“This is now a national moment of grief, a national moment of pain, and searching for a solution . . . We’re not just dealing with a problem in 2014, we’re not dealing with years of racism leading up to it, or decades of racism — we are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day.”
For those who pay close attention to how Americans discuss racism, President Obama couldn’t have said it better this week in the wake of continued strife regarding policing and African American communities. Except those words — anchored in an unsparing analysis about the root of the problem between black men and white police officers — weren’t Obama’s.
They belong to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a white man with a black wife and biracial children — and some say, the ability to be bolder and more impassioned in his race talk than the nation’s first black president.
Obama said Thursday that he called de Blasio and thanked him for the comments delivered at a news conference Wednesday night after a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, 43.
Some of de Blasio’s words echo comments that Obama has made in recent weeks as the nation has followed the Garner case and the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury declined to bring charges against the white officer who shot Brown.
But de Blasio went further than Obama has dared in recent months. During his comments, the mayor also talked about how he and his wife have had to counsel their son, a lanky 17-year-old with a sprawling Afro, “to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”
De Blasio’s straightforward words speak to the longing of some to hear Obama deliver remarks with similar force.
Young activists told the president just that during a White House meeting this week in which Obama announced efforts at improving policing.
“People want the president to be out front the same way he did with immigration, gay rights and women’s rights. They want him to make this an American issue,” said Howard University student body President Leighton Watson, who met with Obama. “The consensus from everyone — the students and the mayors — was that we wanted the president to be more out in front in a visual and audible way. We don’t question his commitment. We just want him to continue it in a way people can feel.”
Joyce Ladner, who as a college student in the 1960s was active in the civil rights movement, believes those words are more effective coming from de Blasio.
“It’s very important,” she said. “Whites don’t believe us because their experiences are with Mr. McFriendly Policeman, while ours are those of a Sheriff Rainey and Sheriff Price,” she said, referring to two Mississippi law enforcement officials who were investigated in connection with the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers. Cecil R. Price was a deputy sheriff who was found guilty in the murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney; Lawrence A. Rainey, who was sheriff at the time, was acquitted.
“These disparate perspectives are so far apart that it makes sense that the more white people demonstrate and the more white public officials speak out forcefully and often, the more likely some white folks will eventually get it,” said Ladner, a former member of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee.
It’s not that Obama hasn’t tried to talk about racism; it’s that he’s been shouted down by some conservatives and whites who argued that his election in 2008 proved that the country had shed its racist past.
Just months into his first term, Obama criticized Boston police for their treatment of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who, having locked himself out of his house, got into a confrontation with a police officer who stopped to investigate and ultimately arrested the professor at his own home. The president sought to put the incident in the context of racial profiling and was swiftly denounced by lawmakers, commentators and police groups.
Shortly after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, Obama said: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” Again, critics accused him of inserting race into the incident.
Recently, Obama has chosen his words more carefully.
Kimberlee Williams Crenshaw, director of the African American Policy Forum, said de Blasio was channeling “the old Obama,” who tried to talk about race in personal terms but has been stung by the backlash. Now, she said, Obama has “begun to speak about race in the third person, he’s the arbiter of how black people are feeling. . . . It’s ‘people may perceive’ or ‘people may think’ or ‘people have lost confidence.’ ”
Crenshaw said there’s a reason why Obama cannot be as blunt about race.
“I do think that the price of being an African American who has been given authority is that you have to perform, almost over perform, with a certain detachment, so that your exercise of authority isn’t always” challenged or discredited on the grounds that “you’re only saying that because you’re black,” she said. “A white person, when they say something against racism, it’s often interpreted as, ‘It must really be bad if he’s going to say it.’ ”
De Blasio also has the advantage of being the local official in the situation, so there’s no blowback about meddling from the federal government or other “outsiders.” But he’s also faced criticism for his comments.
The police union denounced de Blasio for making officers feel as though they had been “thrown under the bus,” and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, in a Fox News appearance Thursday, vehemently disputed the notion that race played a role in Garner’s death. Giuliani said far from having a hostile relationship with communities of color, the city’s police department was responsible for having “saved more black lives” by reducing the murder rate during his tenure.
To make one of the most resonant points of his speech, de Blasio borrowed Obama’s own words from one of those times when the president tried to talk about his personal experience with racism.
“I was at the White House the other day, and the president of the United States turned to me, and he met Dante [de Blasio’s son] a few months ago, and he said that Dante reminded him of what he looked like as a teenager,” de Blasio said. “And he said, ‘I know you see this crisis through a very personal lens.’ I said to him I did. Because Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers he may face.”
Dante de Blasio was featured in a campaign ad during last year’s mayoral race, promising that his father would end New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, which targets black and Latino young men.
Wednesday night, de Blasio referenced his administration’s efforts regarding “the broken policy of stop and frisk” as he vowed additional policing reforms.
DeRay McKesson, one of the young leaders of the Ferguson protests, was not particularly moved by de Blasio’s words. Nor does he need to hear more talk from Obama, he said.
“Him saying ‘I get it’ is not enough,” McKesson said of de Blasio. “I don’t mind actions speaking along with words, but what is not going to work is words alone.”