Friday, July 08, 2016

The Difference

Two articles today note the prevailing tone in response to the shooting in Dallas that claimed the lives of five police officers. Rare restraint in political reaction after police shootings was the headline to the Washington Post story.  Both presidential candidates cancelled their Friday events and condemned both the killings in Dallas, apparently by a black supremacist, and the killing of two black men by white police officers in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis this week.

Newt Gingrich even said that whites do not understand what it is like to be black in America.  Trump's statement, which bears the hallmarks of being constructed by someone else, was uncharacteristically sober, bland and even-handed.  The only element that suggested it came from Trump was a misstatement of fact.

There were cases of sensationalist provocation, as in the New York newspaper headline of "Civil War," and an attention-getting threat implying race war and attack on the black President by a rabid right former member of Congress. (He later retracted this implication, perhaps sensing an imminent visit from the Secret Service.)

While this guy (and other rabid righties) blamed President Obama, because he says that police violence against innocent black people is frequent and wrong, the other article makes a case that today's restraint and even-handedness is partly due to the persistent efforts of President Obama.

In his column, Jonathan Chiat begins by evoking Obama's famous "Yes, We Can" speech after the New Hampshire primary, in which he said--not for the last time, or really for the first--that America is not as divided as it seems.  Today's measured response, he writes, is "a vindication, also, of the vision of unity Obama had attempted to summon eight years before and never abandoned."

On this specific issue, President Obama did more than offer words.  Chiat notes Obama's statement from Poland, responding to the two shooting incidents (but the day before Dallas): "Last year, we put together a task force that was comprised of civil rights activists and community leaders, but also law enforcement officials -- police captains, sheriffs. And they sat around a table and they looked at the data and they looked at best practices, and they came up with specific recommendations and steps that could ensure that the trust between communities and police departments were rebuilt and incidents like this would be less likely to occur."

Many police departments are in the process of institutionalizing these recommendations--  but “a whole bunch that have not.” Change takes time. (This is another Obama belief.) as Chiat put it.  But it's more than a belief.  With our single-image view of history, we miss how long things take, and the bigger they are, most often the longer they take.

Chiat concludes:

If there is a single premise dividing Obama from his critics on both the left and the right, it is that intractable conflict is irrational rather than rational. The promise of reasoned, evidence-based progress is gains for all, not merely for one group at the necessary expense of others.

Obama’s placid vision is obviously not a panacea. There are murderers, racists, and hysterics afoot who will not calmly gather around the table for a data-based discussion of reforms. There is an element of struggle to his vision — a contest to maintain calm, to impose order over chaos and reason over passion. The dissidents to Obama’s vision, by necessity and by definition, are loud and conspicuous. They capture our attention. But they are not the majority, and they are not bound to prevail.

Although this assessment may appear "placid," President Obama has also expressed strong emotion in response to both the Dallas shooting and a long litany of shootings with black victims.  NPR lists some of these responses.

It is also worth noting that guns--the police fear of guns, the easy recourse by police to lethal force with their guns--dramatically make these situations worse. (WAPost correlates gun culture and police shootings, and the LA Times looks at whether the bombastic "second amendment rights" apply to blacks.)  And now we apparently have a first--a lethal robot, armed with a bomb.  What could possibly go wrong?

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