I have many qualms about Barack Obama’s presidency. I worry that he exhausted too much political capital too soon on Obamacare. That he overcorrected for his predecessor’s foreign debacle. That he wore his disdain for Congress too conspicuously.
But I cry foul at the complaint that he has significantly aggravated racial animosity and widened the racial divide in this country. It’s a simplistic read of what’s happening, and it lays too much blame on the doorstep of a man who has sought – imperfectly on some occasions, expertly on others – to speak for all Americans.
That complaint trailed him to Dallas, where he appeared on Tuesday at a memorial for the five police officers killed by a sniper last week. He was there not just to eulogize them – which he did, magnificently – but to try to steady a nation reeling from their deaths and the ones just beforehand of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
He painted a profoundly admiring portrait of cops, asking their detractors to consider how it feels to be “unfairly maligned” by hyperbolic cries of pervasive police misconduct. Then he painted a profoundly sympathetic portrait of protesters, explaining why so many African-Americans feel “unfairly targeted.”
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“Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other?” he said. He may not have phrased the question that way before, but to my ears, it’s what he’s been asking all along.
His sternest critics have decided to hear something different, homing in on his references to racial disparities in criminal justice to charge that he has brought the country to a boil.
In the last few days alone, he has been accused of abetting a “fundamental misreading of American society as irremediably racist”; of consistently choosing “to see things through the eyes of an aggrieved black activist”’ and of being possibly “the worst president in U.S. history” specifically because he “set back American race relations by 50 years.”
It’s true that Obama has sometimes spoken of discrimination before all the facts of a given killing were known. But those remarks touched on wider realities and were usually important acknowledgments of the fury that many Americans were feeling.
Imagine that he instead stood mute or told those Americans to treat the killings as isolated incidents and quietly move on. That might well have raised the temperature, not lowered it.
Besides which, he hasn’t discussed only discrimination. In Warsaw, Poland, last week, when he expressed concern about the deaths of Sterling and Castile, he repeatedly mentioned the fine work of most police officers and the need to keep them safe.
“When people say black lives matter, that doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter,” he said, and this was before the Dallas carnage. His critics edit that out.
They point to data like a Gallup poll from three months ago in which 35 percent of Americans said that they worried “a great deal” about race relations. That number had doubled over the prior two years, a period coinciding with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was also the highest number since Gallup first began asking this question 15 years ago.
But it may well reflect alarm about how we navigate an overdue conversation rather than a belief that the conversation lacks merit. It’s surely the outgrowth of technological advances. Ask yourself: Are these protests the consequence of Obama’s words or of smartphone images and their documentation of events never glimpsed so intimately and immediately before? There’s no contest.
It’s also possible that the election of the first black president gave some wishful Americans hope of suddenly perfect racial harmony and that the current bitterness grew in the gap between expectations and reality. That’s not Obama’s fault.
If he were an “aggrieved black activist,” he wouldn’t have been able to shrug off Joe Biden’s 2007 comment that he was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean” and then make Biden his vice president and friend.
If he were an “aggrieved black activist,” he wouldn’t have used his graduation speech at Howard University in May to caution its black students not to ignore enormous racial progress and to assure them that if they could choose a time to be “young, gifted and black in America, you’d choose right now.”
If he were an “aggrieved black activist,” he wouldn’t have pulled off what he did in Dallas on Tuesday, a nuanced balancing act in an era without much nuance or balance.
Just before his speech, Michelle Obama bent toward and reached out to the person seated to her right. That tender image – of her hand on George W. Bush’s – is one I’ll hold on to, and it’s a fitting retort to the nonsense that Obama is sowing hate.