Television networks broadcasting President Obama's brief speech last week about events in Ferguson, Missouri employed a split screen to juxtapose the president to rioters in Ferguson. At one level, that juxtaposition unfairly highlighted the president's impotence.
But at another level, it captured one of the many disappointments of Obama's presidency. Much of the euphoria that greeted the election of the first black president – Obama's approval ratings were well above 70% at the outset of his presidency – lay in the hope that the United States could finally place the legacy of slavery and racism behind it. Yet race relations have taken a turn for the worst since he came into office.
Slate writer Jacob Weisberg wrote in February 2008 that only if Barack Obama were elected president would children in America be able to "grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives." Well, America elected Obama, with the largest percentage of white votes of any Democratic candidate in forty years. But black children are more likely today to think of prejudice as a factor in their lives than they were six years ago.
The unknown state legislator who first came to national prominence with a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic convention proclaiming "there is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there's the United States of America," presides over a far more bitterly divided country than in 2008.
FOR THE REGRESSION in race relations the president, and even more so his minions in the media, must bear much of the blame. The habit of defenders of the president's policies of dismissing opposition to those polices as racially motivated has poisoned political dialogue. Thus various Tea Party groups, for instance, are inevitably charged with "thinly veiled racism" and described as older white folks resentful of what they perceive as the takeover of their country.
Tea Party activists do fear the loss of the constitutional principle of limited government and of their individual liberty. But had a president of pallor advanced the same unabashed big government, progressive agenda as President Obama, they would have opposed him or her just as strongly.
The media's ultra-sensitive racism detectors find it everywhere. Thus Mitt Romney's reference to his "five boys (i.e., sons) was deconstructed as a circuitous way to refer to his opponent as "boy." And CNN's Chris Matthews declared the word "apartment" racist because most blacks live in apartments.
THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION too has done much to fan the flames of racial division. Katherine Sebelius, the cabinet member responsible for the disastrous Obamacare rollout, once compared, at an NAACP convention, the defense of Obamacare to the fight against lynching and segregation.
In part, such comments are part of a shrewd political strategy. High rates of black turnout were the key to the president's successful re-election strategy in 2012, and fanning black anger the best way to maintain that turnout in the 2014 midterms.
Within the administration, outgoing Attorney-General Eric Holder has been by far the worst offender. He came into office accusing white Americans of "cowardice" for avoiding a serious discussion of race. Shortly thereafter, he dropped the prosecution of a particularly egregious and well-documented case of voter intimidation by Black Panthers at a Philadelphia polling place. He has consistently portrayed all voter identification statutes as a barely disguised return to the days of poll taxes and white only primaries in the South rather than as legitimate efforts to curb voter fraud. Unexplained is why it is racist to require the same identification to vote that one would need to purchase a beer. The Department of Justice (DOJ), under Holder, has treated all differentials between blacks and whites – e.g., in rates of school suspension – as clear-cut cases of racial discrimination.
Holder has not been shy about offering his own racial slant on events. He dispatched fifty DOJ attorneys and investigators to Ferguson in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, and announced, before the completion of any investigation, "I think it's pretty clear that the need for wholesale change in that [Ferguson] department is appropriate."
President Obama has been far more reticent than Holder to talk about race. But he too has developed a habit of too hastily offering a racial narrative to any high-profile confrontation involving a black and non-black. He was quick to describe the Cambridge police of "acting stupidly" in arresting black Harvard law professor Henry Louis Gates after it was already clear that he was in his own home. That would have been true had Gates been arrested for breaking and entry into his own home. But Gates was arrested for haranguing the white Cambridge policemen who responded to a neighbor's report of two men trying to forcibly break in and had the effrontery to ask Gates for identification. About that the president knew nothing.
He again interjected himself into an ongoing investigation when he commented that Trayvon Martin, a black youth shot by a volunteer on a neighborhood patrol, reminded him of a younger version of himself. He then went on to talk of how every African-American man has felt himself to be the subject of suspicion and fear, even as he acknowledged those suspicions are not entirely unfounded.
The violence and dysfunction of poor black neighborhoods, he offered, can be traced to America's "very difficult history [of slavery]." The sad truth, however, is that those rates of violence and dysfunction have increased dramatically since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society legislation and as slavery has receded into the past.
AGAIN LAST WEEK, after the grand jury declined to indict policeman Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, the president could not help giving credence to the narrative of a system stacked against young black men. After a perfunctory acknowledgment that the grand jury's decision should be respected and violence eschewed, the president called "anger" at the decision "an understandable reaction." He went on to address police at the scene, in anticipation of the rioting that followed, as if their malfeasance was a given: "I call on law enforcement officials in Ferguson and the region to show care and restraint, . . . to work with the community and not against the community." He then spoke of the "deep distrust . . . between law enforcement and communities of color" and admonished that communities of color "aren't just making these things up. . . The law too often feels like it's being applied in a discriminatory fashion."
By linking the grand jury's findings to discriminatory law enforcement and labeling an angry response "understandable," the president implicitly undermined the grand jury's findings. The rioting that followed, destroying mostly black-owned businesses, became, in his telling, something expected, almost justifiable.
Of course, the anger is only understandable if one accepts the media narrative nurtured since August of Michael Brown, as an unarmed, "gentle giant," executed for no reason by a white officer. And indeed the grand jury's refusal to indict was widely denounced by the liberal media.
But the curious thing about those denunciations is how studiously they avoided dealing with the evidence and testimony before the grand jury, which were made fully available. One notable exception was Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, who admitted that it would have been almost impossible to obtain a conviction of Darren Wilson on any grounds based on the known facts, including six black eyewitnesses who buttressed Wilson's account. Her Post colleague Dana Milbank, however, criticized prosecutor Bob McCulloch, for not having cherry-picked the witnesses and evidence to be presented to the grand jury to secure an indictment on some lesser count. He did not explain why a prosecutor who knows he cannot win at trial should nevertheless wish to indict.
From the beginning, the media treated Ferguson as a simple morality tale of an innocent black teenager versus a racist, white cop, in which the only information needed was Brown's dead body lying in the street. It reacted with furor to any facts that might undermine that narrative. CNN's Wolf Blitzer, for instance, labeled a video of the "gentle" Brown robbing a convenience store ten minutes before his death and tossing a much smaller store clerk aside like a ragdoll, an irrelevant "smear." The information that Brown was high on marijuana at the time of his death was deemed similarly irrelevant.
Harder (but apparently still possible) to dismiss was the autopsy, which made short-shrift of the claim that Brown had been shot in the back or in a posture of surrender with his hands up. Further forensic evidence confirmed Wilson's testimony that Brown had initiated the confrontation, when he responded to Wilson's instruction to walk on the sidewalk and not in the middle of the street, by attacking Wilson in his squad car.
The question is: Why does the black community and liberal media consistently choose "poetic truth that America is still a reflexively racist society," to quote the eminent black intellectual Shelby Steele, over truth itself? For one thing, tales of good and evil are more satisfying than contemplating the carnage of black on black crime in America's ghettos. As Steele points out, a black is nine times more likely to be murdered by another black person than by a white person. And who are you going to blame for that?
It's more comfortable to believe that racist law enforcement explains the fact that blacks constitute nearly forty percent of violent crime arrests than to confront repeated studies showing that black arrest rates for different crimes are virtually identical to rates of the rates at which victims identify the perpetrator as black. In other words, black arrest rates are high because black criminality is high.
Mr. Steele writes of the "stubborn nostalgia for America's racist past." The chance "to ennoble oneself through a courageous moral stand is what so many blacks and white liberals miss today – now that white racism is such a defeated idea."
But in the process of placing themselves back into a time of a glorious moral struggle, the nostalgics have transformed the 1960s black understanding of race as an artificial and exploitive division between individuals sharing a common humanity – the very thing that makes anti-miscegenation laws so repugnant – into "a group identity based on historical victimization."
The white liberal need for reassurance of their own moral virtue and the black need for absolution from any personal responsibility come at a high price. And the ones paying the highest price are black children raised to believe that the deck is stacked against them from the start, and for no reason other than that whites hate them and want to see them back on the plantation.