Obama's Double Standard on Race

Image: Barack Obama in Selma, Alabama. White House photo.

Obama was quick to racialize the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, but reticent on Dallas. 

America has just experienced one of the saddest weeks anyone can remember, certainly since the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks. Two young black men shot to death by policemen, one white, the other Asian, in episodes that seem, in early perceptions, to have been senseless. Then eleven Dallas police officers shot from ambush—at least five fatally—in a racially charged spree of savagery. Such events, and certainly such events in confluence, defy efforts to give expression to the human emotions they unleash. We try, of course, reaching for the most powerful and outrage-charged words we can muster, but everything seems to fall short. It’s too sad, too numbing, too disheartening.

Such events also are too easily exploited for political advantage or philosophical leverage. Whenever a black person is killed in confrontation with a white policeman (or, it seems now, an Asian American), the cry goes up that racism must have been at the heart of it.

Consider the immediate reaction of Minnesota governor Mark Dayton following the death of Philando Castile in the course of a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight. We don’t know yet precisely what happened before the fatal shots were fired from the gun of officer Jeronimo Yanez, and yet that didn’t stop the governor from proclaiming publicly what was at the foundation of the tragedy. “Would this have happened,” he asked, “if those passengers and the driver were white?” He answered: “I don’t think it would’ve.” Even while acknowledging that the facts weren’t yet known, he said, “I’m forced to confront—and I think all Minnesotans are forced to confront—that this kind of racism exists?”

What kind of racism was he talking about? And how can he know that racism was at the core of this heart-rending episode absent the facts?

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One is forced to ponder why government officials feel compelled to reach for the hoary accusation of racism whenever such terrible events occur. There is no issue in American politics more sensitive than race. There is no issue more likely to stir incendiary emotions or to bring people into the streets in protest, most often peacefully but sometimes descending into flights of violence and destruction. One might think, therefore, that public officials would shy away from premature pronouncements of racism before we know all that needs to be known in order to form such a judgment.

But, just as evidence of racism or even hints of it in law enforcement inevitably generate powerful emotions among blacks, so too can they alter the balance of political power in any community and in the relationship of those communities with the federal government. Consider the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged in response to the shooting of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by police officer Darren Wilson. Protests in Ferguson turned into riots that lasted more than a week. The governor ordered local officials to relinquish command of the situation to the state highway patrol. But eventually he had to call out the National Guard to help restore order. It was a delicate and potentially dangerous time.

In the midst of it, President Obama weighed in with ill-considered remarks that positioned himself as the arbiter of just where the proper balance should be struck in the fast-moving and perilous standoff between thousands of protesters, with significant looting and rock-throwing going on, and the authorities charged with ensuring that this highly charged situation didn’t flip out of control and lead to serious bloodshed. His admonitory words, directed at both protesters and local government officials, implied a moral equivalence of the two sides, which served to undermine the standing of local officials.

The Black Lives Matter movement that emerged out of all this proved so potent among Democrats that one presidential candidate, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, actually apologized for the inexcusable faux pas of suggesting that “all lives matter.” At one candidate debate, when the contenders were pressed to endorse the “all lives matter” concept in conjunction with a commitment to black lives, none demonstrated the temerity to take such an inclusive stand.

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But it turned out that there was actually no evidence of racism in the tragic Ferguson event. A St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict Wilson, and the U.S. Department of Justice subsequently cleared the policeman of civil-rights violations in the shooting. The department based its conclusion on forensic evidence as well as the credibility of witnesses who corroborated Wilson’s account. It questioned the credibility of those who incriminated the officer. Thus, based on the evidence, the shooting was a matter of self-defense.

Yet when the episode is mentioned on NPR and other liberal media outlets, the final law-enforcement conclusions are finessed so as to burnish the significance of events that catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement.

Which brings us back to the depressing events of the week just past. Dayton’s pronouncements following the Castile shooting, and before any facts of motivation were in, constituted probably the most blatant political exploitation of a tragic incident. But President Obama couldn’t resist the temptation either.