President Obama has long demonstrated a sharp but scholarly touch when describing racial injustice. When he gave his bold and sometimes discomfiting speech on race during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama did not gloss over the painful side of US history; he touched on slavery, civil rights, and affirmative action. He asked Americans, both black and white, to talk openly and honestly about racism. He said the white community could recognize black grievances “by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system.” As president, Obama has used personal experience and the power of his office to provide teaching moments: saying Trayvon Martin, the black youth killed in a Florida “stand-your-ground” shooting, “could have been my son,” and holding the famous “beer summit” after saying police “acted stupidly” in the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home in Cambridge.
In those moments, Obama leaned on rhetoric and stopped short of proposing specific measures, but the events in Ferguson, Mo., require the president to engage with the causes and effects of racial inequality more directly. On Monday, he delivered a partial response to the outrage over a grand jury’s decision not to indict the white officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in a highly questionable altercation. He created a policing task force that promotes “effective crime reduction while building public trust,” and proposed a $263 million program to improve law enforcement training, support reforms, and help pay for 50,000 police body cameras. Those measures are a good first step.
But the first step still falls short. It deals mainly with technical recommendations to police departments, when it is so painfully evident that rogue police often behave the way they do because they have unspoken permission from white Americans. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that while 85 percent of African Americans and 61 percent of Hispanics disapproved of the grand jury’s non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, only 35 percent of white Americans disapproved. A more serious self-examination would ask not just why African Americans and Latinos distrust the police, but why white Americans trust them so much despite several high-profile police killings this year of unarmed black males, including the recent killing of a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland who had a BB gun. A serious self-examination would challenge white Americans to consider whether police homicide would be justified if the victim were a blond, blue-eyed 12-year old with a BB gun, a white teen stealing cigars (as Brown allegedly did), or a white man selling loose cigarettes (as did Eric Garner before he was choked to death in New York City).
It is doubtful that most white Americans would consider waving a BB gun, shoplifting, or selling loosies a capital offense.
Obama — or any president, of any race, confronted with this disturbing pattern — should realize his legacy hangs, in part, on how deeply he gets the whole nation to probe these questions. The last time an American president seriously addressed systemic police behavior was when the administration of Lyndon Johnson released the Kerner Commission report explaining the underlying causes of the riots of the 1960s. It was a sweeping analysis of the discrimination and disparities of the day, and part of its recommendations included improved police protection in ghettoes while refraining from excessive force. In the four-and-a-half decades since the report, many police departments around the nation did indeed improve, including Boston’s.
But many other cities have not, and there has been little presidential leadership prodding them along. The current climate cries out for a new presidential commission. It should recognize the racial progress that led to Obama himself being president, but be clear-eyed how the remaining problems still lead to separate law-enforcement worlds for African Americans and Latinos. It should look around the nation for police best practices, from force diversity to community beats to body cameras to smart guns, and especially probe for the best training to avoid excessive force. Such training is likely to begin with deconstructing not-yet-dead stereotypes of black men being monstrous brutes and savages, even when unarmed. That stereotype was on sharp display in Ferguson where the officer in the shooting, Darren Wilson, said he felt like a “5-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan” in describing the 6-foot-4, 292-pound teen he killed, Michael Brown, even though Wilson himself is 6 feet, 4 inches, 210 pounds. Outweighed, yes, but a 5-year-old? The imagery in Wilson’s head seems to reflect the stereotype.
In many ways, the Obama administration is already laying the groundwork for such a commission, as the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder has found misconduct in many police departments around the country and required changes. For example, in a settlement this year with the police in Albuquerque, the department agreed to reform its community engagement and oversight, training in the use of force and mental health crisis intervention, and a public information program on civilian complaints. But going department-by-department will result in only slow, patchwork progress. There are 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the nation, only 750 of which volunteer information to the FBI’s justifiable homicide data base, according to USA Today. Thousands are small town departments like Ferguson, of unknown quality, and will never catch the Justice Department’s attention — until tragedy strikes.
A commission should build upon common findings in the Justice Department investigations, come up with a list of recommendations every police department should adopt, and make Justice Department grants to local law enforcement contingent on enacting those reforms. A commission should also recommend ways in which all Americans can discuss the negative stereotyping of black men, which overcriminalizes them well beyond police encounters.
To be sure, Obama and Holder have used their powers to reform major sources of racial injustice in the criminal justice system, such as restoring fairness in nonviolent drug prosecution and sentencing. But Obama has also played it safe, trying to thread the needle between the nation’s self-congratulatory narrative of justice for all and persistent injustice for some. On Ferguson, he has said on one hand that “communities of color aren’t just making these problems up,” while at the same time asking for acceptance for the grand jury’s decision, saying he does not think Ferguson is the “norm.” To the contrary, Ferguson displays how frayed the social fabric still is — and how desperately we need the president to begin the process of sewing it back together.