America's first black president has overseen a difficult moment in history. Racial tensions have almost constantly simmered, and often boiled over, particularly in matters of criminal justice and policing.
Some critics have faulted Barack Obama for not doing more, earlier in his tenure, to put a fine point on the disparities facing black Americans. But on occasion, the president has spoken up, and eloquently, reminding people that he's an astute observer and a talented communicator. And a black man.
Another example of that came Thursday, as Obama posted a message to Facebook addressing the shootings of Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Tuesday, and Philando Castile, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on Wednesday night.
Both Sterling and Castile were legally armed at the time of their interactions with police. (Sterling was suspected of possibly being a man who had robbed a convenience store customer; Castile's was a routine traffic stop.) Neither man lived past midnight the night he was shot.
In his statement, Obama says everyone in the country should be "deeply troubled" by what happened on opposite ends of the Mississippi River.
"We've seen such tragedies far too many times," Obama said, "and our hearts go out to the families and communities who've suffered such a painful loss."
Obama can't say much about the specifics of either case, both of which are in their investigative infancy. (President Richard Nixon famously jeopardized the prosecution of Charles Manson by declaring him "guilty" during the trial.) But the president is"encouraged" that the Department of Justice has quickly started a review of potential civil rights violations in Sterling's death, and believes the agency will conduct a "thoughtful, thorough, and fair inquiry."
In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, and U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum have all encouraged a DoJ review of Castile's shooting. Dayton said he contacted Obama's chief of staff Denis McDonough directly on Thursday morning to request federal involvement.
But these after-the-fact cleanup efforts aren't the only way to deal with this problem. Obama continued:
But regardless of the outcome of such investigations, what's clear is that these fatal shootings are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve.Obama then touted his "21st Century Policing" initiative, which brought together cops, civic officials, and community activists seeking to find methods to improve public safety conduct. He supports that group's recommendations, saying they'll "improve community policing" — placing some of that burden on the people in the community, and some on the people doing the policing.
To admit we've got a serious problem in no way contradicts our respect and appreciation for the vast majority of police officers who put their lives on the line to protect us every single day. It is to say that, as a nation, we can and must do better to institute the best practices that reduce the appearance or reality of racial bias in law enforcement.
"In the meantime, all Americans should recognize the anger, frustration, and grief that so many Americans are feeling — feelings that are being expressed in peaceful protests and vigils. Michelle and I share those feelings. Rather than fall into a predictable pattern of division and political posturing, let's reflect on what we can do better. Let's come together as a nation, and keep faith with one another, in order to ensure a future where all of our children know that their lives matter."
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