“How shall integrity face oppression? What should honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How shall virtue meet brute force?” The Ordeal of Mansant – W.E.B. DuBois
Last week President Barack Obama addressed the Zimmerman verdict and the ugly reality of racial profiling. He spoke through the White House press corps to the American people. He spoke forcefully and with surprising candor and empathy. He was measured in his tone and verbiage, clearly understanding that just one wrong word or improper inflection would ignite a firestorm of reaction.
I will not take issue here with anything the president said. I agree with most of what was presented. In his 2,156 words, the president spoke volumes of truth. He said what needed to be said, and it needed to be said by him. This was the perfect example of a president using the power of the bully pulpit to its fullest. He placed into context, informed and educated the country about a very sensitive reality that far too many don’t understand or have chosen to ignore.
The president was correct to state, “You know … Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. … 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.” He went on to say, “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me – at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”
What made the president’s remarks so powerful was the fact that he told America that the history of racial profiling is his history; the experience is real because it’s his experience. The community’s outrage, anger and frustration are based in a context and reality that is shared by him and cannot be ignored.
The president went on to say, “The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws – everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”
The president could not be more correct. That history not only impacts how the African-American community has viewed the Zimmerman verdict, it impacts our everyday lives. It is not only a prism through which one interprets reality; it is reality! There has been “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws.” An example of this recent history can be found in New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly’s “stop and frisk” laws.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York Police Department (NYPD) officers have stopped more than 4 million New Yorkers since the department began collecting data on the program in 2004. The latest stop-and-frisk report shows that the NYPD stopped and interrogated New Yorkers 152,311 times between July 1 and Sept. 30, 2011. About 88 percent of those encounters did not result in arrests or tickets. Nearly 85 percent of those stopped were black or Latino.
So last week, while the country was grappling with the Zimmerman verdict and the president was preparing his remarks, he contradicted himself by endorsing Kelly “as a worthy candidate” to succeed Janet Napolitano as head of the Department of Homeland Security. The President stated on Univision that “Kelly has obviously done an extraordinary job in New York,” and that the police commissioner is “one of the best there is,” an “outstanding leader in New York.” The president went on to say, “Mr. Kelly might be very happy where he is. But if he’s not I’d want to know about it. ‘Cause, you know, obviously he’d be very well-qualified for the job.”
We all understand. It’s not what you say; it’s what you do. Actions speak louder than words.
New York neighborhoods with the highest number of stop-and-frisk interrogations included Inwood/Washington Heights, Central Brooklyn, Far Rockaway, Eastern Queens and the North Shore of Staten Island – all low-income neighborhoods of color. Whites, who represent 33 percent of the city’s population, accounted for less than 9 percent of people stopped. During the third quarter of 2011 all five precincts with the fewest stop-and-frisk encounters were concentrated below 59th Street in Manhattan and are majority-white.
I suggest that a police department that was on pace to stop and interrogate a record number of innocent New Yorkers is operating outside the moral and constitutional ideals that it was created to protect. When you have a department that during the first three quarters of 2011 stopped innocent New Yorkers 451,000 times – the overwhelming majority of whom were black or Latino – you, as a citizenry, have a problem. If Ray Kelly were empowered to implement New York-style stop-and-frisk policies nationwide coupled with the use of drones and NSA wiretapping and the PRISM program, America would have a more serious problem than it has today.
The president spoke very powerfully and eloquently about the history of and problems with racial profiling in America. I listened carefully to what he said then compared it to what he is supporting. “How shall integrity face oppression? What should honesty do in the face of deception?” The actions speak louder than the words.