Column: Advice that's best left ignored
SAN DIEGO — When it comes to what to do about the turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., President Obama is getting some bad advice.
Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson is a brilliant thinker, skilled communicator and one of America’s most important voices on matters involving race. But there is one thing he doesn’t understand: Barack Obama. Dyson thinks the chief executive has the capacity to give voice to the concerns of African-Americans.
He’s wrong about that. Dyson is also out of line to expect it, because the president has to speak for all Americans.
During a recent appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Dyson admitted that he yearned for a louder and more powerful response from Obama to the conflict in Ferguson.
Good luck with that, professor. Other African-American thought leaders such as Cornel West, who now teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and PBS host Tavis Smiley have concluded that the nation’s first black president is just not into helping black people. West and Smiley have hammered Obama for not pursuing a “black agenda” and for failing to step up when their community feels under siege.
Dyson, however, hopes that Obama can be a leader on race.
“This president knows better than most what happens in poor communities that have been antagonized historically by the hostile relationship between black people and the police department,” he said.
Really? How do we know that Obama understands those communities? He was raised by a white mother and white grandparents. He grew up in Hawaii, which doesn’t have a large African-American population. Obama worked as a community organizer in Chicago, but it’s not clear that he experienced hostility from the police there.
Dyson disapproves of Obama’s initial remarks on Ferguson, where the president scolded those protesters who were violent.
“It is not enough for him to come on national television and pretend there is a false moral equivalency between police people who are armed and black people who are vulnerable constantly to this,” Dyson said. “He needs to use his bully pulpit to step up and articulate this as a vision.”
So Dyson wants the president to use the power of his office to express the “vision” of how African-Americans are vulnerable to abuse by police? As the head of the executive branch, it is Obama’s job to enforce the law. What does such a powerful person understand about vulnerability?
Above all, Dyson believes that Obama — because of “his unique experience” — must make the presidency personal.
He put it this way: “The president has a responsibility to say ... ‘As an African-American male I know what it means to not have an autopsy report released. I know what it means to have a young man besmirched posthumously with no relationship that we can tell between what that was about on that camera and how he died.’ And I’m saying to you that if he could inform American society that, look, yes, we must keep the law, yes we must keep the peace, people must calm their passion, but let me explain to you why people might be hurt, why they might be angry and why they might be upset. That’s his responsibility to tell that truth regardless of what those political fallouts will be.”
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder is reading from that script. During his visit to Ferguson, the nation’s first black attorney general met with the family of shooting victim Michael Brown and talked about being racially profiled by police and how the experience left him “angry and upset.” Holder even told folks that he understood their distrust of police.
“I am the attorney general of the United States,” he said. “But I am also a black man.”
Holder recalled that, while working as a federal prosecutor at the Justice Department, he was stopped by police in Washington, D.C. He also cited another instance where his car was searched during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.
There is nothing wrong with Holder sharing those stories. But it won’t do anything to improve the situation in Ferguson.
Obama should continue to speak about what’s happening in an American city that has suffered too much. But he must resist pressure to frame that suffering in a racial context. There are enough people doing so already.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.