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POTUS Town Hall

On familiar ground, president pleads for understanding

Obama has repeatedly addressed the gulf between blacks and whites over policing and violence

President Barack Obama confronted a familiar challenge as he strode before the cameras at Washington, D.C.’s, Studio Theater Thursday to address a nationally televised town hall meeting on the combustible subject of race and policing. Arrayed before him were 140 people, many of them antagonists on the front lines of the nation’s most divisive racial issue.

It was familiar ground for a president who once rarely mentioned racial issues, but now has repeatedly pleaded with Americans to search for common ground when it comes to race. What remains unclear is whether Americans are hearing him.

In the theater were people who had lost family members at the hands of law enforcement and relatives of police officers injured in the line of duty. There were Black Lives Matter activists and a police chief. There were people who see Obama as not doing enough to back police and others suspicious that his Justice Department can take years to complete civil rights investigations. There were police officers in uniform, and the creator of a video that has been viewed 35 million times instructing black men how to behave when they are stopped by police.

In the face of that, Obama declared: “We’re not as divided as we seem,” before going on to extol the power of empathy, compassion and an open heart. He talked about the difficult job police officers face on the nation’s most dangerous streets. He talked about the pain felt by people in the nation’s most dangerous communities who not only feel victimized when police shoot too soon, but also endure daily insults and indignities from officers they often view as an occupying force rather than community servants.

He also mentioned the paradox that lies at the core of the debate about race and the police: Poor black communities where police are often most distrusted are also often crime-ridden, leaving them dependent on the police for safety. He noted that the single greatest cause of death among young black men is homicide. “That’s crazy,” he said.

“We need police officers,” Obama added. “And we need police officers to be embraced by the community.”

The town hall meeting was the president’s latest attempt to build understanding following last week’s back-to-back shootings of black men by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and suburban Minneapolis. The emotional impact of those incidents was magnified by being caught in part on video, allowing them to ricochet across the airwaves and the internet. Those incidents were followed by an attack by a black sniper who cut down five police officers protecting a Black Lives Matter march in Dallas.

After speaking at a memorial service for the slain officers in Dallas on Tuesday, Obama held a five-hour meeting with police leaders, activists, and local officials at the White House Wednesday, which was followed by the town hall meeting that aired Thursday night.

The shootings and their aftermath are just the latest example of racial issues that Obama has been forced to address. Eight years ago, when his first presidential campaign was rocked by racially divisive statements by his former minister the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Obama invoked his own biracial heritage in trying to explain the resentments, fears and sense of grievance felt by both blacks and whites.

After a Florida jury found self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman not guilty in the death of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013, Obama used the occasion not to question the jury’s verdict, but to explain why so many African-Americans were angry about it.

A year later, when Ferguson, Missouri, teenager Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer, Obama talked about the “gulf of mistrust” separating police and many black citizens.

“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,” he said.

Despite Obama’s efforts and the example of racial progress represented by his election and re-election, race relations in the country are more fraught than they have been in decades. Nearly seven in 10 Americans say race relations are generally bad, according to a New York Times poll released this week, the highest level of dissatisfaction since 1992.

He pointed out the racial disparities that riddle the criminal justice system, leaving African-Americans subject to greater police scrutiny, harsher charges and longer sentences than similarly situated whites. “Across a lot of different situations, there are discrepancies,” he said. To point out that there are problems with the justice system does not mean you are anti-police, he said.

Americans too often cling to racial assumptions, he said. Black men, in particular, are burdened by the presumption that they are dangerous. And too many people assume the worst about the police, and when incidents arise they are often too quick to jump to conclusions, rather than waiting to see all of the facts. No matter how dramatic a video may be, he said, police officers deserve “due process.”

Despite the current turmoil, he noted progress. Overall, crime is at or near its lowest level in a half a century, and opportunities for African-Americans are greater than they have ever been. “Things are much better than they used to be,” he said.

It is a theme he has invoked before.

Speaking at Howard University’s commencement ceremonies earlier in May, Obama said there has never been a better time to be black in America. “If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, ‘young, gifted, and black’ in America, you would choose right now,” he said.

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.