Last week, President Barack Obama did something unprecedented in his 18-minute speech on race by validating concerns about racial profiling, systemic discrimination and the need for systemic change in a way that no one else could.
He did this knowing that he would be criticized by conservatives and his popularity would likely decline as it did when he criticized the arrest of well-known African-American Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009. Still, Obama decided to seize the moment when the nation was talking about racial profiling and the acquittal of Zimmerman in the murder trial involving unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin to speak about discrimination and racial profiling in a straightforward manner.
Obama must go even further, however, to implement administrative changes as president that would reduce racial profiling and lead to greater equality under the law.
But before we talk about what Obama could do next. Let's review what he did, why it was historic and why it matters.
First, Obama discussed his own experiences with racism and linked those experiences to the systemic discrimination faced by African Americans. For the nation's highest officeholder to put race on the front burner using a nationally televised press briefing raised the level of significance of race in the United States and throughout the world.
Obama said: "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 probably 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 [sic] to me -- at least before I was a senator."
Stories of instances of bias from the highest elected leader in the land, someone with degrees from Columbia and Harvard universities, made the problem of racial bias personal and seemingly irrefutable. The statements lent authenticity and credibility that no one else can claim, in part because we have not had a president of color who could share the experience of being a member of a racial minority group whose life was impacted by bias.
Obama both explained and defended outrage, pain and frustration among African Americans at the verdict that freed George Zimmerman. "In the African-American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here," said Obama, adding, "I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a -- and a history that -- that doesn't go away."
Black people and other people of color so often face dehumanizing discrimination and then are asked to prove and document that the discrimination was real. Racism is generally not verbalized. It is felt, observed, is sometimes obvious and sometimes not obvious. But having those experiences questioned and doubted often feels like just one other aspect of the oppression we face. So, Obama's validation of systemic racism should not be ignored.
Obama also put Martin's killing in the context of bias within the larger criminal justice system, raising the question of whether Trayvon would have suffered the same fate if he were white. And Obama asked whether, if Trayvon were armed, would he have been considered justified in shooting Zimmerman. Disparities in the application of the death penalty and enforcement of the nation's drug laws were also part of Obama's unscripted remarks.
Obama moved on to talk about some possible solutions he's considering, including voluntary training for local and state law enforcement agencies--perhaps similar to training that resulted from an anti-racial profiling bill he championed while in the Illinois legislature. He suggested that "stand your ground" laws be revisited, raising the question of whether those laws encourage greater violence by allowing people to use their firearms even when there's a way to exit from a potentially violent confrontation. Obama then talked about the need to help young black men succeed and feel valued.
Those recommendations are all relevant and passage of anti-racial profiling laws with civil rights trainings is something Rights Work Group has promoted for years. But, Obama could take some other steps now, given his powers as president, to reduce racial profiling.
He could ensure that the Department of Justice's 2003 Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies be reformed to: prohibit profiling based on religion and national origin; remove exceptions for national security and border security; and make the guidance enforceable while ensuring it applies to state and local law enforcement agencies in addition to federal agencies.
Racial profiling has impacted black communities for centuries. Even before the Civil War, African Americans who were not enslaved were stopped based on their skin color and forced by slave patrols to produce freedom or manumission papers to prove their freedom.
But after 9/11, Arabs, Muslims and South Asians began experiencing increasing levels of racial profiling when travelling through ports and airports. They have even faced surveillance by the FBI under the guise of national security. Meanwhile, Latinos and people assumed to be Latino have been profiled as the federal government has devoted more resources to immigration enforcement in the last decade and enlisted the support of state and local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law.
Obama should end state and local partnerships like the Department of Homeland Security's 287g program, which is believed to lead to racial profiling.
Obama should also speak out in support of the federal End Racial Profiling Act of 2013--introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) in May--which would prohibit the use of race, ethnicity, national origin and religion by all law enforcement agencies.
And he should ensure that he appoints people to cabinet positions, like secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who have a track record of respecting the principle of equality under the law and standing against racial profiling.
The need for additional measures to limit racial profiling, though, should not detract from recognizing this moment in history. To have a president, the first black president, say racial discrimination is real, systemic, historic and commonplace will continue to be an important reference point for national discussions about race even when people are no longer discussing the Trayvon Martin case.
With a controversial issue, like race, and a power structure that's resistant to change, it takes support and affirmation from people of influence to move the needle.
And the leverage of a president in influencing and framing our discussions, giving us more space to act, should not be underestimated.
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