After Ferguson, America Still Can't Discuss Race

The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have the eerie feeling of something that we have all seen before, but are experiencing through a filter of new media, but also new politics. It is now normal that many of us learn about events like the shooting of Michael Brown and the violent police response to the demonstrations that followed through social media rather than through major news outlets. This means that many of us learn about these events in almost real time and in ways that confirm our existing opinions and views. This is not particularly new and has characterized most major news events in the last few years.

In this way, despite the similarities, Ferguson is different from, for example, the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992 or the demonstrations following the shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York in 1999. Perhaps more significantly the shooting of Michael Brown and the violent and outrageous behavior by the local police force are different from these two, and many other events, because it has occurred in the complex, polarized and obstreperous political climate of the US in 2014.

Race, in Barack Obama's America, is very different than it has been at any other time in our history. The presence of an African American president has, surprisingly, made it harder to discuss racism as an important part of life in America. Most assertions that racism has informed a government policy or police shooting, or is in evidence at a right wing political rally, are met by accusations of playing the race card, regardless of the details of the incident. It is almost as if the unspoken tradeoff for electing an African American president is that we have to all accept the overly optimistic, and empirically absurd, assertion that racism over, the good guys won and there is no need for any further activism on the issue. The truth is, of course, much more complicated than that.

For decades the issue of race, particularly with regards to African Americans, has only directly penetrated into the top echelon of political issues because of a major event, often a shooting of a young African American or other act of state violence against African Americans. The conversations about race that have followed those events have been predictable, brief and have generally led nowhere.

Following Ferguson, we have not even seen race discussed this way, particularly from our country's most visible and important politicians. President Obama has been reluctant to discuss the abject racism behind the shooting of Michael Brown, or for that matter, the killing of Eric Garner in New York. Anybody who is familiar with the media and political environment that has confronted the President during his time in office an understand that reluctance, but it is nonetheless very disappointing.

President Obama's relative silence on the issue has made it easier for Hillary Clinton, the second most visible and important Democratic politician in the country, to also say very little regarding Ferguson. Although she is not in office currently, Clinton has not exactly been unwilling to comment on other important issues facing the country. Clearly, Clinton is not sure what to say and does not want to say anything that will damage her election chances in 2016, but this has also not helped with her party's activist base. Most Republican politicians have, as might be expected, responded with a mixture of statements of sympathy and calling for investigations, but have not addressed racism per se.

The most notable response to the police violence in Ferguson has come from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) who, although all but ignoring the racial element, has been reasonably outspoken about the problems of the militarization of the police in towns like Ferguson. Rand's concerns about the militarization of the police reflect his Libertarian beliefs and are not shared by many in his party, but it is nonetheless significant that it is among national politicians it is a Republican who has, in many ways, taken the boldest stance.

The failure of most of the Democratic leadership to take equally bold positions and point out the racism in Ferguson and disappointing brings with it the same feeling of deja vu as the shooting of Michael Brown does. For at least the last two decades, the Democratic Party has been defined both by being party of African American and an extraordinary timidity when it comes to speaking out about racism. In this regard, the relative silence of both Obama and Clinton is not surprising and is unfortunately exactly what is expected. Our inability to recognize and discuss racism is one of the things that ensures the survival of that racism, and the likelihood that there will be more Michael Browns, more Fergusons and more politicians avoiding taking tough, and perhaps unpopular, positions.