If Obama can’t bridge racial divide, who can?

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If Obama can’t bridge racial divide, who can?

Clarence Page
Chicago Tribunecpage​@chicagotribune.com
cptime@donaldwmeyers It didn’t hurt!
Obama condemns ‘criminal’ Ferguson violence
Chicago (UNITED STATES) (AFP) – President Barack Obama on Tuesday condemned the violence that erupted in Ferguson in the wake of the decision not to charge a white police officer over the fatal shooting of a black teenager. Duration: 01:07
Obama, our explainer-in-chief on race

After a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in the death of Michael Brown, President Barack Obama stepped up to perform his unofficial yet widely presumed role: racial explainer-in-chief.

It is not a new role, but as he shared a split-screen on TV news channels with live scenes of burning cars, riot police and angry protesters, seldom have the stakes seemed so high.

Minutes earlier a St. Louis County prosecutor announced there would be no indictment of Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Brown, an unarmed, black, 18-year-old, in Ferguson, Mo., in August.
Zorn: Ferguson and the malignant impact of racism
Zorn: Ferguson and the malignant impact of racism
Eric Zorn

As protesters gathered in streets across the nation, Obama urged them to hear the Brown family’s stance that hurting other people and destroying property is not the answer.

Inevitably, he said, there is “going to be some negative reaction, and it will make for good TV.” But he distinguished between peaceful protesters and criminal offenders as he called on police to “work with the community, not against the community.”

Obama often has been criticized as the Ferguson crisis has unfolded. He’s been accused of not saying enough about Ferguson or of saying too much.
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Clarence Page
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But as the grand jury’s decision approached, Obama began to speak out this past weekend in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

In that interview, as in his Monday statement, he expressed a familiar theme, a need for each side of the nation’s racial divide to show some empathy for the other side’s very different point of view, shaped by their very different life experiences.

“First and foremost, keep the protests peaceful,” Obama told ABC.

Second, the president said, walk in the other side’s moccasins for a while. He called on his fellow nonwhites to acknowledge that minorities are sometimes profiled by police because their communities are plagued by a higher proportion of lawbreakers.

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Police similarly are sometimes unjustly accused, Obama said, acknowledging that they do “a very tough job,” especially when peaceful protests are overrun “by a few thugs.”

Obama repeated his earlier calls for a national conversation between the law enforcement communities and minorities who feel unfairly treated.

“Sometimes their concerns are justified,” he said. “Sometimes they’re not justified.”

Empathy for the other side’s perspective has been a defining Obama theme since his 2008 candidacy ever since his landmark “more perfect union” speech defused a backlash over remarks by his former minister, Jeremiah Wright.

Clarence, your journalism mentor would be very disappointed in you. In your 09/04/2013 column, you ignored what she encouraged her students to remember when covering a story. ‘ I apologize to Mrs. K for tooting my own horn with this anecdote. She encouraged modesty and humility in her…
at 4:54 PM November 26, 2014

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Last year he set a theme for his second term by calling the “empathy deficit” a more pressing political problem than the federal deficit. At the time he was seeking to build bridges with Republicans and pass new gun-safety legislation. For the parties, that deficit has only grown.

Obama’s empathy emphasis often has been mocked, especially by conservatives. Yet his critics have been even more critical when he is not empathetic enough to their point of view.

When he lashed out at Cambridge, Mass., police who arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, for example, the backlash forced him to stage a so-called “Beer Summit” to smooth ruffled feathers.
Race and policing in America
Race and policing in America
Curtiss Paul DeYoung

With tribal sensitivities running so tense, it is small wonder that Obama has been reluctant to insert himself too soon or too deeply into the Ferguson divide. Maybe he is finding a new voice as an advocate for empathy as his presidency winds down.

The dueling TV images from Ferguson symbolized our racially divided self as a nation. They also put a spotlight on this president’s uncommon ability to bridge those two worlds. If he can’t succeed, many of us wonder, who can?

With that in mind, the National Journal’s Ron Fournier, a frequent critic of the president, was impressed enough by Obama’s ABC interview to raise an even more ambitious notion: “It would be refreshing,” he writes, “to hear Obama argue the GOP’s justification for gridlock as even-handedly as he did the cops’ case on Ferguson.”

What if, as Fournier suggests, Obama said, “Sometimes their concerns are justified.”

Would that simple concession make a difference? I’m sure Obama would appreciate hearing it from the other side. Empathy needs to go both ways.

Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage. He is the author of “Culture Worrier,” a collection of his best columns, available in print and at chicagotribune.com/ebooks.


Twitter @cptime


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