I have been struck by the on-line antagonism to US President Obama’s relatively muted response to the civil unrest in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, which followed the shooting of a black youth by a white police officer. Some people on the Left who rightly believe that the Civil Rights Act (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year) hasn’t completely succeeded in healing racial tensions, also seem to believe that Obama should leverage his Blackness into the situation – as if this were the sort of thing promised by the election (twice) of Obama as the first Black president of the United States.
As it stands, Obama has been quite understated – indeed, more understated than his response to the ongoing crisis in northern Iraq, which as of this writing has been scaled up from humanitarian to military aid. Obama’s most direction action in the Ferguson case has been to dispatch the US Attorney General (also Black) to sort out the legalities of the situation, especially after the state governor questioned the judgement of the local police force in releasing CCTV footage of the shot youth robbing a convenience store earlier.
The negative response by some on the Left to Obama’s approach strikes me as borderline racist, however well-meaning. Whatever one wishes to say about the United States, its Constitution is very explicitly constructed to be a government of ‘laws not men’. Moreover, the Constitution’s design delegates considerable authority to locally elected and appointed officials. That’s what ‘federalism’ means. Indeed, the Constitution enables the President to intervene more easily in foreign affairs (in defence of the nation’s interests) than in local affairs (where the President has no presumptive authority unless the Constitution is explicitly violated). While it’s understandable that non-Americans might not get what Obama is up to here, it’s not clear why well-educated people on the Left don’t get it.
But I think it would be doing Obama a further injustice to think that he doesn’t care about what’s going on in Ferguson. Rather, my guess is that he doesn’t want to dignify historically entrenched symbolism of standoffs between white police and Black residents. Obama may be Black but he is not a Black leader, unlike Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who have quite justifiably come to Ferguson to stand up for the community. Obama’s role is quite different and he knows it very well: He stands for a standard of justice upheld by the US Constitution. The laws are already on the books protecting the rights of Black people. The problem is whether they have been enforced properly in this situation. The presence of a President who happens to be Black in the situation would effectively cast aspersions on the validity of the laws themselves, rather than particular people who may have broken them, who of course should be brought to justice.