President Obama's Trayvon Speech Evokes W.E.B. Du Bois
's Double Consciousness

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[Pardon My Rant]

On July 19th President Obama attempted to place the African American reaction to the George Zimmerman case in proper context for the American people.

In roughly 19 minutes using more than 2,100 words the President began to outline transgressions from America’s past which have led to the pain felt by African American’s today. He lamented at the staggering statistics stacked against African Americans when it comes to crime rates but also highlighted that the African American community is acutely aware and not in denial about the status of their own people.

He also spoke personally about struggles with race confessing, intimately, details about being followed around while shopping in a department store.

President Obama leads a military force of over one million troops as the Commander in Chief. He is protected 24 hours a day by a fleet of well-trained Secret Service agents that will sacrifice their life for his survival. He lives in a gated mansion fortified by surveillance cameras and security guards. Yet, he can recall moments when the perception of himself did not align with the perception of him by other people.

Knowingly or not, in those interminable moments while the President spoke, he evoked the writings and theories of W.E.B. Du Bois. In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois addressed the phenomenon in which the President alluded to numerous times during his speech; “Double Consciousness”.

The Souls of Black Folk was published in 1903; exactly 110 years ago. However, it is a book that very much is relevant today. African Americans are born into this conundrum; they thoroughly understand this dilemma. They know who they are however must think about who they are perceived to be. Judgment can happen in seconds founded on baseless assumptions. Clothes, diction, speech, prior experiences, jealousy, anger, projection, fear, and ignorance can all play into a first impression whether impartial or not. Understanding these emotions and implications are common and necessary for any individual thrusted into a world of “Double Consciousness”.

An Excerpt from The Souls of Black Folk: “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Racial profiling, though bias, is birthed from generalities and stereotypes. As the President alluded to in his speech, young African Americans boys are more likely to die by someone of the same race than by anybody else. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2002-2010 serious violent crimes among White declined 26%, among Hispanics declined 65%, and remained flat for African Americans.

This is despite the decline of serious violent crimes in Urban, Suburban, and rural neighborhoods during the same time period. That means neighborhoods predominately populated by African Americans are going against national trends. The anomalies in African American communities persist for many reasons, but one main reason appears to resurface more than others. In general, crimes by youth segmented by family structure show some of variability. Crimes by youth were 1.6 times greater than the rate among youth in married households.

Americans of various races, both subconsciously and knowingly, succumb to these racial biases and stereotypes. Sanford, Florida, is described as having one of the highest crime rates of cities of its size with the chance of becoming a victim of either a violent crime or property crime being 1 in 15. In particular, property crime ranks high as well. There is a 1 in 17 chance of becoming a victim of property crime which includes burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson. For perspective, the chance of being a victim of either a violent crime or property crime in my own borough of Bronx, New York is 1 in 29.

However, as the President also alluded to, statistics do not justify murder and data do not excuse racism.  Fear does not excuse irrationalism and reinforcement is not a tolerable broad brush strokes.

At the end of the day, African Americans want safe streets and good schools too. Does not President Obama stand at the intersection of where Double Consciousness meets? A President, yet an African American. A family man, yet an African American father.

The manifestation of the pinnacle of American success, yet with a deeply rooted allegiance to lowest levels of his country’s socio-economic spectrum. Obama is the reason for hope but the cause for stagnation. Every African American child wants to be him, yet how can things be “that bad” if he rose to such heights? He is the highest truest form of Double Consciousness.

An Excerpt from The Souls of Black Folk: “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

So where does that leave us? What would W.E.B. Du Bois say if invited on a Sunday morning talk show to discuss the President’s remarks?

Racial profiling will only end with attitude and perception; not legislation. President Obama proved that as an Illinois State Senator. His legislation began collecting data on race and traffic stops since 2004. The 2012 report shows that even though African American’s represent 33% of the population, they were stopped 72% of the time. Additionally, African Americans were less likely to get a citation from the stop than Whites (65.5% vs. 68.5%). Lastly, White drivers were 3% more likely to get a verbal warning than African Americans (31.5% vs. 34.5%).

An Excerpt from W.E.B. Du Bois'  1897  The Conversation of Races: “[…the Negro people…must not expect to have things done for them–they MUST DO FOR THEMSELVES; …they have on their hands a vast work of self-reformation to do, and that a little less complaint and whining, and a little more dogged work and manly striving would do us more credit and benefit than a thousand Force or Civil Rights bills.”

 

Errol Pierre is a writer, political junkie, and social commentator with a passion for Healthcare Policy. He can be reached at www.errolpierre.com

 

 

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