WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson is calling on President Barack Obama to “step up” and articulate to Americans what’s really fueling the protests in Ferguson following the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer.
Speaking to CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, the sociology professor and MSNBC political analyst stated he yearns for more response from the White House on the violent protests that have entered its second week.
“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. It is not enough for him to come on national television and pretend that there’s 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 to articulate this as a vision.”
Dyson explained that Obama can use his “unique experience” to convey to the American people how African-Americans feel.
“I’m saying to you is if he can 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,’” Dyson told CBS News on what he wants to hear from the president. “That’s his responsibility to tell that truth regardless of what those political fallouts will be.”
Dyson suggested that Obama can help explain to white people the fear African-Americans have for their children.
“Especially white people, whose white privilege – in one sense – obscures from them what it means that their children can walk home and be safe, they’re not fearful of the fact that somebody will kill their child who goes to get some iced tea and some candy from a store,” Dyson told CBS News. “Until that equality is brought, the president bears a unique responsibility and burden to tell that truth.”
Dyson’s comments mirror the latest Pew Research Center poll that revealed racial divisions between blacks and whites in the Ferguson police shooting.
The Pew poll found that 80 percent of black respondents say that the Brown shootings raises important issues about race, while 18 percent stated that the racial aspect is getting more attention than it deserves. Among whites, 37 percent believe that the Ferguson case raises important race issues, compared to 47 percent of white people who say that race is getting more attention than it deserves in the shooting.
Among views in the police response to the violent protests that have entered its second week, 65 percent of blacks say the response has gone too far, compared to only 33 percent of whites. Only 20 percent of blacks say the response has been about right, while 32 percent of whites feel the same.
And among how much confidence they have in the investigation that’s taking place, only 18 percent of black people have a great deal of confidence in the investigation, while 52 percent of whites do. Seventy-six percent of black people don’t have much confidence — to no confidence at all — with the investigation, compared to only 33 percent of white people who feel the same.
Pew conducted the survey among 1,000 adults between Aug. 14-17.
As Obama sought to strike the appropriate tone Monday while making comments once again on the Ferguson protests, he appeared to be trapped between the need, as president and commander in chief, to stand up for the government’s right to ensure law and order, and the inclination, as an African-American, to empathize with those whose say the killing of an unarmed black man just goes to show how blacks are treated differently by police.
“In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear,” Obama said at the White House, in his most expansive comments to date about the fatal shooting of Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.
But while Obama lamented the disproportional apprehension of young black men, he pointedly argued that’s not solely the fault of overzealous cops. Police officers must be honored and respected for the difficult job they perform, Obama said.
“There are young black men that commit crime,” the president said. “We can argue about why that happens — because of the poverty they were born into and the lack of opportunity or school systems that fail them or what have you — but if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted, because every community has an interest in public safety.”
It’s a delicate balance that’s likely to leave no one fully satisfied.
Aiming to reassure edgy Americans that the federal government is fully engaged, Obama announced that Attorney General Eric Holder would travel Wednesday to Ferguson to meet with FBI and other officials carrying out an independent federal investigation into Brown’s death. Obama said he also spoke to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has deployed National Guard units, and urged him to ensure the use of those units is limited and constructive. “I’ll be watching over the next several days,” the president said.
Obama also called for the U.S. to reassess the militarization of local police departments that have purchased military gear from the Pentagon. Federal grants for such equipment have come under intense scrutiny amid the alarming images of armored vehicles and tear gas canisters filling the streets of an American suburb.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement,” Obama said. “We don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.”
Yet for all the talk of procurement and sentencing disparities and police tactics, Obama has steadfastly avoided personalizing this latest bout of racial friction.
Unlike in 2013, when Obama declared that slain teen Trayvon Martin “could have been me,” Obama has been careful not to describe Brown’s death through the lens of his own experience as an African-American.
And unlike in 2009, when Obama exacerbated tensions by saying police acted “stupidly” by arresting a black Harvard University professor at his own home, this time Obama is leaving the fault-finding to investigators. Obama said Monday he has to be careful about appearing to put his thumb on the scale by weighing in while a federal probe is underway.
American University professor Leonard Steinhorn tells CBS News that Obama needs to become an “educator-in-chief” as to what’s going on in Ferguson.
“It’s been a national issue for decades, the relationship between African-Americans and law enforcement, and it continues to be an issue, not just in Ferguson but everywhere in our country,” Steinhorn told CBS News. “It would be helpful for him to broaden out the perspective and become a bit of an educator-in-chief to help us understand better the dynamics of what’s going on.”
Witnesses have said Brown’s hands were above his head when an officer shot him repeatedly on Aug. 9 in Ferguson. But police have said the officer was physically assaulted during a struggle over his weapon. Meanwhile, the aggressive police response to the subsequent protests has drawn criticism from across the U.S.
Obama’s impassive response to the unrest in Ferguson contrasts with a second-term approach in which he generally has been more willing to engage on issues of race. In his remarks Monday, which came during a brief break from Obama’s two-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, the president pointed to his signature initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, which aims to bring government, business and nonprofit groups together to empower young minorities to pursue a better future.
“We’re making some significant progress as people of good will of all races are ready to chip in,” Obama said. “But that requires that we build and not tear down, and that requires we listen and not just shout.”
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