The professor, the cop and the President


Finally, racism is publicly on the table in Barack Obama’s presidency.

Obama’s first major public challenge regarding racism came in March last year during his campaign after – and only after – a carefully edited recording of sermons by Rev. Jeremiah Wright chastising America for its history of racism hit the airwaves. Rev. Wright, now retired, led Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, the church Obama attended.

Subsequently, candidate Obama gave a seminal speech on the history and state of race relations in the United States. Now, as the president, while he has not backed away from his Blackness, he has had other pressing issues to deal with. The previous administration left the American economy in an unprecedented downward spiral and with wars beyond its borders on two fronts.

Inevitably, race and racism had to come forward as matters of urgency. The numbers speak of it when we look at the proportion of Black men in jail in America relative to the larger Black population, or the falling incomes of Blacks relative to Whites as well as unequal housing, job opportunities and education.

So Obama was correct that this confrontation between Harvard professor Louis Gates and a White police officer after the report of a possible break-in at Gates’ home is a ‘teachable’ moment. Not so much for what we can learn from the specific incident, there is nothing new happening there, but rather in terms of being a gateway to opening up again the dialogue between the races and beginning once and for all to get through this deplorable issue of race and racism.

To be clear, racism is the belief in the superiority of one identifiable group over another and the system of conduct based on that belief including hatred and abuse of another identifiable group.

The atrocity done to Africans beginning half a millennium ago in the unholy marriage between capitalism and slavery is at the root of all this trouble. So, the assertion that race hatred is based in fear contradicts the drive Portuguese merchants had in propelling their way into Africa, then the audacity to round up millions of Africans and ship them literally wholesale to the ‘New World’. Had it been for fear alone they would have stayed out of Africa.

Arguably, what propelled them was the drive to be number one in Europe. The race to overpower Black people was one track in the race for superiority among European nations, specifically European royalty.

Today, Portuguese is spoken in Brazil where more than 50 per cent of the population is of African descent, while Spanish is spoken across Central and South America. English is spoken in India, Africa and the Caribbean, as well as North America. And, French is spoken in Africa, Vietnam and Canada.

With the election of Obama, those who are idealistic about the state of race relations today refer to being in a post racial era, but as long as we even think of it as post racial we aren’t there. As long as the definitions of race go outside of physical descriptions and are dominated by social determinations then we are still not there. So when Obama commented offhandedly that had it been him who had lost his key to the White House he would have been shot, some became critical because suddenly he reminded them that he wasn’t just Black at the skin level.

His response seems to have fully satisfied no one. White people want to get on with making their lives better and Black people are wondering when Obama is going to do something to make their lives better. One problem for Obama is that, as the first Black person to become the U.S. president, expectations among the many for superlative outcomes are unrealistically high.

Can the problems of race and racism therefore be solved with more ‘beer summits’?

Some of the criticism around the incident at Harvard is related not solely to race, but also to class and education. That Gates, a tenured Harvard professor with all that signifies, is still vulnerable to the kind of treatment that a ghettoized Black teen typically encounters vis-à-vis the law is key.

For in the sense that ‘no man can be free until every man is free’, no individual Black person is invulnerable to racism until all Black people defeat the inequities of social status and education. These remain our daunting challenges.

On a note of disgust…

News reports and police statements regarding a weekend shooting that left one person dead in the parking lot of a Yorkville hotel included statements that there was no evidence to support a link to Caribana. If there is no connection then why even mention it?

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