President Barack Obama stressed a theme of unity Tuesday during a speech on race and policing in America at a memorial service for the five Dallas police officers who were killed last week in an attack amid a peaceful demonstration in the city.
“I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we’ve witnessed over the past week,” Obama said.
He mentioned the police-involved shootings last week of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, the subsequent protests, and the targeting of police in Dallas.
Obama called the Dallas attack “an act not just of demented violence but of racial hatred.”
“All of it’s left us wounded, and angry, and hurt,” he said. “This is as if the deepest fault lines of our democracy have been exposed, perhaps even widened. And although we know such divisions are not new, though they have surely been worse in even the recent past, that offers us little comfort.”
The president was joined at the service by former President George W. Bush, Vice President Joe Biden, and Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, among others. Bush, Cornyn, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, and Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown spoke, as well.
The events of the past week have led Americans to wonder “if the divides of race” in the US “can ever be bridged,” Obama said. He noted that Americans wonder if African-American communities that feel unjustly targeted by police and police officers who feel “unfairly maligned for doing their jobs” can ever understand one another.
“I understand how Americans are feeling,” Obama said. “I’m here to insist we are not as divided as we seem.”
“I know that because I know America,” he continued. “I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds. I know we’ll make it because of what I’ve experienced in my own life, what I’ve seen of this country and it’s people — their goodness, their decency — as president of the United States.”
Dallas, he said, proved this point. The city showed the rest of the nation “the meaning of perseverance and character and hope.”
“When the bullets started flying, the men and women of the Dallas police, they did not flinch and they did not react recklessly,” he said. “They showed incredible restraint.
“Saved more lives than we will ever know,” Obama continued. “We mourn fewer people today because of your brave actions. Everyone was helping each other, one witness said. It wasn’t about black or white. Everyone was picking each other up and moving them away. See, that’s the America I know.”
Obama cited the examples of Rawlings and Brown, “a white man and a black man,” for restoring order and unifying the city “with strength and grace and wisdom.”
He also credited the Dallas Police Department for being at the forefront of police relations with the communities they serve.
“The Dallas Police Department has been doing it the right way,” he said. “On behalf of the American people, thank you for your powerful example. We could not be prouder of you. This is the America I know.”
He called on violent rhetoric aimed at police from protesters to end, saying it both makes the job for officers even more dangerous and does a “disservice to the cause of justice” protesters are looking to promote.
But, he also said centuries of racial discrimination, slavery, subjugation, and Jim Crow laws “didn’t simply vanish” with the end of lawful segregation in the 1960s.
Although race relations have improved “dramatically” in his lifetime, Obama said Americans must acknowledge that bias still exists.
“We’ve heard it at times in our own homes,” he said. “If we’re honest, perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads, or felt it in our own hearts. We know that.”
“We can’t simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism,” he added, speaking directly about the Black Lives Matter movement. “To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps by your white friends and coworkers and fellow church members, again and again and again, it hurts.”
He then echoed sentiment from a Monday press conference delivered by Brown, the police chief, saying that much of the tension between police and minority communities comes from the fact “we ask the police too much, and we ask too little of ourselves.”
“As a society, we choose to under-invest too little in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighbourhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs. 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 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 councilor.’ We tell them to keep those neighbourhoods in check at all cost. And, do so without any political blowback or inconvenience. Don’t make a mistake that might disturb our peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when periodically, the tensions boil over.”
“We know those things to be true. They have been true for a long time. We know it. Police, you know it. Protesters, you know it. You know how dangerous some of these communities where these police serve are. And you pretend as if there is no context. These things we know to be true. And if we cannot even talk about these things — if we can’t talk honestly and openly, not just in the comfort in our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective — than we will never break this dangerous cycle.”
Obama said this is not about creating policy but “forging consensus and fighting cynicism.”
“Can we find the character as Americans to open our hearts to each other?” he said. “Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity and recognise how our different experiences have shaped us? And it doesn’t make anyone perfectly good or perfectly bad. It just makes us human.”
Bush expressed similar sentiment.
“At times it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together,” he said.
“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves on our best intentions,” he continued. “And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose. But Americans I think have a great advantage. To renew our unity, we only need to remember our values. We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the spirit — by shared commitments to common ideals.”
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