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Speaking truth from power: Barack Obama on Trayvon Martin and racial profiling

23 July 2013

By now, you’ve probably seen it. Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, speaking publically and candidly about the experience of racial profiling. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve read the transcript, or whatever excerpts make the best copy. You’ve probably seen and heard, if not participated in, the discussions. Was it inappropriate for a sitting president to comment on the verdict? Does he risk stirring up racial tension and civil unrest? Most of those questions I cannot answer. Some, particularly those that raise the spectre of black unrest, I will not dignify with a response. But I will share some comments on what I think it means for Barack Obama to have taken that podium and said those words.

First, I think Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words bear rembering: Barack Obama has not articulated the ‘black experience.’ He is only one of us. He shares in that experience the same I and the same as Eddo-Lodge herself, though in different aspects and different degrees. He has spoken to that experience, much as I have, shared with others what being black has been for him and what he knows it can be for many. But he does not speak for us all.

I can see the comments already, because I have seen them before. “Obama isn’t black!” “Why is Obama black but George Zimmerman isn’t Hispanic!?” I cannot define these men’s racial identities. That is their right alone. I will not deny George Zimmerman his Hispanic identity for his white father; I will not deny Barack Obama his black identity for his white mother. Neither can deny me my mulatto identity nor my membership in the black community. My previous entries on the Travyon Martin case have been moot on the question of Zimmerman’s self-identity, despite the repeated accusations in comments that I was, for reasons as varied as the accuser, misrepresenting or obscuring Zimmerman’s race or racial identity and I do not wish to speak to it here. His race is his own.

Like Trayvon Martin, Barack Obama is more than a man. A man, surely, but also a symbol. A symbol of what blacks can achieve in spite of racism, in spite of inequality, in spite of violence and fear. A symbol held high to show that our fates can be of our own making, that we can overcome all the world works to hold us back. A symbol that we should dare to strive. It means a great deal to my community that he has said the words he has said, that he has stood up and spoken bluntly about the realities of racial profiling, of being feared, of being othered. To do so risked his credibility to many, for we all risk our credibility in the eyes of the whites around us when we speak about racism. It risked political blowback, as his political opponents can accuse him of politicking and inciting racial division. Perhaps most of all, it risked the anger, dismissal, and blame that follow most public statements of the kind and which weigh so heavily on the soul. But risk he did, to bear witness to the experience of systemic racism.

It is no small thing to attest publically to the realities of racism. You will be slurred: racist, race-baiter, political opportunist. You will be accused: stirring up racial tension, dividing communities, perpetuating racism. For daring to step out of line, for refusing to quietly accept the injustice and maltreatment, you will be punished. A thousand hands will volunteer to put you back in your place, to remind you who is in charge. You will need to be stronger than you ever imagined. You will need to remind yourself a thousand times that you cause is worth their abuse. You will need to know deep within that you have been wronged and that you deserve justice. When you are poor and disenfranchised, they will blame you. They will tell you to make something of yourself. They will say that blacks are the authors of your fate. They will turn away. When you are educated and successful, they will scorn you. They will take credit for your success, call you a charity case, a product of affirmative action. They will say that you stand on their shoulders. They will deem you ungrateful. When you speak of race, they will cry ‘racist.’

So whatever the shortcomings of Obama’s words, whatever realities he failed to address, whatever nuance he did not make clear, I thank him. I thank him for standing up as one of us and speaking out. I thank him for bearing witness to the struggles and the pains of so many. I thank him for using the power of his office to carry his words to ears that would never otherwise have heard. I have been vacillating to no end over the question of Obama’s ‘responsibility’ to speak out as he has. Could any of us justly demand that he do as he has done? Is the anger from within some segments of the community, who feel that a teenaged boy should not have had to die for American’s first black president to talk about racism, justified? I don’t know. I cannot bring myself to demand that anyone be an activist, that every member of an oppressed community, even one I call my own, must stand and shout. But still I cannot but feel that the weight of his office places upon his shoulders an uncommon burden.

Barack Obama has spoken truth from power, a welcome turn on a tired phrase. He said with candour and directness what we all know: that we could all be Trayvon Martin. We could all be deemed suspicious by a self-appointed community watchman with a gun and killed in ‘self-defence.’ And if we did, we would be vilified and our killer vindicated. Because we are other. Because we are a threat. Because it is prudent to keep watch for us in your communities. It wise to follow us down the street. It only makes sense to lock you car door as we pass. It’s just being careful to hold your purse a little closer while you’re alone with us in the elevator. You can’t be too careful, not when there are blacks about.

Could Barack Obama, thirty-five years ago, have been Trayvon Martin? Yes, and tomorrow, were it not for the weight of his office, he could be Howard Morgan. Everywhere he goes he will be a black male body. That will always make him a threat.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 July 2013 6:08 pm

    To your question should he have spoken out about the case,my reply and personal opinion is a resounding YES!

    The president was dignified and unbiased in his address to the nation and he not only collaborated what many black males know as a fact in their existence her in America, he in my opinion did not play an unnecessary race card here either.

    He addressed issues which if the people in office bothered to change, tragedies such as Trayvon’s would be avoided at least to a certain degree. His speech varied in diversity,mentioning gun control and the bill the shameful congress failed to look at due to pressure from their NRA God’s, and he mentioned the growth and confidence he sees in the future.

    Yes, there’s change folks, albeit slow, but it’s happening.
    As a mother of 4 black men in today’s’ America, I choose to think like Obama, hold on to hope and faith in believing that my children and generations after them would have evolved better than my generation.

    I choose to believe that they will be exposed to a better rational.
    America is so diverse and these diversities the future generation will embrace better than we have and their world will be much less hateful than ours.

    That speech is one of the most difficult I have see Mr President deliver, he was controlled and dignified and his candor shone through so glaringly, I could never have been prouder.
    Many find criticism in everything this man does, but this in my opinion, is one thing I would have found him grossly negligent on, had he not offered his take on these events.

  2. 24 July 2013 5:47 pm

    Again, thanks, Matthew. And thank you, Dotta Raphels.

    I find I’m still fulminating about this matter about Trayvon Martin; and though I haven’t much to add at this point, I wanted to share a few texts that I think resonate with what you’ve expressed so well here.

    Firstly, this:

    “In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

    —Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963)

    It seems as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. This passage reminds me of some of the angry comments you’ve received, Matthew. You’re racist because you discuss racism; you are fomenting disunity; you are somehow an ingrate for daring to speak about your experience. Just as some thought that Barack Obama shouldn’t speak out on Trayvon Martin.

    Secondly, much has been made of George Zimmerman’s (presumed) ethnicity. I completely agree, Matthew, with what you said in postscript: it would be up to Zimmerman to name his own ethnic identity, if he cared to do so. The reasons why he has been called “white” in public discussions are complex, but here’s an article from the American Anthropological Association that might help us understand the mutability of race or ethnicity *in context.* And it ties in with your startling observation that when you go to an airport, you instantly “become” Arab or Muslim.

    Reflections on the Killing of a Black Boy
    July 22, 2013

    Today’s guest blog post is by Dr. Steven Gregory, Director of the African-American Studies Graduate Program and Associate Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies at Columbia University:

    “All black males are [potential] criminals.

    “Trayvon Martin is a black male.

    “Trayvon Martin is a criminal.

    “I know that Zimmerman’s mother is Peruvian. But whiteness is a subject position and not a fact rooted in biology. In another context Zimmerman could, himself, have been profiled as an “illegal Mexican,” as was Bronx-born Salsa superstar Mark Anthony at the All Star Game held recently in New York. “How are you going to pick a got dam Mexican to sing God Bless America,” twittered one twisted baseball fan. But when George Zimmerman got out of his car, tracked down and fatally shot Trayvon Martin he became white in the minds of American racists and in the minds of the indifferent. And in that vicious and murderous act of transmutation the victim became victimizer, white racism became white fear, and a dead black boy was found guilty of his own murder. As for Trayvon Martin and Rachel Jeantal, they, as Frantz Fanon put it, had no “ontological resistance” for the supporters of the acquittal. They were whatever white anxiety, anger and racism could conjure forth.”

    Having looked at some of the vicious and hateful “responses” to your post, Matthew, I have to say I don’t know just what it would take to pierce through the dense thicket of (violent) denial some have expressed here. Most preposterous of all are the comments that goad you to look at race “from another person’s point of view”! when in fact you’ve stated that this is precisely what you’ve been doing your whole life, and have explained why you’ve had to do so.

    This is by musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson:

    “Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit”

    “I’m trying not to internalize these feelings about the Trayvon Martin case and make it about me — but hey, it is what it is, and maybe I’m melodramatic. All I’m consumed with is my positioning in life.

    “[…] I’m in scenarios all the time in which primitive, exotic-looking me — six-foot-two, 300 pounds, uncivilized Afro, for starters — finds himself in places where people who look like me aren’t normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct? In the beginning — let’s say 2002, when the gates of “Hey, Ahmir, would you like to come to [swanky elitist place]?” opened — I’d say “no,” mostly because it’s been hammered in my DNA to not “rock the boat,” which means not making “certain people” feel uncomfortable.

    “I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement.”

  3. 24 July 2013 6:01 pm

    As to Obama’s speech, I have a mixed response. Of course Obama needed to address the matter. I don’t see how he could have remained silent.

    But I guess I’m among those who thought he didn’t go far enough, and who believe he has no intention of following up his words with any action. Or that he can’t. Maybe he lacks the of political will, as Tavis Smiley seems to think—or maybe his hands are tied, in that mysterious way that some U.S. presidents—seemingly on the “progressive” end of the spectrum—tend to be hamstrung in ways that expose who really holds the pursestrings and the power in American politics.

    So I agreed what Smiley had to say: that Obama had to be “pushed to the podium.” Actually, Smiley was the only one on that program who—to use that admittedly tired cliché—had the perspicacity to “speak truth to power”: that is, to critique the politics that form the background of that speech.

    Tavis Smiley on “Meet the Press,” July 21”

    I also agreed with Cornel West, who speaks very forthrightly on Obama’s inaction and hypocrisy on “Democracy Now!”:

    At the very least, it’s the job of journalists and public intellectuals like Smiley and West to light a fire under the feet of our elected representatives. And there are shockingly few people who have a platform who are willing to speak out in these ways.

    Then I read another article by Brittney Cooper on who had a somewhat different perspective.

    “Tavis Smiley gets President Obama all wrong”

    “I have certainly wished and even pushed for the president to be more vocal not necessarily in the conversation on race, but rather in advocating for policies that actually rectify the systemic injustices to which he pointed in his speech. Where are the policies that ameliorate poverty, crack down on the out-of-control, over-the-top methods of policing practiced throughout the country, address the ever expanding prison industrial complex and provide education and jobs that are accessible to black men?
    “Despite all that, I know that when the president stands up in his black male body and stands in as a character witness for a slain black boy, it matters. When the president argues that the nation has a duty to make black men feel valued and included as full citizens, it matters. And it matters, because no president has ever said it quite like that before….

    “[…] Yes, the question is “where do we go from here?” But we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that the president should be the one to ask that question. The era of the singular charismatic black male leader is dead. And we should not attempt to resurrect it. There is no singular pathway to the future we want. We need far more dynamism and inclusivity than that proffered by a singular black agenda of the type that Tavis Smiley has attempted to lay out for us.”

    Cooper also wrote,

    “Smiley and others of his generation crave a resurgence of prophetic leadership. And surely we need it. But they would do well to remember that kings, princes and presidents are rarely prophetic. President Obama is not a part of the black prophetic tradition. His response to Rev. Jeremiah Wright taught us that. He is part of an American democratic tradition that works most effectively when “we the people” lead from below.”

    Cooper’s analysis is more rooted in history, and I hadn’t looked at it in quite this way. Moreover, not only is Obama not part of the black prophetic tradition (he’d never have been elected if he were); it’s also clear that the nature of his office has shifted so dramatically in the past thirty to forty years, that we can’t realistically expect the kind of leadership Smiley and West seem to be calling for. The critique itself (Smiley, West) is vitally important—but we cannot expect Obama to lead. That would take persistent and committed action from below.

    I could go on and on, but…. I think I’d better stop now!

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