Today in Post-Race History: Bread and Circuses
I try not to say much anymore about the POTUS in this space, but since he stole the spotlight from Bill Cosby by actually speaking about the George Zimmernan verdict, I thought I should make say something very briefly. If you missed it, the POTUS gave a 10-minute or so speech about Trayvon Martin. Working as a kind of translator for white folks, the POTUS got on his Kevin Hart and explained why some black people might be mad about the verdict. I don’t want to get in the business of splitting atoms, but I would like to make a point or two about the POTUS’ remarks and connect them to other news about the Obama administration’s latest appointment.
What is most interesting to me is the way that the POTUS began his explanation:
You know, 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.
First, Obama couldn’t have been Trayvon Martin and gotten elected president. The racial context and racism that led to Trayvon Martin getting killed, I submit, is in many ways different from the racism that occurred on the island of Hawaii, Indonesia, and wherever else the POTUS grew up. Forgive me for repeating myself, but it is important to understand that what helped Obama get elected was the fact that his father was from the continent of Africa–and therefore a more traditional immigrant–and that he grew up in places where racism worked differently than it does in the continental forty-eight. Obama would’ve been more like Trayvon had his biography looked more like his wife’s. And since it doesn’t, since his biography is exceptional as hell, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to say that kind of thing. But, you know, maybe it’s just me.
Second, and again, maybe it’s me, but the semantic sleight of hand that Obama performs by switching his hypothetical son to a young Barry O. thirty-five years ago is a classic disarming of white folks who might be listening. With the conduplicatio of “history” the POTUS is sort of hypnotizing his audience into connecting racism with the past, thereby undermining the fact that what is so key to this entire issue is the fact that this happened, like, the other day. Instead, the present, in Obama’s speech, is saved for remarks about violent black boys. So even if he doesn’t say it, racism gets positioned as past tense and stuff that black people remember, that white folks needn’t bother to.
Third, timing is everything. So as much as many black folks want to thank and/or defend the POTUS for serving as their translator on racial issues for, like, the first time ever, what stands out for me is the fact that this speech happened on the heels of news that the Obama administration is considering or at some point did consider submitting Ray “Stop and Frisk” Kelly’s name as the next head of Homeland Security.
See, while Obama is busy telling black people that he feels their pain while simultaneously explaining that pain to white people, his administration is doing the work of ensuring that the white supremacy that led to Trayvon Martin’s death and his killer’s acquittal remains functioning. Now, Kelly may never be nominated, but the very fact that he has been linked to the administration in this way is once again a reminder, to me at least, that having a black head of state is insufficient for dismantling the very system that violently impacts black people’s lives on a daily basis. Kelly shouldn’t even be an option. But since he is, I care less about Obama having once been Trayvon Martin three decades ago, or how he understands what it feels like not to be able to catch a cab, and more about his willingness to do his job: that is, to continue and enlarge state policies that are inherently racist and detrimental to black and brown people, especially young ones. So, we can be distracted by 10-minute speeches if we choose, or we can pay attention to the Obama administration’s federal appointments and subsequent policy. Because trust, if Kelly or the less controversial dude who exists within the same palette is appointed as head of Homeland Security, we will all soon know that Stop-and-Frisk ain’t a new line dance you’re going to learn at your cousin’s wedding.