Presidential Leadership

In the wake of a new series of “unjustified” killings of black men by police officers and the horrific assassination of five innocent cops just doing their jobs and protecting peaceful protesters in Dallas, President Obama hosted a largely-ignored but very significant meeting in the White House yesterday. Bringing together administration officials, community activists from the Black Lives Matter movement and representatives of police organizations, the President said this:

“There is no doubt that police departments still feel embattled and unjustly accused, and there is no doubt that minority communities, communities of color, still feel like it just takes too long to do what’s right. We have to, as a country, sit down and just grind it out — solve these problems.”

Sit down…grind it out…and solve these problems. Exactly! ¬†Because at this point we continue to talk past one another with African Americans feeling like they are unfairly targeted for traffic stops, stop-and-frisk, and worse. And the police feeling that they are under siege, victims of a tiny minority of bad cops when most of them are risking their lives every day to keep everyone in this country safe.

As in most debates, there is truth on both sides. But we simply have to find spaces where we can actually sit down, “grind it out” (as the President said), and solve these problems. A meeting such as the one Barack Obama hosted at the White House is a magnificent example of the kind of thing which must happen. I think it is actually encouraging that, according to reports, “…hostility flared at times behind closed doors at the session, particularly as those representing police organizations clashed with people who had been arrested at protests.”

That is encouraging because it means truth was being spoken and wildly different perspectives were being shared and heard. This is the kind of thing that happened at Desmond Tutu’s “Truth and Reconciliation” meetings in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. But those meetings brought healing to a troubled land. We have a lot of painful conversations to have before we reach the common ground necessary to begin to work together to end this senseless cycle of violence in our communities.

And, of course, it is in our local communities that these conversations must take place. A meeting in the White House, even one that lasted for over four hours all afternoon and into the evening, can only be a model for what needs to happen all across this country. If our President is looking for something to occupy his time after the election in November, he could well look to Jimmy Carter’s Center and Bill Clinton’s Foundation as prototypes for an “Obama Initiative” focused like a laser on racial reconciliation in this “land of the free, and home of the brave.”

Someone needs to lead us in finding ways actually to have these crucial local conversations on race. Who better than the first African American President once he is freed from the responsibilities of saving the economy, winding down two wars, reforming health care, opening the doors of equality for GLBT folks, and keeping us safe from terrorists?

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