Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Obama should go to Ferguson

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he gives a statement during a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on August 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he gives a statement during a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on August 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

PRESIDENT Obama should go to Ferguson. Tell me I'm wrong.You think it wouldn't do any good. You think it's too late. You think it might make things worse.

Let me tell you what I think. I think Attorney General Eric Holder, due there today, isn't enough. No one elected Holder. He never offered "hope and change."

Whether Obama delivered isn't at issue. He's still the president.

He should go because words matter. Message matters. Symbolism matters.

Amid unrest and unanswered questions after the death-by-police of an unarmed teen, Ferguson and the nation need some sign, some plea, some affirmation that we're better than what we see in that suburb of St. Louis.

He should go because racial divide is real, harmful and not only in "The Show Me State."

He should go not because he's a black president but because he's the president.

Whatever else you think of him, he can deliver a message.

I stood in the hall of what then was the Fleet Center in Boston on the second night of the Democratic National Convention in July 2004.

Then a candidate for U.S. Senate, he spoke about division in America: "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

His delivery, his passion made him an instant national figure.

Four years later as a candidate for president, he came to Philadelphia, to the National Constitution Center, for a speech on race, "A More Perfect Union."

It helped get him elected.

In it, he spoke of "a racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years," adding, "I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy."

He was right about that. Look at Ferguson. And reaction to it.

But that doesn't mean you abdicate hope that change can happen.

That doesn't mean you focus your Nobel Peace Prize-winning self on strife in other countries while streets in your own resemble war zones.

When asked Monday if he considered going to Ferguson, Obama didn't answer.

He said something about "not prejudging" events there.

Fine. Don't prejudge. Go with a broad message. Push for calm. Offer empathy. Ask for faith in justice. Assure you'll help achieve it.

I suspect he'd be listened to by that minority-majority community. A Zogby poll this week puts his support among African-Americans at 91 percent.

I spoke with two national experts, authors on race and urban policies.

Darrick Hamilton is a professor at the New School in New York. Clarence Lang teaches at the University of Kansas. He wrote a book on segregation in St. Louis.

Both said Obama should go to Ferguson.

"What better gesture to signify commitment to domestic concerns," Lang said. "At this stage of his presidency, all he has is his legacy. He's not getting any new legislation. But one thing he has and can use is the power of his office."

Hamilton suggested using Ferguson to discuss roots of racial disparity: " 'Hope and change' was never tied to race. He never promised black America. . . . But he could use this to address structural inequalities, especially the racial wealth gap."

On the night of the day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, Robert Kennedy, running for president, was in Indianapolis for a campaign speech.

He was urged to cancel. He didn't. He spoke in a black neighborhood about a need for love, wisdom and justice. He asked for prayers "for our country and our people."

There was rioting across America that night. Dozens died. Thousands were injured. But there was calm in Indianapolis.

I know it's not the same. But Obama should speak in Ferguson.

He should go now. One day. A few hours. After which there's still time for more golf and surf and turf back on Martha's Vineyard.

 


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

 

 

 

 

 

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