President Barack Obama on Tuesday emotionally and unequivocally hailed the bravery of America’s police forces at a memorial for five officers gunned down in Dallas, but warned the nation must accept the anguish of minority communities who see themselves victimized by law enforcement agencies.
In a soaring address, Obama said that a week of violence and racial tension had exposed the deepest fault lines in American democracy, but also insisted the nation would overcome its divides.
The occasion required an intensely difficult rhetorical balancing act from the nation’s first African-American president. As he enters the final six months of his presidency, tensions unleashed by several recent killings of African-American men by police officers have made racial questions reemerge as a major challenge to his administration.
“I understand, I understand how Americans are feeling,” Obama said at an interfaith service in Dallas, also attended by former President George W. Bush, who lives in the city.
Obama, who some critics have accused of being insufficiently supportive of law enforcement agencies, went out of his way to stress that “the overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally. They are deserving of our respect and not our scorn.”
The President pointed out that the officers slain in Dallas were protecting a rally called to protest police actions and praised them for upholding the constitutional rights of Americans. He added that those who called for violence against police did a disservice to the cause of justice.
But he also gave voice to the grievances of African-Americans.
“When African-Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across the country voice their growing despair at what they perceive to be unequal treatment … we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as trouble makers or paranoid. We can’t simply dismiss this as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, … it hurts.”
Obama also said that although America seemed deeply divided, race relations had in fact improved in his lifetime and the situation was far from hopeless.
He insisted: “We are not as divided as we seem. I know that because I know America,” adding that the way the citizens of Dallas of all races came together after the tragedy that unfolded last week proved his point.
Still, he made a powerful case that though racism was no longer institutionalized in the political system, it remains pervasive in many aspects of American life.
“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 have heard it at times in our own homes. If we are honest, perhaps we have heard prejudice in our own heads, felt it in our own hearts.”
“None of us are entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune. We know this,” Obama said.
In paying tribute to the police, Obama said that officers in Dallas and around the country had embraced a profession that came with risks like no other.
“From the moment you put on that uniform, you have answered a call that at any moment, even in the briefest interaction, may put your life in harm’s way,” Obama said. He also mentioned views among many African-Americans who believe they have been treated unfairly by police.
“I am not naive,” Obama said, taking pains to argue that his calls for unity were based in his experience of American reality, not fantasy but also acknowledging that a mere speech by a president could not paper over the country’s divides. “I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency. I have hugged too many families who have lost a loved one in senseless violence,” Obama said, acknowledging that his own words at memorial services have been “inadequate” and need to be followed by action.
But while making a call for national unity and a renewal of the fight against racial discrimination, Obama didn’t shy away from politics, saying American leaders were responsible for a failure to fund mental health programs, for allowing cities to be overcome by poverty and for not embracing more restrictive gun laws — in remarks that came across as an implicit attack on his Republican opponents.
“We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than to get his hands on a computer or even a book. And then we tell the police, you are a social worker. You are a parent You are a teacher. You are a drug counselor. We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at any cost.”
Obama’s predecessor, Bush, also sought to bring Americans together after a week of tragedy.
“At our best, we know we have one country, one future, one destiny. We do not want the unity of grief, nor do we want the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope, affection and high purpose,” Bush said in a short speech.