The Race Issue Has Caught Up to Obama

Burned cars, looted stores and fights with police: Monday, the city of Baltimore flared up after Freddie Gray’s burial. This young black man had been arrested by the police on April 12 for reasons and in circumstances that remain quite unclear. Wounded during his arrest or during his transfer to the police station, he did not survive a fracture of the cervical vertebrae that had cut his spinal cord. Pap Ndiaye, professor at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris (in North American history), specializing in the social history of the United States, particularly that of minorities, deciphers the situation.

Was this riot in Baltimore predictable?

Since the events in Ferguson [riots after a white policeman shot and killed a young black man last August], there has been a cumulative effect by which American blacks protest against not only a local course of events, but a national one: Each assault by police against a black person is added to the previous one and seems ever more intolerable — today in Baltimore, tomorrow elsewhere; every place where police have bad relations with the African-American population.

What does this city represent for African-Americans?

For those keen on history, it is Frederick Douglass’s city, a freedman and an important icon of black emancipation in the 19th century. For everyone else, it’s a typical major American city with deindustralization starting in the 1960s, a white flight episode that leaves Baltimore’s population at two-thirds black majority; more recently, there is a new high-tech economy centered around the universities and a tourism boom, both of which create jobs but increase the rich-poor divide by leaving behind the poorest part of the black population.

After Ferguson, is the end of Barack Obama’s term in office at risk of being blemished by these repeated scandals?

The racial issue has caught up to Obama, just like hurricane Katrina caught up to George W. Bush. He has refused to face the very serious and very old problem of the relations between law enforcement and black Americans. He even chose not to travel to Ferguson. Today, Obama pays the price of his strategic estrangement from the black world and the issues it deems important. More generally, it’s the issue of the inequalities, stagnant at best and increasing at worst, between white and black Americans, which Obama has never tackled head on. These inequalities have a social component, of course, but also a specific racial component that must be considered without bias, without making the dishonest “postracial” argument.

Why haven’t the police been reformed? Isn’t that what the people in charge in Baltimore tried to do?

It is hard work that does not only depend on the composition of law enforcement. To fight against the institutionalized racism of the American police, one needs a national policy, a dialogue with the population, and the discontinued use of repression policies, marked by the militarization of law enforcement and a judicial system that is ruthless toward minorities.

How is it that nobody knows anything about the circumstances surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, or even the reason of his arrest on April 12? A police report indicated that he had “fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence” which meant that he was considered suspicious. Then, videos showing the police dragging him on the ground have shocked a lot of people.

The deliberate blur maintained around the circumstances of his death is very suspicious. The typical reaction of police authorities is to protect their own, by lying through their teeth if need be. There has to be strong popular and political pressure for police to cooperate and the truth to be uncovered. The objective of the protesters is, following this viewpoint, very clear: to give Freddie Gray’s death a national and worldwide impact, so that authorities may not be able to defend the indefensible.

Joy resounded Friday when the report on the death of Freddy Gray was published.

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