Thursday, August 21, 2014

Does #Ferguson require Obama in no-drama mode?

President Obama has made a couple of public statement relating to the Ferguson unrest following the death of Micheal Brown, shot to death with six bullets by white cop Darren Wilson under dubious circumstances. Both of them were in statements that began with updates on Iraq and the battle against the Islamic State (IS), in which the announced direct US role is still increasing.

This is the text and video of Obama's August 14 statement:

Here is the text and video of his August 18 statement, in which some commentators found him tired and dispirited in his comments on Ferguson:

Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks is very critical of Obama's reluctance to address the racial issues directly that have been once again raised by the recent events in Ferguson, Obama Fulfills Demand For Weakness In A Time Of Crisis 08/19/2014

The basic argument Cenk makes here is that Obama as President not only has an obligation to oppose racial discrimination and to set his own framework for moments like this one with a strong statement against white racism and police brutality. Also, Cenk argues that as the country's first African-American President, he has a unique perspective that he brings to table, as he has shown on the rare occasions when he has addressed racial discrimination directly.

Charlie Pierce takes off from the August 18 statement (On Weariness Esquire Politics Blog 08/19/2014):

His press conference yesterday was profoundly desultory, his statements worse than useless. He seemed rather spent. Today, the White House seemed to go out of its way to emphasize that Attorney General Eric Holder has decided to go to Ferguson of his own volition, also emphasizing that the president did not order Holder to do so, which seems extremely strange, and which makes it a fair question whether or not the president has made a political calculation to distance himself from the most serious outbreak of racial tension since the Los Angeles uprising in 1992. And the explanations from anonymous White House sources indicate that the people around the president still do not recognize the fundamental flaw in the allegedly transcendent event that the president's election was said to have been.
Pierce argues that while the functional political vocabulary in American politics for talking about class is vague - "Joe McCarthy ran the last serious attempts at that conversation out of the national dialogue" - there is a well-developed vocabulary about race, which the Republicans are using effectively to mobilize and radicalize their base. And the Democrats need to counter it:

Weariness in a president is understandable. ... But weariness in a president can be dangerous. Vietnam -- and the national upheaval it occasioned -- nearly killed LBJ. Nixon was eaten alive by Watergate. Reagan was a symptomatic Alzheimer's patient for most of his second term. ... But, even at the end of their respective ropes, LBJ got a gun-control law passed, and Nixon increased the minimum wage, and Reagan managed to work with Gorbachev, and Lincoln managed to win the Civil War. The president can say anything he wants now. He will never run for re-election again. His opponents are going to screech like ravens on meth no matter what he says. [my emphasis]

Marcy Wheeler takes a careful look at Attorney General Eric's holders words in his editorial this week to the people of Ferguson in Holder's Agency in Ferguson Emptywheel 08/19/2014. It's actually a very well stated look at how "violence" is legitimated and delegitimated by language. The American political vocabulary on civic-political violence strikes me as also vague and inadequate. But in this case, there is a far-right/segregationist narrative on violence that is highly influential.

James Jennings has a paper at the English-language website of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Lift the Load of Poverty: Fighting for Black Equality in the Age of Obama July 3013 that has a good formulation of Obama's dilemma in addressing racism. (Note: the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is close to the German Left Party; actual lefties, in other words.) He writes:

... the 2008 presidential election marked the culmination of a trend in Black politics that started in the late 1980s. The "old guard" of Black elected officials from the civil rights generation had come from Black majority districts. They would thus define their politics, to a large degree, as being representatives of and spokespeople for the Black community. Beginning in the late 1980s, some of a younger generation of African American politicians running in white majority districts (or cities) downplayed their racial identity and affiliation with institutions in the Black community. They favored a "deracialized" approach to politics and refused to act as spokespersons of the Black community - a shift that came to be labeled "post-Black politics," and later "post-racial politics." [Quotes from Manning Marable] These new Black politicians have been “just as likely to see themselves as ambassadors to the black community as they are to see themselves as spokesmen for it." [Matt Bai] Barack Obama is the most prominent but—as Newark mayor Cory Booker, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, and many others prove—by no means the only example of a "post-racial" politician.
Jennings also connects it with the President's embrace of neoliberal economic policies:

The administration has sought to justify its tepid approach to social justice by arguing that the Republican Party’s control of the House of Representatives limits the President’s options. Under this proposed scenario, Obama is advocating reduced Social Security benefits and has proposed budgets with diminished support for the local and community-level initiatives that provide health, housing, and employment assistance for vulnerable populations. The White House is blaming the Republican Party for its failure to prioritize or fight for racial equality, jobs, and the basic bread and butter issues that are important to millions of Americans, but the Republicans should not bear all the blame for this situation. Essentially, President Obama pursues neoliberal polices while adhering to the rhetoric of social justice. This is why the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz described the President’s second inaugural speech as "soaring language to reaffirm America's commitment to the dream of equality of opportunity" but added that the "gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider." [my emphasis]
And for Obama, this combination of considerations has also meant a tendency to simplify real issues of social inequality and discrimination by the rhetoric of personal responsibility:

Martin Luther King, Jr., believed poverty to be a major charge for African American freedom struggles. But for him, poverty was not a behavioral problem. People are not poor due to their unwillingness to work, or because the government dole has made them lazy or incompetent to advance themselves economically, or — as implied in Obama’s speeches to Black audiences — because Black men simply don’t take responsibility for their children and their communities. Obama has repeatedly reiterated this notion, and he has reinforced it by focusing not on structural inequality or racism but rather on the need for Black people to lift themselves up by their bootstraps.
As Chauncey DeVega has noted, the President does not scold predominantly white audiences over common white pathologies in the way he scolds black audiences about their alleged group shortcomings.

Those who support Obama's reluctance to address racial issues in a context like right now tend to see the idea that he should as an example of the "Green Lantern" theory of the Presidency. The conservative realist Norm Ornstein describes the derivation of the term in The Most Enduring Myth About the Presidency National Journal 04/22/2014:

The meme is what Matthew Yglesias, writing in 2006, referred to as "the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics," and has been refined by Greg Sargent and Brendan Nyhan into the Green Lantern Theory of the presidency. In a nutshell, it attributes heroic powers to a president—if only he would use them. And the holders of this theory have turned it into the meme that if only Obama used his power of persuasion, he could have the kind of success that LBJ enjoyed with the Great Society, that Bill Clinton enjoyed in his alliance with Newt Gingrich that gave us welfare reform and fiscal success, that Ronald Reagan had with Dan Rostenkowski and Bill Bradley to get tax reform, and so on.
Green Lantern himself, of course, is a comic-book character, whose first incarnation was this:

Ed Kilgore defends Obama's holding-back position in No Green Lantern For Ferguson, Either Washington Monthly 08/19/2014:

If Obama's speeches aren't as dramatic as they used to be, this is why: the White House believes a presidential speech on a politically charged topic is as likely to make things worse as to make things better. It is as likely to infuriate conservatives as it is to inspire liberals. And in a country riven by political polarization, widening that divide can take hard problems and make them impossible problems. ...

More to the point, whatever mojo Obama has probably needs to be held in reserve in case he finds himself announcing or defending a federal civil rights indictment of Darren Wilson after local prosecutors have failed to act. Now that will take some heavy lifting, and perhaps magical powers.
The first paragraph quoted seems to me to be just another way of saying that Obama doesn't want to be seen as a Democrat who aggressively counters white racism. And it's not as though that the Republican Party hasn't been escalating its segregationist stand pretty much constantly since Election Day 2008. It's the high-level pushback from the Democratic Party that has been lacking.

In the 1950s and 1960s, whites who wanted a respectable-sounding way to tell African-American protesters to just shut the hell up would warn them about provoking a "white backlash." But the Republicans have been in White Backlash mode since 1964. Since so much of the Segregation 1.0 era is coming back, I wonder how long it will be before "white backlash" re-enters the everyday political vocabulary.

Maybe not long. Ezra Klein writes, repeating the White House spin (Why Obama won’t give the Ferguson speech his supporters want Vox 08/18/2014):

The problem is the White House no longer believes Obama can bridge divides. They believe — with good reason — that he widens them. They learned this early in his presidency, when Obama said that the police had "acted stupidly" when they arrested Harvard University professor Skip Gates on the porch of his own home. The backlash was fierce. To defuse it, Obama ended up inviting both Gates and his arresting officer for a "beer summit" at the White House. [my emphasis]
This touches on Kilgore's point that Obama may be saving his verbal fire for defending a prosecution against Darren Wilson later. But it's not really appropriate for a President to make statements that sound like pre-judging a criminal prosecution. It will be telling in practice to see, if a federal or local prosecution of Wilson occurs, if Obama will make statements about touching on Wilson's legal guilt comparable to the ones he has made about Edward Snowden.

I think there's a good case to be made that the "beer summit" was actually a case of Obama's backing down in the face of a Republican standard "hissy fit," a term Digby Parton helpfully popularized in this context. He took a stand against racial profiling and police abuse, then wound up treating Both Sides equally in that famous "beer summit" visual.

Eric Boehlert also defends the holding-back stance in Obama, Race, And The Right-Wing Media's Heckler's Veto Media Matters 08/19/2014, and references the Gates incident:

In case people forget, since becoming president Obama has talked about race relations during national flashpoints. He addressed the topic just six months into his first term after prominent Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his own home by a Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer who was investigating a report of a break-in.

Denouncing Obama's response, Glenn Beck condemend [sic] the president on Fox as a "racist" with "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." (Sean Hannity backed up Beck's "racist" claim. So did Rupert Murdoch.) That same week, Beck pointed to health care bill provision as evidence Obama supports reform as a form of "reparations"; to "settle old racial scores."
This is also just another way of saying what Cenk Uygur does, which is that Obama is letting FOX News and the Republican echo chamber bully him out of taking a clear stance.

It probably comes down to a sense of how you have to deal with hardcore segregationists. In my definition which is very much historically based, anyone who support voter suppression laws that disenfranchise black and Latino voters (and poor whites in non-trivial numbers) is a segregationist. My own sense is that the hardcores have to be treated as incorrigible, at least in the short run. But there is also a schizophrenic dynamic in segregationism that goes beyond simple lying. Since the dominant culture and the Christian religion says at least on the surface that racism is wrong, racism denial is also an integral part of American segregationism.

Elaine Frantz Parsons has a fascinating study, "Klan Skepticism and Denial in Reconstruction-Era Public Discourse" in the Feb 2011 Journal of Southern History, in which she writes:

For roughly five years, from the spring of 1868 through the election of 1872, the Klan was central to national discourse. Throughout this period, surprisingly, the debate over the Klan never effectively silenced the position that the Klan did not exist at all. Despite massive and productive public and private efforts to gather, circulate, and evaluate information about the Ku Klux Klan. and even though the federal government, in pouring unprecedented resources into countering it, certainly was behaving as though it were a real threat, the national debate over the Klan failed to move beyond the simple question of the Klan's existence. The idea of the Klan as a fundamental threat to the nation coexisted in tension, throughout the Klan's existence, with the idea that the Klan was simply a product of overheated imagination. Often, an individual would toggle between a passionate conviction that the Klan's threat was real and a real skepticism about its existence or nature - a position resembling the psychological phenomenon of "knowing and not-knowing" that is associated with trauma. The persistence of skepticism about the Klan even in the face of powerful proof of the Klan's existence reflected that individuals on all sides of the era's partisan conflicts at times found ambiguity about the Klan desirable and productive. [my emphasis]
She recounts the experience of the Mardi Gras parade in Memphis, 1872. The Klan, which had theoretically been abolished in Memphis, appeared in their robes and enacted scenes of anti-black terrorism. The parade and the reporting on it by pro-Klan newspapers showed:

... a proliferation of both comic and sensationalist Klan narratives and an explicit dismissal of the reliability of Klan narratives influenced by Republicans [then still pro-civil rights].

The fact that these Klan denials were taking place in one of the very epicenters of Klan support. however. makes their complexity even starker. On the one hand. audiences simply saw men representing Klansmen committing atrocities. The transparencies explained to them, however, that these paraders were not actually representing Klansmen, but depicting the "false" representations of Klansmen in the northern press. On the other hand. it is likely that many of the men representing Klansmen were. or had been. actual Klansmen. The Memphis Klan, officially, had voluntarily disbanded three years before the parade, but members had never been prosecuted. and they continued to maintain their contacts with one another through legal organizations like Democratic clubs, Masonic lodges, and probably (as has been shown in the case of New Orleans) carnival societies. So the parade, presumably, presents the bizarre spectacle of actual Klansmen marching in Klan uniforms, attacking both blackfaced white performers and actual black onlookers, to make the point that Klan violence was a figment of the northern imagination. [my emphasis]
It would be interesting to see this denial traced forward and connected with the denial of white racism through Segregation 1.0 (1875-1970, more or less) and the postracial Age of Obama.

The hardcores aren't going to be converted. But what an effective Democratic pushback can do is to stigmatize the tribe of white racists so that white voters who may be inclined to support the Republicans for a variety of reasons will shy away from being associated with the white racism displayed by the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the world. It can also help to deligitimize careless murder of young black men in particular. And shame potential white supporters of such murderers from publicly agitating in favor of them. As Parsons writes of Klan denial in Reconstruction days, denial of white racism in the US today requires "a certain self-deceit on the part of cultural producers and consumers alike." Making that self-deceit more difficult to maintain would be a good thing.

Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar address Obama's dilemma in Obama on race: Watch what he does as much as what he says Charlotte News-Observer 08/19/2014. The headline is uncomfortably reminiscent of one of the Nixon Administration's more disturbing messages about their own mealy-mouthing on racial discrimination as they promoted the Southern Strategy. They report:

Civil rights groups noted Obama would draw criticism regardless of what he says.

"In this particular case, he can’t win for losing," said Pamela Meanes, president of the National Bar Association, noting that if Obama were "too passionate," he’d be accused of meddling in the investigation. But she acknowledged his tone on Monday [Aug. 18] left some saying "he's not passionate enough."
I like that way of putting it. He's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

But since the Republican segregationists are going to damn him for the next 2 1/2 years and for decades after that no matter what he does or says, it's hard to see what he actually has to lose by taking a more principled anti-racism stance.

They also quote African-American studies professor Shawn Alexander:

Obama in 2009 admitted that he hadn't helped calm a racially charged debate by saying that police acted "stupidly" for arresting a prominent African-American professor in his own home and a "beer summit" on the White House lawn among the principals yielded little.

Obama as the first African-American president is in a unique position and hasn't always figured out how to respond, Alexander said.

"We constantly view him through the lens of race and that puts a different pressure on him," Alexander said. "We need now a spokesperson to talk about race and because he’s in the Oval Office, he must be that person and at same time he’s trying to be the president of the nation."

"He sometimes gets stuck between a rock and a hard place and I don’t know he’s figured out how to navigate it," Alexander said. "Should he speak out more? Probably. We have serious problems and if you’re going to lead it, get out in front of it, speak about it."
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