Obama, Zimmerman, and the Politics of Race

“Oh,” the angry white woman said to her brand new ex-friend, “and I suppose you voted for Obama too!” 

The remark came after the two friends, now ex-friends – both white working class woman with mixed-race (half-black) children – found out they were on different sides of the botched Florida prosecution and the 80 percent white jury verdict that exonerated the lethal racist white Neighborhood Watch stalker George Zimmerman for murdering the unarmed black high school student Trayvon Martin in February of 2012. As U.S. Green Party co-chair Darryll LC Mooch noted:


"There are uncertainties about what happened that night, but we know that George Zimmerman stalked Trayvon Martin and provoked a confrontation, ignoring a dispatcher's warning to stay in his car. We know that Zimmerman was an armed adult with a long history of assaults and menacing behavior. We know that Martin was an unarmed 17-year-old who stepped outside to buy snacks. We know that police declined to hold Zimmerman and investigate the case for several weeks, which surely damaged the collection of evidence. Somehow, this scenario got turned around in the courtroom so that it was made to look like Zimmerman who was acting in self-defense.” [1]


The woman who made the remark is a FOX News-watching Republican. She applauded the verdict and expressed deep distaste for “the NAACP and all the rest of those liberal Civil Rights idiots who won’t shut up about Trayvon.” 

The woman at whom the remark was directed is vaguely liberal, progressive, and Democratic – and yes, she voted for Obama twice. She was disturbed and frightened by the Zimmerman verdict. She worries that it bodes poorly for the safety of her daughter and her friends. 

She seemed surprised when I told her that I found the first woman’s comment on Obama to be richly ironic. Obama, I remarked, has across his presidency done essentially nothing on behalf of black Civil Rights. Worse, I added, he has been actively hostile to the notion that the government ought to do anything to correct or even acknowledge racial oppression and inequality in the U.S. – consistent with numerous “post-racial” and post-Civil Rights comments he made as a presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008 – and has actually spent more time chiding blacks for their own supposed personal and cultural failures to take advantage of America’s supposedly great opportunities than he has on addressing any of the many ways in which racism still deeply permeates American life and institutions. 

I didn’t attempt to offer any evidence for this statement, which I have empirically supported on numerous previous occasions both in hard print and online. It wasn’t that kind of a discussion. 

The second, liberal woman looked at me with an expression combining surprise, hurt, and disbelief when I said what I did about the first technically black President of the United States. So did her daughter. 

Obama doesn’t really support black Civil Rights and the broader struggle for black equality? No, not really. The record on this is quite substantial. I’ve delved into it many times before [2] and won’t rehearse it here. 

Many Americans find this easily documentable and harsh reality odd and counter-intuitive for two reasons. The first reason is simply that Obama is African-American. There is in the United States’ heavily identity-obsessed political culture a frankly childish but deeply ingrained assumption that a technically black politician and policymaker must inherently identify with and advance the interests of those who share his official race classification. 

In reality, Obama’s technically black identity has tended in his case to work in precisely the opposite direction. It has helped make him even less inclined to confront the nation’s deep racial injustices than he already is thanks to his deeply conservative, bourgeois-neoliberal world view, which preposterously sees the United States as a great land of opportunity and freedom for all of those who are willing to shed bad habits and culture to work hard and honestly. Obama has always known that his technical blackness already in and of itself triggers the racial fears and resentments of the nation’s majority Caucasian electorate. As a result, he has felt compelled to be even far more careful than a white candidate or politician would ever have to be about questioning the deeply false national conventional wisdom that racism is largely over as a serious barrier to black advancement and equality – a pervasive fallacious white belief that was richly reinforced by Obama’s ascendency to the presidency. 

The second reason that people have a hard time processing Obama’s racial conservatism is that the nation’s powerful neo-McCarthyite FOX News hard right talk radio Teapublican noise machine keeps up a steady multi-channel drumbeat of propaganda claiming that the president is some kind of racial reparations-demanding Black Nationalist radical Marxist enemy of virtuous white America. Along with the silly “left-leaning Obama” dreams and projections of many liberals and progressives, the preposterous claims of the neo-John Bircher right have long helped Obama appear to be far more progressive on all issues (race obviously included) than he really is. This is of course nothing new in American politics. The Liberty League smeared as a communist Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who boasted with some justice that he was the savior of the profits system. 

For what it’s worth, let’s have a look at Obama’s thoroughly predictable conservative statement to the whitewashed Zimmerman verdict:


“The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”[3]


This is pretty much what candidate Obama said when in April 2008 a jury acquitted New York City detectives of manslaughter and reckless endangerment for killing the unarmed black American Sean Bell with a 50-bullet assault on the morning of his wedding in November of 2006:


“Well, look, obviously there was a tragedy in New York. I said at the time,.. that it looked like a possible case of excessive force. The judge has made his ruling, and we're a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down…The most important thing for people who are concerned about that shooting is to figure out how do we come together and assure those kinds of tragedies don't happen again…Resorting to violence to express displeasure over a verdict is something that is completely unacceptable and counterproductive."[4]

Two years later, the Obama Justice Department announced that Bell’s racist executioners would face no federal Civil Rights charges. As Black Agenda Report’s Executive Director Glen Ford noted at the time: “The Obama Justice Department, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of New York all concluded that unleashing a 50-bullet fusillade against unarmed men, resulting in death, was not a violation of anyone's civil rights.” [5] 

Notice the common conservative themes across Obama’s Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin statements:


  • Understand the case primarily as a private matter, a family tragedy that should not be seen in a pubic and political context.


  • Do NOT understand the case in the broader context of racism, including the deep institutional and cultural racism of the nation’s massive and globally unmatched criminal [in]justice system, which places 2.3 million Americans – nearly half of them black and two third of them nonwhite – in prison and saddles 1 in 3 back adult males with the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record.


  • Use the example of racist lawlessness as an occasion to assert supine obedience to the twisted legalism of a white majority bourgeois society, where it is widely understood that justice is enjoyed and meted out in accord with savagely unequal economic resources so that “money talks and bullshit walks.”


  • Put the onus of avoiding further violence on black people and communities, not the predominantly white police agents of coercion who attack those people and communities.


  • Accept black responsibility for the unmentionably racist America system’s violence, turning attention away from the masters to “our own [black] communities,” whose savage segregation and deprivation is unmentionable in the American “land of opportunity.”


American laws’ content, implementation and interpretation are captive to reigning hierarchies of class, race, gender, and nationality. The United States is a nation of money and power, one where a small, very predominantly Caucasian and super-wealthy elite (the 400 richest Americans possess as much wealth as the bottom half of the nation’s population) rules in part through racial divide-and-rule and in part through the inculcation of excessive mass respect for legal niceties and decrees. 

Our job as citizens is not to submit meekly to this authoritarian reality like the good little mice-heroes portrayed in the subtly despotic corporate-neoliberal “self-help” fable Who Moved My Choose? As protestors have repeatedly chanted during and after many of the numerous cases where the “forces of [unmentionably white-supremacist] order” have gotten away with unjust killings and other abuses of poor and nonwhite Americans in recent years. [6], “No Justice, No Peace.” That’s a far better counsel than the advice/warning to “respect the verdict that came down.” 

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books, including Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005) and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007). He can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com




2. Among many cites, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), 73-131; Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power, 129-152; Paul Street, “Race, Politics, and Late Obamanism,” Black Agenda Report (June 11, 2013), http://blackagendareport.com/content/race-politics-and-late-obamanism; Paul Street “Barack Obama’s White Appeal and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post Civil Rights Era,” in Hettie Williams and G. Reginald Daniels, eds.., Race, Gender, and the Obama Phenomenon: Toward a More Perfect Union? (University Press of Mississippi, forthcoming in 2014). 

3. http://blackagendareport.com/content/race-politics-and-late-obamanism 

4. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2008/04/obama-takes-questions-on-sean.html

5. http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/obama-justice-department-joins-sean-bell-murder-whitewash

6 Malcom X Grassroots Group, No More Trayvons: Report on the Extrajudicial Killings of 120 Black People from January 1 to June 30, 2012, http://mxgm.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/07_24_Report_all_rev_protected.pdf; Paul Street, “Killer Cops and the War on Black America,” Black Agenda Report (August 15, 2012); http://blackagendareport.com/content/killer-cops-and-war-black-america; Paul Street, “True Crime: White Privilege and a Police Killing in an Obama-Mad College Town,” Black Agenda Report (October 19, 2009); Paul Street, “ ‘No Justice, No Peace’: A Police Killing and a Riot in Benton Harbor,” ZNet (June 30, 2003), http://www.zcomm.org/no-justice-no-peace-a-police-killing-and-a-riot-in-benton-harbor-by-paul-street 

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