The first high-profile suggestion that NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly might be a good successor to Janet Napolitano at the Department of Homeland Security was from New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer on Friday, July 12. According to MoJo’s Gavin Aronsen, writing that same day, the idea immediately drew fire from immigrant rights groups:

“The nomination of Ray Kelly would raise immediate questions about his commitment to immigrant rights,” says Arturo Carmona,’s executive director. “He has a spotty record at best in New York as the lead proponent for the racial profiling policy of ‘stop, question, and frisk’ which the [Center for Constitutional Rights] is currently suing the NYPD over.”

The NYPD has been accused of systematically targeting Latinos and African Americans, charging thousands with misdemeanor charges including pot possession, since Kelly’s latest tenure as commissioner that began in 2002. The NYPD under Kelly’s watch has also dealt with controversies involving its treatment of Latino officers. Anthony Miranda, chairman of the National Latino Officers Association, calls Schumer’s endorsement “irresponsible.” “I think his recommendation is ill-placed considering the lack of confidence people here in New York have had with Ray Kelly, especially minorities,” Miranda says. He points specifically to the department’s controversial English-only policy, under which at least nine officers have been reprimanded for speaking Spanish and which Latinos on the force say has created a hostile work environment. (A rival group, the NYPD Hispanic Society, has praised Kelly’s treatment of Hispanics on the force.)

The next day, of course, George Zimmerman was acquitted by a Florida jury, which made the whole tangle of issues associated with racial profiling a red-hot issue. Suddenly the idea of Kelly joining Barack Obama’s cabinet became something other than a “Latino issue.”

But here’s the odd thing: Obama himself first mentioned the possibility of Kelly at DHS on July 16, three days after the Zimmerman verdict. He hasn’t brought it up again, but there has been a growing drumbeat of criticism of the president even considering Kelly, most pointedly by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a New York Times op-ed published on July 18. After noting Kelly’s leading role in adopting an aggressive “stop-and-frisk” policy for NYPD, Coates accused Obama of undermining his own long-standing opposition to racial profiling:

It is often said that Obama’s left-wing critics fail to judge him by his actual words from his candidacy. But, in this case, the challenge before Obama is not in adhering to the principles of a radical Left, but of adhering to his own. It is President Obama’s attorney general who just this week painfully described the stain of being profiled. It was President Obama who so poignantly drew the direct line between himself and Trayvon Martin.

It was candidate Obama who in 2008 pledged to “ban racial profiling” on a federal level and work to have it prohibited on the state level. It was candidate Obama who told black people that if they voted they would get a new kind of politics. And it was State Senator Obama who understood that profiling was the antithesis of such politics. Those of us raising our boys in the wake of Trayvon, or beneath the eye of the Demographics Unit, cannot fathom how the president could forget this.

This piece was published before the president’s July 19 remarks identifying himself with Trayvon Martin, and with black men generally who are subjected to racial profiling, much more vividly than he has ever done before.

It’s now rather difficult to imagine Obama naming Kelly to his Cabinet. So how has this whole brouhaha emerged? When Obama said nice things about Kelly, was this some pre-planned trial balloon (or even meaningless gesture) that somehow did not get pulled back after the Zimmerman verdict? Was Obama just name-checking Kelly out of respect for Schumer? Is some sort of triangulation effort going on? Will we hear Obama mention Kelly’s name again in connection with this or any other major position?

It’s a mystery to me, but until such time as Obama lays it to rest, he can count on some of the anger over racial profiling being directed to the White House, despite, or even because of, his remarkable statement on Friday.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.