A shift in focus can lead to national consensus that might extend the America described in Obama’s speech into a place its citizens can be proud to call home, writes Peniel Joseph
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama proclaimed to the American people, “we are not as divided as we seem”, in a soaring and mournful address in Dallas, Texas, to honour the lives of five police officers killed by sniper fire when a peaceful protest went horribly awry.
“This is the America I know,” said Obama, pointing out the way in which the Dallas police department has been on the cutting edge of criminal justice reform and community-policing initiatives nationally.
Adopting his role as his nation’s chief eulogiser, Obama elegantly touched on contentious truths about race, class and violence in America that exploded into national tragedy last week.
The deaths of officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamariripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahren, and Michael Smith threw into sharp relief patterns of racial injustice, poverty, violence, and bias in America’s criminal justice system, historic trends that continue into the post-civil rights era.
Black Lives Matter protests have revealed the depth and breadth of America’s fractured racial landscape, a place where poverty and institutional racism have turned into a combustible force that threatens our democracy’s stability.
Black people who are routinely harassed, profiled and brutalised by police in major cities and smaller hamlets reside on the outskirts of the “one American family”, Obama eloquently noted in his speech.
In too many cases, law enforcement approaches poor black communities as if entering another country, one that stands far apart from the unified family Obama imagines America, at its best, to be.
— Irish Examiner (@irishexaminer) July 14, 2016
In Dallas, Obama suggested that, rather than viewing each other as enemies, Black Lives Matter activists and police would do better to see each other as allies in the larger fight against social injustice. That would demand not just substantive policy changes but also a cultural shift that starts at the personal level.
Obama acknowledged the presence in Dallas of social-justice advocates, who grieved alongside law enforcement officials.
He cited this display of unity as a national example for all Americans in what has been a mean season of racial tension, violence and recrimination, one that echoes the political and social turmoil associated with the 1960s.
The president recognised the limits of rhetoric: “I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change.”
Obama’s speech demanded accountability from both sides of the seemingly insurmountable divide between law enforcement and poor and working-class black communities.
“We know that an overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally,” the US president observed. “They are deserving of our respect and not our scorn.”
He discussed how the legacies of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow, continue to haunt American society. “If we’re honest perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts,” said Obama.
“None of us is innocent and no institution is entirely immune.”
Shifting to his professor-in-chief mode, Obama cited ways in which the criminal-justice system continues to discriminate against people of colour.
“We can’t simply dismiss” protests and demonstrations as “political correctness or reverse racism”.
Such denials by “white friends and co-workers”, and larger democratic institutions, is painful and wrong.
The president observed that society asks “police to do too much and asks too little of ourselves”, while refusing to invest in good schools, mental health care and social services required to build thriving communities.
Obama placed last week’s violence within the larger context of a divided political system that lacks the will to change the conditions of abject poverty, institutional racism, easy access to guns and racial tensions, which contributes to a seemingly endless cycle of violence, resentment and anxiety.
Quoting from the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, Obama urged Americans to pray for “an open heart” that will allow police and citizens to view each other as human beings instead of enemies. He noted how, while some in the audience may not like the phrase “black lives matter”, the lives of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the black men killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, respectively, were important to communities and families who mourn them.
Obama demanded accountability from law enforcement and Black Lives Matter activists. He reminded the police that rooting out racial bias was not anti-police, and he told advocates of racial justice not to universally condemn the criminal-justice system.
“The America I know” theme, which ran throughout Obama’s speech, reimagined democracy’s unfinished business of creating racial justice as a challenge to be confronted and addressed. It should not be viewed as an insurmountable obstacle that dooms the nation to division and destruction.
Speaking in the twilight of his administration, Obama humbly admitted that this historical moment required the kind of concerted action that transcended mere words, even those coming from a sitting American president.
On this score, Obama implored America to move beyond the dehumanization and denigration of political opponents and to see the world from a new perspective. From this vantage point, the president said, a police officer could look at a young black teenager wearing a hoodie and see his own son, instead of a dangerous thug, and a young person could view law enforcement with the respect they would give an adult in their family.
“We know there’s evil in this world, that’s why we need police departments,” Obama said. Yet, this evil, argued Obama, would always be overcome by the strength, perseverance, and goodwill of the America people.
Parts of his speech could be read as a valediction of Obama’s efforts to lead the nation toward a more perfect union, even as he acknowledged his relative lack of power to inspire substantive change during the past six months of his term.
— Irish Examiner (@irishexaminer) July 13, 2016
“I believe our righteous anger” can be used to produce more justice and peace moving forward, said Obama.
Such a shift, one that inspires civil yet robust debate among political opponents and that believes principled compromise can lead to national consensus, might extend the America described in Obama’s brilliant speech into a place its own citizens recognise and can be proud to call home.
Peniel E Joseph is Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin. He can be followed on Twitter at @penieljoseph
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