To start, I am not American. I am a Nigerian-Canadian with an opinion on racial inequality in America, which in so many ways affects us diasporic children. And while I share experiences with black folks in our neighboring country, there is so much that I don’t know. I am open to criticism, and I stand in solidarity with Black American folks.
More than anything, I hope this piece in no way comes across as appropriation of any kind.
When President Barack Obama stood before the youth in London on April 23rd and criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, I couldn’t help but cringe. Partly because he seemed to be at a genuine loss for words as he tried to find the right politically correct language to deradicalize his message, but mostly because his speech was condescending towards the movement on so many levels.
Here’s what he had to say:
“As a general rule, I think that what, for example, Black Lives Matter is doing now to bring attention to the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race, or reacting to shootings of individuals by police officers, has been really effective in bringing attention to problems.”
First, I’m not sure why, out of the plethora of other social justice organizations, Obama chose to criticize BLM when he could have easily leveled that criticism at, say, Occupy Wallstreet. In giving him benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume he wasn’t implicitly disassociating himself from the popularly known “radical” anti-racist and unapologetically black group; for the most part, I believe, he is on board with their agenda. In fact, everyone with the ability to empathize supports, or at least agrees, with the BLM movement. (Again, giving people the benefit of the doubt here) But, I digress.
Nevertheless, Obama coats his language with such politically correct jargon that he succeeds in doing nothing more than trivializing racial inequality in America. What the heck does he mean by “a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race?” The criminal justice system targets Blacks, specifically black men, and more specifically, those from lower income families, so much so that American prisons are disproportionately over-represented by black men, and so much so that police violence frequently targets black people. It is a widely known fact that the legal system penalizes African Americans far more severely than it does White Americans for the exact same crime. So, no; the American criminal justice system, which has proven itself as the ultimate tool for race and class suppression, does not only sometimes mistreat people based on race—that is a gross oversimplification of the injustice at hand.
As if that wasn’t much of an insult, President Obama went on to say:
“One of the things I caution young people about, though, that I don’t think is effective is once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.”
This seems like a particular reference to the Chicago BLM leader, Aislinn Pulley, who rejected Obama’s offer to meet earlier this year. Apparently, when Ms. Pulley recognized that the president’s meet-and-greet was to be a 90 minute “sound bite” for the cameras, as so many of these meetings with elected officials often are, she politely declined.
More importantly, racial inequality is not just some issue African American leaders have brought to the forefront of political discussions, as the president’s speech asserts. I question the authenticity of any individual that categorizes racial inequality as a mere issue. Petty crime is an issue. Maybe, even, tax evasion can be categorized as such. But there’s certainly nothing so simple in the murder and continued unfair incarceration of the second largest racial group in America. There is absolutely no urgency in Obama’s language. In fact, without context, the subject of his statement could easily be misconstrued as some trivial protest. The rate at which the nation continues to hunt down and villainize Blacks deserves nothing less than urgency and a universal outcry.
This was precisely why Ms. Pulley rejected his invitation. To her, a 90-minute sound bite conveyed the message that the government is working to overhaul the criminal justice system, which is far from the truth. If anything, Obama’s address only reaffirms Pulley’s criticisms.
The president did make one statement that I found somewhat fair.
He said, “One of the dangers is that by electing a black president people say there must be no problem at all.”
And his criticism of grassroots activism is the very testament that there is a major problem in American society, especially in how the government addresses social inequality. Language matters, a lot. And the language which American elected officials continue to employ to engage with racism shows a lack of interest, or worst, a trivialization of the injustice. The president should never strive to politically correct his language when addressing oppression and suffering: doing so insults the many victims of racial violence.
Going back to his speech…
Ready to sit down with you, he said. That particular line is so problematic, it renders me speechless. Let me translate what he’s actually implying: when all you noisy young black folks grasp the attention of those that truly matter—i.e. the privileged group of (predominantly) white men in power—you shut the heck up and sit down. You’ve done your due diligence. Now let us take it from here.
I laugh because Obama misses the point of Black Lives Matter. From a Canadian’s perspective, the movement isn’t about you, Mr. President. It certainly isn’t about the unfortunate delayed reactions to the violence black folks witness every single day. It’s about empowering black people, bringing together black narratives in such a way that comes head to toe with authority and makes you way too damn uncomfortable in your seat. The point isn’t to shine a spotlight so that some empathetic elected officials take note. The spotlight has been lit since the transatlantic slave trade. Everyone on this planet knows there’s a problem with the American judicial system.
The point, instead, is about reminding black folks that regardless of how often we’re systemically dehumanized, we must fight because our lives, as a race of proud and strong folks, fucking matters!