Obama returns to the White House Sunday after a trip to Europe.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Last week’s ghastly events—police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota and the subsequent murder of five policemen at a Dallas protest—prompted the New York Times’s Patrick Healy to observe that “no moment in the 2016 presidential campaign has cried out more for a unifying candidate. . . . And no other moment has revealed more starkly how hard it is for Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton to become that candidate.”
Healy editorializes that “of the two, Mrs. Clinton would seem more able, and driven, to try to bring the country together.” But Ann Althouse notes that something is missing from his analysis:
Why is racial discord the problem of the summer [of] 2016? If anyone has what it takes to unify the country over race it is Barack Obama, who is President right now and who [has] been President for 7½ years. If it makes any sense to be deciding the current presidential election on this issue, if this longed-for capacity is something that can possibly exist, then Barack Obama would be doing it now and would have been doing it for years.
Before you push us to judge whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would do better in bringing us together in racial harmony, Mr. Healy, please say a few words about why President Obama has failed.
She’s right that the omission is glaring; Healy mentions Obama only in passing and only obliquely with respect to the racial question (he notes that Obama’s was a “historic candidacy” that “appealed across party lines”).
Meanwhile, the president has come in for harsh criticism from the right. City Journal’s Myron Magnet:
True to form, Obama went into grievance-mongering mode on July 7. . . . . His familiar conclusion: “If you add it all up, the African American and Hispanic population, who make up only 30 percent of the general population, make up more than half of the incarcerated population. Now, these are facts. And when incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same. And that hurts.” . . .
If you want to ignite race riots, a sure-fire way to do it is to stir up black hatred and suspicion of cops, which will in turn make cops warier of blacks and more trigger-happy, and so on, until an explosion occurs. So thanks, President Obama. You have set back American race relations by 50 years.
The National Interest’s Robert Merry recalls Obama’s response to the Ferguson, Mo., riots in 2014:
In the midst of it, President Obama weighed in with ill-considered remarks that positioned himself as the arbiter of just where the proper balance should be struck in the fast-moving and perilous standoff between thousands of protesters, with significant looting and rock-throwing going on, and the authorities charged with ensuring that this highly charged situation didn’t flip out of control and lead to serious bloodshed. His admonitory words, directed at both protesters and local government officials, implied a moral equivalence of the two sides, which served to undermine the standing of local officials.
Some of the criticism is well placed. In particular, it would be better for Obama (or any president) to speak in soothing generalities and avoid opining on matters that have yet to be investigated.
But we’d like to offer a qualified defense of the president. It seems to us his statement that “there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same” is undeniably true, and for him not to acknowledge it in some way would be a breach of faith with black voters.
Further, those feelings are not irrational. City Journal’s Steven Malanga writes:
As Heather Mac Donald has observed, more than 6,000 blacks die of homicides yearly, the overwhelming majority of which are committed by other blacks in minority neighborhoods. The police are more likely to patrol these neighborhoods because that’s where the crime is.
True enough, but that also heightens the danger to civilians, including innocent ones, in those neighborhoods.
One needn’t be a bien-pensant liberal to acknowledge that side of the problem. The Hill quotes Newt Gingrich, who said the other day: “It took me a long time and a number of people talking to me over the years to begin to get a sense of this: If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.” (We wish he hadn’t said “normal,” but otherwise it was well stated.)
The recent turmoil has drawn comparisons to 1968—a comparison the president rejected in a news conference Saturday:
So when we start suggesting that somehow there’s this enormous polarization, and we’re back to the situation in the ’60s—that’s just not true. You’re not seeing riots, and you’re not seeing police going after people who are protesting peacefully. You’ve seen almost uniformly peaceful protests. And you’ve seen uniformly police handling those protests with professionalism.
If last week turns out to be as bad as it gets, then it will be true that 1968 was much worse. On the other hand, the president’s account is too rosy. It’s true we haven’t seen riots this year, but we did see them last year in Baltimore, as well as in Ferguson in 2014. And “almost” does an awful lot of the work in that penultimate sentence, especially after Dallas.
One analogy to 1968 does seem pertinent. That year came not long after the landmark civil-rights legislation of 1964-65. The current turmoil follows by a few years the election of the first black president. “Then as now, the passing of an important political milestone had raised unrealistic expectations, especially among the young, of immediate social transformation,” we observed in December 2014.
That is, the Black Lives Matter movement is the product of unrealistically high expectations in the wake of Obama’s election. So too is much of the criticism of the president. Here’s Malanga:
When the country elected Barack Obama president in 2008, those of us who disagreed with many of his policy ideas were nonetheless consoled by the fact that his victory illustrated that America had moved well beyond institutional racism. Certainly the fact that Obama had succeeded in both a hard-fought Democratic primary and a general election meant that the country was ready to move past the intense focus on race in our national politics. Boy, were we wrong!
The election of a black president was indeed—and still is—a sign of how far America has progressed since the 1960s, never mind the 1860s. Perhaps a nimbler politician could have dealt more effectively with the clamor of the past couple of years. But Obama is uniquely constrained by the unreasonable hopes that so many Americans placed in him.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."