Racial Divide: The Tragedy of America's First Black President
Police killings of black youth in Ferguson and Cleveland have outraged many in the US. The tragic events show how deep the societal divide remains between blacks and whites. Many have given up hope that President Obama can change anything.
On the evening after the city burned, a man in a black leather jacket and white clerical collar is standing on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. He shakes his head and looks as though he is fighting back tears. Once again, young black men and women are standing across from older, slightly pudgy white policemen in front of the local station. They look like armies, like they are at war.
"It won't ever stop," says the man, a black pastor named Alvin Herring. He has been accompanying the protests since the beginning of August, ever since white police officer Darren Wilson shot an unarmed, 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown. "A deep, festering wound has opened up in the heart of American culture and society," Herring says.
The systematic racism that these young people are confronted with each day has made them deeply angry, Henning continues. "It is impossible for them to feel loved, or even respected. They no longer believe they are needed or that their lives are worth anything."
At exactly this moment, eight police officers rush over to a black man and pull him out of a group, accusing him of throwing an empty plastic bottle. They jump on top of him, press his cheek to the asphalt and handcuff him with zip ties before dragging him into the station.
Ever since the protests began all those months ago, Pastor Alvin Herring has hoped that Barack Obama, the country's first black president, would visit Ferguson. Henning says Obama could have sent a powerful message that he understood the frustrations of young black people by making the trip.
High Hopes Dashed
On this evening, one which would see this town north of St. Louis sink into violence yet again, Herring misses Obama particularly acutely. "The president is much too careful, much too hesitant," he says. "The president should be here in Ferguson tonight. He should demonstrate more commitment."
Herring is merely putting into words what many African Americans think about their president -- and not just since the predominantly white grand jury that decided against prosecuting the policeman who shot Michael Brown. And not just since the jury's decision propelled thousands of black people to take to the streets of 170 US cities in protest.
The black population of America had high hopes for "their" president. They had the feeling, when they cast their ballots in 2008 and 2012, that something momentous was taking place. Never before had so many blacks voted as in those two elections. When one of ours ends up in the White House, they seemed to hope, then things will finally improve for us as well.
In March 2008, when Barack Obama, then a candidate for president, gave his big speech on racism, he sounded like the one who could unite the country. But in November of this year, Obama is -- contrary to his intentions -- the president of a country that is more divided than ever before. And one of the deepest divisions runs between blacks and whites.
That is the real tragedy of America's first African-American president.
Many of the causes of the day-to-day discrimination experienced by blacks, of course, are far outside of Obama's control. Federalism in America means that he has little influence over the behavior of local police or over the judiciaries in individual states. In such areas, Obama can only resort to appeals -- something that many blacks believe he has done too little of. From the perspective of the White House, however, such speeches are often counterproductive.
Less Money, Less Education, Less Influence
"Ferguson marks the end of the Obama era," says Cornel West, professor emeritus at Princeton University and a leading African American intellectual. It is "a very sad ending," West says. "We began with immense hopes and we are ending with deep disappointment." Obama, he says, did nothing to fix a justice system that denies any form of fairness to young people with black or brown skin. He adds that the president shares some of the blame for the "race and class warfare" that is being waged against black people.
The shots fired in Ferguson have become a danger for societal peace in a country that once celebrated itself for being a cultural melting pot -- a mixture which whites in America decreasingly see themselves as being a part of. Instead, the US is a divided land with a primarily white elite and an African-American population that tends to have less money, less education and less influence. In many areas, blacks are also now being overtaken by the growing Hispanic population.
To be sure, the US has plenty of black pop stars, black sports icons and, since 2009, even a black president. Nevertheless, most people with dark skin are far away from enjoying true equality. Fifty years after the widespread reforms pushed through by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which established formal equality for blacks, the social gap remains glaring.
Making matters worse is the discrimination practiced by state institutions such as law enforcement. The chances that a young black man will be shot dead by the police, for example, is 21 times greater than it is for young white males. The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown is far from abnormal. Just 10 days ago, a 12-year-old boy was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland because he was playing with a toy pistol at a playground.
The country-wide protests of the African-American minority demonstrate just how deep the distrust between blacks and whites remains despite the 51 years that have passed since Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Many white police officers see young black men primarily as a danger to public safety that must be stopped, with a firearm if necessary. In the eyes of many blacks, by contrast, white police officers like Darren Wilson are nothing more than racist murderers.
When the grand jury last Monday decided not to press charges against the 28-year-old Wilson, many African-Americans saw it as proof that they could not expect justice from the state and its judiciary. The case was led by a white public prosecutor who has a reputation for defending police at all costs. Instead of being professionally cross-examined, Wilson was allowed to spend four hours telling his version of the story. If the goal was to definitively destroy the last vestiges of faith blacks may have had in the justice system, the grand jury in the Brown case did excellent work.
On the evening after the grand jury decision was announced, more than a dozen shops in Ferguson were set on fire, with over 1,000 blacks engaging in street battles with the police. The scenes were repeated on subsequent evenings. Last Tuesday, South Florrissant Road was the dividing line, symbolic of a line -- sometimes clearly visible, other times hidden -- that runs through all of America.
On the one side of the street, both in front of and behind a fence surrounding the police station, are police and National Guard troops, almost all of them white. They are outfitted with riot shields, batons and all manner of firearms, looking not unlike an army preparing to defend Ferguson from the Taliban. The governor of Missouri has ordered 2,100 National Guard troops to St. Louis for the evening.
On the other side of South Florrissant Road are the young blacks of Ferguson. They hold signs up reading "Black Lives Matter" and "No Justice, No Peace." Few of them are over 30 years of age.
Their expressions reveal hate and the word "fuck" is everywhere, in combination with words such as police, system, judiciary, government and power. In August, such faces looked different: distraught but also full of hope that something good might come out of Michael Brown's death. There was hope that change might be on the way.
'If We Don't Destroy ... They Won't Pay Attention'
One of the demonstrators on this Tuesday evening is wearing a scarf pulled up over his nose with his cap pulled down low. He is stomping on the asphalt and yelling, "They order us around and kill us like we were dogs!" The 25-year-old asks to be quoted as "Mike Monster," saying he wants to remain anonymous because he has decided this evening to turn his back on the system of rules and laws that he no longer identifies with. In August, he says, he demonstrated peacefully. But now he is ready for violence. "If we don't tear anything down, if we don't destroy anything, if we don't set fire to anything, they won't even pay attention," he yells. "We need a revolution!"
"You can't stop the revolution," the crowd around him replies.
A quote from Thomas Jefferson is scratched into the asphalt in front of the South Florrissant police station: "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty." It is a slogan that many in Ferguson have taken to heart.
Marley's Bar & Grill, the only restaurant in the area that has remained open despite the protests, is just 500 meters away from the police station, but it is a totally different world. All 15 people sitting at the counter are white. Three of the televisions inside are showing ice hockey, while just one is tuned to CNN. Suddenly, "Breaking News" begins flashing on the screen: "Police car attacked in Ferguson."
Voices become raised at the counter. "They are crazy. They need to finally learn how to behave," one woman shrieks. "Like animals," her partner adds.
In the history of America, violence has occasionally paved the way for political improvements for the country's black population. When the escaped slave Shadrach Minkins was captured in Boston in 1851 under the Fugitive Slave Act, for example, slavery opponents stormed the courthouse, assaulted the court marshals and freed Minkins. The incident marked the beginning of a shift in attitudes toward slavery.
Yet peaceful movements, and the courts, have also played a role. Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a public bus on Dec. 1, 1955 -- which led to a Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public transport was unconstitutional -- is just one example. But it was the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. that achieved perhaps the greatest victory for racial equality in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, using peaceful protests and civil disobedience. Even so, there was a threat of violence in the background, in the form of Malcolm X and his followers.
Little Change under Obama
At the beginning of his term, Barack Obama likely never imagined that a new wave of violence would take place during his presidency. But it is not an accident. After all, he himself raised hopes that progress would be made. Yet after six years in office, little has changed for blacks in the US.
Obama held the speech that raised the hopes of black Americans on March 18, 2008 as a candidate in Philadelphia. It was a reaction to comments made by his Chicago pastor and friend Jeremiah Wright, who had accused the US government of crimes against blacks. "God damn America ... for killing innocent people," he intoned from the pulpit in a sermon that threatened to derail Obama's candidacy.
"The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society," Obama said in his speech. "It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past."
Obama was referring to a time when blacks were forced to serve whites as slaves; a time when they weren't even second-class citizens, instead being treated as commodities to be raised and sold at market. But he also was referring to the decades leading up to the 1960s when blacks were not allowed to use the same park benches as whites and were forced to sit at the back of the bus.
In that speech, Obama promised to create "a more perfect union," in reference to the preamble of the US Constitution. He sought to finally fulfill the promise made 50 years earlier by fellow Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. In remarks at the signing of the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964, Johnson said he hoped to "eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country" and to "close the springs of racial poison."
Many observers believe that Obama's speech was a decisive factor in his becoming the first black president in American history half a year later. It is still widely considered to be one of his best.
But the final push to realize Johnson's dream has still not taken place. The situation today gives the impression that African-Americans are adequately represented "without giving them the possibility to really take advantage" of that representation, says Kareem Crayton, a law professor at the University of North Carolina. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, sociology professor at Duke University, agrees. "Having a black president doesn't mean much in our day-to-day lives."
- Part 1: The Tragedy of America's First Black President
- Part 2: King's 'Island of Poverty' Still Exists Today
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2014
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Click on the links below for more information about DER SPIEGEL's history, how to subscribe or purchase the latest issue of the German-language edition in print or digital form or how to obtain rights to reprint SPIEGEL articles.
- Frequently Asked Questions: Everything You Need to Know about DER SPIEGEL
- Six Decades of Quality Journalism: The History of DER SPIEGEL
- A New Home in HafenCity: SPIEGEL's New Hamburg HQ
- Reprints: How To License SPIEGEL Articles