On Tuesday in Dallas, President Obama defined a new “center” in the debate over race and policing in America — and tried to make it hold. After a week of high-profile police killings, national protests, and the murder of five police officers in Dallas by an apparent black nationalist, Obama called on the nation to reject despair and recognize the fundamental unity of “the American family.”
“First, the shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, the protests. Then the targeting of police by the shooter here, an act not just of demented violence, but of racial hatred,” Obama said, at a memorial service for the fallen officers. “All of it left us wounded and angry. And hurt. The deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened.”
“We know such divisions are not new,” Obama continued. “And while they have surely been worse, in even the recent past, that offers us little comfort. Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police — and a police department that feels unfairly maligned for doing their jobs — can ever understand each other’s experience.”
“But, Dallas, I’m here to say, we must reject such despair,” Obama said. “I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.”
The president then argued that the officers killed in Dallas had died protecting the rights of the protesters who critiqued their institution.
“They were upholding the constitutional rights of this country,” he said. “And despite the fact that police conduct was the subject of the protest, despite the fact that there must have been signs or slogans or chants with which they profoundly disagreed, these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were.”
But Obama also insisted on the fundamental legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement’s grievances, in one of his most forthright acknowledgements of systemic racism. >
We also know that centuries of racial discrimination, of slavery, and subjugation, and Jim Crow; they didn’t simply vanish with the law against segregation. They didn’t necessarily stop when a Dr. King speech, or when the Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act were signed. Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime. Those who deny it are dishonoring the struggles that helped us achieve that progress.
But, America, we know that bias remains. We know it, whether you are black, or white, or Hispanic, or Asian, or Native American, or of Middle Eastern descent, we have all seen this bigotry in our own lives at some point. We’ve heard it at times in our own homes. If we’re honest, perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts. We know that. And while some suffer far more under racism’s burden, some feel to a far greater extent discrimination’s stain. Although most of us do our best to guard against it and teach our children better, none of us is entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune, and that includes our police departments. We know this.
And so when African-Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across the country, voice a growing despair over what they perceive to be unequal treatment, when study after study shows that whites and people of color experience the criminal justice system differently. So that if you’re black, you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested; more likely to get longer sentences; more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime. When mothers and fathers raised their kids right, and have the talk about how to respond if stopped by a police officer — yes, sir; no, sir — but still fear that something terrible may happen when their child walks out the door; still fear that kids being stupid and not quite doing things right might end in tragedy.
When all this takes place, more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid.
The president argued that police and those who protest them are mutually victimized by the failures of our political system. Echoing the words of Dallas Police Chief David Brown, Obama argued that we ask police to do too much — to compensate for social and economic ills that we fail to address through public policy.
As a society, we choose to under-invest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs.
We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.
And then we tell the police, “You’re a social worker; you’re the parent; you’re the teacher; you’re the drug counselor.” We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience; don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over.
Obama then repeated his speech’s central refrain, “We know those things to be true.” Of course, this is, itself, untrue — unless “we” doesn’t include Republicans, who (largely) do not believe that our schools and mental health clinics require more federal funding.
But there is no way of unifying law enforcement — with a movement premised on the fundamental injustice of the status quo — without articulating some vision of how our politics can resolve that injustice. In Dallas, the president argued that if the American people can “open [their] hearts” to each other’s suffering, the institutions of American democracy can foster reforms that ease the tension between police and disadvantaged black communities, by ameliorating those communities’ disadvantages.
“Today in this audience, I see people who have protested on behalf of criminal-justice reform grieving alongside police officers. I see people who mourn for the five officers we lost, but also weep for the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In this audience, I see what’s possible,” Obama said. “I believe our sorrow can make us a better country. I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace.”