President Barack Obama can’t wave a magic wand and cure AIDS, end racism or stop violence against women. Due to Congressional resistance, the Constitution and world events Obama can’t fix the economy, rescue public schools and give everybody 40 acres and a mule either. But he can certainly sure do much more than the statement he gave on violence in Ferguson Missouri this afternoon. It is painfully apparent, for those who still hold out hope, that President Barack Obama will never use the full power and influence of his office to come to the aid of African Americans while he is president.
This is the point where eyes roll and anger rises as many supporters of President Obama point out the historic levels of resistance he faces from Congress, and crazy Tea Partiers–let alone the GOP and fellow Democrats. But the resistance to one’s efforts is not freedom from accountability for results. After 5 days of civil unrest, police brutality and civil liberties violations blatant enough to make Palestinians blink, the President finally made a statement about the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
He offered nothing.
Not one solid policy solution that would mitigate the crisis on the ground, or lesson the likelihood of similar crimes happening in the future. And there are solutions President Obama could bring to the table, he simply chooses not to.
The president could have proposed restrictions on the 1033 Program that allows local police departments to get free military surplus with little or no oversight. Cops in Ferguson have rubber bullets, tear gas, and tanks for free from the federal government, but they didn’t want to spend extra money on dash cams or body cams for local cops. Police cameras are much more essential to effective policing than tear gas. This program is the equivalent of giving away free donuts but charging 10 bucks for an apple.
He could have ended the FAA no fly zone above Ferguson to make it easier for journalists to observe and report on the action on the ground without putting themselves in harm’s way. These are just two of dozens of policy actions that could be taken with the flick of a pen and an executive order, with no obstruction from Congress. Instead, in the wake of race riots we got boilerplate from the first African American president of the United States.
President Obama used to have an excuse for his milquetoast support of African Americans when the rubber hit the road. He has to be president of “All of America” was the mantra. He was in his first term everyone argued, he can’t get all “Blackity Black” right now. When Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012 the same chorus screamed, “He’s running for re-election, he can’t get too involved right now."
But Mr. Obama has been re-elected, his job is safe, his legacy is his to make, and he’s been willing to go out of his way in creating executive orders to support gay marriage, and address Latino American concerns about the border. Meanwhile, African Americans, the constituency that voted for him upwards of 94% in both elections is getting killed at a rate of once every 28 hours and he’s got nothing.
What about Eric Holder? There are many who believe (especially on the Right) that President Obama does most of his most powerful racial work through his crusading Attorney General. This argument holds that the AG is essentially Holder is Obama’s anger translator, the Batman to his Bruce Wayne persona that has to stay clear and free from the racial underbelly of this country in order to get things done. There is some truth to this, and clearly Eric Holder’s comments about race, and aggressive efforts on behalf of voting rights, racial discrimination and immigration are reflections of President Obama’s beliefs on some levels.
However, Americans didn’t elect Eric Holder. They elected Barack Obama. Obama was elected to not only advance policies from the White House but express symbolic and powerful messages about power, race, class and justice. The very things Obama spoke about when he ran for president in 2008. As nice as some of Holder’s activities have been, there are some jobs only a president can do. When the L.A. riots happened in 1992 the nation wanted strong words from George Bush, not Housing Secretary Jack Kemp. When Southern Black churches were being bombed in 1996, the nation wanted to hear from Bill Clinton, not Attorney General Janet Reno. The idea that in the wake of race riots and police holding a city hostage that the nation should be comforted by the behind the scenes efforts of Eric Holder rather than the President of the United States-the first Black president, at that-is absurd.
President Obama has always had an amazing sense of history, and when the time is right and of his choosing he can deliver some dynamic words to match the magnitude of the moment. Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, he spoke of his life being the result of 50 years of struggle. Yet somehow during the week that marks the 49thanniversary of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, this president, this man of the moment and great historian utterly fails to see how his own inaction and lack leadership is a shameful abdication of presidential power that he cannot recover from.
Barack Obama’s legacy with African Americans will not be judged by what he couldn’t accomplish. It will not be judged by cute photo ops and rap references. It will be judged by when the power of his office, in both symbol and policy collided with critical moments in the history of this nation. Would he embrace all of his power and ability, as a president and a self chosen African American man, or would he duck, blink and defer to the very process that he has claimed is already broken. We have our answer. Not from Rev. Wright, not from Skip Gates, not from Shirley Sherrod and not even from Trayvon Martin.
When an entire town of American citizens who happened to be black are being held hostage like they’re in occupied territory he had nothing to say about race, justice and no solutions. In another 50 years no one will look at this moment of his presidency with pride. It be remembered as the day President Obama finally repudiated his contract with Black America, and no amount of post hoc volunteerism from My Brother’s Keeper will make up for it.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College and a frequent analyst on Al Jazeera, CNN, and MSNBC. He is the author of Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell and Director of the "Politics Of" program for Political Education. Follow him on Twitter: @DrJasonJohnson