Iowa Representative Steve King is often in the news for his badly worded statements, but the most recent one is perhaps the worst yet. King, a Republican, was on Newsmax TV talking about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, and somehow managed to be very racist while also disavowing race-based politics. He was asked by “America’s Forum” host J.D. Hayworth about the Congressional Black Caucus’ concerns of racial profiling in Ferguson in light of the ongoing protests. He proceeded to explain that they were just playing politics with an emotionally charged issue, citing the fact that he had seen video of the protestors and could say that they were all black so profiling did not matter. According to him, they were all of the same “continental origins,” apparently a reference to the continent of Africa. This “continental origins” gaff is not Steve King’s first misstep on the politics of race, but it is perhaps the most egregious one he has made yet.
To fully understand how bad King’s comments actually are, one has to understand the situation in Ferguson that preceded Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent protests. The St. Louis area, which includes Ferguson, has a large black population. Ferguson itself has about two-thirds of the population which is black, representing a majority of residents. When it comes to police interactions like arrests and traffic stops, however, black people represent a vast majority of those involved, far above the 67 percent of the population they actually are. Evidence of this fact was provided by the Missouri Attorney General and shows that blacks are over-targeted when it comes to police interactions.
Statistics by themselves are only one part of the picture, however. According to reporting by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a whistleblower known as “Lonewolf” sent a series of anonymous letters alleging racial discrimination within the county police department’s South Precinct. Since then identified as Sgt. Daniel O’Neil, his letters resulted in an investigation and the subsequent vindication of his claims. According to a letter sent by Police Chief Tim Fitch to the offending officer, he was “heard by at least nine officers… directing enforcement action on persons with black, tan or colored skin.” The alleged phrases used by that officer include “Stop everybody with a tan,” and “Stop everybody black at the mall,” only a few examples of the multiple instances of encouragement to racially profile. O’Neil who blew the whistle said,” When a black person can’t go shopping at a mall, it’s wrong” giving an apparent motivation for his actions to stop it.
This was the situation in the county when an unarmed Michael Brown was shot while trying to surrender in broad daylight by a police officer. That event acted as the match set to an already volatile situation and resulted in the protests that have since then occurred in Ferguson. It is this kind of situation that the Congressional Black Caucus was referring to when it expressed concerns about racial profiling in Ferguson, both before and after the protests began. It is also the background needed to put Steve King’s continental origins gaff in context.
When asked about the situation, Steve King replied with, “I’ve seen the video… They all appear to be of a single origin.” He then clarified by adding, “A continental origin might be the way to phrase that.” Thus, when asked about an ongoing, verifiable situation in which racial profiling plays a huge part, King focused only on the protests instead of the whole picture. In the process, he also engaged in racial profiling by generalizing about the protests based on video he had seen. Then, he added a clarifying remark laced with racist imagery involving the continent of Africa as black people’s origin instead of the continent they were actually born on, which was North America.
Steve King’s “gaff” seems a lot more serious when examined with the full context to frame it. Regarding the protests going on now, the police department’s actions since the shooting have been less than transparent and have made the situation worse. The account of the shooting released by the police alleges that Michael Brown assaulted the officer and that the shooting was self defense. Two eyewitnesses to the shooting both tell a different story in which Brown was running away when shots were fired and when he turned around with his hands up to show he was unarmed and compliant, the officer proceeded to shoot him anyway. For days, these witnesses were not interviewed by police, nor were their statements taken. The St. Louis county prosecutor did say, though, on Wednesday that Dorian Johnson who was with Brown at the time of his death would be interviewed. It is also a sore spot with the community that the identity of the police officer who shot Brown has not been released, a signal to many that law enforcement is reticent to get to the truth of the matter and see justice done. Thus, there is the perception backed up by considerable evidence that racial profiling is still playing a part in the situation in Ferguson, despite King’s reassurance that it is not a “particular factor” that people “don’t need to bother with.”
So was Steve King’s gaf really just a faux pas or was it something else? King disavowed any affinity for racial politics, stating, “I think we’re all God’s children and we all should be held to the same standard and the same level of behavior.” That kind of thing is all well and good when there is actual equality in action, but that has not been the case in Ferguson. With the allegations and statistics regarding racial discrimination confirming what many residents already know to be the case, King’s standard of behavior seems out of place when applied only to the black community in Ferguson. In fact, the entirety of Steve King’s remarks looks like its own racial profiling rather than a gaff or mistake attributable to accident.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury