On News One Now with Roland Martin, Hiram College professor Jason Johnson discusses a protest of Congressional staffers with protest organizer Kamau Marshall, journalist Lauren Victoria Burke of Crew of 42, and journalist Ray Baker.
As the first African-American president of the United States, Obama is supposed to prove America is post-racial, be the president of “all of America” and show a special empathy for African-Americans, all while battling institutional racism but not calling it out.
While these debates are largely philosophical and symbolic, the nationwide protests in the wake of the non-indictments of police officers responsible for killing Mike Brown and Eric Garner have shown that race can no longer just be an academic subject for presidents and presidential contenders.
The crowds marching across America protesting the ugly intersection of racism, law enforcement and economics are some of the largest, most diverse groups of protesters seen in American history. These issues are going to be laid at the doorstep of all serious 2016 contenders. So while many are grappling with the events of the last several months, we’re left to wonder: Where’s Hillary Clinton?
We all know that, barring some bizarre unforeseen event, Clinton is running for president in 2016, and it’s only a matter of time before she announces. She will not march smoothly to the nomination; there are questions about how much she connects with the middle class, her muddled book rollout this spring and of course, for those who still care, “Benghazi.”
But the most serious problem for Hillary 2016 is the perception that she’s an overly cautious politician who is afraid to take tough stances on anything, especially those issues the Democratic base might be passionate about. And nowhere is this more evident than in her almost utter silence on the recent protest marches across the nation.
Hillary Clinton took almost 19 days before she said anything about the violence and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, and that was after Democrats and pundits called her out for her silence. At the time she said:
“Imagine what we would feel and what we would do if white drivers were three times as likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop as black drivers instead of the other way around. If white offenders received prison sentences 10% longer than black offenders for the same crimes. If a third of all white men — just look at this room and take one-third — went to prison during their lifetime. Imagine that. That is the reality in the lives of so many of our fellow Americans in so many of the communities in which they live.”
Which was fine, at the time — better late than never. Mind you, she slipped these comments in at a tech conference where the majority of her comments would focus on other issues.
Clinton seemed to have learned her lesson after a New York grand jury did not indict officers in the killing of Eric Garner. She only waited two days to say something about the result :
“Each of us has to grapple with some hard truths about race and justice in America, because despite all the progress we’ve made together, African-Americans, most particularly African-American men, are still more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to long prison terms.”
But again, these comments were tagged onto a speech she was giving at a women’s conference in Massachusetts and hardly echoed beyond the walls of the building where she was speaking.
While Republican 2016 contender Rand Paul can come right out and say police militarization is a problem and that the officer who killed Garner should be fired, Hillary Clinton talks about restoring “balance.”
While Obama is sitting down to do a serious interview about race, law and justice on BET, Clinton is doing events with Prince William and Catherine in New York. The point is that while other political leaders who hope to lead this country can take the time out to seriously address the longest-running protests in American history since the Montgomery bus boycott, Hillary Clinton sandwiches her comments in at the tail end of paid speaking engagements and keeps it moving. That seems a little tone-deaf.
And this isn’t the first time Clinton has shown this penchant for avoiding thorny cultural and racial issues on the not-quite-yet-campaign trail. She assiduously avoided addressing race in a town hall interview earlier this year on CNN. And one has to wonder if she would’ve said anything about the George Zimmerman verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin if she hadn’t been giving a speech at the convention of Delta Sigma Theta (a black sorority) the night the verdict came in. She certainly hasn’t said much about it since.
If Clinton thinks she’s being smart by avoiding thorny race issues on the campaign trail, she’s making a huge mistake. Maybe Team Clinton thinks that whatever support she may lose in the African-American vote will be made up for by high turnout among white women.
The problem with that logic is that these protests from New York to Chicago to Detroit, to Cleveland, to San Diego, Los Angeles and even St. Louis are incredibly diverse. Take a look at the crowds in Times Square after the Garner verdict and you could see white, Latino, Asian, African-American, old, young and other demonstrators all carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter.”
A new NBC News/Marist poll shows that 47% of Americans believe that the justice system applies different standards to blacks and whites. In other words, the people out there marching right now are the Democratic base, with a few independents and libertarians thrown in there for good measure.
This is the coalition that Clinton needs to win the presidency, and on the most important issue in decades she’s not only not ‘”ready to lead,” she doesn’t seem to have much to say, and when she does speak on these issues it’s always as an afterthought to some larger message.
America is being wracked by nationwide protests and thousands of Americans of all colors are questioning the fundamental fairness of the American justice system. Boycotts are happening, malls are being shut down and transportation all across America is being affected by protests during the biggest shopping season of the year, because many Americans are unhappy with our justice system.
No one expects Clinton to be out in Times Square marching with the #ICantBreathe hashtag plastered across her cheek. But if she decides she wants to be serious about being elected president of the United States, she needs to do more and say more than a few throwaway comments in the midst of her busy speaking and fund-raising schedule.
The foot soldiers for Clinton’s political future are out marching in the cold, marching toward the change they want to see in America. Clinton might want to catch up to them, because if she doesn’t, I’m sure Rand Paul, Elizabeth Warren or Andrew Cuomo would be happy to do so.
This article originally appeared online at CNN.com.
On Weekends with Alex Witt on MSNBC, Hiram College professor Jason Johnson discusses an NBC News/Marist Poll on white and black attitudes about law enforcement with Republican strategist Joe Watkins and NBC legal analyst Karen Desoto.
The unrest over the deadly shootings by police of a man in Ferguson, Missouri and a child in Cleveland have exposed a long simmering distrust of police by some in the black community. Earlier this week President Obama called for unity in arriving at a solution when he said, “we can build confidence and we can build trust but it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to result from a conversation over a table in Washington.” Let’s begin with a conversation over a table here in Cleveland.
RA Washington is the owner of Guide to Kulchur and an community activist in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.
Blaine Griffin is the Executive Director of the Community Relations Board of Cleveland
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of political science at Hiram College.
Alice Ragland is an organizer with Puncture the Silence.
Joe Worthy is Ohio Director of Youth Leadership & Organizing for the Children’s Defense Fund and lead organizer for the New Abolitionists Association.
Eva Barrett, New Abolitionists Association.
Ron Wynne, New Abolitionists Association.
There is nothing wrong with professional athletes expressing their opinions about social or political issues. Just because you slip on a helmet or swing a racquet doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to voice an opinion on politics, the economy, faith or any other issue in America.
However, Charles Barkley’s recent comments about the Ferguson grand jury decision and the subsequent unrest across the nation aren’t just off-the-cuff comments from an athlete waxing political during an interview.
For the last several years Barkley has fashioned himself as some type of hard-truth-telling cultural critic — especially on issues of race in America. What his Ferguson commentary makes obvious is that he’s just an uninformed rich guy who is given way more credibility than he deserves when discussing racial and political issues in America.
In an interview on a Philadelphia sports radio station, the conversation meandered from sports to politics as Barkley began to express his frustration with looters and violence in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown.
Barkley’s comments that those people damaging businesses and attacking police are “scumbags” is pretty boilerplate stuff that most Americans, including peaceful protesters, would agree with, even if different words were used. It was when Barkley began his riffs on race that things went out of bounds.
“The true story came out from the grand jury testimony,” Barkley said, citing that “three or four witnesses, who were black, said exactly what the cop said.”
In reference to Eric Garner’s death at the hands of New York police he went even further. “When the cops are trying to arrest you, if you fight back, things go wrong. I don’t think they were trying to kill Mr. Garner. He was a big man and they tried to get him down.”
And then he followed up with generalized comments that there are lots of black criminals out there and that essentially black people are the cause of most of their problems with white police.
In an interview with CNN, Barkley said, “We as black people, we have a lot of crooks. We can’t just wait until something like (the Brown shooting) happens. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror.”
“There is a reason that they racially profile us in the way they do. Sometimes it is wrong, and sometimes it is right,” Barkley said.
The problem with these statements isn’t just that they are misleading — 16 out of 29 witness statements said that Mike Brown had his hands up to surrender, in direct conflict with Darren Wilson’s story; and police used a banned choke hold on Eric Garner, a measure that was known to cause death — but that Charles Barkley is uniquely and astoundingly unqualified to discuss issues of race, law and police violence.
If property damage makes you a scumbag, then how would we describe someone who, in the 1990s, got into bar fights, throwing a man face first through a store window? (Barkley, who said he was provoked, was fined and sentenced to community service in that incident.)
If black folks need to take more responsibility how would you describe a black man who drives drunk, runs a red light and explains to police that he was rushing home to have sex with the woman in the passenger seat?
If those actions make you a scumbag, or show lack of responsibility, then Barkley should let it be known he’s talking about himself. Because he has been charged with crimes over the course of his career but somehow he never ended up shot, or dead, and has spent three days in jail. Charles Barkley’s personal failings don’t disqualify him from social commentary, but his hypocrisy does.
Charles Barkley is a very, very rich man, whose fame and celebrity have protected him from the kind of hostility and harassment from the police that thousands of other Americans, especially African-Americans, experience every day. It’s easy for Charles Barkley to lecture protesters and looters and mourning families about how to deal with anger. But most Americans can’t defuse a “tense” police situation with the aid of celebrity.
Nevertheless, Barkley’s hypocrisy about his own privilege and lack of real knowledge about Ferguson wouldn’t be so bad if media outlets didn’t keep giving him major opportunities to express his views. This preposterous phenomenon is captured perfectly by his “NBA on TNT” co-host Kenny “The Jet” Smith in an open letter to Barkley released on Wednesday.
“However, what I consistently find interesting is how writers and media members view your insights in politics, and now race relations, with the same reverence as your insights in sports.
“It’s not that you shouldn’t ever have an opinion, but you are often quoted alongside the likes of Al Sharpton and even President Obama. I would hope that Sharpton or President Obama would never be referenced with you when picking the next NBA Champs!
“The body of work that our Black Civil Rights leaders put in by planning, executing and activating does not justify you being in the conversation.”
In other words, Charles Barkley gets a huge forum to talk about cases like Ferguson and the killing of Trayvon Martin because he’s black and famous, not because he’s informed, or credible or even representative of any segment of the population. And while that might make for entertaining television, it certainly doesn’t amount to social criticism anyone should take seriously.
Whether it was Serena Williams on rape, or Reggie White on Asians, or Luke Scott on Obama, athletes say offensive or dumb things about politics and culture all the time, but analysts and journalists always give them a soft landing.
This is usually done by pointing out that said athlete is a Hall of Famer, or was great in some playoff series or donates to charity. Charles Barkley doesn’t deserve that soft landing anymore. If networks are going to lob him easy questions about larger social issues, he should have to defend what he says just like any other guest. But if his comments over the last few years are any indicator, he probably can’t.
In other words, if Sir Charles wants to post up in the world of politics about Ferguson, then he needs to get more informed, more prepared and more connected to what he’s talking about. There’s no room for him in the court of public opinion when lives, property and the health of our democracy are at stake.
This article originally appeared online at CNN.com.