Now that events, such as the killing of civilians in places like Staten Island, New York and Ferguson, Missouri have captured the nation’s attention and put it squarely on issues related to race, reports are that President Barack Obama understands the need to seize the moment on this topic.
I hope those reports are true. And I hope he understands that doing something conventional in these times simply won’t be enough.
It won’t be enough to deal with racial disparities from a black or Latino perspective, even though he must because that is exceedingly important.
He has to deal with it from a white person’s perspective, too. I wrote a piece in August (posted below) explaining why.
But I’ll go further.
As tragic as the Eric Garner death in Staten Island is, it has opened a rare opportunity to bring people together to re-examine the issue of race, and not just with the use of force by police. While reaction to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson has largely fallen along racial lines, the Garner death has disturbed blacks and whites, conservatives and liberals.
It illustrates that there is a way to speak to multiple people.
In the piece below, I argue that the president should start first with poor white communities before Ferguson. I still believe that’s true.
But he should also sideline the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the White House advisers on civil rights. I don’t mean to demean Sharpton. He needs to fade into the background for awhile because his presence makes it harder to have the cross-racial dialogue that’s necessary.
Beyond that, before the president goes to Appalachia, he should announce that will only be one of many stops and that his tour will include other predominantly white and mostly-black areas, not to give breezy speeches, but primarily to listen. Town hall settings might be the way to do it, as long as it is about showing up in places the president doesn’t have to go, isn’t expected to go, and to ask questions, listen and gather data.
Yes, even if some people are angry, allow that anger to be expressed. On this issue, avoiding the specter of anger means you aren’t really ready to deal with race.
After that listening tour is complete, then head to Ferguson to give that big, bold speech on race, based largely on what he heard during the tour and what we need to do - together - going forward. None of this easy, especially given the hyper-partisanship we are currently experiencing.
Criminal justice and educational reforms that have begun under Obama must continue, poor struggling (and middle class) whites must know they are not being overlooked or forgotten, Asian-Americans need to get an explanation as to why they are being punished in higher education settings for being sucessful, and every other group simply needs to know it is being heard.
That’s a tough task, a tall order, for sure.
But Obama’s unique place in history makes him the right president at the right time to tackle these issues in ways not one of his predecessors could.
Issac Bailey - President Obama: Start with poor whites to mend racial wounds post Ferguson
The Sun News, August 23, 2014
President Barack Obama shouldn’t go to Ferguson, Mo., if he wants to help lead the country through much-needed racial healing.
He should head to Appalachia, maybe a small mining town in Kentucky full of poor white people who have been struggling for decades and feel left out of the nation’s haphazard efforts to right racial and economic inequalities.
He should eventually make his way to Ferguson, as well as other areas where he can force a spotlight on the too-often ignored plight of the poor, but in order to break what has become an untenable impasse that too often falls along racial and political lines, he has to do the unexpected.
It’s a chance to help the country finally overcome the unacknowledged trauma of a frightening economic collapse that fuels the racial divide in ways many don’t realize, even as we near full employment and have experienced an unprecedented string of monthly job gains.
A trip to a place full of people who feel threatened by the change the president represents to listen, empathize, represents his best chance to begin a discussion that will make it difficult for Americans to remain hunkered down in preferred racial corners.
It would send a message that no matter the political climate during his final two years in office, he will use his greatest strength to move the country forward in ways no president before him could.
Despite the seeming deepening racial divide, it matters that Obama is the nation’s first black president during an era in which for the first time there are more minority babies in our hospitals and minority students in our public schools than whites.
Such a tour shouldn’t begin until after the November elections or it, too, will be suffocated by the toxic air in Washington. By then, the president can be joined by either a new Democratic U.S. Senator, Alison Grimes, fresh off an upset victory, or a veteran Republican, Mitch McConnell, who might be the new Majority Leader with renewed incentive to lead people beyond narrow, short-term, myopic concerns. He should make sure to invite Sen. Rand Paul, who has been speaking more eloquently than Obama about disparities within the criminal justice system.
It wasn’t feasible for the president to have taken this approach earlier; there were more pressing emergencies.
His work on the global stage isn’t finished, but he should seize the opportunity Ferguson has handed him to change the course of domestic race relations.
Tiptoeing around the subject for the bulk of his presidency made sense, for no matter what he did or said, his words couldn’t break through people’s filters.
The right, empathic words can penetrate the country's psyche now.
Starting in Ferguson, though, risks having the conversation quickly devolve along predictable racial lines, which is why he must begin his assault on the nation’s racial divide elsewhere.
Given the president’s deep knowledge of this country’s crooked history, I’m sure he knows that white people in Appalachia share an economic heritage with black Americans, even if neither group knows much about the parallels.
While black Americans can trace their race-inspired struggles back to a race-based slavery that preyed upon black skin, many poor whites can trace their generations-long struggles to an indentured servitude that was in many ways the equal of slavery in the inhumane way those caught in its grip were treated.
Slavery, while an obvious impediment to blacks, also hindered the fortunes of poor whites who were shut out of the nation's fortunes by large, rich slave owners. That has led to generations of deep poverty and a host of other problems that are still being felt today in the way slavery and Jim crow echo in poor black communities.
The first black president showing up in Appalachia would be a powerful image, no matter if they embraced him or screamed out of frustration and fear of how the country is rapidly changing while they feel left behind.
It would be a good way to note that his signature policy, the Affordable Care Act, is helping people like them – where the law has almost halved Kentucky’s uninsured rate – as well as poor and middle class whites, blacks and Hispanics where it is being implemented rather than resisted.
It would make possible the natural alliances these seemingly different groups should have forged long ago, given that their fortunes overlap so frequently.
They may not know it, but frustrated poor whites in Appalachia, disenfranchised blacks in Ferguson, the forgotten Native American on the reservation and the undocumented family living in the shadows need each other. They all have been handcuffed by an unkind and uneven justice system and an economy that cares more about the pursuit of profit than mending souls.
Racial distrust and misperception have kept them from realizing their shared bonds. It may not seem so now, given the level of anger in this country, but Obama is the right man at the right time to begin bridging that divide.
First, he must go where and do what no one ever thought he would.
He must go where he is not wanted to remind us all that no one should be forgotten or left behind.