CONTROVERSY seems to love Ferguson Town, St Louis, Missouri, United States, more than Ferguson loves controversy.
Ferguson is back on the news after the police chief announced his resignation amid another shooting where a “biracial” man was shot by the police in what residents feel was a racial motivated shooting.
The timing could not have been worse, America is being led by a black commander in chief and the world is still trying to come to grips with statements made by Common at the Oscars and the comments made by the controversial Kanye West at the BET Awards.
Both speeches were on race. Is America unwilling to face squarely the two great social crimes that haunt United States history: The removal of the Indians and the enslavement of the blacks?
Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 brought on a wave of what Havard Law professor Randall Kennedy calls “racial euphoria”, the belief that America had at last solved its racial problem. The election did mark extraordinary progress on the racial issue.
Most official segregation had disappeared, blacks were playing an increasingly prominent part in society. Even a few years earlier the notion that Americas would choose a black president would have been unthinkable.
That is why Obama supporters cried on election night. However, even such euphoria is possible only if one ignores the breath, depth and subtlety of racial divisions that continue in American life.
It hardly needs argument to show that racial discrimination, remains a large factor in the life of blacks.
High rates of unlawful racial discrimination in every market that has been studied, including housing markets, labour markets and commercial transactions.
Even after the election, there were determined challenges to Obama’s legitimacy, notably efforts to persuade the public that he was born outside the US hence, was constitutionally ineligible to be president. Would that have been an issue if Obama was white?
Many doubt that. Some political scientists argue that much of the driving force behind the dogged unwillingness of so many to acknowledge that Obama was born in the US is not just simple opposition to a democratic president, but a general ethnocentric suspicion of an African-American president who is perceived as distinctly “other”.
Obama had no illusion that his election would end American racism. In his speech on race “a more perfect union” given on March 18 2008 he said: “I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy, particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.”
Last week speaking as the 50th commemoration of the Selma March, President Obama reiterated that more strides need to be taken on racial equality.
Obama has identified himself as a black man by carrying himself in a dignified manner as the loving spouse of a black woman and by showing that his candidacy was “for real” in the sense that he could garner sufficient support from whites to prevail.
Had Obama not appeared to the black electorate in this way, he would not have enjoyed the overwhelming support he has received from blacks and would not have been able to win the presidency.
At the same time in order to attract white support, Obama keenly aware of the stereotype of the angry black man was careful to present him as calm, measured and unthreatening in order to reassure whites that he harboured no racial resentment and that he loved America.
The use of such different appeals in an election that was billed largely as post-racial should have cancelled caution in interpreting Obama’s victory as the ultimate racial breakthrough.
This helps explains Obama’s diffidency on racial matters. Obama’s few comments on the American racial dilemma are vague and unilluminating and most blacks complain about his reluctance to address the mass incarceration of black men.
Obama has made significant impact on America’s racial environment, not only by promoting racial minorities to high offices but also most importantly, simply by being elected (two terms).
It is easy for white Americans to believe that the enormous gains of the civil rights movement, the service of two blacks on the Supreme Court of the US and the election of a black president have removed the last vestiges of racism in America.
The reality of a society that is still in many ways segregated is quite different. It will take much awareness and effort to end American inerta on race.