In his effort to “put the angry Black genie back in the bottle” following George Zimmerman’s acquittal, President Obama once again claimed to oppose racial profiling. He’s lying. Obama has endorsed the most prolific racial profiler in the country as a potential head of Homeland Security. The president is a bulwark of the system that targets millions of Trayvon Martins
President Obama pretended to cross over to the Black side for a few minutes, last week, in response to near-universal Black rage at George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the stalking and murder of Trayvon Martin. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 87 percent of African Americans believe the shooting was unjustified, compared to only one out of three whites. Blacks made their outrage visible in hundreds of demonstrations and vigils across the country, prompting even Obama’s most hardcore apologists to beseech their icon to say something to put the angry Black genie back in the bottle.
Beginning his performance with “Once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works,” and an endorsement of the propriety of the trial, Obama half-mumbled 2,100 words designed to indicate that he is aware of “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws” – and then almost immediately washed his hands of the matter with the caveat: “The criminal code and law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.” Stand Your Ground laws are something that might be reexamined “if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations.” Mostly, Obama was concerned with reestablishing “trust” in the system. “I think it would be productive for the Justice Department, governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.”
Obama insisted, in closing, that “things are getting better” in America, despite the proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws designed to justify precisely the vigilante murder and acquittal that occasioned his “impromptu” press conference.
The fact is, Trayvon Martin’s death was quite ordinary, as was the impunity granted to Zimmerman – once by cops, the second time by jury. What was extraordinary, was the groundswell of furious Black protest, a response so fierce it forced Obama to recall a time when he used to be Black, too.
His cop-out – that most laws are made at the state level – belies the fact that Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are champions of mass incarceration, insulating the federal prison system from austerity, even as he slashes Medicare and Medicaid budgets and the sacred cows of defense and Homeland Security. While state prison populations have declined, overall, mainly due to budget pressures, the federal prison system “continues to grow by about 3 percent a year,” according to Mother Jones. For this administration, mass incarceration is top priority.
Filling up those prison beds with Black and brown bodies requires the maintenance and expansion of a monstrous system of hyper-surveillance – the foundation stone of the Incarceration State. Racial surveillance, transforming whole communities into Constitution-free zones, is the feeder system of the American Gulag. It is the reason that one out of every eight prisoners on planet Earth is an African American, and that one out of three Black American men will wind up with felony records. Study after study has shown that young Blacks use illegal drugs with the same or less frequency than whites, yet Blacks are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses – due to massive racial surveillance. You find the crime you look for.
When the president told the nation, last week, that “African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system,” he was attempting to frame white fears of Blacks as somehow practical and commonsensical, rather than racist. (Obama denied that racism is “endemic” to the U.S. in his Philadelphia speech on race, in March, 2008.) In the real world of pervasively racist America, Blacks are hyper-surveilled from damn near cradle to the grave, both within and outside their communities. “Involvement” in the criminal justice system is all but inevitable.
Hyper-surveillance places the assumption of guilt on the peoples and communities that are targeted – which, in the U.S., means all Black people (even Barack Obama – “until I was a senator,” he said). Hyper-surveillance – its justification and practice – stripped Trayvon Martin of the presumption of innocence, marking him with a fatal presumption of guilt. Two-thirds of whites still believe his death was justified, despite the clear facts of his innocence. That’s why his death is ordinary – because ordinary white people routinely condone such killings.
And so, in practice, does Obama, despite his press conference theatrics. The president has high praise, and possibly a powerful appointment in store, for Ray Kelly, the New York City Police Commissioner who has overseen and defended over five million stop-and-frisks since 2002, overwhelmingly targeting Black and brown men. Obama is looking for a new head of Homeland Security. “I think Ray Kelly is one of the best there is,” Obama said. Kelly proudly justifies his management of the Mother-of-All-Stop-and-Frisk operations, as intended “to instill fear” in young Blacks and Latinos that they may be patted down by a cop whenever they leave their homes. Kelly also created a massive program to spy on Muslims, not only in New York City but in other localities, and arranged for CIA agents to be embedded in the NYPD to conduct domestic surveillance – which is illegal.
Obama is, of course, well aware of Kelly’s huge contributions to the cause of racial and ethnic hyper-surveillance, and has given his wholehearted endorsement. The First Black President encourages the killing of more Trayvons throughout the “Homeland,” just as he orders so-called “signature” mass murder-by-drone of males of a certain age in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia (along with whatever women and children may be within the missile’s kill zone).
The rage that forced Obama to don his “Black” identity must be channeled into sustained political action – a Movement – that directly confronts the dehumanization and targeting of Black America at its root: the mega-profiling of hyper-surveillance. Otherwise, it's all sound and fury, signifying…not much.
* Glen Ford executive editor of Black Agenda Report.
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