President Barack Obama led an unprecedented nationally televised town hall meeting on race and the criminal-justice system Thursday night. Black Lives Matter, said Obama, “simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African Americans that needs to be addressed” and does not denigrate or disparage police officers, white people or any other group. The phrase reimagines humanity in an anti-black world, which is why it’s so necessary and constantly under assault.
Televised on ABC and ESPN, streamed on the internet and carried globally by the BBC, the program—which included no commercial interruptions—represents the first of its kind in American history, a televised response to last week’s violent confrontations that left two black men dead, one in Louisiana and one in Minnesota, as well as five Dallas police officers, within a span of three days.
Two days after addressing the memorial for Dallas police officers and one day after meeting with law enforcement and community activists at the White House, Obama continued to marshal renewed energies to address the crisis of racial injustice gripping the country.
Alton Sterling’s son, Cameron, started the evening by pleading with Obama to lead the country toward racial reconciliation. Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, appeared from Minnesota, where she had just buried her boyfriend, and told the president that she was worried about the future of her daughter (who had witnessed Castile’s death from the rear seat of the car).
Obama answered these initial questions cautiously, discussing better police training, additional resources for law enforcement, and “best practices” that ensure the safety of police and citizens.
“Things are much better than they used to be,” argued Obama, citing lowering violent crime rates. These words rang hollow in light of the epidemic of police shootings of black women and men over the past three years.
The president stood on firmer ground when he detailed the ways in which economic inequality, neighborhood deterioration, mental health and drug crises affect police-community relationships in the most vulnerable communities. Citing how over a quarter of police shootings involve victims suffering from mental-health issues, Obama encouraged police departments to form partnerships with mental-health officials to reduce tensions.
Poverty, Obama acknowledged, citing Chicago’s South Side, breeds more violence. “It’s easier to get a gun than to get access to computers or books,” the president observed.
Obama spent most of the evening walking a tightrope between defending and praising law enforcement as imperfect but good public servants and acknowledging the roots of the protests, demonstrations and violence that have erupted nationally. The difficult balancing act the president tried, with only partial success, to pull off exemplifies the crucial role that activists and social movements play in framing issues in ways that even the most eloquent political leaders are unable to do.
The president’s town hall on race comes almost two years after Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Mo., became national news, turning a small bedroom suburb of St. Louis into a metaphor for racial injustice in the 21st century.
Over the past two years, Black Lives Matter activists have led a new kind of national race conversation, through demonstrations, social media, and cultural and political protests that have had an impact on public policy, popular culture, sports and music.
Obama, for many reasons both personal and political, has been reluctant to enter this fray, fearful that a focus on racial injustice would overwhelm his entire domestic political agenda. This reticence, however, has proved impossible over the last 18 months, a time punctuated by the racially motivated slaughter of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.; commemorations of the 50th anniversaries of the Selma, Ala., march and the Voting Rights Act; and last week’s spate of shootings.
During the worst of these times, Obama found his voice on race matters, eloquent, forceful and passionate, but these instances have, by and large, proved to be exceptions. The president’s rather muted performance Thursday night seemed purposeful. Obama tends to run cool when things around him get hot.
The fact that the president convened a town hall on race in America represents an important victory, one made ironic by the fact that Obama—who did not attend the funeral of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile—would probably not have made this appearance without the deaths of five white police officers. For African Americans, this is further heartbreaking evidence of why the Black Lives Matter movement is not only necessary but also vital to the strength and future of American democracy.
Last night the pain, anguish and trauma experienced by the black community was on national display, and millions of African Americans could take heart from the sight of the first black president calmly defending black humanity at a time when they feel more vulnerable than ever. “Sometimes,” Obama said in his concluding remarks, “people just want acknowledgment; they want to feel that their concerns are heard and they resonate.” For one night, at least, they did.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.