President Obama Has Not Helped Race Relations


President Barack Obama established his Olympian shtick early on in his presidency.

Usually presidents try to stay above the fray instead of injecting themselves into every debate or every ripple in the news cycle. There are more important things for the leader of the free world to worry about, and weighing in on everything, like a cable news talking head, risks diluting the power of the presidential prerogative.

When presidents speak, people listen. If a president feels the need to address the American public, it must be important.

But in July of 2009, Obama decided to descend from the pantheon that places him in the company of men like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Like Zeus, he came down from Olympus to solve a petty squabble among mortals -- the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent African-American professor at Harvard, by James Crowley, a white police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gates had just returned from a trip to China on July 16, 2009, and arrived home to find the front door of his house jammed. With the help of another man, Gates tried to force the door open. A witness who didn't realize Gates lived there called the police, worried that Gates was a burglar, and Crowley was the first officer on the scene.

Gates was offended, the situation escalated, and it ended with Crowley arresting Gates.

Obama felt compelled to weigh in.

"I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that," Obama said, according to CNN. " ... But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home, and, number three ... that there's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately."

Of course some people would react negatively to the accusation that they were breaking into their own home. And it's easy to see why Gates would think there was a racial element. But it was plain that the whole thing was a misunderstanding, not the newest chapter in systematic hatred of African Americans by white people.

But Obama, perhaps eager to prove that he was the racial healer and unifier he cast himself as during his presidential campaign, issued his proclamation with the voice of Zeus, faulting the police despite admitting in the previous sentence that he didn't have all the facts and was relying on the same vague news reports as everyone else.

That pattern was established early in Obama's presidency, and it's a pattern he's mostly stuck to throughout his eight years in office.

It's absurd to accuse Obama of choosing "to see things through the eyes of an aggrieved black activist rather than of a president of all the people," as Fox News' Brit Hume claimed on July 11, according to Real Clear Politics. Or to describe Obama as a president who "didn’t bind up the nation’s wounds but scratched them open every time police killed a black man," as Myron Magnet wrote in City Journal.

Obama's own words and actions point to a simpler, less sinister but equally unhelpful motivation: Obama wants to transcend the presidency, to be someone who's a spiritual and moral leader instead of simply a politician. Obama wants to be liked -- to be loved -- so he straddles the line between sympathizing with protesters and calling for more respect for police.

That explains his often contradictory rhetoric, how one day he'll give a speech about "systemic racism" on the part of police -- as he did just hours before the Dallas massacre -- and the next he'll beautifully eulogize fallen officers, describing them not as abstract killers, but as family men and women who were committed to their country and the people they swore to protect.

It's a delicate balancing act, one that no other president has ever tried, much less pulled off. In many ways, it's understandable. Even if the numbers don't support the notion that police are intentionally targeting black men, the perception is enough to cause racial strife. Even if most Americans truly believe most police officers are just trying to do their jobs, it doesn't negate the horror of seeing men like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile gunned down at point-blank range by officers who didn't seem to be in any immediate danger.

At the same time, it's become abundantly clear that police culture is part of the problem, that the recent trend of militarizing the police has caused problems instead of solving them, and that police training procedures need a major overhaul with an emphasis on the sanctity of life.

It's conceivable that history will judge Obama as a president who contributed to racial tensions instead of helping to alleviate them. But pundits who assign malicious motives to the president are off base -- Obama isn't trying to start a war on cops, he's bumbling his way through racial crises because he wants to be everything to everyone.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: The Washington Post, TIME, CNNThe New York Times, Real Clear Politics, City Journal / Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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