It is natural to look at last week’s horrific events and hope they are a turning point in our country’s tortured history of race relations and policing. In one three-day period, two black men were killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, and five officers in Dallas watching over a peaceful protest of police violence were shot to death by a black Army veteran upset at the treatment of black people by police.
We’ve been here before, wracked by unspeakable tragedy. We’ve listened to our leaders eloquently implore their fellow Americans to change course. And the spirit of unity that emerges eventually dissipates, and the carnage continues. Will this time be different?
There is optimism in the powerful symbolism of those who took the stage in Dallas Tuesday for a memorial service for the fallen officers, led by President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush. Democrats and Republicans, men and women, different races from different regions with different upbringings, sounding similar themes.
And though it might be too much to expect one afternoon of speeches to change this thorny equation, we hope it’s a catalyst.
Obama and Bush, in particular, reflected each other. Bush’s repeated exhortation of “at our best” was echoed by Obama’s “the America I know,” each an appeal to our better selves.
Bush correctly warned about disagreements that escalate too quickly into dehumanization, saying that all of us too often judge others by their worst behavior while judging ourselves by our best intentions. Obama rightly noted that for all the progress made in race relations, bias still exists, and that if each of us is honest, we might admit we harbor our own prejudices.
Obama’s pain-soaked eloquence was belied by what he said was the inadequacy of his words on the other 10 occasions he spoke to the country following a mass killing. His speech in Dallas was intensely personal and carefully calibrated to be heard and felt both by police supporters and protesters. But the different reactions he received to different parts of his speech from different members of the audience only underscored the intractability of the problem. So did reports that emerged shortly after the Dallas service of arrests made in Louisiana in a plot to kill police in Baton Rouge, where the first of last week’s killings took place.
“We know this,” Obama repeated over and over, forcing us to confront our own demons. He told police officers that they know that not every kid in a hoodie is bad. He told protesters that they know some of the communities police protect are dangerous. He acknowledged what many of us have seen — that problems arise when we refuse to help troubled communities, then ask cops to be social workers, parents and drug counselors. And Obama rightly put the onus for change squarely on each of us. There is no legislative solution to our race problem. We know that, too. For a president who so often has pleaded for reform of gun laws, this time he focused on what’s in our heads and in our hearts, not what’s in our hands.
Have an open heart, a new heart, he implored. Will we listen, at last, and rally around his words? Or be separated by them, and destroyed? — The editorial board