Actions speak louder than words

July 24, 2013

Barack Obama made a strong statement about racial profiling in connection with the Zimmerman verdict--but the policies of his administration tell a different story.

LAST YEAR, the killing of Trayvon Martin in a Sanford, Fla., gated community transformed the discussion of race and racism in the U.S.

Millions of people were horrified by the cruel and unavoidable fact that Martin died because he was a young Black man walking where someone decided he shouldn't be. "Perhaps more than anything else," as Khury Petersen-Smith later wrote for, "the idea that the U.S. had somehow become, since the election of the country's first Black president, a post-racial society was shattered in ways that no one but the most bigoted, delusional people could deny."

This year, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in a Sanford, Fla., courtroom is likewise forcing the question of racism back to the center of U.S. politics--in spite of every effort of judges, lawyers, politicians and media celebrities to contain the discussion.

Like last spring, there has been a small eruption of civil rights and anti-racist activism, with more to come. But an even more telling sign of the extent of unease and anger about the verdict was the decision of that "first Black president" to speak up last week--after five years of avoiding almost every opportunity to talk about the conditions and problems faced by Black America.

President Obama speaks at a White House press conference
President Obama speaks at a White House press conference (White House)

Barack Obama used a July 19 press conference to speak at length about the verdict and the reactions to it. His comments were notable for what he said--in acknowledging the bitterness and discontent so many people felt when they heard or read the words "not guilty." After weeks of the mainstream media's continual distortions and mean-spirited scapegoating during the trial and the aftermath, Obama's words will sound loudly for millions of people.

But those words are also notable for what he didn't say--above all, that behind the discriminatory and bigoted attitudes of individuals like George Zimmerman and his champions lies a system of institutionalized discrimination and bigotry inflicted on Black America. And Barack Obama, as the "first Black president," bears some of the responsibility for that system.

THE FIRST White House statement the day after the Zimmerman verdict was infuriating--an appeal for calm and respect for a jury from which Blacks were excluded, along with out-of-place clichés about gun violence.

By contrast, at the July 19 press conference, Obama addressed the question of racial profiling head-on:

When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why--in the African American community at least--there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away...

There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me--at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.

Obama was speaking to what every Black man has had in common with a murdered 17-year-old in Florida--being treated with suspicion and derision for the "crime" of being African American.

He even acknowledged the connection to the racist discrimination evident in the U.S. justice system: "The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws--everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws."

About the Stand Your Ground laws that allow vigilantes like Zimmerman to claim they are killing in self-defense, Obama asked a stark question:

[I]f Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?...[I]f the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, than it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

After days and days of infuriating inaccuracies, insinuations and distortions about the Trayvon Martin case--not to mention years and years of a Democratic White House ignoring all evidence of "a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws"--Obama's comments were a breath of fresh air. Importantly, they are sure to give confidence to people who want to speak up for justice for Trayvon Martin, but weren't sure whether they could or should.

BUT FOR all those who do speak out for justice, Obama's words ought to beg some questions, too. Like: Why has the president and his administration done so little in the last five years to address these and other issues related to Black America?

As author Cornel West said on Democracy Now!, referring to Obama's comparison of himself to Trayvon Martin:

The question is: Will that identification hide and conceal the fact there's a criminal justice system in place that has nearly destroyed two generations of very precious, poor Black and Brown brothers? He hasn't said a mumbling word until now. Five years in office and can't say a word about the New Jim Crow.

West is right. Obama may have spoken powerfully about the experience of African Americans being treated like criminals in everyday encounters, but what does he have to say about the scandalously disproportionate rate of African Americans being incarcerated like criminals, whether they committed a crime or not--one in every 15 Black men aged 18 or older, compared with one in 106 white men?

Obama and his administration aren't innocent bystanders, either. They contribute very directly to the New Jim Crow.

One shameful case in point: In 2010, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to lessen the racist disparity in sentencing guidelines for those convicted of possession of crack cocaine versus possession of powder cocaine. The law didn't end the disparity--it went from 100 to 1, to a still outrageous 18 to 1--but did lessen it.

Yet lawyers for the Obama Justice Department went to court last month to oppose applying the new sentencing guidelines retroactively--that is, providing any justice for the overwhelmingly African American victims locked away under the old rules that punished crack cocaine users 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine users.

This is an administration that has expanded many components of the racist "war on terror." This is an administration that put framed Black liberation activist Assata Shakur on the "Most Wanted List."

The future doesn't look very promising either after Obama suggested last week that he would like to appoint Ray Kelly as head of the Department of Homeland Security. Yes, that Ray Kelly: New York City's police commissioner since 2002, and the man responsible for the notorious racial profiling policy known as stop-and-frisk.

The NYPD's use of stop-and-frisk has come more and more into question as it has become clear that Blacks and Latinos are blatantly singled out for stops, and almost none of the policy's victims are arrested for a serious crime. Yet Kelly defends stop-and-frisk to this day as "a practice that's essential. You can't police without doing it."

And he should be in charge of federal law enforcement?

THERE ARE serious contradictions here--between Obama's words about racial profiling in connection to the Zimmerman verdict and the actions of his administration as it presides over the federal injustice system; between the expectations that millions of people had for his presidency and what he's actually delivered.

Some of the frustration with those contradictions has contributed to the bitter protests that have continued since the Zimmerman verdict was announced a week and a half ago. As a result, Obama clearly felt the pressure to go beyond his first appalling statement on the verdict.

Likewise, some of the Democratic Party's most stalwart supporters among mainstream African American groups--such as the NAACP, Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network (NAN) the and Rev. Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH in Chicago--have participated in the call for protests against the Zimmerman verdict.

Sharpton, of course, has been witheringly critical of the likes of Cornel West and radio host Tavis Smiley for challenging Obama for refusing to take up issues such as Black poverty and unemployment. But the sentiment for action led Sharpton and the others to get behind the demonstrations. The vigils in more than 100 cities last Saturday, for example, were probably larger than they would have been otherwise because groups like NAN and Operation PUSH were involved.

Supporters of the Democratic Party will have different aims for these protests. But anyone who wants to see a broader and stronger movement against racism should welcome initiatives by liberal groups that bring more people to the struggle--where they can get involved in ongoing organizing and also hear alternative ideas for what can be done.

The end of this month will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. What might have been a tame commemoration will now have a new energy and urgency because of the Zimmerman verdict. By building for the march at the grassroots, activists can help mobilize the largest numbers possible to send a message of opposition to racism in Washington--but also revive King's radical message, in which the struggle for racial justice was linked to the struggle for economic justice.

That pressure from below has always been key--as it was when Obama made his comments on the Zimmerman verdict, as Tavis Smiley observed on NBC's Meet the Press:

I appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up. But this town has been spinning a story that's not altogether true. He did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium. A week of protest outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House pushed him to that podium. So I'm glad he finally arrived.

The discussion of race and racism is front and center again in U.S. politics. It's our job to make sure that the demand for action, not just words, is up there, too.

Further Reading

From the archives