Raising the wrong profile
In 2003, state Sen. Barack Obama spearheaded a bill through the Illinois legislature that sought to put the clamps on racial profiling. Obama called racial profiling “morally objectionable,” “bad police practice” and a method that mainly served to “humiliate individuals and foster contempt in communities of color.”
Obama was not simply speaking abstractly. In his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope,” the future president wrote that he could “recite the usual litany of petty slights” directed at him because of his skin color, including being profiled by the police.
“I know what it’s like to have people tell me I can’t do something because of my color,” he wrote. “And I know the bitter swill of swallowed-back anger.”
That same bitterness probably compelled Obama, as president, to speak out after professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard was arrested and to famously note last year, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
That is why it is hard to comprehend the thinking that compelled the president, in a week like this, to flirt with the possibility of inviting the New York City Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly, the proprietor of the largest local racial profiling operation in the country, into his Cabinet.
Kelly’s name has been floated by New York politicians of both parties as the ideal replacement for Janet Napolitano, who resigned last week. The president responded by calling Kelly “well-qualified” and an “outstanding leader in New York.” He sounded a pitch for bringing the commissioner into the White House’s fold.
“Mr. Kelly might be very happy where he is,” said the president. “But if he’s not, I’d want to know about it.”
There are some other things that the president should want to know about. Chief among them would be how his laudatory words for Kelly square with the commissioner’s practices and with the president’s deepest commitments.
The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program has been well-covered in The New York Times and elsewhere. It is now public knowledge that the police department, each year, stops hundreds of thousands of citizens, largely black and Latino men, for reasons as thin and subjective as “furtive movements.” Very few of those stops lead to actual charges, much less arrests, and according to the commissioner that’s fine.
“If you don’t run the risk of being stopped, you start carrying your gun, and you do things that people do with guns,” Kelly recently told The Wall Street Journal.
It’s certainly true that some number of people who are looking to carry guns will be less likely to if they know they are going to be searched. But Kelly’s formulation leaves out the hundreds of thousands of people who have no such intent and are simply unlucky enough to be caught in the wrong skin. Those unfortunates must simply pay the tax of societal skepticism.
The dragnet tactics don’t taper at the borders of black and brown communities. If anything, they expand. Last year, The Associated Press reported that the NYPD has organized a network of agents and informants strictly for the purpose of spying on Muslim communities. The appropriately dubbed “Demographics Unit” has extended its reach along the Northeastern seaboard, sending informants to spy on Muslim rafting trips, mosques in Newark and Muslim organizations at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. The Demographics Unit did not discriminate, at least among Muslims: Second- and third-generation U.S. citizens were subject to profiling. Despite this sprawling fishing expedition extending up the Atlantic coast, NYPD officials admitted in a subsequent court case that the unit’s work had not yielded a single lead, much less the opening of an actual case.
It is often said that Obama’s left-wing critics fail to judge him by his actual words from his candidacy. But, in this case, the challenge before Obama is not in adhering to the principles of a radical left but of adhering to his own. It is Obama’s attorney general who just this week painfully described the stain of being profiled. It was Obama who so poignantly drew the direct line between himself and Trayvon Martin.
It was candidate Obama who in 2008 pledged to “ban racial profiling” on a federal level and work to have it prohibited on the state level. It was candidate Obama who told black people that if they voted they would get a new kind of politics. And it was state Sen. Obama who understood that profiling was the antithesis of such politics. Those of us raising our boys in the wake of Trayvon, or beneath the eye of the Demographics Unit, cannot fathom how the president could forget this.
Ta-nehisi Coates is a columnist for The New York Times.