Back in the ’50s and ’60s, defenders of segregation had a stock explanation if some of the local Negros began to get a little rambunctious. Almost always, it was the work of some “outside agitator” putting bad ideas into the heads of people who were really quite content with their situation.
The concept of the outside agitator hasn’t gone away, but these days he resides up in the White House. For daring to suggest that yes, there might be something to the complaints of bias and discrimination in law enforcement, by pointing out that the relationship between many police departments and the communities that they serve has been broken, President Obama has been accused by many on the right of reigniting a racism in this country that had largely disappeared before he took office.
Take this essay by Jed Babbin in The American Spectator, where he writes:
“(Micah) Johnson’s horrific attack on (Dallas) police is the most recent evidence of one of the worst divisions in our society, that between law enforcement people and the civilians they are sworn to protect. That division has been created and is exacerbated daily by President Obama and the rest of the pure-as-ivory-soap ideological liberals he has led for eight years.”
Babben can even cite the starting point, dating it back to the moment in 2009 when Henry Louis Gates, a well-known Harvard professor, was arrested in Cambridge, Mass. under suspicion of breaking into his own home. The president spoke up, mildly, in Gates’ defense, and from that moment on, Babben writes, “Obama has pushed American blacks along the road to Dallas” and the assassination of five police officers.
It’s hard to overstate the utter cluelessness on display here. What happened to Gates drew immense attention because it drove home to black America that no matter how successful or mainstream they might become, it could not erase the suspicion inherent in being black. Obama voiced that sentiment, gently, but to suggest that he in any way created it is absurd. Likewise, Obama was not president in 1965, when the Watts riots began in Los Angeles over allegations that the police had beaten up a suspect in a drunken driving arrest. When the Rodney King riots began in 1992 following the acquittal of police officers who had beaten King senseless, on videotape, Obama was an obscure figure running a voter-registration campaign in Chicago.
In recent days, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has recalled his own father sitting him down at age 14 and drilling into him the dangers inherent in interactions between black males and law enforcement. As Reed noted, he is 47 years old, yet he can still recite his father’s instructions verbatim, and they are still relevent.
“Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Look forward and say, ‘yes sir’ or ‘ma’am’ to the police officer. Place your wallet in the seat beside you. Ask for permission to do anything, because he was concerned about me living. He just wanted me to get home safe.”
Black America didn’t need a black president to tell them all this. It has been part of the black experience for centuries. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Slavery By Another Name”, Doug Blackmon thoroughly documents the process by which local police were used to dragoon generations of innocent black men into short lifetimes of forced labor, a sly reinvention of slavery that reached from Reconstruction well into the 20th century. The great triumph of the ’60s civil rights movement was its success in forcing white America to witness on the evening news the ways in which state and local law enforcement in the South — police dogs, batons, firehoses, Bull Connor, the Edmund Pettus Bridge — was deployed as a weapon of repression against black America. That cultural memory hasn’t faded, and in some communities the relationship hasn’t changed as much as it should have.
And if the topic has been forced onto the public agenda in recent years, it’s not because of the excruciatingly gentle attempts by Obama to validate but not inflame. The outside agitators this time around are cell-phone and surveillance videos, which have made us all witnesses to what had long remained hidden, and have made it impossible to honestly deny that change is needed.