The president is being pressed to take sides in a personal, political and structural tragedy in a divided nation
by Patricia J. Williams
an edited version of this essay was published at theguardian.com, Friday 22 August 2014 11.03 EDT
In 2008, the year that Barack Obama became president of the United States, the New York-based artist Carrie Mae Weems created a video installation in which Obama’s face melts from one thing to another: model citizen, communist infiltrator, immigrant, foreigner, friend, black Jesus, brown Hitler, American dream, chicken, monkey, zebra, joker, minstrel. As Weems’s voiceover describes it: “A reason to hope, a reason to change, a reason to reason …”
Of course, Obama has always been somewhat shape-shifting in his symbolism – it’s probably what got him elected to begin with. The “hope and change” that became his trademark was more than mere slogan; the very idea of a first black president became a mirror for whatever people wanted to see in him.
Now we come to a situation all too familiar in America with the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Obama is being pressed to take one of two sides in a layered personal, political, and structural tragedy for which carelessly drawn lines in the sand could not be more unhelpful. The last two weeks of anguish in Ferguson cap a difficult season for Obama. Already besieged by the situations in Ukraine, Iraq, Gaza, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, he has had to manoeuvre his way through attacks at home from every side. From Congressional Republicans threatening to sue him for trying to implement healthcare reform to the snarkily undermining comments of Hillary Clinton – this summer has been a season of confrontation. Is Obama too aggressive in his exercise of executive power? Or too chicken to invade? Is he passive on immigration? Too intemperate with Congress? Rarely has a president been so buffeted by such a variety of inconsistently projected personality traits.
According to a Pew Research Poll, 80% of African Americans think race is an important component of the discussion about Michael Brown’s shooting, while 47% of whites in America think race is getting too much attention. Two thirds of black Americans believe that the police response has been excessively forceful, but only a third of whites. And while 68% of Democrats believe race is an important consideration in this case, only 21% of Republicans do.
With a nation so divided, Obama wades into the debate not so much as president or as constitutional law professor or as chief executive of the Justice Department. In many people’s minds, he is fixed as exclusively African American rather than “really” American. That symbolism puts him in something of a no-win situation: anything he says or does will be heard as siding. While the crowds of protesters in Ferguson and other cities around the country are actually quite diverse, they have become singularly monolithic in many media representations. Except for the journalists who have been assaulted and a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who was arrested, protesters have been portrayed as representing all African Americans everywhere – noisy “agitators” who make police and honest white citizens “fear for their lives” and who “reflect badly” on the greatness of our republic.
And as for Obama, his restraint becomes reconfigured as ineffectual, alien, and remote. The dilemma makes me think of a recent exhibit by another contemporary New York artist, Dread Scott—his pseudonym a play on the name of an 1857 landmark Supreme Court case, Dred Scott v. Sanford, which ruled that blacks could not be citizens. His show Wanted “is a series of police wanted posters featuring a ‘police sketch’ of youth with a description listing a non-illegal activity for which they are ‘wanted’.” Public discussions accompany the exhibit, illuminating the pervasive fear and criminalization of young black men. A popular Twitter hashtag made the point even more poignantly: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, where thousands of young men posted two very different possible photographic depictions of themselves: first, a carelessly taken selfie, perhaps frowning or showing a tattoo or wearing a hoodie, and then a second formal pose, as the upright citizen, the graduation picture in three-piece suit, the beloved mother’s child. Which image captures a life–by what is our existence honored or memorialized? The response captures the atmosphere of accusation and apprehension that surrounds every black person in the US, even the president.
Indeed, even the metaphors employed to prod Obama to “do something” resonate with oppositional connotations beyond his control. Consider just one expression, used to the point of cliche, that of “stepping up to the plate”: this is a sports metaphor used in team play. I suppose, by some measure, separate teams might be the nicest way of putting it.
Republican v Democratic, anti-abortion v choice, Tea Party v traditional conservative, climate change denial v ecological activism, immigration reform v walls on the border, gun nuts v the world. American discourse is inflamed well before one gets around to racialising it all. The message of hope and change, which originated as a means of contrasting the Bush administration’s handling of nearly everything – Katrina, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Iraq! – is so out of context as to be quite long-forgotten.
Against the backdrop of Ferguson’s tumult, pundits of all political stripes have been urging the president to “get angry” and be “forceful”. No less than Sean “P Diddy” Combs was quoted as saying: “Obama, for real, get on a plane. It’s serious.” And Duke University professor Michael Eric Dyson urged him to use his “bully pulpit” to render justice. But how the president can use his “pulpit” without being seen as “bully” is precisely the challenge.