Today's acquittal of the 3 police officers accused of killing Sean Bell in November of 2006 will complicate Barack Obama's efforts to win the presidency in November 2008. His candidacy already mired in the racial machinations of his opponents, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Obama will find himself having to maneuver between the need to speak out on the most egregious, high-profile example of institutional racism and police brutality since the Rodney King incident and the need to deflect Clinton and McCain's racialized attacks aimed at fomenting white fear of blacks and other non-whites.
While it has helped him win white votes, Obama's approach to dealing with such racism by pointing to the black and white pictures of the civil rights past will not help him with his base in the black community and other communities. With the 16th anniversary of the Rodney King incident looming on the horizon this August 29th, none of us will be in any mood to hear calls to "hope" or "change" without similar calls to "justice."
Unfortunately for Obama's presidential bid, calls to justice from African-Americans and other groups often trigger fear among some (not all) white voters. The plate tectonic political shifts brought on by the Republican party's Southern Strategy were premised on precisely these racial and political calculations. With the help of political strategist Kevin Phillips, Richard Nixon pointed to black anger as a way to persuade to white southern voters that the Republican Party could best represent their interests.
At a time when blatant racial codes have given way to the subtler racism of a post-Southern Strategy era, Obama finds his historic presidential bid bogged down by the new racial codes being engineered by the Clinton and McCain campaigns -- and the mainstream media. Responses to the Sean Bell verdict will surely provide new codes, more political and racial fodder to those who won't let the Jeremiah Wright scandal rest; those who seem to make racialized remarks involving Obama right before big primary votes; those who appeal to white fear among voters by linking Obama to fabricated images of black anger.
Obama's attempts to speak about real black anger during his Philadelphia speech appear to have been not well received if the media's ongoing obsession with Jeremiah Wright is any indicator. Failure to use his rhetorical gifts to speak forcefully to and about real black and non-black anger about the Sean Bell verdict may re-animate doubts about commitment to that part of his base that is not white middle- and working-class.
Beyond Obama, all of us need to raise our voices and point at the abyss of our country's institutional racism as was painfully and transparently reflected in today's verdict. We might want to start by pushing Obama, Clinton, and McCain -- and the mainstream media -- to speak honestly and continually about what the 50 bullets in Sean Bell say about justice in the 50 states of our tattered and bloodied union.