The president made history Friday, in a nearly 18 minute address, delivered off-prompter, and from the gut, where he deliberately connected his experiences with racial profiling to the tragic outcome of Trayvon Martin’s last walk home.
The timing of POTUS’ most profound remarks on race in America — from the perspective of being black in America, is remarkable. In the immediate aftermath of the verdict in the Zimmerman case, juror B37 unveiled the problems of racial representation in the jury process and racial bias in the deliberation processes; the national response to the verdict manifested in public discourse and civic unrest; and the coda: the release of a not-to-be-missed dramatic rendering of the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life – Fruitvale Station.
Last week was this nation’s most emotionally charged week since the Newtown massacre and this time, race was center-stage. So it should come as no surprise then that a spate of comments and responses by black men would stand out amongst the usual right wing hysteria and the progressive desire to keep communities focused on the long hard work ahead in addressing racial inequities in our criminal justice system.
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson (no relation) did not disappoint this week as he paraded his unique brand of racial pandering on CNN – insisting that Trayvon Martin was a thug and that so-called “race-hustlers” were exploiting the current situation. Pot, meet kettle.
Charles Barkley, Larry Elder and others joined these familiar subject positions by endorsing the verdict and trotting out the trite, ignorant claim that so-called “black-on-black” crime is largely ignored by those outraged by the limits of justice in the Trayvon Martin moment/Zimmerman trial. Please note: we can be both outraged at the Zimmerman verdict, Stand Your Ground laws, AND focused on addressing inner city crime. But as Jamelle Bouie pointed out earlier this week in a piece for The Daily Beast, there is no such thing as “black-on-black” crime. Most violent crimes are committed intra-racially.
The systematic way to address the frequency of violent crime in poor communities and in urban communities is to apply our resources (human, monetary, and otherwise) to the economic, educational, and criminal justice inequalities that continue to dog this nation.
News flash: Many activists, organizers, and educators are engaged directly in this work.
Searching for Obama’s inner ‘id’
But the following lines from a Salon.com piece by Richard Benjamin has raised more than a few eyebrows and the utter ire of Black Twitter: “Some of us have an inner child. Others have an inner ni**er. Is Holder the president’s conscience? Or his inner Ni**er?” (Only he didn’t use the asterisks…) Benjamin, author of Whitetopia, a book length ethnographic study of the regions in this country that feature all white communities found the president’s personal response to the Zimmerman verdict lacking: “isn’t it exasperating when you open your mouth, but don’t say much?”
For most of the essay, Benjamin argues that Attorney General Holder, is President Obama’s darker, more radical racial id. Minus the hyperbole, he makes the case that Holder’s engagement with race and racial issues has been more direct and consistent throughout the administration’s tenure. But the “inner ni**er” comments have obscured his main point – albeit an obvious assertion, since the political calculus for any president must be that members of his administration can and will say things that he (or she) won’t.
The concept of “wearing the mask,” crystallized in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 poem, or double consciousness, so eloquently articulated in Dubois’ Souls of Black Folk, speaks to the complexity of being black in a world where white supremacy exists and institutional racism thrives. But Benjamin’s reduction of these kinds of phenomena into this president’s repressed inner n-word ultimately plays into the racial narratives that have dogged Obama’s political moves from the very beginning.
Obama has meticulously avoided outward appearances of anger with respect to racial issues because his political opponents have been extremely effective at using race to polarize the electorate and to obstruct this administration’s agenda – see the Tea Party, the beer summit, the presidential election, Supreme Court decisions, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, etc. In the process he has earned the criticism of many progressives who demand more and continue to push the nation’s first black president to engage racial inequality – less from the rhetorical bully pulpit and more directly through policy and political action.
Yet to read (or hear) President Obama’s comments as lacking and anti-climactic, seems to me to miss the point and the historical nature of the moment. He personally connected his experiences of being racially profiled to that of Trayvon Martin and by extension he established an interface between the office of the presidency and one of this nation’s most enduring forms of racism.
Of course actions speak louder than words - especially executive actions. And we should all continue the long hard work of addressing racial inequality in this nation. That work is done through organizations and efforts designed to affect policy directly; that work is done through education and direct action in our schools in the Prison Industrial Complex, and in the public spheres of America.
Hopefully, the president’s comments will reinforce and galvanize efforts by groups like the “Dream Defenders” and the 100-cities vigil for Trayvon Martin this afternoon. I would imagine he intended them to do so. When it comes to a national conversation about race, I suppose all voices are welcome, but like the president, I am skeptical of conversation when action is required. Especially when the conversation needlessly re-inscribes the residue of reductive racial thinking.
If you excise Benjamin’s “inner ni**er” lines from the essay, the points he makes are still readily apparent. Maybe the editors at Salon.com might take a cue from this moment and appreciate what many have learned this week about the significance of diversity in jurisprudent processes: get you some or sometimes you will just get it wrong.
James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University and an MSNBC contributor. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson