A black president couldn’t stop the Ferguson race riots
Violence continues in Ferguson, Missouri. It began on August 9 with the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager cut down by a white cop’s bullets. Peaceful demonstrations turned into looting, the local police went in with rubber bullets and tear gas, all hell broke loose and, eventually, Missouri’s governor pulled out the local police and sent in state officers instead. But the rioting only paused; it didn’t cease. And it may continue. That’s probably because it’s driven by a deep, deep anger that will take a long time to calm.
Observers might ask, “How can this be happening in an America that has elected a black president?” How can black kids still get killed by white cops and how can towns still burn in race riots?
Part of the explanation is that the recession has been especially tough on African-Americans – reinforcing historical disparities of wealth between the races. Before the credit crunch, the median net worth of a black household was $12,124, compared with $134,992 in white households. After the crunch, the black net worth fell to just $5,677, compared with $113,149 among whites. Black home equity fell by an average of 28 per cent and retirement savings by 35 per cent. In May 2014, the black unemployment rate stood at 11.5 per cent – more than double the white jobless rate of 5.4 per cent.
To make matters worse, blacks face additional challenges at home and in the streets. There is a crisis in black fatherhood: while just 29 per cent of whites are born out of wedlock, the figure is 72 per cent for blacks. One result is a racial imbalance in welfare dependency: African-Americans make up about 13 per cent of the population yet 39.8 per cent of those on welfare rolls. Other frightening statistics point to a serious cultural malaise. Four out of five black women are overweight or obese; black women account for nearly 36 per cent of all abortions performed in the United States.
All of this is made worse by a police and judicial system that seems not just imbalanced against blacks but actually designed to put more of them in prison. The War on Drugs and mandatory sentencing has gone hand-in-hand with racial profiling to send large numbers of African-Americans to jail for small infractions: they now account for around 40 per cent of the prison population. For a sense of how, for many blacks, the police are an agency of state repression, consider this alarming fact: in Ferguson, 67 per cent of residents are black but 94 per cent of the local police are white.
Why has electing a black president not changed all of this? One answer is that while Obama is a president who is black, he has never sold himself as an expressly black president – that is, he tries to operate outside of the racial narrative rather than play a leadership role within it. He is evidence to the young black child that, yes, anyone can make it in America.
But what he was never going to be was someone who would confront racism head on or seek a substantial redistribution of power and money of the variety that many civil rights leaders feel is necessary to help the poor.
President Obama has tried on occasion to talk about race, but its political consequences have tended to be negative. When Trayvon Martin was shot dead by vigilante George Zimmerman, Obama remarked that he could have been his son – and it did nothing to help convict Zimmerman. On the contrary, many conservatives took exception to the remarks for it seemed like an inappropriate injection of national politics into a case facing the courts.
Obama has commented on Ferguson but mostly to appeal for calm and ask for a proper investigation of what happened.
If there is hope for real change, some of it might come from the Right. In general, they have been horrified by events in Ferguson – not so much by the looting (condemned by almost everyone) but by the obvious iniquities in the law-and-order system. Jonah Goldberg, a highly respected Right-wing columnist, argued that “the idea that police forces shouldn’t take into account the racial or ethnic make-up of their communities when it comes to hiring [is] bizarre.”
Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican who would like to be president, has condemned both the militarisation of the police and the country’s drug laws. Meanwhile, many Republicans are embracing prison reform.
Of course, it will be the black community that will lead the fight for change. Fortunately, there is an expanding black middle class to offer a model of self-improvement and the black church remains a beacon of activism and uplift. Sadly, what they have discovered since the days of the civil rights movement is that government isn’t always their best friend and the promises of the Left can be empty. Change will come from within towns like Ferguson, not from within the White House.