In the 1990s, four young Black and Latino men on their way to a basketball game in the state of New Jersey suddenly became the victims of a police shooting that nearly ended their lives. I was among those in the civil rights leadership that raised the country’s awareness on the outrageous policing practice of racial profiling, which systematically singled out minority drivers and disproportionately pulled them over on America’s roadways.
Through my organization, National Action Network, and the work of folks like the late Johnnie Cochran, we were able to show that motorists of color were overwhelmingly harassed, asked to produce their papers, and prove that they in fact owned their vehicles as opposed to them being stolen.
While pushing for reforms, we popularized the phrases “racial profiling” and “driving while Black.” Well, today, we have our first Black president in office and much like minorities behind the wheel, he is being asked to produce his papers. We somehow went from driving while Black to presiding while Black.
On Monday on my program “Politics Nation,” my MSNBC colleague Chris Matthews and I engaged in a substantive conversation that brought home the fact that this President has been routinely disrespected, humiliated, and treated like some sort of second-class citizen when he in fact is our Commander-in-Chief.
As Chris and I highlighted, Romney and other leaders among the Republican Party have used catch phrases designed to “other-ize” President Obama and incite age-old racial tensions. Asking for his birth certificate, calling him a socialist, stating that he doesn’t understand the dignity of work, referring to him as a food stamp President or a welfare President, and more — these politicians and pundits know exactly how their racially charged words will stir fear among their base.
It’s politics at its worst, but we must remember that words have severe consequences.
When Willard Mitt Romney says, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate,” we know what he’s really implying. When he makes statements indicating that the President doesn’t understand America or has a European/”foreign-type of policy,” we know what picture he’s attempting to paint. When people attack his programs as expanding the federal government and openly use buzz words like “socialist,” we know that this is designed to ignite the flames of racial tensions in this country that have unfortunately not disappeared with the election of a Black President.
As Chris himself passionately said yesterday, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on; it’s awful and it’s consistent.
In 2008, when John McCain was the presumptive nominee for the GOP, he made it a point to quell the vitriol and misinformation spewing from others within his Party and from members of the public. At his now-infamous town hall event, where a member of the audience said Barack Obama was a Muslim (as if being a Muslim were a bad thing), McCain quickly corrected the individual and rectified the tone in the area. And on election night, while conceding to President Obama, McCain once again squashed the anger and malicious statements that some in the crowd began yelling.
He understood that society and the future of our country were more important than fueling ethnic divides that would only set us apart. It’s unfortunate that today’s GOP leaders don’t follow in his footsteps.
Anyone, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, has the right to criticize this President. My contention is that people have the open ability to hold him accountable based on the merits and based on the record. But when he is subjected to a standard that we’ve never held another President to, is made to respond to things that we’ve never asked another President to respond to, and treated in a manner that no other President has ever been treated in the history of the United States, many of us understand precisely what’s taking place.
Those of us that have been pulled over on the NJ turnpikes of America know what he’s being asked to do. But just like we’ve worked to combat “driving while Black,” we can help stop “presiding while Black.”