Sean Bell Verdict Complicates Things for Obama

April 25, 2008

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Today’s acquittal of the 3 police officers accused of killing Sean Bell in November of 2006 will complicate Barack Obama’s efforts to win the presidency in November 2008. His candidacy already mired in the racial machinations of his opponents, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Obama will find himself having to maneuver between the need to speak out on the most egregious, high profile example of institutional racism and police brutality since the Rodney King Incident and the need to deflect Clinton and McCain’s racialized attacks aimed at fomenting white fear of blacks and other non-whites.

While it has helped him win white votes, Obama’s approach to dealing with such racism by pointing to the black and white pictures of the civil rights past will not help him with his base in the black community and other communities. With the 16th anniversary of the Rodney King incident looming on the horizon this August 29th, none of us will be in any mood to hear calls to “hope” or “change” without similar calls to “justice”.

Unfortunately for Obama’s presidential bid, calls to justice from African American and other groups often trigger fear among some (not all) white voters. The platechtonic political shifts brought on by the Republican party’s Southern Strategy were premised on precisely these racial and political calculations. With the help of political strategist Kevin Phillips, Richard Nixon pointed to black anger as a way to persuade to white southern voters that the Republican Party could best represent their interests.

At a time when blatant racial codes have given way to the subtler racism of a post-Southern Strategy era, Obama finds his historic presidential bid bogged down by the new racial codes being engineered by the Clinton and McCain campaigns-and the mainstream media. Responses to the Sean Bell verdict will surely provide new codes, more political and racial fodder to those who won’t let the Jeremiah Wright scandal rest; those who seem to make racialized remarks involving Obama right before big primary votes; those who appeal to white fear among voters by linking Obama to fabricated images of black anger.

Obama’s attempts to speak about real black anger during his Philadelphia speech appear to have been not well received if the media’s ongoing obsession with Jeremiah Wright is any indicator.Failure to use his rhetorical gifts to speak forcefully to and about real black and non-black anger about the Sean Bell verdict may re-animate doubts about commitment to that part of his base that is not white middle and working class.

Beyond Obama, all of us need to raise our voices and point at the abyss of our country’s institutional racism as was painfully and transparently reflected in today’s verdict. We might want to start by pushing Obama, Clinton and McCain-and the mainstream media- to speak honestly and continually about what the 50 bullets in Sean Bell say about justice in the 50 states of our tattered and bloodied union.

6 Responses to “Sean Bell Verdict Complicates Things for Obama”

  1. Evans Wafula Says:

    Racism must be defeated and American must be awake from its legacy of race and class

  2. BARBARA BF Says:

    I don’t think I’ll hold my breath waiting for Obama to speak our against the Bell verdict. Someone will have to ask him a direct question about this, and then he’ll in all probability “speak out of both sides of his mouth”. I’m still waiting for him to join my daughters and their husbands and children at the March for the Jena 6. Of course, I understood that he was too busy to attend the State of the Black Union Forum (both years?), but Hillary had nothing to do that day, and managed to attend. Too bad Tavis Smiley made some comments about this non-attendance, and ended up with him, his brother and his mother receiving death threats from Obama supporters. You haven’t noticed that Obama seems to distance himself from black forums and functions and black groups in general? Even the black press (most, anyway) is finally waking up to this.

  3. Ben R Says:

    Weren’t two of the officers, including the one who fired the first bullet, black?

  4. Jamie Says:

    Check out this article at The Indypendent:

    Obama’s Father’s Day Rap Overlooks Sean Bell
    By Nicholas Powers

    On Father’s Day, two black men passed each other. One stepped into glory, the other emerged from his grief. The former was Senator Barack Obama, who took the pulpit at Chicago’s Apostolic Church of God to castigate absent black fathers. The other was William Bell, a black father who organized a rally for his son Sean Bell, killed by the NYPD upon leaving his bachelor party in November 2006. Two men, both fathers, divided by what they represent to America.

    Obama began his Father’s Day speech, “If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit too many fathers are missing.” He loosed a cascade of archetypal scenes of black pathology; gunfire at night, boys on corners or in jail, each image ended with a plaintive “how many?” He demanded black fathers come off the streets, come back home, turn off “Sports Center” and raise their kids. Church-goers stood to applaud. They wanted him to testify against absent black fathers and in turn praise them. They were, after all, there with him bearing the burden of the fallen.

    Read more at:

  5. […] officials and other policy influentials. That candidate and now President Obama and his allies have remained largely silent on the crisis of incarceration and criminal justice in the black and La…does not bode well for the “hope” that the Obama administration will be willing to take […]

  6. […] officials and other policy influentials. That candidate and now President Obama and his allies have remained largely silent on the crisis of incarceration and criminal justice in black and Latino…does not bode well for the “hope” that the Obama administration will be willing to take on […]

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