Before a grand jury decides whether to indict white officer Darren Wilson for killing an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown; before supporters of both men rush to judgment in Ferguson; before professional provocateurs trample on Brown's grave and Wilson's reputation; before another American city burns, I hope everybody listens to President Obama.
Say what you want about the president (I have never hesitated to criticize him), he struck the exact right tone in his interview Sunday with ABC's George Stephanopoulos.
"What's your message to the people of Ferguson and others who are looking to protest?" Stephanopoulos asked, transitioning from the immigration debate to a different shade of racial tension. "First and foremost," Obama replied, "keep the protests peaceful."
Then the president carefully walked in the shoes of pro-Brown minorities and pro-Wilson whites, appealing to the better angels of a nation long divided on race.
Minorities are sometimes profiled by police, he said, and their communities are ripe with crime. Police are sometimes unjustly accused, he said, and they do "a very tough job," especially when peaceful protests are overrun "by a few thugs." Obama called for a national conversation between the law enforcement communities and the many minorities who feel they're mistreated by cops.
"Sometimes their concerns are justified," he said. "Sometimes they're not justified."
Obama exposed himself to criticism both from conservatives who believe he's playing favorites, and from liberals who wince at even the hint of "equivalence" between the concerns of cops and minorities. But he's doing the right thing. Without taking a stand on the merits of the case against Wilson (fact is, not even the president of the United States knows enough to form a reasoned opinion), Obama cast Ferguson as a chapter in a long and complicated racial drama.
His standing comes from more than the color of his skin. As a state senator, Obama worked with the Illinois law enforcement community to forge agreements on racial profiling and police interrogations. As a presidential candidate, he defused a controversy over the remarks of his minister, Jeremiah Wright, with a landmark "more perfect union" address on black anger and white resentment. As the nation's first black president, Obama has tried to confront racial controversies with the language of clear-headed empathy. The one obvious lapse, his lashing out at police who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, led to the so-called Beer Summit and what Obama called a "teachable moment."
"What I have confidence in is that if we do a better job of training our law enforcement to be sensitive to the concerns of minority communities, then over time trust can be built in part because minority communities typically are subject to more crime," he told Stephanopoulos. "They need law enforcement more than anybody, and there are a lot of communities in my hometown of Chicago, for example, who want to actually see more police in, but they want to make sure the police are trained so they can distinguish between a gangbanger and a kid who just happens to be wearing a hoodie but just otherwise is a good kid and not doing anything wrong."
He disagreed with civil-rights icon John Lewis, who suggested that a failure to indict Wilson would be a turning point like the 1965 Selma march, where Lewis and other black activists were beaten by white police. "The kinds of ongoing problems we have with police and communities of color around the country are not of the sort that we saw in Selma," Obama said. "We're not talking about systematic segregation or discrimination. They are solvable problems if in fact law enforcement officials are open to the kind of training and best practices that we've seen instituted in a lot of parts of the country."
He also disagreed with the sentiments of a poll finding that many blacks believed race relations have gotten worse during his presidency. "We go in sort of ebbs and flows," Obama said. "My own experience tells me that race relations continue to improve."
He continued: "There have been times where I have experienced discrimination as a young man—it's been a while since it happened—and, you know, I think that folks on the other side of it might not understand why there are concerns or mistrust. Not because they're in denial, just they haven't experienced it. And so when people start seeing these instances, then they start saying 'OK, maybe we understand what we're talking about.' "
In the next breath, he gave voice to the concern of many whites. "It's important not to overreact either. Or to suggest somehow that we haven't made progress," Obama said. "One of the things that I think the presidency drives home is, in a democracy, progress is incremental. You know, and it goes in stutter-steps and sometimes there is some backsliding. But the overall trajectory I think is positive."
This willingness to view racial strife from all angles is a unique strength of Obama's. Where he is less able to project empathy is in the world of everyday politics. While dealing with GOP and Democratic lawmakers, as well as his approach to conservative voters, Obama tends to lecture rather than listen, and his mind set is far closer to a zero-sum game than with Ferguson.
It would be refreshing, for instance, to hear Obama argue the GOP's justification for gridlock as even-handedly as he did the cops' case on Ferguson. He could say: "Sometimes their concerns are justified." One thing at a time.
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