The focus of President Obama’s speech Tuesday in Dallas at the memorial service for five fallen officers was acknowledging issues rather than dismissing them to resolve problems like racial bias.
He discussed the complexities of criminal justice reform by highlighting the dichotomy of the officers dying while protecting a public demonstration addressing the issue.
“Despite the fact that police conduct was the subject of the protest, despite the fact that there must have been signs or slogans or chants with which they profoundly disagreed, these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were,” the president said.
The rally was organized to protest recent police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Video from both incidents suggests officers overreacted and violence could have been avoided. Many identified them as part of a pattern of systemic racism.
Obama spoke to those who heighten rhetoric and accused all police of racial bias. “When anyone, no matter how good their intentions may be, paints all police as biased or bigoted, we undermine those officers we depend on for our safety,” he said.
“The overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally,” he added. “They are deserving of our respect and not our scorn.”
He also echoed Dallas Police Chief David Brown’s sentiment that communities are increasingly looking to police to resolve problems instead of adequately funding programs that address them.
“As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs,” he said. “We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book — and then we tell the police ‘you’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.’”
Yet, he also addressed those who dismiss the criticism by failing to acknowledge or address the existence of racial bias even when faced with empirical evidence.
“We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and coworkers and fellow church members again and again and again — it hurts,” he said.
“When African Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across the country, voice a growing despair over what they perceive to be unequal treatment; when study after study shows that whites and people of color experience the criminal justice system differently, so that if you’re black you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested, more likely to get longer sentences, more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime; when mothers and fathers raise their kids right and have ‘the talk’ about how to respond if stopped by a police officer — ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, sir’ — but still fear that something terrible may happen when their child walks out the door, still fear that kids being stupid and not quite doing things right might end in tragedy — when all this takes place more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid.”
He suggested empathy rather than divisiveness would bridge the gap and eventually help fix the problems at hand.
“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 — and the teenager — maybe the teenager will see in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents,” he said.