Dear President Obama:
As a black man, I have cried more times than I care to admit in the past week, particularly after hearing the audiotape of Diamond Reynolds’ live Facebook video following the killing of her fiance, Philando Castile, in Falcon Heights, Minn. My heart wept as she showed profound resilience and calm in the face of an overly aggressive police officer who appeared unbothered by the trauma he had just inflicted on her and her 4-year-old daughter.
Has your heart wept? Have you cried?
I ask because the racial venom that has been unearthed in response to your presidency is like nothing I’ve ever seen. With each erasure of black life through state violence, these racist cops are shooting at us as if they wished they were shooting at you. While you have responded with more peacemaking and politically correct language to ensure that our white brothers and sisters feel “safe,” the body bags containing black men and women have continued to pile up like discarded waste in a landfill.
Given how soon Castile's death came after the death of Alton Sterling by two police officers just one day earlier in Baton Rouge, La., I was certain that you would mince no words in addressing the pain this revolving door of black assassinations is inflicting on our community. Instead, as you spoke from Warsaw, Poland, I heard the following phrases:
We have seen tragedies like this too many times.
This is not just a black issue.
A big chunk of fellow citizenry feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same.
I could not believe my ears. You said we “feel” as if we are not being treated the same, as if these police shootings were merely perceptions and not reality. You never uttered the word “racism.” You never mentioned police accountability. You never said “we” or “I” as if this could have been you, your wife or your daughters as the victims in these crimes. You never identified your personal connection to this issue or to our community.
I used to think that your measured approach to politics and high-voltage issues, such as state violence against black people, was due to your idealistic desire to bring everyone together in a magical “kumbaya moment” or to not be pegged as the “angry black man,” especially during your first term. When you were re-elected in 2012, I thought the gloves would come off and you would do battle with your racist, #AllLivesMatter political adversaries and address their perpetuation and protection of violent, institutionalized racism without apology.
I was wrong.
You kept turning the other cheek; now you keep turning the other cheek and, in essence, enabling their bad behavior—even though black lives swing in the balance.
Mr. President, you acknowledged during your speech in Dallas that you’ve “seen how inadequate your own words have been” when it comes to preventing future shootings and violence. Despite your feeble attempts to call police institutional violence to the carpet while also mourning the loss of five Dallas officers, your presence at the Dallas service signified, in all its political correctness, that #BlueLivesMatter more. Your absence at any of the homegoing services for black victims of police brutality was palpable, and spoke volumes. The closest I've heard you come to being present during these tragedies is when you announced that Trayvon Martin "could've been your son."
So, perhaps your rhetoric does not resonate with your audience because they can tell you are trying to please everyone instead of stating how you really feel. Your words, while often emphasizing unity and peace, often ignore the pain and suffering that many black people are experiencing in this country. Meanwhile, white supremacists respond to your olive branch by calling you the “racist, black, affirmative action president.” So what would you lose by approaching the podium as a proud black man who is president, instead of the president who just happens to be a black man?
Sometimes I just want you to be the same fiery Harvard activist that got you into the White House in the first place. Sometimes I want your speeches to cease being explanations of racism for white people to appease their guilt. Sometimes I wish you would just acknowledge the physical and psychological trauma that racism inflicts on black people every single day.
You can professionally be the president of all of America and be unapologetic about being a black man. The two are not mutually exclusive. You can’t repeatedly deliver speeches that refuse to hold racist murderers and police institutions accountable for their actions and think an off-key rendition of “Amazing Grace” will wash our pain away.
In 2008, your passionate speech on race in Philadelphia shifted my support from Hillary Clinton to you and your campaign. I even invited my dad to watch the video so that we could experience it together as father and son. On election night that year, I sat in a crowded living room with close friends, all of us black men, glued to the television as if our futures depended on it. We witnessed the election of the first black president of the United States of America. Months later, I stood in the arctic cold of Washington, D.C., for hours to watch you being sworn into office. Hope truly sprang eternal that day.
That is why it was so hard for me to write this letter, because I believed in you, and I still want to believe in you.
For the past eight years, you have done some remarkable things of which I am very proud. You led this country out of the worst recession in recent history. You ended two unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were costing the country billions of dollars and countless American lives. You and your administration orchestrated the killing of Osama bin Laden. You created a health care initiative that improved access to health care for millions of Americans. You have done more for LGBT equality than any of your predecessors. For all of these accomplishments, I thank you.
But if other demographic groups and issues of national urgency get your full attention, and all that your most loyal base gets is singing and jump shots, something is wrong with that picture. We need for you, during the little time you have left leading this country, to be the man we thought we voted for, or admit to yourself and to us that you never were.
My father taught me that you show someone you care by holding a mirror up to them. You can love them and be disappointed at the same time. After the horrific slayings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police last week, you stated, “We can do better.” No, Mr. President, police officers occupy positions of power in this country, and their senseless snuffing out of black life is a flagrant abuse of this power.
They can do better, and so can you.
David Malebranche, M.D., is an internal medicine physician and public health activist working in correctional health. He is also the author of a memoir about his father, Standing on His Shoulders. Dr. Malebranche lives in Marietta, Ga. You can reach him by email. Follow him on Twitter.