In Thursday remarks from Warsaw, Poland (before the Dallas police shootings), the president spoke in eloquent and very human terms about the death of Castile and the previous police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But he couldn’t resist attributing the episodes to racial attitudes. “When incidents like this occur,” he said, “there’s a big chunk of our citizenry that feels as if, because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same, and that hurts, and that should trouble all of us.” He said the incidents were “symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal-justice system.”
But the incidents could be symptomatic of broader racial disparities only if they reflected actual racialist or racist attitudes on the part of the officers involved. Not every tragic incident involving white police officers interacting with blacks in the course of their duties can be symptomatic of what the president calls a problem “that we all should care about.” Some may; perhaps many are. But each incident must be assessed on its own facts and merits, and that’s what the president declined to do. In his effort to combat the stereotyping of blacks who encounter police officers, he ended up stereotyping white police officers by suggesting that these incidents, ipso facto, represent a systemic problem.
It’s interesting to note that, the next day, following the brutal sniper attack on white police officers, Obama omitted any reference to race in issuing the usual expressions of outrage and heartsickness at “a vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement.” Here was an instance of actual and clearly established black racism on the part of a man who said he wanted specifically to kill white people, preferably white policemen. Yet the president refrained from the kind of admonitory and patronizing expressions he directed toward the nation’s whites in the wake of Ferguson or the Trayvon Martin tragedy or the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates outside his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Apparently no broader lessons are to be found here of the kind he likes to trot out when a black is killed by a white cop, even before he knows the facts of the case.