I have been a President Obama supporter since he declared his candidacy on that cold February day in 2007. He hasn’t always done things the way I would have preferred, nor as quickly as I would like, but my support has never wavered. With that being said, you may be surprised by my next sentence. President Obama is not our savior. There, I said it. He’s just not. He never was. Those of you who voted for him in 2008 because you thought he was may be disillusioned now. But that’s your fault, not his. He showed you who he was from the beginning. Reasoned, even-tempered, scholarly, purposeful. But there were no miracles. No walking on Lake Michigan. No healing of the sick (although Obamacare… just kidding). He promised us change, not resolution. Change we have seen, though it will never be enough for some. But ask the gay soldier whether things are better now that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is no more. Ask the cancer patient if she sleeps a bit better now that the Affordable Care Act is in place. You get the idea.
With the shooting death of Mike Brown, an unarmed Black man, by a white Ferguson, Missouri police officer, the country has once again been forced to acknowledge its racist history and the fact that, despite having a Black president, some things still haven’t changed enough. There were calls for President Obama to speak about the death of Mike Brown. He did; and it wasn’t enough for some. I was one who hoped that he didn’t speak at all, or at least not early on. After Trayvon Martin was killed, President Obama spoke and said that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. He experienced considerable backlash from that statement and it wasn’t clear what good it achieved. The same is true when President Obama spoke about the treatment of renowned scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. But President Obama spoke about Ferguson and even I, as a supporter, found his delivery lacking. In fact, after reading a transcript later of the statement I watched him give live, it seemed to me that it read better than it sounded. But there were some who said his words, whether read or spoken, were still not enough.
President Obama has always let his actions speak for him. This is no less true with respect to Ferguson. The day after Mike Brown’s death, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice would be investigating the shooting. From where does one think that decision originated? I also note that Holder’s statement took a much stronger tone than President Obama’s. It was almost as if President Obama took a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” playbook, wielding Eric Holder as the mightiest of redwoods. There really is a method to the madness of politics. President Obama seems to have learned this method; beltway pundits and some Black academics have spent the last six years in the back of the class eating paste.
It’s important to remember the hierarchy involved. At its base, the shooting of Ferguson was, at least originally, a local issue, in the sense that the first call for a statement and direct involvement should have been to Ferguson city officials, then Missouri Governor Nixon, then those in Congress representing Missouri. Yet some went straight to the top and demanded that President Obama speak. Now the call is for President Obama to insert himself into an active FBI, DOJ, and local investigation by visiting Ferguson. This is despite the fact that AG Holder has visited Ferguson and is overseeing the investigation. Further, President Obama becoming too involved could present legal implications down the road. The pressure should be applied where it is most useful. In the case of the killing of Mike Brown, this is Governor Jay Nixon who steadfastly refuses to appoint a special prosecutor despite what appears to be significant bias on the part of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch.
Here’s a deeper question. What happens in 2017 when President Obama leaves office? Will we be asking a non-Black president to speak on issues of race? Because although former presidents may have done so before President Obama, I don’t remember the same level of outcry, especially from Black people, for them to do so. To continue the savior metaphor, once Jesus left the earth, people were required to rely more on themselves instead of looking to one man to solve their problems. We have about two years to learn to put the onus on those who are most directly accountable and can effect real change. Or replace them with someone who will.