‘Black Lives Matter’: Race and the Politics of Policing During the Obama Presidency

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Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and the growth of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement have highlighted growing concerns over policing methods. Since the shooting of Michael Brown, in August 2014, there have been a series of high profile cases across the United States involving the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers. This paper analyses the responses of President Obama in respect to race and police practices over his two administrations. It examines the extent to which there has been a change in policy from presenting race related incidents as unfortunate (Henry Louis Gates) or tragic (Trayvon Martin), but isolated, events during his first term to a greater willingness to acknowledge that they reflect deep seated racial problems in American society during his second term. In short, public recognition of the fact that race is not just a ‘Ferguson problem’ but an ‘American problem’. The remedies advanced by the second Obama administration – US Department of Justice investigations of police departments in Ferguson and Chicago, police body cameras, a 21st century Task Force on – will also be considered. Increasing public anxiety over police practices, most particularly in relation to African American communities, will be assessed in the light of developments in American society since the 1990s, including the spread of ‘zero tolerance’ policing methods, financial constraints/pressures on police departments, increasing awareness of the importance of implicit racial bias and the rise of public camera surveillance and smartphone technology. At the same time race related police incidents will be examined in the context of the historical experience of the 1968 Kerner Commission and 1991 Christopher Commission in Los Angeles to evaluate their prospects for success and the reasons for the longstanding, seemingly intractable, problems in respect to police practices and ethnic minority communities. The paper concludes by reflecting on the challenges and tensions for the President in commemorating ongoing fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the civil rights struggle as victories of an historical past at the same time as current race related incidents involving police forces across the nation highlight the extent to which race remains a divisive issue in present day American society.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBlack Lives Matter: The Past, Present, and Future of an International Movement for Rights and Justice
EditorsZoe Trodd
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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