Leading African American intellectual and activist responds to President Obama's comments on the Trayvon Martin verdict
Demonstrators march in the streets of Downtown Los Angeles against the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin on July 16, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. On July 13, a jury in Sanford, Florida found Zimmerman not-guilty in the murder of 17-year-old Martin. Since the verdict was announced thousands across the nation have protested the outcome of the case. Photo: Getty Images/AFP
I think we have to acknowledge that President Obama has very little moral authority at this point, because we know anybody who tries to rationalize the killing of innocent people is a criminal "” George Zimmerman is a criminal "” but President Obama is a global George Zimmerman, because he tries to rationalize the killing of innocent children, 221 so far, in the name of self-defense (in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen), so that there's actually parallels here.
So when he comes to talk about the killing of an innocent person, you say, "Well, wait a minute. What kind of moral authority are you bringing? You've got US$2 million bounty on Sister Assata Shakur. She's innocent, but you are pressing that intentionally. Will you press for the justice of Trayvon Martin in the same way you press for the prosecution of Brother Bradley Manning and Brother Edward Snowden?" So you begin to see the hypocrisy.
Then he tells stories about racial profiling. They're moving, sentimental stories, what Brother Kendall Thomas called racial moralism, very sentimental. But then, Ray Kelly, major candidate for Department of Homeland Security (former police chief of New York City), he's the poster child of racial profiling. You know, Brother Carl Dix and many of us went to jail under Ray Kelly. Why? Because he racially profiled millions of young black and brown brothers. So, on the one hand, you get these stories, and yet, he even says Ray Kelly expresses his values, Ray Kelly is a magnificent police commissioner. How are you going to say that when the brother is reinforcing stop and frisk? So the contradictions become so overwhelming here.
President Obama, speaking about his own life experience, goes from saying, "Trayvon Martin could have been my child," to "Trayvon Martin could have been me." That's beautiful. That's an identification. The question is: Will that identification hide and conceal the fact there's a criminal justice system in place that has nearly destroyed two generations of very precious, poor black and brown brothers? He hasn't said a mumbling word until now. Five years in office and can't say a word about the new Jim Crow.
And at the same time, I think we have to recognize that he has been able to hide and conceal the criminalizing of the black poor, what I call the re-niggerizing of the black professional class. You've got these black leaders on the Obama plantation, won't say a criminal word about the master in the big house, will only try to tame the field folk so that they're not critical of the master in the big house. That's why I think even Brother Sharpton is going to be in trouble. Why? Because he has unleashed "” and I agree with him "” the rage. And the rage is always on the road to self-determination. But the rage is going to hit up against a stone wall. Why? Because Obama and Holder, will they come through at the federal level for Trayvon Martin? We hope so. Don't hold your breath. And when they don't, they're going to have to somehow contain that rage. And in containing that rage, there's going to be many people who say, "No, we see, this president is not serious about the criminalizing of poor people." We've got a black leadership that is deferential to Obama, that is subservient to Obama, and that's what niggerizing is. You keep folks so scared. You keep folks so intimidated. You can give them money, access, but they're still scared. And as long as you're scared, you're on the plantation.
We're talking about a criminal justice system that is criminal when it comes to mistreating poor people across the board, black and brown especially. Let us tell the truth and get off this Obama plantation and say, "You know what? We're dealing with criminality in high places, criminality in these low places, and let's expose the hypocrisy, expose the mendacity, and be true to the legacy of Martin (Martin Luther King)." You know there's going to be a march (honoring the 50th anniversary of MLK's "I have a dream" speech) in August, right? And the irony is"”the sad irony is "” Brother Martin would not be invited to the very march in his name, because he would talk about drones. He'd talk about Wall Street criminality. He would talk about working class being pushed to the margins as profits went up for corporate executives in their compensation. He would talk about the legacies of white supremacy. Do you think anybody at that march will talk about drones and the drone president? Will you think anybody at that march will talk about the connection to Wall Street? They are all on the plantation.
There's no doubt that the vicious legacy of white supremacy affects the black upper classes, it affects the black middle classes. Why hasn't the new Jim Crow been a priority in the Obama administration? Why has not the new Jim Crow been a priority for Eric Holder? If what they're saying is something they feel deeply, if what they're saying is that they're "” themselves and their children have the same status as Brother Jamal and Sister Latisha and Brother Ray Ray and Sister Jarell, then why has that not been a central part of what they do to ensure there's fairness and justice?
Well, the reason is political. Well, we don't want to identify with black folk, because a black president can't get too close to black folk, because the reactionary Fox News will attack them, and that will become the point of reference. No. If they're going to be part of the legacy of Martin King, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker and the others, then the truth and justice stuff that you pursue, you don't care who is coming at you.
But, no, this black liberal class has proven itself to be too morally bankrupt, too hypocritical, and indifferent to criminality "” Wall Street criminality, no serious talk about enforcement of torturers and wiretappers under the Bush administration. Why? Because they don't want the subsequent administration to take them to jail. Any reference to the hunger strike of our brothers out in California and other places, dealing with torture? Sustained solitary confinement is a form of torture. And we won't even talk about Guantánamo. Force-feeding, torture in its core. And it happens twice a day for those precious brothers in Guantánamo Bay. And, of course, that's under Bush. People say, "That's under Bush." OK, Bush was the capture-and-torture president. Now we've got the targeted killing president, the drone president. That's not progress. That's not part of the legacy of Martin Luther King. That's not part of the legacy of especially somebody like a Dorothy Day and others who I think ought to be at the center of what we're all about.
Near the end of his speech on Friday, President Obama said the nation should be doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they are a fuller part of society.
Well, when I heard that, I said to myself, "Lord, he came to the York City and said Michael Bloomberg was a terrific mayor." Well, this is the same mayor who, again, nearly four-and-a-half million folk have been stopped and frisked. What's terrific about that, if you're concerned about black boys being part of society? No, no, I would say we're going to have to talk seriously about massive employment programs; high-quality public education, not the privatizing of education; dealing with gentrification and the land grab that's been taking place, ensuring that young black boys"”and I want to include all poor boys, but I'll begin on the chocolate side of town, there's no doubt about that"”that ought to have access a sense of self-respect and self-determination, not just through education and jobs, but through the unleashing of their imagination, more arts programs in the educational system. They've been eliminated, you see. Those are the kind of things, hardly ever talked about. But, oh, we can only talk about transpartnerships in terms of global training for capital and multinational corporations and big banks. That's been the priority, the Wall Street-friendly and the corporate-friendly policies that I think are deeply upsetting for somebody like myself vis-à-vis the Obama administration.
And the sad thing is that we just don't have enough free people, let alone free black people. Black people, we settled for so little, so we get a little symbolic gesture, we get a little identification, and like on MSNBC, which is part of the Obama plantation, they start breakdancing again: "Oh, isn't it so wonderful? He's really one of us. We can now wave the flag again. We can now support our mindless Americanism," in the language of my dear brother Maulana Karenga, intellectual that he is. No. We ought to be over against injustice, no matter what, across the board, and be vigilant about it. I don't care what color the president or the governor or the mayor is.
Stand your ground
Well, I certainly agree with Obama that we ought to fight Stand Your Ground laws, but we've got to keep in mind the laws are part of the legacy of the slave patrol, which is to say it's primarily white brothers and sisters armed to keep black people under control. And I come from Sacramento, California. I remember when the Black Panther Party walked into the Capitol with their guns. Now, you noticed at that moment, all of a sudden people were very much for gun control, even the right wing. Why? Because the Panthers were saying, "Well, let's just arm all the black folk to make sure they stand their ground." Oh, Lord. That's such a challenge. Now, see, you know, as a Christian and trying to be part of the legacy of Martin, you see, I don't want people armed across the board. I do believe in self-defense, just like I believe in self-respect and self-determination, but I don't want people armed. So it's very clear there's a class and a racial bias in these laws, and therefore we ought to fight these laws. There's no doubt about it. But we have to be very honest and candid about the hypocrisy operating when we talk about these things.
If I were invited to speak at the 50th anniversary celebration of the "I Have a Dream" speech, the March on Washington "” August 28th, 1963, is when it happened, 50 years ago, I would say we must never tame Martin Luther King Jr. or Fannie Lou Hamer or Ella Baker or Stokely Carmichael. They were unbossed. They were unbought. That Martin was talking about a beloved community, which meant that it subverts any plantation"”Bush's plantation, Clinton's plantation, Obama's plantation "” and the social forces behind those plantations, which have to do with Wall Street, have to do with multinational corporations. And we're going to focus on poor people. We're going to focus on working people across the board. We're going to talk about the connection between drones, which is a form of crimes against humanity outside the national borders. We're going to talk about Wall Street criminality. We're going to talk about how we ensure that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have their dignity affirmed. We're going to talk about the children.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a free black man. He was a Jesus-loving free black man. Will the connection between drones, new Jim Crow, prison-industrial complex, attacks on the working class, escalating profits at the top, be talked about and brought together during that march? I don't hold my breath. But Brother Martin's spirit would want somebody to push it. And that's part of his connection to Malcolm X. That's part of his connection to so many of the great freedom fighters that go all the way back to the first slave who stepped on these decrepit shores.
By Professor Cornel West*
* Professor Cornel West teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Before that, he was a professor at Princeton University and Harvard University. He is the author of numerous books, co-hosts a radio show with Tavis Smiley called Smiley & West, and together they wrote the book "The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto."
The above are excerpts from the professor's July 22 interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, democracynow.org. The opinions expressed are his own.
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