Obama on Dallas shooting: A wake-up call for America?
US president attending Dallas memorial calls for Americans to have serious discussions about race relations.
Dallas, USA – I’m here again, listening to the US president give a speech after a mass shooting. For the 11th time during his time in office, Barack Obama has travelled to a community that is grieving after such an incident.
This time it is Dallas, Texas. Just a few weeks ago it was Orlando, Florida. This time it was five police officers ambushed by a lone gunman. Last time, it was 49 people simply dancing at a nightclub catering to the LGBT community.
On the latest occasion, a man targeted police officers. He told them he was tired of cops targeting African Americans. He said he was driven by a mobile phone video of two black men being shot dead by white police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota.
READ MORE: Second US police shooting in two days sparks outrage
The Black Lives Matter movement has said he doesn’t represent their cause, which they want to pursue in the non-violent manner as it has proved effective in this country in the past.
‘Wounded, angry and hurt’
The latest incident has laid bare the racial divide that still exists in this country.
I think the president summed it up very aptly in his speech when he said: “I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week. First, the shootings in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, and the protests, then the targeting of police by the shooter here – an act not just of demented violence but of racial hatred.
“All of it has left us wounded, and angry, and hurt. It’s as if the deepest faultlines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened. And although we know that such divisions are not new – though they have surely been worse in even the recent past – that offers us little comfort.”
The president usually comes to these speeches embracing his role as “comforter-in-chief”.
Not this time.
Obama called for Americans to get uncomfortable. To have tough discussions about race relations in this country.
It has been striking how much time the president has spent over the past few days trying to explain to “white” America that there is a legitimate problem.
He has talked about the statistics that show African Americans and Latinos are much more likely to be stopped by police, arrested, given longer prison sentences for similar crimes – and even given the death penalty more often.
You might be asking why the president thinks he needs to tell people there is a problem.
I can tell you that pretty simply by relaying a conversation I had with my Uber driver on the way to the airport.
He was an African-American man in his 50s. He’s lived in Washington, DC, his entire life. He told me he’s had a gun put to his head twice by “young punks and twice by police officers”. He said he was much more afraid of the police officers.
Take a moment to think about that.
He trusted criminals with his very life more than the people who took an oath to uphold the law and keep him safe. That is central to the debate.
He told me about the two times the police stopped him, guns drawn because he fitted the description of someone who had just committed a violent crime. He described being handcuffed on the ground and thrown into the back of a police car with no explanation.
He told me a tale of police officers blatantly disrespecting him even after he realised they had the wrong man. He told me every single African-American man he knows has a similar story to tell. Every single one.
OPINION: Structural racism in the US won’t diminish with time
For the record, I have never had police stop me, guns drawn and order me on the ground. It’s hard for me to imagine the fear that would instill.
This is a deeply-rooted problem. I was raised to believe that the police were the good guys. I was never told to suspect them – only honour them, listen to them. They were the authorities that kept us all safe. I still believe they have an incredibly hard job that, quite frankly, I couldn’t do.
I have a friend who is a cop. He told me that he lives in fear that he will have to make a split-second decision that others will have the benefit of hindsight and days to judge him. He fears his instinct, if wrong, will send him to prison for life. He is a father to two young boys and he only worries about coming home to them. By every measure that is a tough job.
The African-American community is also afraid. My driver says his mother raised him to believe that “the police have a licence to kill you”. She stressed, even if she thought he was in the right, he needed to swallow his pride and stay quiet. She was afraid that the police would kill her child.
These are two very different experiences. They are real and they are everywhere. The president says that the solution is in having conversations. I have to say after the conversation I just had, I have to agree.
There are two Americas that really need to meet each other.