The exchange — and to a lesser extent, the news coverage that has followed it — is really a moment worth noting. It merits contemplation not because of the heightened tension between elected officials — one white, one black; one Republican, one Democrat — that it put on display. This exchange's contents are emblematic of the country's broader challenges with race and the often unproductive ways that we are inclined to think and talk about it.
In essence, Patrick stood up and did at that town hall what lots of Americans do when they decide to engage in one of these much-mentioned "conversations about race." And, in doing so, he demonstrated some of the reasons why race remains such a persistent social and political problem.
First, to be clear, here's the key section of that Patrick-Obama exchange at that town hall:
Now, let's explore the major features of that exchange.
1. Ye olde straw man, or a conversation limited to the extremes
Patrick's soliloquy displayed what can most kindly be described as a feigned obtuseness, a recognition of only two extremes. Patrick claimed, basically, that in a democratic society where all men are allegedly equal, one demonstrates respect and appreciation for law enforcement officers by refusing to question or critique even the most problematic and caught-on-tape incidents between black and Latino private citizens and police. Otherwise, one does not value the human beings who comprise the nation's police forces at all. Listen, folks, there is a reason that parts of the argument Patrick made constitute what PolitiFact has called a meme so false it earned a "a Pants on Fire" rating.
A less generous description of this kind of public argument is that it is a plain old straw man, a favorite tool of elected officials and the intellectually cornered. The straw man most often emerges when its user either has no idea how to resolve a major challenge or point of disagreement or has no interest in doing so at all.
We have no concrete proof that this is what Patrick was doing, even if that's the way that a number of publications — including Vox.com — described Patrick's arguments in all but name.What we do know is that Patrick — an elected official of mind sound enough to become the first in his family to graduate from college, raise two sons (one of whom is a district court judge) and work his way through a series of careers — decided to speak to (some might say lecture or redirect ) the president rather than ask an actual question. We know he decided to center those comments on the idea of the either-or dichotomy identified above. And we know that as a public official, he is well aware that in moments of mass and major crisis, elected officials are often expected, even called upon, to acknowledge a problem or potential problem and offer some words of comfort or concern. Those words are most often directed at those most profoundly affected. And few can really dispute that when one person is dead — or only certain groups seem to disproportionately encounter a particular problem — that these are the parties more profoundly affected. Facing questions about the way a job was done simply is not equivalent to being dead.
We can also hope that as an elected official, Patrick is at least aware of the fact that while public scrutiny of police activity has increased, very few of the officers involved in questionable activities ever face criminal charges. Even fewer still ever face punishment. That's not to say that every single one of these officers was guilty of a crime and somehow walked free. But there's little logic in insisting that they were all completely innocent, either. Some of the incidents — particularly those caught on video — show activities so astounding that people feel the need to warn viewers about the content. Thousands of people across the country have felt compelled to launch protests or push out of office elected officials in charge of deciding whether police should be prosecuted.
2. A focus on feelings/avoiding anything that might challenge the least vulnerable while giving little attention to policy
When Patrick had the opportunity to clarify his point, he didn't touch on the administration of justice and certainly not on the largest set of lives lost to the nation's problems with race and policing.
Fact: In 2015, there were 990 people killed by police officers and 130 police officers killed in the line of duty. The number of police killed in the line of duty this year is up compared with the first seven months of 2015. But the year is scarcely half over, and the number of people who were killed by police is up so far this year, too. In fact, as of today, that count stands at 522. And yes, while we are aware of Roland Fryer Jr's new analysis, there is ample evidence that a disproportionate share of those people were black or Latino, as The Washington Post has reported.
Patrick's interest, however, was in making sure that police "know in their heart" that, for all intents and purposes, they have the president's love, perhaps to the exclusion of all others. What America needs, according to Patrick, is to see the White House bathed in blue light. But this isn't a romance, or even a romance in crisis. This is a country, a democracy, that operates according to the rule of law and promises equality to all men and women.
Beyond even those foundational promises, America has no shortage of people willing to supply florid and even substantive public sentiments about unity among human beings, functional equality and justice or the rule of law. The president, along with several people who have lost loved ones in eyebrow-raising police incidents and others in the town hall audience, expressed some of those sentiments last night, again. Some of America's greatest and most revered public addresses and public documents are part of this tradition. If you doubt this, acquaint yourself with Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Abraham Lincoln's "A House Divided" speech, Obama's 2008 campaign speech on race and suspicion or, for that matter, what Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said on the Senate floor this week.
The bottom line is this: America's current problems with race, particularly race and policing, almost certainly do not exist because the president hasn't been demonstrative enough about his affection and affiliations or because of an insufficient national willingness to "stand together" and hold hands or participate in public candlelight vigils. All of that may be of some help on a human level. But to paraphrase Dr. Phil, we've done a lot of all of the above. How is that working for us? Well, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty has declined since Obama took office, when compared with the the numbers seen under the previous administration. But history tells us that substantive and lasting changes, even moves in the direction of equality, have most often happened when court cases were brought, when laws changed, when federal funds were threatened and when boycotts led by private citizens created a financial incentive to change actual practices and policies.
How we feel can matter. How we function and what we are required to do by policy are what really shape lives.
Now, no doubt, there were other features of this exchange that are probably worth noting. For starters, we saw and heard a propensity to lecture rather than listen and an unwillingness to take in new information or accept the validity of experiences not one's own. But these are tendencies that most people no doubt recognize as problematic in conversation. The same can't really be said for the two points above.