Black, White and Shades of Grey - Part 2, Obama and the More Perfect Union

When Obama was elected, no one expected race issues to disappear, but his election did seem like a watershed moment that had more than merely symbolic meaning.  

At this time, with Obama preparing to leave the White House and major racial incidents popping up in the news on an almost weekly basis, it seems like an opportune moment to assess where we are as a nation in regards to creating the "more perfect union" he spoke so eloquently about in his 2008 speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

And who better to provide the commentary than Obama himself.  

He has been called upon to speak about race more than any other President in recent memory.

As Cathleen Decker says in an LA Times article, for the last two terms, "a president who is half black and half white has sought to explain each to the other, a demand fraught lately with conflicting demands that he support police who risk there lives and the Americans who feel mistreated by them."

Below are my selections from his speeches and interviews relating to race, beginning with his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and ending with his June 26, 2015 eulogy for Clementa Pinckney.

2004 Democratic Convention

Obama was unknown on the national stage when he gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, but his speech was so well-received that he was immediately spoken about as having the potential (in a way that Jesse Jackson never did) to be the first black President.

Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.

My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya.  He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack.  His father, my grandfather, was a cook, a domestic servant to the British.  But my grandfather had larger dreams for his son.  Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that's shown as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before him.

While studying here my father met my mother.  

She was born in a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas.  Her father worked on oil rigs and farms through most of the Depression.  The day after Pearl Harbor, my grandfather signed up for duty, joined Patton's army, marched across Europe.  Back home my grandmother raised a baby and went to work on a bomber assembly line.  After the war, they studied on the GI Bill, bought a house through FHA and later moved west, all the way to Hawaii, in search of opportunity.

And they too had big dreams for their daughter, a common dream born of two continents.

My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation.  They would give me an African name, Barack, or "blessed," believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success.  They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential.  They're both passed away now.  And yet I know that, on this night, they look down on me with great pride.

And I stand here today grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents' dreams live on in my two precious daughters.

I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy; our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal... that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

That is the true genius of America, a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution; and that our votes will be counted -- or at least, most of the time.

This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and our commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forebears and the promise of future generations.  And fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, independents, I say to you, tonight, we have more work to do....

People don't expect government to solve all their problems.  But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.  They know we can do better.  And they want that choice….

If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child.  If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for their prescription and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandparent.  If there's an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper -- that makes this country work.  It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: "E pluribus unum," out of many, one.

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.  Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.  There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats.  But I've got news for them, too.  We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.  We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.  There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.  We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.  In the end, that's what this election is about.  Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?  ....  

I'm not talking about blind optimism here, the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't think about it, or health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it.

That's not what I'm talking.  I'm talking about something more substantial.  It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.  Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.

I believe that we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity.  I believe we can provide jobs for the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair.  I believe that we have a righteous wind at our backs, and that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices and meet the challenges that face us.

America, tonight, if you feel the same energy that I do, if you feel the same urgency that I do, if you feel the same passion that I do, if you feel the same hopefulness that I do, if we do what we must do, then I have no doubt that all across the country, from Florida to Oregon, from Washington to Maine, the people will rise up in November, and John Kerry will be sworn in as president.  And John Edwards will be sworn in as vice president.  And this country will reclaim its promise.  And out of this long political darkness a brighter day will come.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Jeremiah Wright was a Pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago from 1972 until 2008.  Obama first met him in the late 1980s, while Obama was working as a community organizer.  Wright officiated at Obama's wedding, as well as at his children's baptisms.  The title of Obama's memoir, The Audacity of Hope, was inspired by one of Wright's sermons.  This sermon was also the source for several themes of Obama's keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Undoubtedly, Obama was close to Wright at one time.

In March 2008, ABC's Good Morning America broadcast excerpts from one of Wright's past sermons, which caused a media storm.  

Eventually other even more incendiary sermons were publicized.

Wright said things like:

We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye... and now we are indignant, because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards.  America's chickens are coming home to roost....

[The United States] government lied about their belief that all men were created equal.  The truth is they believed that all white men were created equal.  The truth is they did not even believe that white women were created equal, in creation nor civilization.  The government had to pass an amendment to the Constitution to get white women the vote.  Then the government had to pass an equal rights amendment to get equal protection under the law for women.  The government still thinks a woman has no rights over her own body, and between Uncle Clarence who sexually harassed Anita Hill, and a closeted Klan court, that is a throwback to the 19th century, handpicked by Daddy Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, between Clarence and that stacked court, they are about to undo Roe vs. Wade, just like they are about to un-do affirmative action.  The government lied in its founding documents and the government is still lying today.  Governments lie....

And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed.  She put them on reservations.  When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed.  She put them in internment prison camps.  When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed.  She put them in chains, the government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton field, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness.  The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing "God Bless America."  No, no, no, not God Bless America.  God damn America — that's in the Bible — for killing innocent people.  God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human.  God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme.  The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent....

I think one of Obama's tasks has been to redefine patriotism, away from the jingoistic flag waving we normally see, to a more nuanced view in line with the quote by U.S. Senator, orator and reformer Carl Schurz (1829-1906): “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” 

In a sense, Wright addressed many of the faults of America's past, faults which are undeniable, but he did so in such an antagonistic manner that Obama was called upon to clarify his relationship with him.

Obama told Charles Gibson on ABC News, "It's as if we took the five dumbest things that I've ever said or you've ever said in our lives and compressed them and put them out there — I think that people's reaction would, understandably, be upset."  He also said that "words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it's on the campaign stump or in the pulpit.  In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue."

These interviews and comments did little to calm the uproar.

In an attempt to address his thoughts on race in a more comprehensive manner, on March 18, 2008, Obama spoke at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he gave his "A More Perfect Union" speech.  This speech was in general well received and is one of the most nuanced and impressive speeches any politician has ever given on race in America.

“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.  Farmers and scholars, statesmen and patriots, who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution, finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished.  It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States.  What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.  I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren....

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity.  Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country.  In South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign….  

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.  On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy.  For some, nagging questions remain.  Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy?  Of course.  Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church?  Yes.  Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views?  Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial.  They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice.  Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

As such, Rev. Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic healthcare crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all….

We can dismiss Rev. Wright as a crank or a demagogue….

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.  We would be making the same mistake that Rev. Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.  And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like healthcare, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point.  As William Faulkner once wrote: “The past isn’t dead and buried.  In fact, it isn’t even past.”  We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country.  But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.

Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.  That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened.  And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

This is the reality in which Rev. Wright and other African Americans of his generation grew up.  They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted.  What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination.  That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future.  Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.  For the men and women of Rev. Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.  That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends.  But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.  At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews.  The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Rev. Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.  That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.  But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community.  Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.  Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch.  They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.  They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.  So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company.  But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.  Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition.  Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends.  Talk-show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.  And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now.  It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.  Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.  It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life.  But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better healthcare, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans – the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.  And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Ironically, this quintessentially American – and yes, conservative – notion of self-help found frequent expression in Rev. Wright’s sermons.  But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

The profound mistake of Rev. Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society.  It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old – is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know – what we have seen – is that America can change.  That is true genius of this nation.  What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed.  Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.  It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us.  Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

For we have a choice in this country.  We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism.  We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news.  We can play Rev. Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words….  

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction.  And then another one.  And then another one.  And nothing will change.

That is one option.  Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.”  This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children.  This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem.  The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy.  Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have healthcare; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life.  This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag.  We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country.  This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.  And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a prominent African American professor at Harvard University.  On July 16, 2009, after coming home from a trip to China, Gates found his front door jammed, so he and his driver began pushing their way in.  A neighbor, thinking that the men were breaking into the house, called police.

When the responding police officer arrived, he found Gates in the house and asked him to step outside.  Gates refused became angry that he was suspected of burglarizing his own house.  He was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, which charge was later dropped.

The Washington Post summarized matter:

The arrest, which became a kind of national Rorschach test on racial profiling, deteriorated in the "first five nanoseconds," Gates told the committee.

[The arresting officer, Sgt. James] Crowley said that he "had no choice" but to arrest Gates, who said he asked the officer whether he was being mistreated because he was African American.  The committee faulted both men, saying Crowley "missed opportunities to find a better outcome."  It chided Gates for not immediately stepping onto his porch as initially requested by the officer.

Both Gates and the police officer stood their ground in interviews conducted for the report, refusing to admit error.  Crowley believed that Gates was being belligerent and unruly.  Gates believed that he was being treated unfairly.

Obama, who initially called the arrest "stupid," ended the furious public debate over his comments by inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer.  Obama said at the time that he believed the incident was a "teachable moment."

Still, the situation essentially remained unresolved with dueling versions about what happened and passionate disagreement among supporters of both men.  The committee investigating the arrest, led by Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, was left to sort it all out.  At the start of the investigation, Wexler said he was doubtful that there were any lessons to be learned.

"There was a certain degree of skepticism," he said.  "People on the committee had preconceived ideas about what they thought happened.  What really began to happen was we kind of put that aside, and we had to get at the facts."

The committee titled the report "Missed Opportunities, Shared Responsibilities" because "both of the individuals contributed to the outcome unintentionally.  Both had opportunities to try to ratchet down the encounter," Wexler said.  "They were both looking at the same set of circumstances from different perspectives.  They both had a certain degree of fear of each other."

The committee offers 10 recommendations for diffusing that fear, including encouraging police departments to offer training in how to de-escalate tensions when officers are not in danger, which Crowley did not do.  Law enforcement officials should also take a hard look at cases where the only victim in a disorderly conduct charge is the police officer, as opposed to cases in which the arrested person had other victims, the committee said.

The report suggests that Crowley could have calmed Gates after he saw proof of the professor's residency and "taken greater pains" to explain the dangers of responding to a possible crime-in-progress.

Gates said that he would not have done anything differently -- except not follow Crowley out of his house, where he was arrested.  The committee said Gates could have spoken to Crowley "more respectfully" and should have stepped outside of his home at the beginning of the encounter, as Crowley requested.

Neither Gates nor Crowley has responded to requests for interviews about the report.  Gates's lawyer Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and expert on civil rights, released a book on the topic last month titled "The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates and Race, Class and Crime in America."  Ogletree determined that "the issues of race, class and crime were ever present" and included an epilogue with the stories of 100 prominent black men who have experienced racial profiling.

"To say that both gentleman could have handled it differently ignores the issues of power and control and authority," Ogletree said of the report.  "Gates could not control the situation.  The officer did."

Obama's comment that the police officer had acted "stupidly" led to a firestorm of criticism, so much so that he had to address the comment in a press conference:

The fact that it has garnered so much attention I think is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive here in America.  So to the extent that my choice of words didn’t illuminate, but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate.  What I’d like to do then is make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much from the facts — but as I said at the press conference, be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, you know, African Americans are sensitive to these issues.  And even when you’ve got a police officer who has a fine track record on racial sensitivity, interactions between police officers and the African American community can sometimes be fraught with misunderstanding.

My hope is, is that as a consequence of this event this ends up being what’s called a 'teachable moment,' where all of us instead of pumping up the volume spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity....

There are some who say that as president I shouldn’t have stepped into this at all because it’s a local issue.  I have to tell you that that part of it I disagree with.  The fact that this has become such a big issue I think is indicative of the fact that race is still a troubling aspect of our society.  Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this and hopefully contributing to constructive — as opposed to negative — understandings about the issue, is part of my portfolio.

Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin, a Miami native, was visiting his father in Sanford, Florida, and watching the NBA All-Star game at a house in a gated Sanford community.  Martin walked to a nearby 7-Eleven to get Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea.  On his return, George Zimmerman, who was the neighborhood watch coordinator for Sanford and was patrolling the neighborhood, noticed him.

Zimmerman called 911 to report him as suspicious and began to follow him.

"This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman told the dispatcher.  "It's raining, and he's just walking around looking about."  

"Now he's coming towards me.  He's got his hand in his waistband.  And he's a black male...  Something's wrong with him.  Yup, he's coming to check me out.  He's got something in his hands.  I don't know what his deal is...  These assholes, they always get away."

After discussing his location with the dispatcher, Zimmerman exclaimed, "Shit, he's running."

"Are you following him?" the dispatcher asked.  Zimmerman replied: "Yep."

"Okay, we don't need you to do that," the dispatcher said.

Several minutes later, according to other callers to 911 in the neighborhood, Zimmerman and Martin got into a wrestling match on the ground.  One of the pair could be heard screaming for help.  Then a single shot rang out, and Martin lay dead.

Zimmerman was indicted, tried, and on July 13, 2013 was acquitted of all charges related to the killing of Martin.

The acquittal led to protests throughout the United States.

On July 14, 2013, Obama gave a press conference where he said:

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.  And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store.  That includes me.  There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.  That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator.  There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.  That happens often.

And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.  And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.  The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws -- everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.  And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn't to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.  It’s not to make excuses for that fact -- although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.  They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.

And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration.  And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent -- using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.

I think the African American community is also not naïve in understanding that, statistically, somebody like Trayvon Martin was statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.  So folks understand the challenges that exist for African American boys.  But they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it and that context is being denied.  And that all contributes I think to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.

Now, the question for me at least, and I think for a lot of folks, is where do we take this?  How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction?  I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through, as long as it remains nonviolent.  If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.  But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do. 

I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here.  Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code.  And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.

That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation we can’t do some things that I think would be productive.  So let me just give a couple of specifics that I’m still bouncing around with my staff, so we’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.

Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it would be productive for the Justice Department, governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists. 

When I was in Illinois, I passed racial profiling legislation, and it actually did just two simple things.  One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped.  But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing. 

And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and, in turn, be more helpful in applying the law.  And obviously, law enforcement has got a very tough job.

So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought to bear if state and local governments are receptive.  And I think a lot of them would be.  And let's figure out are there ways for us to push out that kind of training.

Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it -- if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than diffuse potential altercations. 

I know that there's been commentary about the fact that the "stand your ground" laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case.  On the other hand, if we're sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there's a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we'd like to see? 

And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these "stand your ground" laws, I'd just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?  And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?  And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Number three -- and this is a long-term project -- we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys.  And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about.  There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement.  And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?

I'm not naïve about the prospects of some grand, new federal program.  I'm not sure that that’s what we're talking about here. But I do recognize that as President, I've got some convening power, and there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front.  And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African American men feel that they're a full part of this society and that they've got pathways and avenues to succeed -- I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation.  And we're going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that. 

And then, finally, I think it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching.  There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race.  I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations.  They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.  On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?  Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?  That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.

And let me just leave you with a final thought that, as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better.  Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.  It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society.  It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated.  But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I seem them interact, they’re better than we are -- they’re better than we were -- on these issues.  And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues.  And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.  But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union -- not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.

Michael Brown

On August 9, 2014, Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson responded to a call of a baby with breathing problems.  About three minutes later and several blocks away, Michael Brown (18 years old) was recorded on camera stealing a box of Swisher cigars and pushing away a Ferguson Market clerk.  Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, left the market at about 11:54 a.m.

Reports of what happened next differ widely between witnesses, but at about noon, Wilson drove up to Brown and Johnson and ordered them to move off the street and onto the sidewalk.  A struggle took place between Brown and Wilson through the window of the police SUV.   Wilson's gun dsicharged twice during the struggle, with one bullet hitting Brown's right hand.  Brown and Johnson fled.  Wilson got out of the vehicle and pursued Brown.  At some point, Wilson fired his gun again, with at least six shots striking Brown, fatally wounding him.

The shooting led to significant unrest in Ferguson and throughout the United States.

On August 14, 2014, Obama gave a press conference:

There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting.  There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.  And here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people on what they see on the ground.

Put simply, we all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority.  I know that emotions are raw right now in Ferguson and there are certainly passionate differences about what has happened.  There are going to be different accounts of how this tragedy occurred.  There are going to be differences in terms of what needs to happen going forward.  That’s part of our democracy.  But let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family.  We are united in common values, and that includes belief in equality under the law, basic respect for public order and the right to peaceful public protest, a reverence for the dignity of every single man, woman and child among us, and the need for accountability when it comes to our government.

So now is the time for healing.  Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson. Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done.

In November 2014, after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson in Brown's death, Obama gave another press conference:

It’s an outcome that, either way, was going to be subject of intense disagreement not only in Ferguson, but across America.  So I want to just say a few words suggesting how we might move forward.  First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law.  And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.  There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction.  But I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully.  Let me repeat Michael’s father’s words:  'Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer.  No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain.  I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.'  Michael Brown’s parents have lost more than anyone.  We should be honoring their wishes.

I also appeal to the law enforcement officials in Ferguson and the region to show care and restraint in managing peaceful protests that may occur.  Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day.  They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law.  As they do their jobs in the coming days, they need to work with the community, not against the community, to distinguish the handful of people who may use the grand jury’s decision as an excuse for violence - distinguish them from the vast majority who just want their voices heard around legitimate issues in terms of how communities and law enforcement interact.

Finally, we need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation.  The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.  Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country.  And this is tragic, because nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates....

But what is also true is that there are still problems and communities of color aren't just making these problems up.  Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion.  I don't think that's the norm. I don't think that's true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials.  But these are real issues.  And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down. What we need to do is to understand them and figure out how do we make more progress. And that can be done.

Eric Garner

According to Wikipedia (6/27/2015), which has a detailed Eric Garner page (well documented by citations, omitted here):

Eric Garner was a 350-pound, 43-year-old, 6'3" tall, African American man who was formerly employed as a horticulturist at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, but quit due to health reasons.  Garner... had been described by his friends as a "neighborhood peacemaker" and as a generous, congenial person.  Garner was the father of six children and three grandchildren; and at the time of his death had a 3-month-old child....

On July 17, 2014, at 4:45 p.m., Eric Garner was approached by a plainclothes police officer, Justin Damico, in the Tompkinsville neighborhood in Staten Island.  According to bystanders, including Ramsey Orta, a friend of Garner's who videotaped the incident, Garner had broken up a fight just prior to his death, which may have drawn Orta's and Officer Daniel Pantaleo's attention to him.  After telling the police officers, "Get away [garbled] for what?  Every time you see me, you want to mess with me.  I'm tired of it.  It stops today.  Why would you...?  Everyone standing here will tell you I didn't do nothing.  I did not sell nothing.  Because everytime you see me, you want to harass me.  You want to stop me [garbled] selling cigarettes.  I'm minding my business, officer, I'm minding my business.  Please just leave me alone.  I told you the last time, please just leave me alone."

When Pantaleo approached Garner from behind and attempted to handcuff him, Garner swatted his arms away, saying "Don't touch me, please."  Pantaleo then put Garner in a chokehold [although there was some dispute as to whether it really was a chokehold] from behind, and pulled backwards in an attempt to bring Garner to the ground.  As Garner was brought to the ground, ... other uniformed officers surrounded him.  For a few moments, Garner went to his knees and forearms and did not say anything.  At that point, three uniformed officers and the two plainclothes officers had surrounded him.  After 15 seconds, the video showed Pantaleo had removed his arm from around Garner's neck; Pantaleo then used his hands to push Garner's face into the sidewalk.  Garner is heard saying "I can't breathe" multiple times while lying facedown on the sidewalk.  The arrest was supervised by a female African American NYPD sergeant, Kizzy Adoni, who did not intercede.  Adoni was quoted in the original police report as stating, "The perpetrator's condition did not seem serious and he did not appear to get worse."

Garner lay motionless, handcuffed, and unresponsive for several minutes before an ambulance arrived, as shown in a second video.  Other than one officer who told the then-unconscious Garner to "breathe in, breathe out," the police made no attempt to resuscitate Garner.  The police defended their decision to not perform CPR on Garner because they stated that he was still breathing and that it would have been improper to do CPR on someone who was breathing on his own.  When an ambulance arrived on scene, two medics and two EMTs inside the ambulance did not administer any emergency medical aid or promptly place him on a stretcher.  According to police, Garner had a heart attack while being transported to Richmond University Medical Center.  He was pronounced dead at the hospital one hour later....

On August 1, Garner's death was found by the New York City Medical Examiner's Office to be a result of "compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police."  Asthma, heart disease, and obesity were cited as contributing factors.  There was no damage to the windpipe or neck bones.  On August 1, the medical examiner's spokesperson, Julie Bolcer, announced that Garner's death has been ruled a homicide....

On August 19, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan, Jr. announced that the case against Pantaleo would go to a grand jury, saying that after considering the medical examiner's findings, his office decided "it is appropriate to present evidence regarding circumstances of his death to a Richmond County Grand Jury."  On September 29, the grand jury began hearing evidence in the Garner case.  The 23-member panel was made up of fourteen white members and nine non-white members, at least five of whom were black.  On November 21, Pantaleo testified before the Garner grand jury for about two hours, giving his account of Garner's death.  After having the case for two months, a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo on December 3....

After the Staten Island grand did not indict Pantaleo on December 3, citizens in New York City and San Francisco gathered in protest....  On December 5, thousands gathered in protest on the Boston Common in Boston, and then marched in the downtown area, blocking traffic....  Protests also occurred in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Atlanta.  At least 300 people were arrested at the New York City protests on December 4 and 5....  Protesters have made use of Garner's last words, "I can't breathe," as a slogan and chant against police brutality since Garner's death and Officer Pantaleo's grand jury decision.

Counter protests have also been launched in support of police and the NYPD.  On December 19, during a New York City protest about the grand jury decision, supporters of the NYPD held a counter-demonstration, wearing shirts with the phrase, "I can breathe, thanks to the NYPD," on them, holding signs with phrases like "Bluelivesmatter," and chanting, "Don't resist arrest."

On December 20, two NYPD police officers were killed in an ambush in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.  The suspected gunman, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, "declared his intention on his Instagram account to kill police officers as retribution for the recent police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner."  The suspect, who has a long criminal record, then entered the New York City Subway and committed suicide.

On December 3, 2014, after it was announced that the grand jury declined to indict, Obama made the following statements:

“I want everybody to know here, as well as everybody who may be viewing my remarks here today, we are not going to let up until we see a strengthening of the trust and a strengthening of the accountability that exists between our communities and our law enforcement.  And I say that as somebody who believes that law enforcement has an incredibly difficult job; that every man or woman in uniform are putting their lives at risk to protect us; that they have the right to come home, just like we do from our jobs; that there’s real crime out there that they’ve got to tackle day in and day out -- but that they’re only going to be able to do their job effectively if everybody has confidence in the system.

"And right now, unfortunately, we are seeing too many instances where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly.  And in some cases, those may be misperceptions; but in some cases, that’s a reality.  And it is incumbent upon all of us, as Americans, regardless of race, region, faith, that we recognize this is an American problem, and not just a black problem or a brown problem or a Native American problem.  This is an American problem.  When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that’s a problem.  And it’s my job as president to help solve it."

Tamir Rice

Tamir Rice was a 12-year old boy, who on November 22, 2014 was playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland, Ohio park.  Someone made a 911 call, complaining that a person, probably a "juvenile,"  was pointing a gun at people.  The caller also said that the gun was probably "fake."  Two police officers, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, responded.  Garmback drove the police car to within ten feet of the child, and Loehmann fired two shots within seconds of arriving on the scene, hitting Rice once in the torso.  Neither officer administered first aid to the child after the shooting.  

Rice died the following day.

The prosecuting attorney is still reviewing the case and has not yet decided whether to charge either or both officers.  According to a recent article in The Atlantic:

In response to a petition from citizens, under an obscure and little-used provision of Ohio law, Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine agreed that Officer Timothy Loehmann should be charged with several crimes, the most serious of them being murder but also including involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, negligent homicide and dereliction of duty.  Adrine also found probable cause to charge another officer, Frank Garmback, with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty.  He rejected aggravated murder charges against both officers.  Referring to the “notorious” video of Rice’s death, the judge wrote, “This court is still thunderstruck at how quickly this event turned deadly....  On the video the zone car containing Loehmann and Garmback is still in the process of stopping when Rice is shot."

But Adrine did not order the two men to be arrested.  He stated that because the law under which the affidavits were filed had been amended in 2006, judges no longer have the authority to issue warrants themselves in such cases.

Instead, Adrine forwarded his opinion to city prosecutors and Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who says he is currently investigating the case.  And he took pains to note that prosecutors are required to apply a different standard before filing charges, determining that it is more probable than not that a reasonable “trier of fact” would hold the officers accountable for any alleged crimes.

The affidavit filed Monday was intended to jumpstart the process of prosecution; it’s been more than 200 days since Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was shot and killed in a city park. Adrine’s finding of probable cause may increase pressure on McGinty. But since all murder prosecutions have to go through a grand jury under Ohio law, Adrine’s order just funnels the case back to where it was before—waiting for McGinty to act....

Rice’s family and its allies are understandably upset that months after a shooting captured on camera, there have been no charges.  In some ways, that’s a clear travesty of justice.  But prosecutors are working on the case, and say that their investigation is ongoing.  As clear as the facts might seem, cases in which officers shoot citizens almost always take a great deal of time.  As David Jaros, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, told me in May, that’s because the justice system works for police officers in much the same way that people (incorrectly) expect it to work for ordinary citizens.  In contrast to run-of-the-mill crimes, district attorneys tend to be exhaustive and meticulous with officer-involved shootings.

One reason for that is that prosecutors have an interdependent relationship with police: They rely on the cops to arrest people, bring them in, and testify against them.  As the tension between Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and the Baltimore Police Department has shown, bringing charges against officers can create strained relationships.  In the Rice case, County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty has shown the dangers of erring too far in the other direction, producing concern that he’s not serious about the case. But can the activists succeed in altering his course?

Two days ago, a candle light vigil was held in Cleveland for what would have been Rice's thirteenth birthday.

On December 5, 2014, within in month of Rice's death, Obama spoke to BET's Jeff Johnson about the deaths of Brown, Garner and Rice.  As excerpted on the White House blog:

It used to be, folks would say, "Well maybe blacks are exaggerating, maybe some of these situations aren't what they described."  What we've seen on television, for everybody to see, gives us an opportunity, I think, to finally have the kind of conversation that's been a long time coming....

Dr. King once said, when he was asked about anti-lynching legislation -- somebody said, "Well, you know, you can't change what's in the hearts and minds of the white folks in the South.  You can't legislate what's in their hearts."  He says, "Well, you can't legislate in their hearts, but I tell you what: If you can just stop them from lynching me, that's progress.  That's a pretty good thing."  And over time, hearts and minds catch up with laws.  That's been the history of progress in this country....

In his final question, the interviewer asked the President what his hopes and visions are for his children and grandchildren.

"I want my children to be seen as the individuals that they are, and I want them to be judged based on the content of their character and their behavior and their talents and their gifts," President Obama said.  "I don't want them to be objects of fear simply because of misguided attitudes."

You know, part of what I think is so heartbreaking and frustrating for a lot of folks when they watch this is the recognition that simply by virtue of color, you've got less margin for error.  That's particularly true for black boys.

Young men, teenage boys -- sometimes they're going to do stupid stuff.  That's true whether they're white, black, Hispanic -- it doesn't matter.  You did stupid stuff, I did stupid stuff.  Most of the time it's harmless.  Sometimes it's careless.  And then we grow and we progress and we become, hopefully, solid citizens and men who are contributing to our society.

And so, it's not simply that we want to make sure that the perfect young man is treated okay.   We also want a boy who's a boy, or a young man who is maybe a little confused, maybe makes a mistake -- we want them to be given the same benefit of the doubt as any other man would, or any other boy would be given.  And that, I think, is going to be the test of whether or not our society and our law enforcement and our schools are operating the way they should be.

Clementa Pinckney

Clementa Pinckney (July 30, 1973 – June 17, 2015) was a Senator and Democratic member of the South Carolina Senate, representing the 45th District since 2000. 

He was also a senior pastor at Mother Emanuel A.M.E., in Charleston, South Carolina.

Pinckney was murdered on June 17, 2015, along with eight others in a shooting at an evening Bible study.

On June 26, 2015, Obama delivered Pinckney's eulogy.

My favorite lines from the eulogy were:

What a good man.  Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized, after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say somebody was a good man.

You don’t have to be of high distinction to be a good man.

Preacher by 13, pastor by 18, public servant by 23.  What a life Clementa Pinckney lived.  What an example he set.  What a model for his faith.

And then to lose him at 41, slain in his sanctuary with eight wonderful members of his flock, each at different stages in life but bound together by a common commitment to God....

But Obama used the eulogy not just to praise Pinckney, but also to meditate on the meaning of grace in a Christian life, and to deal with broader issues such as gun control, the history and meaning of the Confederate flag, poverty and, of course, race relations.

[Speaking of the nine murdered people:]  Good people.  Decent people.  God-fearing people.

People so full of life and so full of kindness, people who ran the race, who persevered, people of great faith.

To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief.  Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church.

The church is and always has been the center of African American life, a place to call our own in a too-often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.

Over the course of centuries, black churches served as hush harbors, where slaves could worship in safety, praise houses, where their free descendants could gather and shout “Hallelujah,” rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad, bunkers for the foot soldiers of the civil-rights movement.

They have been and continue to community centers, where we organize for jobs and justice, places of scholarship and network, places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harms way and told that they are beautiful and smart and taught that they matter.

That’s what happens in church.  That’s what the black church means — our beating heart, the place where our dignity as a people in inviolate.

There’s no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel, a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founders sought to end slavery only to rise up again, a phoenix from these ashes.

When there were laws banning all-black church gatherers, services happened here anyway in defiance of unjust laws.  When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps.

A sacred place, this church, not just for blacks, not just for Christians but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country, a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all.

That’s what the church meant.

We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history, but he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act.  It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress, an act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion, an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.

Oh, but God works in mysterious ways.

God has different ideas.

He didn’t know he was being used by God.

Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer would not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group, the light of love that shown as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.

The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.  He couldn’t imagine that.

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley, how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond not merely with revulsion at his evil acts, but with (inaudible) generosity.  And more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.  Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace.

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace.

The grace of the families who lost loved ones; the grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons; the grace described in one of my favorite hymnals, the one we all know — Amazing Grace.

How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned.  Grace is not merited.  It’s not something we deserve.  Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God.

As manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.  Grace — as a nation out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.

He’s given us the chance where we’ve been lost to find out best selves.  We may not have earned this grace with our rancor and complacency and short-sightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same.  He gave it to us anyway.  He’s once more given us grace.

But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate Flag stirred into many of our citizens.

It’s true a flag did not cause these murders.  But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise, as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride.

For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.

We see that now.

Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness.  It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.

The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.

It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.

It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union.

By taking down that flag, we express adds grace God’s grace.

But I don’t think God wants us to stop there.

For too long, we’ve been blind to be way past injustices continue to shape the present.

Perhaps we see that now.  Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.

Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.

Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal-justice system and leads us to make sure that that system’s not infected with bias, that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.

Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal, so that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote by recognizing our common humanity, by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American.  By doing that, we express God’s grace.

For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation.

Sporadically, our eyes are open when eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school.  But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day, the countless more whose lives are forever changed, the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happening to some other place.

The vast majority of Americans, the majority of gun owners want to do something about this.  We see that now.

And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions, ways of life that make up this beloved country, by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.

We don’t earn grace.  We’re all sinners.  We don’t deserve it.

But God gives it to us anyway.

And we choose how to receive it.  It’s our decision how to honor it.

None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight.  Every time something like this happens, somebody says, “We have to have a conversation about race.”  We talk a lot about race.

There’s no shortcut.  We don’t need more talk.

None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy.

It will not.  People of good will will continue to debate the merits of various policies as our democracy requires — the big, raucous place, America is.  And there are good people on both sides of these debates.

Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete.  But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.

Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual.  That’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.

To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again.  It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.

Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the south, we have a deep appreciation of history.  We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”

What is true in the south is true for America. Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other; that my liberty depends on you being free, too.

That — that history can’t be a sword to justify injustice or a shield against progress.  It must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, how to break the cycle, a roadway toward a better world.  He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind.  But more importantly, an open heart.

That’s what I felt this week — an open heart.  That more than any particular policy or analysis is what’s called upon right now, I think.  It’s what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness beyond and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”

That reservoir of goodness.  If we can find that grace, anything is possible.

If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace, amazing grace.

Amazing grace…


… how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now, I see.

Clementa Pinckney found that grace…

… Cynthia Hurd found that grace…

… Susie Jackson found that grace…

… Ethel Lance found that grace…

… DePayne Middleton Doctor found that grace…

… Tywanza Sanders found that grace…

… Daniel L. Simmons, Sr. found that grace…

… Sharonda Coleman-Singleton found that grace…

… Myra Thompson found that grace…

… through the example of their lives.  They’ve now passed it onto us.  May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift as long as our lives endure.

May grace now lead them home.  May God continue to shed His Grace on the United States of America.

Yahoo has recently posted an article entitled, "The Obama Legacy on Race," which sums things up rather nicely: 

President Barack Obama has now granted more than 900 interviews since taking office.  But when future historians look back on Obama’s presidency and try to understand his place in America’s racial evolution, they will almost certainly zero in on the one he gave Marc Maron in the comedian’s southern California garage last week, in which Obama dared to publicly utter the most explosive racial epithet in American life.

“It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up and that attitudes have changed,” Obama told Maron, taking the long view.  “Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened two to three hundred years prior.”

Historians will measure that long view against events of the past year, from the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore to the horrific shootings in Charleston, and they will have to consider some complicated questions.

Has Obama’s presidency improved race relations, as we hoped and expected it would?  Or have things actually gotten worse?

Obama’s stunning political rise was always premised on the idea that he was a national politician who happened to be African American, as opposed to the kind of African American politician whose political identity was inseparable from his race.  But race has been an enduring subtext of his presidency, nonetheless, in ways both overt (as in the persistent questioning of his birthplace) and subtle (as in the constant allusions to his being “arrogant” or “aloof”).

Republicans have long complained that Obama gets special status with the media and can’t be criticized in the same way other politicians can, without allegations of racism following close behind.

Liberals, meanwhile, see insidious racism as a principal reason for Republican intransigence and Obama’s fading support among white voters (despite the fact that Obama actually performed better among working-class white voters than either of the Democratic nominees who immediately preceded him, both of whom were white).  They view Obama, even after two elections, as a president whose legitimacy is always under attack.

For most of his first term, Obama resisted the role of racial spokesman.  He spoke less openly about race than George W. Bush had (remember the “soft bigotry of low expectations”) and proposed far less of an urban agenda than the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

You may recall Obama’s not-so-inspiring handling of a racial controversy in 2010, when conservative bloggers got hold of a video in which Shirley Sherrod, an African-American bureaucrat at the Agriculture Department, seemed to brag about refusing to help a white farmer.  Obama’s aides rushed to fire her, until it became apparent that Sherrod’s comments had been taken out of context, at which point they rushed to rehire her.  Obama personally apologized.

In the rare instances when Obama spoke personally about his own experience as a black man, as he did following the arrest of his friend Henry Louis Gates Jr., he talked about racism as if it were the lingering remnant of another time — like an old basketball injury that flared up some mornings, nagging but clearly in decline.

Politically, Obama’s reticence was understandable.  He could not afford to risk being relegated, early in his presidency, to the role of civil rights crusader, which is what a lot of white Americans had come to expect from black elected leaders.  His race constrained him in a way it would not have constrained a white president.

Now, though, and with a sudden ferocity, racial ugliness seems to be everywhere in Obama’s America.  Cities are in turmoil over police brutality in destitute black neighborhoods where the hope Obama promised has been slow to materialize.  The brutal, racist shootings in a Charleston church, where the victims included the pastor, whom Obama had befriended, have led Southerners to openly reconsider the legacy of slavery and its symbols.

Meanwhile, on a more trivial front, the wife of Israel’s interior minister just apologized for a joke in which she compared Obama to coffee — “black and weak.”  Even overseas, the president who tried to transcend race finds it, late in his tenure, impossible to escape.

Some black leaders have warned all along that Obama’s neglect in addressing social injustice would ultimately set back the black community.  The academic Cornel West has called Obama “counterfeit” and the “black face of the American empire.”  The TV host Tavis Smiley, a longtime Obama critic, has accused the president of patronizing African-Americans with lectures about forbearance.

In his interview with Maron, though, Obama made clear that he still subscribes to the idea that race relations are, in the bigger picture, headed in the right direction.  He sees his presidency as a major step in that evolution.  And though it may be obscured in the current moment, he’s right.

The president didn’t do anything to create the tragedies of the past year, and it’s doubtful he could have done much to prevent them, either.  The warlike mentality of urban policing and its racial undertone is a problem spanning several presidencies now, and the sudden awareness of it is less about a failure of federal policy than it is about the new technology that makes such sickening incidents impossible to cover up.  The ubiquity of cell phone cameras has reshaped our views on urban policing in the same way that the television camera changed the conversation about Vietnam.

And this neo-Confederate in Charleston didn’t infiltrate a church and kill nine parishioners because of some ascendant, racist uprising afoot in the country under Obama’s watch.  On the contrary, his savagery speaks to the last-ditch desperation of an old and discredited ideology, in the same way neo-Nazis still rear their heads in Europe.

The swift reaction across the political spectrum this week, leading to the banishment of the Confederate flag from state capitals and consumer websites, tells you all you need to know about where the mainstream actually is, even in the South.

What remains the most salient and transformative fact about race relations in the Obama era, really, is the existence of the Obama presidency itself.  Racism endures, unfortunately, and racial inequality remains a problem that is both structural and cyclical in our economy, posing one of the central policy challenges of our time, and one for which we should demand answers in the coming election campaign.

But almost a generation of children have now either been born into or become politically aware in a country where the face of power is African-American — a reality that was unthinkable a generation ago and that will reverberate in their views on race for years to come.  Those of us who have raised children during the Obama years (especially if those children are nonwhite or of mixed race) understand what a profound impact that has.

Obama might find this disappointing, and no doubt his critics will find it maddening, but no matter what he says about race from here on out or what controversies arise from it, historians will almost certainly conclude that his biggest blow for racial equality was to get himself elected twice and to hold the office with integrity and grace, if not universal acclaim.

That achievement isn’t going to erase these last painful months, or the painful moments sure to come.  It will ultimately be remembered, however, as the most any politician has done to advance our thinking on race since at least the 1960s, and maybe since 100 years before that.