Racial Equality in the Age of Obama

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Protesters react to the effects of tear gas which was fired at demonstrators reacting to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 17, 2014. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

During the past week Ferguson, Missouri, twelve miles away from St. Louis, has became ground zero in the nation’s long running racial political drama that resulted in the governor declaring a state of emergency, in the kind of throwback politics that recall the racial crises of the 1960s. The shooting death of 18-year-old black teenager Michael Brown by a local police officer produced waves of civil unrest and angry protests against police brutality. The overwhelming spectacle of military styled police officers confronting unarmed demonstrators with tear gas, pointed rifles, and armed vehicles triggered a social media and political storm. The arrest of two journalists turned the press into a conduit of righteous indignation. Even libertarian Senator Rand Paul weighed in on the “awful tragedy” unfolding in Ferguson by criticizing the federal government’s largely hidden (until now) militarization of big city and small town police forces.

But for those old enough to remember the civil rights era’s heroic period during the 1950s and 1960s, the televised images of overwhelmingly white law enforcement officials unleashing tear gas against predominantly black demonstrators echoed the epic clashes of the not too distant past.

While some referred to unrest in Ferguson as a “riot,” in reality the scene more closely resembled confrontations between Southern police forces and civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. The “Magic City” became the site of political showdown that found Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in jail and peaceful marchers routed by fire hoses and German Shepherds. President John F. Kennedy described the violence in Birmingham as making him “sick” and King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” argued that civil disobedience against Jim Crow segregation would bring the nation “back to those Great Well of Democracy” envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

Alabama State Troopers routed peaceful demonstrators (including future congressman John Lewis) two years later in a confrontation that triggered national outrage and jump-started voting rights legislation. “Bloody Sunday” inspired thirty thousand to march with King to Montgomery and compelled President Lyndon Johnson to throw the full weight of the White House behind the movement.  

The tear-gassing, violence, and military styled police presence directed against black citizens in Ferguson is part of a larger pattern of political repression against the African American community, one that dates back to before the founding of the republic.

In slavery’s aftermath anti-black pogroms were a consistent feature of efforts to “redeem” the South after Reconstruction. Throughout the first half of the 20th century blacks found themselves the targets of race “riots” in Atlanta, East St. Louis, Chicago, Elaine, Arkansas, Rosewood, Florida, and, perhaps most infamously, Tulsa, Oklahoma, where white officials dropped an incendiary device on the black community in a blatant display of domestic racial terror.

This is the historical context for hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and social media fueled criticism of the deadly use of force against Michael Brown and the subsequent military styled presence of police officers (including SWAT teams) openly sporting camouflage gear in a domestic urban setting.

The presence of the National Guard for riot control became a routine part of American life in the 1960s, impacting large and small American cities, perhaps most infamously in Newark and Detroit in 1967, when fires burning in the motor city inspired comparison between the Vietnam War and domestic civil insurgency across the nation.

While King warned that riots were the language of the unheard, politicians rode the backlash against racial violence to greater political prizes, including the White House. Finding the roots of urban unrest faded as the new focus became on law and order, the bread and butter of Richard Nixon’s silent majority and Ronald Reagan’s new right.  

Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act the nation has simultaneously experienced unprecedented racial progress in certain arenas (President Obama, of course) and dramatic setbacks (mass incarceration) regarding issues of race, democracy, and civil rights.

The burning question: how we do we define racial equality in the Age of Obama.

None of us can truthfully imagine such an outsized law enforcement presence menacing a largely white community or the picture of young white men as the victims of police brutality, unlawful shootings, and violence.  

Obama’s response ran the gamut from silence to milquetoast before settling in on a more robust statement where he ordered a full Justice Department and FBI investigation into the entire matter.

Attorney General Eric Holder, who has thoughtfully defended civil rights era victories (including voting rights) throughout his tenure and been outspoken in his gratitude toward civil rights activists, personally spoke to Brown’s parents and requested Ferguson officials to stop playing war games in the streets of an American city. The fact that the first black Attorney General could do so at the order of the first black president is an unspoken part of our current racial climate, where race is simultaneously more fluid and fixed than ever before.

Peniel Joseph is a professor of history at Tufts University and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He is on Twitter @PenielJoseph