When being black is a crime…On race, Obama’s America still has a long way to go
Farai Chideya Correspondent
I SPENT my very early years in New York, living a very multiracial Sesame Street life, a big swinging bell-bottom of a childhood. And then our family moved to Baltimore and the iron curtain of the “colour line” fell. I felt that I had moved from the 1970s through a time warp where black and white were the only two colours and never the twain shall socially meet.
I grew to understand what the 50s were actually like in Baltimore, when my mother, for example, was permitted to buy clothes from the major department store but not try them on. (Heaven forfend some black lady should be in the dressing room, right? You know they leave a residue of blackness on the clothes.)
America has never had one racial reality, but a series of them strung together from San Antonio to Pittsburgh to Appalachia. What we are seeing in Ferguson, Missouri, is the result of life in a specific type of heavily racialised zone.
Yes, a city such as New York, where a black man was recently choked to death by police officers, has its own very clear forms of racialisation and it’s a national issue. But the police killing, last week, of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen in Ferguson has sparked national protests because it represents a specific type of racialisation. This is of the majority black city, big or small, with a white economic and political power structure.
I grew up with Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who presided over Baltimore from 1971-1987, an unusually long stretch. He was well-loved, but during those years the community I lived in – and the city at large – continued an era of white flight and educational inequality.
Baltimore’s black population was just 24 percent in 1950, then 46 percent in 1970, but during the Schaefer years it settled into life as a majority black city, with huge discrepancies in housing, income and schooling.
Blacks pushed their way into some power in Baltimore, including the mayorality, but not so in Ferguson, Missouri. Between 1980 and 2010, Ferguson went from 14 percent black to 63 percent black. But Ferguson’s mayor and police chief are white and few police officers and none of the members of the school board are black.
You cannot make up what happened in Ferguson. The case has been roiled by a perfect storm of ineptitude and exaggeration in response to legitimate protests, plus a dash of cyber-drama and an outpouring of national outrage. Some of that outrage is performative; much more is truly heartfelt and grassroots.
First, the police refused to name the officer in the shooting, changing their story about Brown’s death. Subsequently, the force used rubber bullets and teargas against protesters, with snipers aiming at the crowd. The decentralised “hacktivist” group Anonymous got involved, with one faction documenting protests across America, and another “doxxed” a man – revealed his identity as the shooter, an identity that was later shown to be wrong.
Later still, the local police chief was removed as primary responder, but he still managed to muddy the waters (which the Brown family calls character assassination) by first releasing video of a black robber and then admitting it had nothing to do with Brown’s shooting.
After the killing of another black youth, Trayvon Martin, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a seminal piece for Atlantic magazine called “Fear of a Black President”, describing President Obama as “conservative … in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity – race”.
Two years later, with Ferguson, the president still holds tight to that caution about addressing racial inequality. In terms of day-to-day Washington governance, there is no fear of a black president.
Congress fears him not, certainly not the Republicans and not even some members of his own party. And now, with a particularly tepid and circular statement on Ferguson, the president has gone even further.
He seems obsessed with convincing white Americans he is not some goblin come to take their privilege away, rather than recognising that, pragmatically, America still has enough deeply held racial biases that he will be perceived as a race man by some, no matter what he does.
(Black Americans learned his political strategy on race early in his first term, as a group of leaders of African-American organisations came to ask for more White House focus on jobs in black communities and were rebuffed. They held their televised Press conference outside the White House in a snowstorm, a nature-made bathetic fallacy.)
Last week, Obama delivered a speech that seemed to weigh police intimidation and harassment of protesters and press with acts of vandalism almost equally. “Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority,” he said. “Let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family.”
In this diffuse speech, the president could have spoken out more forcefully against the militarisation of local police forces, as Republican Rand Paul has done. He could have tackled the unacceptable level and variety of unwarranted stops, searches and frisking of black men in particular. For bonus points, he could have gotten into black incarceration rates or, as author Michelle Alexander puts it, the “New Jim Crow”.
He could also have looked at Ferguson, and the way the typical majority-black city is kept – in racially specific ways as well as others – from the groaning table of American wealth and earnings. There’s now a wealth gap of 20 to 1 between whites and blacks, a figure which doubled after the 2008 great recession. The most offensive part of the current phase of the case is the release of the name of the officer who shot Brown timed with a video release of what may be Brown earlier that day committing a shoplifting robbery.
Yet the police department stated that the officer involved in Brown’s shooting knew nothing of the robbery. In any case, shoplifting is not supposed to be punishable by death. In a clip on CNN covering the Ferguson police chief’s inarticulate Press conference, the video of the robber constantly played behind the police chief’s head. You don’t have to be Rorschach to read the signs.
The changes of story are a maddening example of police obfuscation, racial bias in policing and how television news in particular often undercuts the stories with images that exacerbate racial stereotypes. It is an example of how far our country has to go to ensure the most basic conversations about race are not hijacked.
And in the case of the president, it is an example of why a more concrete statement on race would have helped contextualise what is bound to be the latest flashpoint of race in America – but not the last.
Farai Chideya is an author, broadcaster, and the Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Journalism Institute. This article is reproduced from The Guardian.