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Amid U.S. Outrage Over Police Violence, Promise Of 'Post-Racial' Obama Era Seen Fading

Protesters demanded justice for Eric Garner as they entered Brooklyn off the Brooklyn Bridge in New York on December 4.

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama’s election in 2008 spawned widespread discussion of a “post-racial” era in the United States, one in which the first African-American to occupy the White House transcends the nation’s grim legacy of slavery and institutional racism.

But recent decisions by U.S. grand juries not to indict white police officers who killed black suspects have sparked street protests across the country that underscore what many see as a persistent racial divide.

“I’ve always said the notion that racism is a thing of the past was absurd -- and that those who espoused the ‘post-racial’ myth were either naive or disingenuous,” Eugene Robinson, a columnist for “The Washington Post,” wrote this week. “Now, tragically, you see why.”

A grand jury decided on December 3 not to indict a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner, an African-American man suspected of selling illegal single cigarettes.

Video footage of the July incident shows the officer choking Garner as he tries to detain him and the suspect repeatedly says, “I can’t breathe,” before passing out. Police and paramedics who arrived on the scene then left him unattended on the ground for several minutes, and the 43-year-old man, who suffered from asthma and other serious conditions, later died.

The city's medical examiner ruled the death as a homicide resulting from the officer’s chokehold, a dangerous tactic that has been banned by the New York Police Department for two decades.

"I can't breathe" has become a rallying cry for protesters of all races from coast to coast who are outraged by the jury's decision not to indict despite the videotape evidence.

The decision came just weeks after another grand jury voted not to indict a white police officer who shot and killed an 18-year-old African-American man in Ferguson, Missouri.

The police officer in that case argued he had acted in self-defense, though there were conflicting eyewitness accounts of the fatal incident, which was not captured on video.

Both cases highlight what many see as U.S. law enforcement authorities’ unfair targeting of African-American males and an atmosphere of impunity for police who kill black suspects in the line of duty.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly stressed that the United States is a nation of laws when wading into national discussions of racially charged criminal cases, addressed these concerns in a speech in Washington on December 4, a day after the Garner decision.

“When it comes -- unfortunately as we have seen in recent days -- to our criminal justice system, too many Americans feel deep unfairness when it comes to the gap between our professed ideals, and how laws are applied on a day to day basis,” he said.

‘Long History Of Racism’

Prominent African-American journalist and public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates said that the issue of police violence against blacks in the United States cannot be viewed in a vacuum but rather as one component of a broader problem of racism.

"We have this long history of racism in this country, and as it happens the criminal justice system has been perhaps the most prominent instrument for administering racism," Coates said in a December 3 interview with MSNBC.

Protesters at a rally, expressing anger over the decision not to try the policeman whose chokehold killed Eric Garner in New York, near police headquarters in Los Angeles, California.
Protesters at a rally, expressing anger over the decision not to try the policeman whose chokehold killed Eric Garner in New York, near police headquarters in Los Angeles, California.

"But the racism doesn't actually come from the criminal justice system. It doesn't come from the police. The police are pretty much doing what the society that they originate from want them to do," he said.

Coates is not alone in his assessment of the state of racial ties.

Data suggests that African-Americans are taking an increasingly dim view of race relations amid continuing inequality between blacks and whites in a range of demographic indicators.

A poll conducted in August by the Pew Research Center and “USA Today” shows that while a majority of both blacks and whites have a positive opinion of relations between the races, the percentage of African-Americans who hold this view has declined 12 points -- from 76 percent to 64 percent -- since 2009, the year that Obama took office.

Meanwhile, U.S. Census Bureau statistics and data compiled and analyzed by Bloomberg show that while the percentage of African-Americans living in poverty has declined over the past 50 years, they still trail their white compatriots in income, housing, employment, education and life expectancy, and other categories.

Blacks are also disproportionately represented as victims and perpetrators of homicides, according to FBI data from 2011. Though African-Americans constitute less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, they made up half of the homicide victims in the United States that year.

Obama addressed the issue of inequality in his December 4 speech, saying that “the heart of the American ideal is this sense that we’re in it together, that nobody is guaranteed success but everybody has got access to the possibilities of success, and that we are willing to work not just to make sure our own children have pathways to success but that everybody does.”

“At some level, everybody is our kid, everybody is our responsibility,” he said.

‘An American Problem’

Immediately following the grand jury ruling in the Garner death, Obama vowed that he is “absolutely making sure that we have a country in which everybody believes in the core principle that we are equal under the law,” and he stressed the importance of unity across color lines.

“It is incumbent upon all of us, as Americans, regardless of race, region, faith, that we recognize this is an American problem, and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem,” Obama said.

Jelani Cobb, director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, compared Obama’s response to the case to the president’s public statements following the other slayings of black men that have sparked widespread outrage in the United States in recent years.

Noting Obama’s similar tone and deference to the U.S. legal system in each of these statements, Cobb wrote that only the names of the victims appear to change.

“None of this is President Obama’s fault; yet all of it reflects upon him,” he wrote in a December 4 article for “The New Yorker.” “All of these redundancies indict the anodyne calls for ‘healing’ that inevitably come in their wake. Here we don’t heal. We scar.”

Meanwhile, the decision in the Garner case left one the most revered U.S. humorists and political observers struggling for words.

"We are definitely not living in a post-racial society," Jon Stewart, host of the political satire program “The Daily Show” said in his somber opening monologue on December 3. “And I bet there are a lot of people out there wondering how much of a society we are living in at all.”

He added: "I don't know what to say."

With reporting by Bloomberg
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.