Obama’s message of hope and change is all but lost amid the chaos of Ferguson
Patricia Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law
Columbia University, New York, New York
The president is being pressed to take sides in a personal, political and structural tragedy in a divided nation
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…
…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…
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