President Obama should go to Ferguson, Mo., stand amid the broken glass and smoking embers, and speak to the two Americas—whites and blacks, the descendants of slaves and the descendants of the immigration experience. The address should go something like this:
"For all those (African-Americans) who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it—those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations—those young men and, increasingly, young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future."
The son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas could explain how humiliation and doubt and fear still gnaw at blacks old enough to remember segregated schools, hotels, restaurants, and water fountains.
"That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white coworkers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings."
His empathy shouldn't stop there. A national story that began with the original sin of slavery written into its Constitution is enduringly complex.
"[A] similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.
"So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."
Obama should acknowledge that political correctness disguises, but does not diminish, the resentments harbored by blacks and whites. The anger simmers until it boils—until it spills out into the open, as it did last night in Ferguson. And as it did during an ugly moment in the spring of 2008, when he said: "I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together—unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction—towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren."
That paragraph was preceded by this clause: "I choose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because "¦" In fact, every quote in this column comes from the March 18, 2008, address that Obama delivered at a moment when his barrier-busting presidential campaign seemed derailed by the hateful views of his minister, Jeremiah Wright.
Obama should go to Ferguson because he is uniquely skilled and situated to this time. After failing miserably to unite the reds and blues of U.S. politics, Obama can still bring calm and understanding to the racial shades of America—the whites and blacks and browns, etc.
He should bring to Ferguson the consistent message he espoused again Sunday and Monday night. For years, Obama has urged whites to "acknowledge that what ails the African-America community does not just exist in the minds of black people." He has told blacks they can't pretend that our society is static; "as if no progress has been made."
Progress has been made, he said in 2008. Progress has been made, he said Sunday and Monday. Progress has been made, he should say in Ferguson—and much more must come. "This union may never be perfect," Obama reminds us, "but generation after generation has shown that it can be perfected."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.