Sunday, July 21, 2013

The President on Race

Regular readers will know that I’m no fan of President Obama.  But I couldn’t help but feel that his deeply personal remarks on the ongoing salience of race in the United States—made in the wake of the trial surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida—were very appropriate as well as moving.

You can watch or listen to them here. 

We might like to think of ourselves as a post-racial society, or believe that two presidential election victories for a black man somehow erase several troubled centuries of our continent’s history, but the killing in question demonstrates otherwise.

Many of the comments below the youtube video linked above are troubling, angry, and deliberately hurtful, and appear to have been made by people who have never feared systematic and even state-sanctioned discrimination, degradation, and even horrific violence, and refuse to believe that people have in fact experienced such things in their lifetimes, or that the legacies of those experiences live on.  There was nothing hateful or persecuting in the President’s remarks—very much to the contrary, in fact.  And yet they are met with hatred, venom, and closed ears.

Too many of the comments exhibit a disturbing ignorance of the defining feature of black people’s lives in America and much of the world during the last two centuries (in some people’s world, talking about race makes you a racist).  Lives defined by restrictions on freedom of movement; barriers to citizenship and access to public spaces and goods; legal structures which were obscenely discriminatory; in some cases by outright dehumanisation and ownership through the institution of chattel and other forms of slavery.

But the ignorance is compounded and exacerbated by a simple unwillingness to imagine what it is like to have grown up black in the United States, an assumption that people like Obama are lying about their experiences, and by a refusal to even contemplate walking a mile in a fellow citizen’s shoes. 

Of course, things have got better—slowly, grudgingly, and against intense opposition—during the past half century.  But as this decade’s demands that the President “prove” his American-ness demonstrate—demands that he document himself to self-designated arbiters of who’s in and who’s out in our society—there remain powerful individuals and interests in this country who can tap into language and attitudes we hoped were dead and humiliate a black occupant of the White House no less thoroughly than their antecedents might have managed on a city sidewalk sixty years ago.

In his remarks, the President suggested that there should be a conversation about the “stand your ground” laws which encourage the use of lethal force in questionable circumstances.  It seems fairly uncontroversial to remark there are problems with a law like “stand your ground” which allows so casual a killing of a fellow citizen.  The President said, “I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see 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”.

And yet, admitting that he hadn’t even heard the President’s remarks, a sorry exhibit of what is wrong with the Republican Party, Ted Cruz felt able to assail the President for “[going] after our Second Amendment right to bear arms”.  Cruz, who boasts of his scholarly background, failed to acknowledge that “stand your ground” is state legislation, and not constitutional writ, or to accept that there is a difference between restricting gun ownership and restricting the ability of people to kill one another legally. 

Just as there are people who will refuse to accept that there was a problem with the context in which Trayvon Martin was killed and his killer acquitted—which is not to say that the verdict should be overturned—there will be people who will greet these sentiments with shrill cries of “reverse racism”, and refuse to accept that there is a difference between individual experiences of discomfort on the one hand, and historic, systematic, deliberate, and legal discrimination over a period of centuries, and refuse to acknowledge that as a society, we still have work to do to address the latter.

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