“Is this performance art, at this time, about what it looks like to be out of touch with one's constituents?” MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry asked a panel of guests on her Sunday program.
“They're so out of touch,” public radio host Marc Steiner responded. “I mean police brutality and racist attacks against black citizens and people of color are universal in this country. But these folks are so out of touch, they don't even know how to fake it…. The governor can't do it. None of them can do it.”
“They've never had to,” author Jelani Cobb pointed out. And he’s right—as numerous people have pointed out recently. Ferguson is supermajority black, but its police force is overwhelmingly white, as is its city council. While some—most notably the renowned MonkeyCage blog—have elucidated the structural forces at work, producing very low black voter turnout in the local, non-partisan, off-year elections (widespread “reforms” of the Progressive Era, during which voter participation fell significantly), Cobb’s recent reporting for the New Yorker took a more critical angle.
First, he took note of the role of felony Missouri’s felon-disfranchisement laws. One local explained, “If you’re a student in one of the black schools here and you get into a fight you’ll probably get arrested and charged with assault. We have kids here who are barred from voting before they’re even old enough to register.” Next, he pointed out that blacks were actually losing ground in terms of political leadership:
Ferguson had, instead, recently seen two highly visible African-American public officials lose their jobs. Two weeks before Brown was shot, Charles Dooley, an African-American who has served as St. Louis County Executive for a decade, lost a bitter primary election to Steve Stenger, a white county councilman, in a race that, whatever the merits of the candidates, was seen as racially divisive. Stenger lobbed allegations of financial mismanagement and incompetence, and worse. Bob McCulloch, the county prosecutor appeared in an ad for Stenger, associating Dooley with corruption; McCulloch would also be responsible for determining whether to charge Darren Wilson. In December, the largely white Ferguson-Florissant school board fired Art McCoy, the superintendent, who is African-American.
As reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, McCoy’s firing was as shrouded in secrecy as Michael Brown’s killing. Nor was McCulloch’s racial animosity in electioneering anomalous either. Back in 2006, Missouri was ground zero in the GOP’s spurious voter fraud allegations which lay at the heart of the U.S. Attorneys firing scandal. Perhaps most notably, just five days before the election, Bradley Schlozman, then interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, announced indictments against four voter-registration workers—a move contradicting the DOJ’s own guidelines that such actions “"must await the end of the election." In short, Republican politics in Missouri have not simply relied on passive racial resentments, rather, they have actively stirred them up. Such behavior only makes sense in a framework of racial isolation, and hostility.
With all that in mind, it’s easy to follow Cobb’s continuing line of thought on the "Melissa Harris-Perry Show," as he said, “Being there, the impression you get is that these people remind you of those southern towns in the 1960s who had no idea how their actions looked on television. The television was the thing that made segregation untenable. Because the rest of the world could see and say, ‘This looks barbaric.'”
“ I don't think that the people here have any sense of how this looks in the broader spectrum, and talking to people in the community about that, and they say, ‘Well, they've never had to. If they have control over the power system here, the structure here, who are they accountable to?’ So they've never even had to go through the pantomime of accountability before.”
Cobb’s analysis summed everything up in nutshell. The white power structure was so thoroughly insulated that it couldn’t even begin to pretend it was otherwise. It couldn’t even begin to conceive of what that would look like.
But neither can the rest of America, really. We have our first black president, but we can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like for him to govern with a bare minimum of bipartisan respect, much less with his own black experience foremost in mind. (Even after the 2012 election, a majority of Republicans continued to doubt his citizenship. And even momentary upset at police abuse of his personal friend, Henry Louis Gates, was cause for major racial backlash against him.) He is caught in an impossible contradiction—just as all blacks in America have been since their first ancestors arrived here in chains.
We are so habituated to seeing Obama immobilized, so deeply steeped in the expectations and explanations that we cannot even begin to see his condition clearly—or, thus, our own. But Cobb’s reporting illuminates his predicament through a surrogate— Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol. “On Johnson’s first night in charge, the police presence in the neighborhood was hardly visible… The protests that night had a giddy quality,” Cobb wrote. The transformation was electrifying—like night into day. Like Obama’s election and inauguration was.
But precisely because the transformation was so stark, it could not be allowed to stand. After all, if it did stand, it would utterly destroy the entire structure of lies that had preceded it. For Johnson’s transformation to stand, all the failed policies and practices before it would have to fall. And so, Cobb’s reporting continued:
But as early as Friday morning people began to wonder if Johnson really was in charge, in any meaningful way. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson began the day by releasing Officer Wilson’s name, which had been kept from the public until then....
In the span of twenty-four hours, Johnson had gone, in the community’s eyes, from empowered native son to black token. One of the local activists I’d met in Ferguson sent me a text message after the curfew announcement saying, “Johnson has good intentions but no power. This is beyond him.”
“Good intentions, but no power” seems to describe Obama as well, despite all the very real power that his office holds. He is still not empowered to challenge us on race—we elected him precisely to soothe us, not disturb us further. And that means not disturbing the out-of-touch white power structures still in place throughout America, as reflected with unusual clarity in Ferguson and its place in Missouri politics. And to abide this crucial limit on his power is ultimately to bind him in countless other ways as well—as Republicans in Congress have made blindingly clear.
The contrast between Johnson and the white officials around him was striking—but ultimately meaningless, the activists Cobb spoke with feared. And yet, Johnson, like Obama, soldiered on, conducting himself with an inner certitude and an outward awareness that was entirely lacking in everyone else.
“I was struck by the world of difference between Capt. Johnson and Gov. Nixon at Saturday's press conference with the community,” MSNBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom told Salon, deftly honing in on what was most crucial:
Gov. Nixon announced the curfew and then ducked most of the questions that were asked of him by members of the community. His approach crossed the line from a politician's typical evasion to outright disrespect. Why take questions if you're not going to answer them, not even with a ‘’I understand your concern but I'm sorry, I can't answer that question now while the investigation is ongoing?”
In contrast, Capt. Johnson responded to one questioner by telling him he recognized him from the previous night and appreciated his efforts to maintain the peace. He listened and responded forthrightly to everything that was asked. He was authentic in a way that we almost never see at press conferences, both because Capt. Johnson is not a politician and because he appears to be a man deeply rooted in faith and respect for the people of Ferguson, no matter how angry they may be -- or maybe even because they are justifiably angry.
Capt. Johnson connected. Gov. Nixon appeared contemptuous.
And yet, for all that, Johnson was not calling the shots in the grand scheme of things. On all but a tactical level, he was carrying out orders, not giving them. And there was no possible way for him to actually take charge—which is precisely what the nation so desperately needed him to do. For that to happen, the entire framework of power relations would have had to be entirely upended.
What Johnson and Obama epitomized was a form of “respectability politics,” rooted more in Booker T. Washington’s politics of accommodation than in the civil rights struggle. Respectability was the watchword of the “talented tenth,” which WEB Du Bois initially embraced, but then abandoned as a viable means to advancing black liberation as a whole. It’s very much in vogue these days, as Fredrick C. Harris, director of Columbia's Center on African-American Politics and Society, recently elucidated in an article in Dissent (“The Rise of Respectability Politics”), in which he wrote:
What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism.
The obsessive focusing on individual respectability accommodates itself to a system in which the vast majority simply cannot prosper. In this regard, it’s quite the opposite of what Martin Luther King envisioned with his “Poor People’s Movement,” and his support for unionizing Memphis garbage men who wore proud signs, “I AM A MAN.” The difference between the politics of respect and the politics of respectability is as vast as the Atlantic Ocean.
And so it is that the now-abandoned subjects of King’s broader vision reappear as the looters and vandals that Johnson ultimately stigmatized as the great evil he was fighting against—an evil far more tractable than the white power structure which tolerated him as their public face in their hour of utmost need. This is not to valorize the vandals or to find fault with Johnson, who has gone far out of his way to build bridges when challenged. It is simply to recognize the limits we live within without even realizing it—essentially the same limits we’ve lived within for the last five decades. Limits which the most disrespected and disempowered feel strangling them, like barbed wire around their throats. When they lash out, we’re wise to duck, but foolish to think their violence has no sense, or that it has its ultimate source in them.
This brings us to the comments of another panelist following up on Cobb’s remarks. “We can't just completely isolate Ferguson, as the backwaters of America, the way that we could Alabama,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “There's a trend here that represents the decontextualization across the country. There's a turning off of these issues, there's a distance of it, like 'not my problem,' and unless it shows up in my community, I don’t have to deal with it.” That much might seem obvious to some. But then he took the next step:
The reason why this keeps happening is because no one's connecting the dots where power resides in this country. The folks who are powerless, the folks who on the ground are marginalized are the ones who keep showing up at rallies. They're the ones who keep connecting the dots. So we keep reliving this, like it's Groundhog Day, because the rest of America is tuned out.
It’s like Martin Luther King told Mike Wallace: “A riot is the voice of the unheard.” Groundhog Day, indeed.