Barack Obama and Ray Kelly Are Saying the Exact Opposite Things on Racial Profiling

Two parallel conversations on race, violence, and stop-and-frisk.

Image
Reuters

Well this is awkward.

If you missed Barack Obama's impromptu speech last Friday on the realities of growing up black in the same country as Trayvon Martin, this is the passage that's most essential for understanding why New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly would make a baffling choice to become the country's top domestic security official:

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that -- that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

Stop-and-frisk, the deeply controversial policing tactic that Kelly has led and defended in New York City, is essentially the institutional version of everything that Obama describes above. The only difference is that the people following blacks in New York, eying them with distrust and suspecting them of being up to no good, are police officers. And they have the power to pat people down and detain them, one indignity piled onto another.

Obama was explicitly trying to bring "context" to the outpouring of anger following last week's ruling in Florida. But his words also offer the best context imaginable for why the architect of stop-and-frisk would be a bizarre nominee to become Obama's head of the Department of Homeland Security, a move that would implicitly endorse at the federal level the tactic of preemptively profiling minorities in massive numbers to head off crime.

Obama himself is the source of all this speculation. Janet Napolitano announced earlier this month that she was stepping down from Homeland Security. And there's wide speculation that Kelly will no longer have a job in New York after this fall's mayoral election. Asked last week what he thought of Kelly as a potential replacement, Obama lauded his record and said this: "Mr. Kelly might be very happy where he is. But if he’s not, I’d want to know about it.”

And yet, if you parse out their public statements on this subject, it's almost as if these two men have been having an ongoing conversation about racial profiling from opposing podiums at the same rally. Here is Obama, again, last Friday:

... the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent -- using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

Compare that to Kelly, last year, citing those very statistics in defense of stop-and-frisk:

Ninety-six percent of the shooting victims in this city are people of color, 90 percent of the murder victims are people of color. Who do you think's lives are being saved?

Here is Obama on Friday acknowledging that the black community knows and talks about these statistics:

… Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration.

And here is Kelly, in the same diatribe... not acknowledging that:

What I haven’t heard is any solution to the violence problem in these communities.

People are upset about being stopped, yet what is the answer? What have you said about how do we stop this violence? What have leaders of the communities of color said? What is their strategy to get guns off the street?

Here is Obama on Friday proposing that we might soothe the fear and anger in the minority community by training local police officers on how not to racially profile:

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it’d be productive for the Justice Department -- governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.

You know, when I was in Illinois I passed racial profiling legislation. And it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.

And here is Kelly seeming to argue on the television show Nightline this spring that, in fact, New York's stop-and-frisk program doesn't profile minorities enough:

The stark reality is that crime happens in communities of color. About 70% to 75% of the people described as committing violent crimes — assault, robbery, shootings, grand larceny — are described as being African-American.

The percentage of people who are stopped is 53% African-American. So really, African-Americans are being understopped in relation to the percentage of people being described as being the perpetrators of violent crime.

None of this even touches on the NYPD's policies of surveilling Muslims. That program is equally troubling to many Kelly critics. But given Obama's own powerful articulation of what it's like to be on the other end of racial profiling as a black man, the discordant comments from Kelly on the very same topic would seem to disqualify him from expanding his ideas beyond New York.
 
Top image of Ray Kelly: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.