Does President Obama Believe What He Says About Race?

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President Obama speaking at last week's memorial to slain police officers in Dallas.Photo: MANDEL NGAN

Last week, President Obama traveled to Dallas, where he addressed a memorial of slain police officers, then met for hours with police and Black Lives Matter activists, and followed with a televised town-hall-style meeting on racism. In all of those forums, Obama articulated the same ideas that have been the core of his worldview since he appeared on the public stage. He acknowledges the persistence of racial bias in policing and the criminal-justice system while also expressing sympathy for the difficulties faced by police. He believes in draining anger and passion from the issues, acknowledging the legitimate points on all sides, and boiling disagreements down to their narrowest possible form, gathering all of the sides around the table.

Obama’s pragmatism is a source of frustration for many. Obama’s right-wing opposition persistently believes his soothing racial discourse is a façade. Donald Trump exploited that suspicion this morning, when he told Fox News, “The words are okay, but you just look at [Obama’s] body language and … there’s something going on.” This belief in the sincerity of Obama’s stance on racial issues is not Trump’s alone, or even the right’s alone. Obama’s pragmatic spirit has never made his most left-wing supporters terribly comfortable.

Some left-wing critics of Obama’s racial politics reject him as a fraud, or a sellout. But others have a more gentle explanation. While retaining their affection for Obama, they explain his moderate racial stances as a political necessity, a necessary pose he must maintain in a majority-white country. The most recent version of this argument was articulated by German Lopez. “Obama gave the same middle-of-the-road statements he’s given every time he talks about policing and race. It was anything but a ‘candid discussion,’” writes Lopez, panning Obama’s measured town-hall comments. Lopez attributes the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other tone to his belief that Obama “seems to feel like he can’t” discuss issues in ways that satisfy Black Lives Matter and his party’s left wing.

One can never be certain what sentiments rest in a politician’s heart. But the weight of the evidence points to a different conclusion: that Obama’s moderate liberalism on race is not a mere pose but the expression of his true beliefs.

One mistake Lopez makes in dismissing Obama’s moderation — a characteristic one by his sympathetic critics from the left, across a variety of issues where he disappoints his base — is to assume that the modulation of the president’s beliefs amounts to a lack of conviction. “Why,” asks Lopez, “does Obama try so hard to gain the love of both sides in discussions about police, the justice system, and race — to the point that it feels like he’s saying nothing at all?” For better or worse, though, there is a real core and coherence to the president’s ideology. The president believes that emotion hijacks the negotiation and mutual understanding that is necessary for progress. In his Dallas speech, Obama asked police to understand that minorities are correct to believe they’re unfairly treated by police, while asking protesters to understand that most police officers are well-intentioned:

Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes, so that maybe the police officer sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie who’s kind of goofing off but not dangerous – (applause) – and the teenager – maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents. (Applause.)

With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.

With an open heart, those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward, look at the model set by the five officers we mourn today, acknowledge the progress brought about by the sincere efforts of police departments like this one in Dallas, and embark on the hard but necessary work of negotiation, the pursuit of reconciliation.

With an open heart, police departments will acknowledge that, just like the rest of us, they are not perfect; that insisting we do better to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals.

Obama argues that police reform is good for police — it makes their job easier and safer. This belief runs parallel to his economic conviction that spreading the wealth around is good for everybody, as opposed to the zero-sum conflict between the one percent and the people envisioned by Bernie Sanders. The president may be pandering when he claims to speak to police officers and empathize with the frustration they feel at being defined by the actions of their worst members. More likely, he actually believes this because he spends time listening to police officers and genuinely empathizes.

It is obviously true that, as president of the United States, Obama is not free to discuss race in unabashed left-wing terms, so even if he agreed with his party’s left, he would have to conceal his beliefs. But does Obama believe this? The evidence suggests otherwise. Long before his political career, Obama became famous as a moderate at the Harvard Law Review bitterly divided over racial politics. Obama bridged the divide between conservatives and leftists on staff, and eventually emerged as a consensus candidate for Law Review president because he subscribed fully to neither view but could empathize with elements of both — just as he does with police and protesters. That was not a pose. That was Obama displaying his authentic moderate liberal beliefs.

That same ideology has come through in a series of speeches and remarks Obama has made criticizing the increasing tendency on the left to demonize and shut down opposing points of view. Over the last year, Obama has driven home this theme again and again and again and again. If Obama were hewing to the center merely for fear of alienating the center, it might explain his hesitation to blurt out a provocative comment that might inflame conservatives and blow up into a national controversy. But it would not explain why he has gone out of his way so many times to pick fights with elements of his own base — especially in the last quarter of his presidency, much of which has come when he been trying to tamp down a revolt from the left by Bernie Sanders. The far more likely explanation for what Obama says is that he believes it.

The Obama analysis of racism in law enforcement drains the issue of its culture-war ferocity, and reduces it to a technocratic problem. This is frustrating to conservatives itching to pit black against white. It is also frustrating to Obama’s critics on the left, who see direct (peaceful) confrontation as the straightest path to correcting long-standing patterns of racism. By dismissing Obama’s position as a façade by a black president to soothe jittery whites, they consign it to political oblivion. Obama, concludes Lopez, “feels like he needs to be unsatisfying. So as America’s conversation on race moves forward, the president’s voice will by and large stay behind.” On the contrary, given that Obama actually believes in what he says, and what he says does amount to a coherent, if complicated, solution, it is also possible that his ideas will live on after he departs the White House.