The death of a young African-American woman shot in the head by an off-duty police officers in Obama’s home town of Chicago, coming hot on the heels of the controversial shooting of schoolboy Trayvon Martin, threatens to crack open ‘race’ divisions in the United States and present the biggest threat to the first black president.
The fatal shooting of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd and the wounding of another unarmed black man Antonia Cross in the same incident follows international protests over the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the failure of the authorities to even arrest the killer, George Zimmerman, after local police decided he had shot in ‘self defence.’ Last month cops in the Bronx shot dead 18-year-old Romarley Graham in his apartment after the teenager was seen “adjusting his belt” prompting fears that he had a gun. All three dead victims were unarmed.
Bloggers are already predicting a “long hot summer” in America – code for race riots – and tensions are certainly running high, so much so that Obama eventually made a statement from the Rose Garden which made reference to race by saying that if he had a son he would “look like Trayvon.” The remark went as far as the president could go to show black America he understood what they felt over the shooting. But it also threatened to reopen accusations from America’s Right who have long tried use Obama’s race against him by seeking to portray him a black president rather than the president of the United States.
His statement also means that the slaying of Rekia Boyd will pile more pressure on Obama to intervene or say something. If he can speak about Trayvon why not Rekia? And what happens if there are more killings of unarmed young black men and women? Some African-Americans will increase demands on Obama do lead from the front. Failure to do so will undermine confidence in him and start to fracture the near-monopoly of the black vote that Obama has enjoyed up to now, but acceding to their demands will further box him in with Middle America and those all-important white swing voters.
There is no evidence to suggest the Trayvon, Rekia and Ramarley cases will provoke ‘race’ riots, but Rodney King has shown they can be sparked by police beatings let alone killings. We do not know if there will be a ‘long hot summer’ in America, but further similar cases can only increase the likelihood of such a scenario. Any outbreak of disorder with a racial element spells disaster for Obama in this election year. Fox News, shock-jocks and Republicans will clamour for Obama to get involved and condemn the violence, thereby driving a wedge between him and his core supporters. African-Americans will look to him for support in circumstances where even the most nuances understanding of their calls for justice will be devoured by the Right and turned against the president.
It is a classic no-win situation and surely the only factor that can deny Obama another White House term. Ahead of likely Republican opponent Mitt Romney in the polls – a lead that in normal circumstances can only increase in presidential debates with the incumbent equipped with all the campaigning skills and eloquence needed to trounce his challenger who will struggle to inspire Tea Party hardliners – Obama is able to point to signs of economic recovery and falling unemployment. The winds are presently blowing in Obama’s direction, albeit moderately. It will take something toxic to change the landscape; something guaranteed to stir up passionate emotions and bitterness. A factor that will reawaken the fears white America buried to vote for Obama in 2008. A factor like race.
Public disorder sparked by killings of innocent black Americans truly spells disaster for Obama, whatever he does. And if the deaths so far are not enough to spark such scenes, what if more occur in the coming months? How many more deaths can black America take before the cap bursts off the bottle? But here’s the rub – what if Republicans know this and are actually willing it to happen? The memory of J Edgar Hoover’s counter-intelligence programme against the Black Panthers and the influx of crack into the projects during the 1960s and 70s tells us that high level Washington operators have played fast and hard with national black politics for partizan gain in the past.
The more Machiavellian-minded Republicans will surely have been hoping that Obama’s one Achilles Heel, race, will explode in his face at the worst possible moment as he goes to the polls. It’s almost as if this poisonous episode has been unleashed at just the right strategic moment to overcome the president. Should trouble occur, Romney will have been handed a devastating set of race cards to lay before an electorate who otherwise would not vote for him, thereby allowing him to ‘steal’ the presidency. Some may suggest this hypothesis reeks of paranoia or conspiracy theoryism and such charges cannot be disproved. Yet given Washington’s history of playing dirty when the stakes get high and their knowledge about the deep wounds and divisions unhealed by Obama’s election certainly Hoover himself would play these cards given an opportunity.
An America that can bomb innocent men, women and children in an African-centred commune in Philadelphia, blow up African-American soldiers to test an atomic bomb in Port Chicago and keep political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal and the Angola Three is surely capable of engineering discord amongst African-Americans by reopening painful memories of injustices past. The recording of Dr Martin Luther King played at a recent Trayvon Martin rally is proof of the continuum of injustice that links the long struggle for civil rights and against Jim Crow to present-day racial inequality. New Orleans was a reminder just how far off the radar African-Americans are for Republican leaders, and the presence of the first black president must tempt them to drive a wedge between Obama and black America and reap political capital of the white counter-reaction.
Black America must keep its’ cool even if further callous killings of innocent youth occur and avoid becoming pawns played by Romney and his team. Obama is more use after the election, in his second term, than he is in the midst of a re-election campaign. The less pressure on him, the fewer opportunities the Right and those big money interests who have to seek to exploit race divisions ultimately dating back to enslavement.
Next Saturday, black Britons will stand with our American brothas and sistas with a protest outside the American Embassy in London, as we remember injustice in the States and the continuing deaths in custody on this side of the pond. My hope is that stronger links across the Diaspora will strengthen the resolve of us all to think and act strategically, outsmarting those who wish to deny us justice, equality, representation and a fair slice of the pie.
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