Four years ago, President Obama called himself a "mutt" during his first press conference as president-elect. Some of us laughed along at the POTUS' light-heartedness in the wake of a presidential race that really had everything to do with race-- particularly his race. Some were offended and ambivalent having missed the memo about "mutt's" elevation from a racial epithet. Others simply added this to a list of reasons why Barack had us from the jump.
He's black and he's a mutt like us-- America.
Fast-forward four years later to the release of the first audio recording of the NYPDs controversial (read: racist, humiliating) Stop and Frisk (read: blatant racial profiling) in action. The recording captures the voice of officers physically and verbally threatening 17-year old Harlem resident, Alvin and calling him a "f**cking mutt."
I'm intrigued by those two images-- President Obama's self-identifying as a "mutt" and Alvin, one of countless victims of police harassment, being called a mutt as a dehumanizing slur to accompany the officers' violation of his space and body. Now, I'm positive NYPD officers may spew out any number of offensive words and slurs on the regular. And even in these multi-culti times, "mutt" isn't high on the list of verbotten deragatory words (which doesn't make it any less hurtful). But I find Alvin's racialization by the police compelling. It makes me wonder what police are seeing and reading on the hundreds of young bodies of color they racially profile daily.
“We’ve long been claiming that, under this department’s administration, if you’re a young black or Latino kid, walking the street at night you’re automatically a suspicious person,” says Charney, who is leading a class-action lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices. “The police deny those claims, when asked. ‘No, that’s not the reason we’re stopping them.’ But they’re actually admitting it here [on the audio recording]. The only reason they give is: ‘You were looking back at us…’ That does not rise to the level of reasonable suspicion, and there’s a clear racial animus when they call him a ‘mutt.’” (The Nation)
So, what made Alvin a "mutt?" Was "mutt" just code for his ambiguous black body? Are "mutt" and the (unspoken) "n-word" occupying the same faultline in this situation? And how is his mutt-ness distinct and yet inextricably linked to Obama's mutt-ness? How do socio-economic class and conceptions of black masculinity inform these two images? I wonder... in 2012, would a twenty year-old Barry Obama be stopped and frisked strolling through 125th St. after a class at Columbia?
I don't know Alvin. I don't know how he self-identifies. I don't know where he goes to school or if he has a criminal record. I don't even know his last name. But as a native New Yorker, I've seen and known countless Alvins in Starter caps and Tims, faded flat backpacks and hoodies (the latter suddenly becoming a sure fire indicator of "suspicious" looks or behavior-- apparently warranting deadly violence like Trayvon Martin's now iconic hoodie.) Like I said, I know Alvins and despite all evidence to the contrary, most walk like they should, like the city is theirs or at least, could be some day.
Racial profiling, police harassment and brutality is part of an ongoing war waged against people of color in cities across the nation. In a time that has erroneously been called "post-racial" and multiraciality has gained significant visibility, we are confronted with the reality that multiriaciality is not (has never been) immune to violence, to racism, to oppression. Between NYPD's Stop and Frisk and the current attack on affirmative action in universities, that post-racial Kool-Aid has only left an increasingly rancid taste in our mouths.