The Dream Revisited

What Does Obama’s Election Tell Us About “The Ferguson Moment”?

by Jennifer Hochschild | January 2015

I completely agree with Swanstrom and Mollenkopf, in both their general claim and their discussion of particulars.  The current American racial morass is not the same as the racial divide that persisted for a century after slavery was abolished: civil rights and social welfare laws and their implementation, increasing intra-racial economic inequality, demographic transformation, and even changes in whites’ racial attitudes have reinvented the old problem of racial inequality and injustice.  Our current morass results mainly from the toxic mix of race, place, and poverty, and solutions to it must move beyond old tropes of white racism and black powerlessness. So my comments here will mainly amplify the argument of “The Ferguson Moment.”

Electing a black president, twice, did not of course signal that the United States is post-racial, whatever that means; countless scholarly writings show that race persists as a causal factor in almost everything that matters.  But electing a black president twice does signal some sort of crucial change—the question is what the signal means. I see four meanings relevant to this discussion.

First, enough whites are now sufficiently non-racist that they gave Obama more votes in 2008 than almost any Democratic presidential candidate has received since LBJ’s landslide in 1964.  Whites’ attitudes and, more significantly, behaviors have changed. Second, Obama’s victory in both elections depended importantly on votes of non-whites. That there are now enough non-white voters to affect the outcome of a presidential election is evidence of profound changes in law and demography.  Third, Obama both instantiates and has had an impact on the growth of a powerful, affluent, self-confident black middle and upper-middle class.  African Americans are by no means uniformly poor and struggling; in fact, the Gini index of income inequality is greater within the black population than within any other American racial or ethnic group. Wealth disparities across races remain huge and consequential even among those with high incomes, but it is impossible to ignore the number and impact of people of color in genuinely important public offices. 

Fourth, none of these changes has produced much benefit for places like Ferguson or Berkeley, Missouri.  Some argue that such changes have actually made things worse for poor blacks in poor communities, since advances for the black middle and upper-middle class and improvement in visible aspects of racial inequality, such as increasing college attendance and declining residential segregation in many areas, might induce unjustified complacency.  For example, a Gallup Poll series of questions about whether “race relations will always be a problem for the United States or . . . a solution will eventually be worked out” finds unprecedentedly high optimism among American whites since 2008. Blacks’ optimism spiked in 2008, but had declined almost to previous levels by 2012.

Even if the improving situation of affluent blacks has not harmed the position of poor blacks, it has complicated intra-group dynamics.  A 2007 Pew Research Center survey found about a third of African Americans agreeing that middle class and poor blacks have “only a little” or “almost nothing” in common; only 22 percent of lower class blacks saw “a lot” in common.  Perhaps this finding hints at growing class conflict among blacks; a year later, an ABC News poll found that upper income blacks identified more with their race than their class while lower income blacks identified by class more than by race.

Perhaps these views should not surprise us; as “The Ferguson Moment” implies, the poor really do live in a different world from the affluent. And yet the protests in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere have evinced a great deal of racial solidarity and not much evidence of a multi-racial poor and working class coalition. Whether such a coalition emerges after the protests die down, or whether the United States continues to follow its well-worn track of race-based antagonisms, remains unclear.

What is to be done?  The first thing is to resist the temptation to claim that nothing has changed, that the problem is white racism and black powerlessness, that black communities are only overpoliced and not underpoliced.  The second thing is to look much more closely at the question of whether class politics can intersect productively with racial politics, so that poor white (and Latino) suburbs can unite with poor black suburbs in new metropolitan-area configurations. Third, as that possibility suggests, progressives might fruitfully look to states and metropolitan areas more than the federal government for solutions to “The Ferguson Problem.”  Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley argue that “cities and metros are fixing our broken politics and fragile economy [...] Networks of metropolitan leaders [...] are doing the hard work to grow more jobs and make their communities more prosperous, and they're investing in infrastructure, making manufacturing a priority, and equipping workers with the skills they need” (Katz and Bradley 2014).  Even if some of this claim is intended more to sell books than to describe reality, there may be crucial seeds of innovation coming from relatively robust cities interacting with depressed suburbs.  Growing such seeds is the next civil rights project.



Katz, Bruce and Jennifer Bradley (2014). The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy. Washington D.C., Brookings Institution.

Jennifer Hochschild is the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

More in Discussion 11: Explaining Ferguson Through Place and Race