At a Thursday White House forum on criminal justice reform, President Obama ended the session by volunteering some comments, unprompted.
Obama chose to weigh in on the simmering controversy over the phrase "Black Lives Matter." More specifically, he gave his take on the idea that the phrase is a threat, a verbal affront or some kind of intentional effort to devalue the lives of others. This idea seems to have started with a few not-exactly disinterested police union heads and law enforcement officials, boiled over on a number of conservative blogs and has reverberated with a certain share of the white American public. One Fox News anchor even asked on air why Black Lives Matter is not considered a hate group. Her explanation: It's her job to ask questions.
Here's what Obama said, from Wesley Lowery:
"Sometimes, like any of these loose organizations, some people pop off and say dumb things but … on the other hand though, it started being lifted up as 'these folks are opposed to police, they're opposed to cops and all lives matter,' so the notion was that somehow saying black lives matter was reverse racism or suggesting that other people’s lives don’t matter or police officers lives don’t matter," Obama said. "And whenever we get bogged down in that kind of discussion, we know where that goes, that’s just down the old trap."
Obama went on to suggest that organizers of Black Lives Matter — which he declared a "social media movement" — do value all lives and do support good law enforcement. But he added, repeating a line he has used often when discussing issues of race and policing, that concerns about policing and profiling in minority communities are real and valid.
"I think that the reason that the organizers used the phrase Black Lives Matter was not because they were suggesting that no one else’s lives matter ... rather what they were suggesting was there is a specific problem that is happening in the African American community that’s not happening in other communities," Obama said. "And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address."
Obama didn't say much that hasn't been said by others. But the fact that he saw fit to weigh in on the matter, without a question or a direct prompt, is perhaps what's most notable here.
Obama is nearing the twilight of his presidency. And it's increasingly clear that the frequency of stories about race-related violence and questions about police misconduct makes it difficult to remain silent.
In his own sometimes terribly equivocal way, Obama has declined that challenge. In 2015, Obama has perhaps said more about race in America than he has in the six years since he was candidate Obama standing behind a podium in 2008 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
Obama, of course, is not just any president. He is the nation's first and thus far only black president. And if the content and tone of the Obama years are any indicator, he might well be the only black American president for some time.
White Americans, still a narrowing majority of the country, have told many a set of public opinion researchers that they are disappointed that Obama has not healed the nation's racial rift or, as mentioned above, claim that he has personally deepened it.
Some seem to think that Obama — or perhaps his exercise-enthusiast first lady — should have led the country in well-timed, vigorous reps of dipping our collective heads in the sand. Some seem to believe that allowing the man and his family to sleep in the West Wing and occasionally eat off the White House china were the final acts necessary to settle the nation's racial balance sheet.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who have lambasted and sometimes more gently critiqued Obama for his failure to advance a long list of economic and social policies through a Congress currently at war over what kind of conservative traditionalism is conservative and traditional enough. Claims that there is much more work to do seem reasonable. But it's not clear how reasonable people would get this work done.
Remember the much-derided White House beer summit way back in July 2009? Remember how it was criticized by both those who think the president should have said nothing and those who thought the president's some-guys-and-some-beers approach was too trite?
In case you don't remember, Obama invited the black Harvard University historian Henry Louis Gates and a white police officer, Sgt. James Crowley. Crowley had arrested Gates at Gates's Cambridge, Mass., home based on apparent suspicion that Gates was trying to burglarize the home and was not sufficiently compliant. The incident made news because it happened to Gates and then the president said offhandedly that the officer acted "stupidly."
But the fact that it happened at all to a professor at the nation's most respected school probably should have been recognized as a big, red flashing light. Racial profiling has long been an issue in need of attention and redress. Those who are well-educated and middle class-to-wealthy and black have no assurance that they can avoid this problem. And if they could, would that really represent a situation somehow more right?
What might have happened or perhaps not happened in this country if we'd engaged in a real debate about sentencing disparities, policing for profit and programs funneling money, seized property and military equipment to domestic police forces for low-level drug busts and crowd control? What if there had been serious data-based discussions and lawmaking around racial profiling or gun violence that began in 2009?
In Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and so many other cities and towns, those in denial perhaps found out. Those who already knew had much than more their worst suspicions confirmed.
Now, none of that is to say that Obama and his guests at the beer summit were going to somehow wash down and away all the nation's racial problems over a few cold ones. Not at all. But it was a moment, early in the Obama presidency, when he at least tried to do something to get America thinking and talking about some of what remains wrong with a country that enshrined the idea of equality in its founding documents but has yet to make that real.
What might have been different in the last six years if America and its policies had functioned like black lives really do matter? What is it that those who object to that phrase today believe will happen if that sentiment is rendered real?
When a president — the nation's first black president — feels compelled to volunteer his belief that a movement seeking justice and equality is confused with efforts to foment hate and violence, this is indeed a statement about the many miles the nation has yet to travel toward the founders' goals.