By Paul Waldman, Washington Post
Seldom in Barack Obama’s presidency has he looked quite so impotent as he did last night, pleading from a podium in the White House for calm while the cable news split screens showed clouds of tear gas enveloping the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. He repeated the same themes as every time he has spoken about this subject — people have legitimate grievances but there’s no excuse for violence, we’ve come a long way but we have a ways to go, and so on. It never rang more hollow.
But what should he have said? Obama never actually promised to bind up the nation’s racial wounds — that was a hope others placed upon him, far too naively. Even before taking office, Obama found that no matter how hard he tried to be unthreatening, to incorporate different perspectives into his rhetoric, and to stress what Americans share, many of his opponents would never see him as anything but an agent of racial vengeance. No matter what he did, whether passing an economic stimulus or reforming health care, some would spin a story of race around it, one in which whites were under threat.
If anyone ever thought that with little more than the power of his example Obama could mitigate racial resentments, let alone fray the institutional ligaments of racism, they were quickly disabused of those ideas. His presidency has seen an extraordinary backlash against racial progress, from the Supreme Court to the statehouse, where affirmative action is dismantled, the Voting Rights Act is gutted, one Republican legislature after another passes laws to make it harder for people (mostly minorities) to vote, and conservatives are told again and again that they are the racial victims whose problems are the fault of the black president coming after them because of the color of their skin.