In a speech clearly intended to touch white people, President Barack Obama told the crowd at a Congressional Black Caucus dinner over the weekend that the inequality of the American criminal justice system and the perceived targeting of Black men by law enforcement not only affects African-Americans, it also hurts white people.
The president’s comments were the most significant statement he’s made on the racial turmoil that raged over the summer since the killing of Michael Brown in Missouri last month and the seeming spate of killings of Black males at the hands of police. But as is his custom, Obama broadened the issue beyond the Black community and attempted to show how it harms the entire nation, including white children.
“Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while black, or driving while black, judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness,” Obama told the gathering at the CBC’s annual awards dinner in Washington, D.C., on Saturday night. “We know that, statistically, in everything from enforcing drug policy to applying the death penalty to pulling people over, there are significant racial disparities. That’s just the statistics. One recent poll showed that the majority of Americans think the criminal justice system doesn’t treat people of all races equally. Think about that. That’s not just Blacks, not just Latinos or Asians or Native Americans saying things may not be unfair. That’s most Americans. And that has a corrosive effect — not just on the Black community; it has a corrosive effect on America.”
When the protests exploded in Ferguson, Missouri, many African-Americans criticized the president for not visiting Ferguson or speaking out sooner on Brown’s killing. Instead of going himself, Obama sent one of his closest confidantes — his soon-to-be outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. While Obama said he couldn’t speak directly on the Brown case, he did speak about the grief of Brown’s parents, who were in attendance at the dinner.
“I know that nothing any of us can say can ease the grief of losing a child so soon,” he said. “But the anger and the emotion that followed his death awakened our nation once again to the reality that people in this room have long understood, which is, in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement.”
Obama said of this mistrust: “It harms the communities that need law enforcement the most. It makes folks who are victimized by crime and need strong policing reluctant to go to the police because they may not trust them. And the worst part of it is it scars the hearts of our children. It scars the hearts of the white kids who grow unnecessarily fearful of somebody who doesn’t look like them. It stains the heart of Black children who feel as if no matter what he does, he will always be under suspicion. That is not the society we want. It’s not the society that our children deserve. Whether you’re Black or white, you don’t want that for America.”
The president also used the awards dinner to answer another criticism that has been directed his way by many in the Black community — how his My Brother’s Keeper initiative for Black boys seems to ignore the troubled plight of Black girls. Over the summer, Obama’s plans to direct more than $200 million in nonprofit and corporate money to attack the problems of Black boys was condemned in two different letters from Black leaders — one letter from a group of 200 Black men, who told the president the group of philanthropic organizations that have pledged $200 million to help at-risk boys had not fairly considered the plight of Black and brown girls. Another letter in July came from a group of 1,000 women that included Black academics and intellectuals such as author Alice Walker and lawyer Anita Hill.
“The need to acknowledge the crisis facing boys should not come at the expense of addressing the stunted opportunities for girls who live in the same households, suffer in the same schools, and struggle to overcome a common history of limited opportunities caused by various forms of discrimination,” that letter said.
“We’re not forgetting about the girls, by the way,” the president said Saturday night. “I got two daughters — I don’t know if you noticed. African-American girls are more likely than their white peers also to be suspended, incarcerated physically harassed. Black women struggle every day with biases that perpetuate oppressive standards for how they’re supposed to look and how they’re supposed to act. Too often, they’re either left under the hard light of scrutiny, or cloaked in a kind of invisibility. So in addition to the new efforts on My Brother’s Keeper, the White House Council for Women and Girls has for years been working on issues affecting women and girls of color, from violence against women, to pay equity, to access to health care.”
“And you know Michelle has been working on that,” he added, as the crowd applauded. “Because she doesn’t think our daughters should be treated differently than anybody else’s son. I’ve got a vested interest in making sure that our daughters have the same opportunities as boys do. So that’s the world we’ve got to reach for — the world where every single one of our children has the opportunity to pursue their measure of happiness. That’s our unfinished work. And we’re going to have to fight for it. We’ve got to stand up for it. And we have to vote for it. We have to vote for it.”
That was a message the president hammered home — the need for African-Americans to vote in the midterm elections in November. After listing many of the achievements of his six years and talking about Black boys, law enforcement and Black girls, he pushed the vote.
“Whenever I hear somebody say they’re praying for me, I say ‘thank you.’ Thank you — I believe in the power of prayer,” he said. “But we know more than prayer. We need to vote. We need to vote. That will be helpful. It will not relieve me of my gray hair, but it will help me pass some bills.”