the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, and launching the My Brother Keeper Initiative with private money to help at risk black boys gain educational opportunities.

However, this pales in comparison to executive orders passed on the environment and immigration, as well as Obama’s evolving support for gay marriage.

Obama is too intelligent not to understand the enormous issues facing not only Ferguson but the entire black community.

The Ferguson Crisis is an American crisis — one rooted in racial slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism. Key to all of this is denial. Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the way in which the disease of racism infects our entire body politic, along with its institutions, structures, and culture, is a tragedy.

Over 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy characterized civil rights as a “moral issue” that threatened to destroy the nation. National civil unrest compelled Kennedy to speak and Lyndon Johnson to act.

That historical landscape featured grassroots and national civil rights leaders who pressured political leaders into doing the right thing, even when public sentiment remained overtly hostile to racial justice. By conflating Obama the president with the community organizer he was in a past life, the black community has abdicated a long tradition of radical and prophetic activism and witnessing against the powerful.

Ferguson may prove a tipping point that changes things.

Unfettered and explosive black anger, 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and just a few days before Thanksgiving, may finally prod a reluctant African-American president to come to terms with the hard truth that a ‘black agenda’ is, in the final analysis, not only good for one community but for the entire country.

PHOTO: Police officers shadows are cast onto graffiti on the wall of a Subway during the second night of demonstrations in Oakland, California, following the grand jury decision in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Nov. 25, 2014. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage 


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Why do you completely ignore the fact that Obama is half white?

His mother was white and he is not black but bi-racial. He was raised mainly by his white grandmother and his father wasn’t a big part of his upbringing.

Please stop referring to him as black. This is totally inaccurate.

Posted by Daleville | Report as abusive

Obama’s INCREASED racial divide during his presidency. Blacks thought that with a black president, they’d be able to “level” the playing field. But Obama continually bemoaned “inequities” of rate of crime among blacks (as if the crimes were instigated by whites and arrests done by whites as a result), number of black criminals in prison, number of black people in poverty (why not stay in school and learn a craft instead of resorting to crime or welfare?), number of poorly educated blacks (parents don’t value education over basketball, football, baseball), obeisity among blacks, etc. Even God requires each of us to do the best with the abilities He gave us. Those who squander pay the consequences.

Posted by speakfreely | Report as abusive

How about instead of a “black agenda”, we simply fight for “justice for all”? It is clear to me that there are too many black men in jail, but some of them do need to be there, along with the crazy Nazi white guys. The life of every person does not have to be perfect, but they should have the opportunity for success based on their own actions. I do not believe we have a just system and I do not believe that we have freedom to pursue our lives based on our own abilities. This is not just the racism towards blacks but is a broader societal ill. However, by making our system more just we allow those with the propensity for accomplishment to succeed, and that will include the intelligent and motivated black people along with everyone else.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The first duty of the president is to the nation. The U.S. is a nation with far more rifts, fractures, and hairline cracks than anyone really wants to acknowledge publicly. As President, Obama must balance his own personal wish for continued steps towards a level playing field for all Americans, with careful consideration for, wherever possible, encouraging stability rather than volatility. America, in places is a tinder box of anger over outsourced middle class jobs and profits. While there are certainly genuine bigots out there, racial prejudice is an easy vehicle for venting these feelings into the public consciousness. The very fact that the far left and the far right are both sick of Obama is perhaps all the evidence we need that he is threading this needle as well as anyone can.

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

Obama’s fundamental failing is NOT that he is Black, or half-Black, or half-White (take your pick). The possibility that he might not be a “born citizen” of the United States is also not his fundamental failing. His childhood affiliations with Islam are not a failing, either.

Obama’s failing is that he is a capitalist. He serves the 1% who were glad to sponsor a candidate who could draw votes from such a broad swath of the nation. He does what is best for his wealthy masters and pays lip service to the rest of us. He ran on “Yes, We Can!” but his actions say, “Only If You’re Really Rich!”

The solution to the problems of our multiracial society is obvious, but unattainable at this time. And sadly, when a White person takes over the White House in 2017, the problems will still be around.

Posted by WWKMD | Report as abusive

Take some personal responsibility, i.e. grow up.

Posted by theox | Report as abusive

How does a black agenda favor everyone? Good lord, get of the racist bus and start teaching your kids wrong from right. This has nothing to do with race and everything to do with baby momma’s and the black fathers refusing to take responsibilities. Just like Obama’s father…

Posted by gobacktochicago | Report as abusive

The cost of being a race baiting black retributionist POTUS.
Following the Cloward and Piven pattern for radical anarchy.

Posted by grassroot | Report as abusive

Remember him injecting himself in the issue of the Black Professor who
disobeyed the police early on in his , “Presidency?” The police acted
stupidly, he commented. Lets, have a beer and the garden and make it a
photo -op.

Posted by grassroot | Report as abusive

The author of this column is, according to his biography, a professional racial theorist in academia. He is sorry that Obama does not need to go to the professional race leaders in order to speak to black Americans, since as President he already has Americans’ attention. The truth is, there is no monolithic “African American community” — and if there were such a group, it would probably, as the author puts it, “ignore the Congressional Black Caucus and mainstream civil rights leadership.’ We can sometimes be stampeded by the media, but we have grown beyond being led and exploited like sheep.

Posted by CharleneKing | Report as abusive

I’m troubled by the elephant I see in the room. This elephant, by the numbers, tells me that the primary threat to black life, have been other blacks. I’ve had to joke within myself about this tragedy. The joke says that the reason so many blacks are incensed by the death of some young black man, by a white officer, is because they wanted to be the cause of that young man’s death, and how dare that white officer take his life before we (i.e. other blacks) did. Remember, that’s a joke. What’s not a joke, is that there is little to no outrage, no marches, no laying down on the freeways, no blocking entrances – when a young black man in a gang, drives or walks by a group of other blacks, and mows them down in a hail of gunfire…no protest in the community. Death by white officers, versus death by other blacks is lopsided. So the issue can’t be about the importance of black life. Further, the excuse that blacks kill one another because they’re poor and uneducated is a farce – insulting even. It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations. Now that’s something we need to start a conversation about. Communal responsibilities can’t precede personal responsibility.

Posted by bethechange | Report as abusive

Pres. Obama and AG Holder should have kept their racist comments to themselves instead of fanning a local issue into a national tragedy, but the armature president once again had to display his knee jerk racist reaction and make a bad situation much worse. Michael Brown was a thug. Being black does not excuse him and attacking a police officer got him killed. I feel for the parents lose, however this doesn’t excuse the rioting and looting that has gone on there. I wouldn’t blame those business if they left the mess and moved somewhere else.

Posted by Jim_Wright | Report as abusive

Obama needs to get with the program and do more to help poverty in the black and other racial communities. He has gotten rich, now help others!

Posted by Blu3M00n | Report as abusive

The bitter irony for African-Americans and all those preaching the “Black Agenda” is that the U.S. is already a “post-White” society but it’s not the kind of place the race hustlers expected. It’s no longer black and white. Massive immigration has changed the complexion of the country in many areas and the extremely diverse and MULTI-RACIAL (as opposed to BI-RACIAL) and multi-ethnic society that has emerged is not automatically sympathetic to the tired 1960s rhetoric bemoaning institutional racism, etc.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

A couple of things that came to mind here:
1. As usually, in helps to understand if you follow the money, or in this case rather the lack of it… “it’s the economy, stupid”. Proof? A wealthy man usually doesn’t burn cars.
2. What kind of crisis Obama haven’t tackled yet? (I keep my fingers crossed).

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

hasn’t :)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

I find it astounding that, in 2014, anyone would still think that the race of our President could make any difference.

I hope that soon I’ll be able to have the same level of surprise about the President’s gender.

Posted by GlenMarshall | Report as abusive

Why is any white policeman always wrong ? Why does the Press over react to white police shooting blacks & ignore whites being shot by the police … a double standard or just looking for money from the attention you create. The press never considers the black person could be guilty …. I guess our prisons are filled with innocent blacks … Like Jesse Jackson’s son. The press convicts before any trial or knowing any facts

Posted by UnFiT | Report as abusive

Great article. He really has done nothing of substance. That does not stop President Obama from having Mr. Holder and others fan the flames of racial division with claims of voter suppression and other issues that are of no true benefit to the African-American community.

Posted by URunbelievable | Report as abusive

here’s a kicker –

all these marvelous laws written & passed & Supreme Courted to uphold – are for minorities

check the demographics folks. “whites” will soon be the minority – boy are we gonna’ be entitled to burn this b*itch down then.

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

This should be a gun control issue, not a racial issue. I am amazed that with all the technology we have at our disposal that police officers are still issued guns. Policemen should only be allowed to carry weapons that temporarily disable a person, not kill them. The weapon should be capable of disabling a possible assailant from a distance, (unlike a tazer gun). A police officer should not be placed in a position where they have to make a decision to take a life in order to protect themselves from harm. Plus, our current system takes away our constitutional right to a trial by jury and allows police officers to be judge, jury and executioner.

Posted by joyful1712 | Report as abusive

Obama set back race relations in this country years with his meddling in Cambridge, Florida and now Ferguson.

Posted by Harrison2253 | Report as abusive

Hurry 2017 so this nightmare will be all over.

Posted by MLackland | Report as abusive

and the 12-year boy? every week more black, geriatric, mentally ill, child slayings? our president never says a word against this horrid slaughter-

Posted by TigerFalls | Report as abusive

Just another example of Obama “leading from the rear”. He publicly pleads for calm while sending his attack dog, Holder, and his buddy Sharpton to fan the flames of violence.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive


Posted by expat75 | Report as abusive

Police have gained too much power. They are over-armed, under-educated agents of the government and they need to be stepped on a bit. They are public servants and if they need a boot on their throats to remember that…. that’s their choice.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

How could your President be held to account for the actions of one Michael Brown who was video taped stealing cigars from a convenience store on remote cam 352 pushes the clerk out of the way and turns to come back at him for the second time….Moments later officer responding to visual i.d. suspect Brown who attempts to Dis-arm a sworn Peace Officer… fades to tragic ending…………There is no Cure for the commonweal or that republic living free under a flag Dishonored by the treasonous Disloyalty of its citizens toward an Elected Public official….

Posted by DJSanDiego | Report as abusive