Streetwise Professor

July 13, 2016

Which Side is Obama on? Now We Know: Feeding the Flames of Racial Discord

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 5:20 pm

Obama’s greatest opportunity as president was to advance race relations in this country. They have obviously improved almost miraculously since the Civil Rights and Jim Crow eras, but in 2008 they could have definitely improved even further. Sadly, in the past seven plus years, they have regressed rather than progressed. Obama squandered an opportunity that he was uniquely placed to exploit.

Uniquely placed, but sadly not uniquely qualified, as events have made all too clear. For rather than pour oil on troubled waters, Obama has thrown it on the fire. He does it with such regularity that I must conclude that is hardwired, or a conscious choice: which is worse, I can’t say. The horrific events of the past days represent the zenith of this behavior–at least I hope so.

The crux of the problem is that Obama is an echo chamber for Black Lives Matter memes, and a defender of and advocate for the organization. BLM is a divisive, confrontational, and frankly racist organization that is exacerbating tensions, rather than doing anything to reduce them, or to correct the underlying problems. BLM marches routinely involve chants advocating the murder of police (“Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon”). Obama has hosted leaders of this group at the White House, and praised their effectiveness, saying that he was “confident that they are going to take America to new heights.” A sobering thought, that.

The less incendiary part of BLM rhetoric is still fundamentally dishonest, and it is this part that Obama repeats on every occasion in which these issues are even tangentially relevant–or sometimes when they are appallingly inappropriate, as at the memorial service in Dallas yesterday. In particular, the BLM/Obama rhetoric cites racial disparities in deaths in confrontations with police; arrest and incarceration rates; and capital sentencing rates as evidence of deep-seated “institutional racism.”

These statistics–and those citing them–are fundamentally dishonest because these numbers are clearly not the whole truth, and fractional truths (I will not dignify them by calling them “half-truths”) can be as manipulative and misleading as an outright lie. These certainly are.

Telling the whole truth would require confronting an ugly reality: there are substantial racial disparities in criminality (and in rates of victimization–a fact BLM is outrageously silent about with the exception of police killings).

Take, for instance, the oft-repeated statistic that African Americans represent a proportion of those killed by police that is double their proportion of the population. But they commit murder in a proportion four times that of their share of the population: and they also are victimized by murder in a similarly disproportionate ratio (which should be your major concern if you truly believe black lives matter). In every statistic related to violent crime, African Americans are disproportionately represented as both perpetrators and victims–and in ratios that typically exceed the 2-1 police killing statistic. This is true in the case of murders of police officers, where African Americans are the killer 43 percent of the time, in contrast to their 12 percent share of the population: they make up about 26 percent of those killed by police.

These hard facts have hard implications that speak directly to how to interpret statistics not just on arrest and incarceration rates, but on deaths at the hands of law enforcement. Namely, because of their greater involvement in crime, African Americans are  disproportionately likely to have hostile interactions with law enforcement. Further, police will rationally infer, based on the limited information that they inevitably have to act on, that all else equal African Americans pose a greater threat to  them than do non-African Americans. This makes a bad outcome more likely when a police officer confronts an African American than when confronting someone of a different race.

Most of the law enforcement shootings are ruled justified. But citing statistics embracing all shootings, and failing to put those into the sad context of life in many minority neighborhoods in the United States, BLM–and Obama and the left generally–insinuate that they are prima facie evidence of racial injustice.

This is a pattern for Obama. Further, he routinely expresses tendentious opinions about controversial cases, some of which (Trayvon Martin) are hard cases, and some of which (the shooting of Michael Brown) prove not to be, once the facts are known (often only after a Herculean effort to rescue those facts from mendacious misinformation). After Ferguson, Obama told the UN–the UN!–the following:

I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals; that America has plenty of problems within its own borders.  This is true.  In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri — where a young man was killed, and a community was divided.

A low, dishonest characterization, that. One that slyly embraces the utterly false narrative about the death of Michael Brown. For although Obama describes the death in the passive voice (“a young man was killed”) and does not identify the killer, this is of little moment when (a) everyone knows that the “young man” was black and he was killed by a white policeman, and (b) this episode was raised in a paragraph beginning with an admission that American has “failed to live up to our own ideals.” The judgment that Obama renders about Brown’s death in that paragraph is blindingly obvious, regardless of the Delphic phrasing. Indeed, by comparison the rhetoric of BLM is refreshingly honest and preferable in that respect.

This tendency was on display again in the aftermath of two police shootings in the last week, one in Baton Rouge the other in a Minneapolis suburb. Speaking about the second episode, the death of Philando Castile, Obama repeated the as yet uncorroborated statements of Castile’s girlfriend, who was in the car with him when he was shot. The live stream she put on Facebook was indeed disturbing, but it starts after Castile was shot, and as yet we know not what chain of events culminated in the shooting: we have just heard her version. But without knowing the facts, Obama validated the narrative that the shooting was unjustified, and then used the tragedy as another opportunity to deliver a soliloquy on racial disparities in the American criminal justice and law enforcement systems.

This rush to judgment contrasted jarringly with Obama’s reticence to pass judgment on the motives of the mass killer of five Dallas policemen despite the fact that the (black) police chief of Dallas had said that the murderer–Micah Xavier Johnson–had expressed his solidarity with BLM, his hatred of whites, and his intention to kill white police officers. Obama’s reticence to interpret Johnson’s avowed motives also clashed with his easy assertion that Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof was driven by racial hatred.

Speaking yesterday at a memorial service for the officers, Obama did acknowledge Johnson’s racism: he really had little choice after the blowback from his initial claim that Johnson’s intent was inscrutable (and his previous refusal to acknowledge the avowed motives of Muslim murderers in Orlando and San Bernardino). But the speech was nonetheless another exercise in his obfuscation of realities in order to insinuate pervasive institutional racism. He mentioned Philadro Castile and Baton Rouge shooting victim Alton Sterling in the same sentence as the five dead officers, thereby drawing a sort of equivalence where none exists, other than the fact that people are dead. But it got worse:

But America, we know that bias remains. We know it, whether you are black, or white, or Hispanic, or Asian, or native American, or of Middle Eastern descent, we have all seen this bigotry in our own lives at some point. We’ve heard it at times in our own homes. If we’re honest, perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts. We know that. And while some suffer far more under racism’s burden, some feel to a far greater extent discrimination’s stain. Although most of us do our best to guard against it and teach our children better, none of us is entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune, and that includes our police departments. We know this.

And so when African-Americans from all walks of life, from different communities across the country, voice a growing despair over what they perceive to be unequal treatment, when study after study shows that whites and people of color experience the criminal justice system differently. So that if you’re black, you’re more likely to be pulled over or searched or arrested; more likely to get longer sentences; more likely to get the death penalty for the same crime. When mothers and fathers raised their kids right, and have the talk about how to respond if stopped by a police officer — yes, sir; no, sir — but still fear that something terrible may happen when their child walks out the door; still fear that kids being stupid and not quite doing things right might end in tragedy.

When all this takes place, more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we cannot simply turn away and dismiss those in peaceful protest as troublemakers or paranoid.

Again, the recitation of incomplete and decontextualized statistics in the most inflammatory–and inappropriate–circumstances. Suggesting that law enforcement is racist at the funerals of five policemen (killed by an admitted racist, no less) is to insinuate that as part of that system these officers were racist too.

One particularly outrageous line is another BLM theme: “When mothers and fathers raised their kids right, and have the talk about how to respond if stopped by a police officer — yes, sir; no, sir — but still fear that something terrible may happen when their child walks out the door.” Tragically, something terrible may indeed happen to those children with shocking likelihood, but it is orders of magnitude more likely that the perpetrator of the terrible thing will not be a policeman, but another African American. And what about all those children whose mother and father did not raise them right, and all too often don’t raise them at all? Obama’s framing is yet another denial of some very unpleasant realities.

In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin death, Obama said that the son he never had could have looked like Trayvon. He has not said the same about the dozens of young men shot down within blocks of his former Kenwood home.

Another particularly outrageous slur is the statement that “peaceful protest[ers]” are “dismissed” as troublemakers or paranoid. Check out the BLM-led protests in Ferguson, Atlanta, or Minnesota, which have been anything but peaceful. As for the rhetoric of BLM leaders, it is more than fair to characterize it as paranoid and intended to stir up trouble and strife–or worse. But since he insinuates that all protesters are peaceful, even when some are not, and that their complaints are valid, even when almost all are not, he absolves the violent and the provocateurs, and encourages the distortion of the truth.

Perhaps the worst line in the speech–again completely inappropriate in this setting–was this: “We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.”

Unpacking the mendacity of that statement would take many posts. A few things. First, just who is this “we”? I haven’t flooded guns anywhere: have you? This invocation of collective guilt (excluding himself, of course) is a common leftist trope. Second, it is patently absurd to say that it is easier for a teenager to get a Glock (starting price around $500) than a computer or a book. This is not an issue of availability or cost: it is an issue of choice. Third, and perhaps worst of all, is the denial of individual responsibility and moral agency to the “teenager” who chooses a gun over a book. But recognizing that would raise thorny and uncomfortable questions, when Obama’s purpose is to push easy nostrums (namely, gun control) and to condemn Americans and American institutions.

This is not a matter of mere rhetoric. There is a short distance between words, especially a president’s words, and especially a black president’s words on a racially charged matter, and actions. An extremely dangerous dynamic is at play, and incredible care is needed to avoid accelerating it.

Micah Johnson targeted police because of his belief that they target black men. In the day after the Dallas atrocity, police officers in Missouri, Tennessee, and Georgia were targeted. When police are targeted (and this has been a concern of police since Ferguson, and events in Baltimore) they are more likely to perceive a threat and shoot in response, which creates another cause célèbre which inflames the likes of Micah Johnson. And on and on it goes.

By repeating and embracing crucial elements of the fundamentally dishonest BLM narrative, Obama validates the aggrieved, and aggravates the dynamic. When a Sister Souljah moment is needed, Obama instead enables latter day Sister Souljahs–and worse.

So what is to be done? Honesty, and the avoidance of inflammatory fractional truths, would be a start.

So would be a full-throated condemnation of BLM and a concerted effort to marginalize it and to empower more responsible voices.

But I hold out little hope that Obama will do these things. He has already made plain his allegiances.

Indeed, he made them even more abundantly clear today: rather than condemning BLM, he is embracing it. The day after the memorial service in Dallas, he hosted BLM organizer Deray McKesson at the White House for a private meeting for three hours. (How many  people does Obama meet with privately for three hours? In his own cabinet, even?) (McKesson called the meeting a “convening.” What the hell is a convening? It’s not a noun!)

To meet with McKesson any time would be bad, but to do so the day after speaking at a memorial service for five police officers murdered by  a man who had told Dallas police negotiators that he was “upset by Black Lives Matter,” is beyond appalling. Step back for a minute and think about this. The day after turning a speech intended to honor slain policemen into another of his dreary lectures on America’s inveterate racism, he confers with the leader of an organization dedicated to the proposition that law enforcement routinely oppresses and assassinates African Americans.

Back in the ’60s, the refrain was “which side are you on?” We know exactly which side Obama is on.

It is deliberate, and it is a signal. And what it signals is that rather than using the power of his office to push back against an inflammatory movement that is in the midst of ramping up confrontations (with demonstrations planned in 37 cities on Friday), he is putting his power and authority behind that movement. Again, rather than pouring oil on troubled waters, throwing fuel on the fire. It is beyond disturbing.

What can others do? Perhaps the most practical and feasible step would be to enhance the credibility of investigations of law enforcement officers who employ deadly force, and to punish officers who employ it unjustifiably. This does not mean whitewashing police conduct–the exact opposite. Officers acting reasonably will prevail even searching investigations. But at the same time, it does mean that concerted efforts must be taken to de-politicize these investigations and cases. When major political figures (not just Obama, but Minnesota governor Dayton or the mayor of Baltimore) express their opinions on these police shootings, especially when the gun smoke still hangs in the air and the facts are not known, justice cannot prevail, and the credibility of the process is undermined. Demagogues like BLM exploit such doubts about process to fuel conflict.

The only margin I can see on which it is practically possible to reduce the frequency of confrontational interactions between police and African Americans in particular is the drug laws. This is obviously a complex and fraught subject, but criminalization of drugs clearly is a major reason for hostile interactions between police and people of all races, but African Americans in particular. It also contributes to violent criminality in minority communities most notably. The War on Drugs is problematic to say the least, and one of its most problematic aspects is how it exacerbates tensions between minorities and law enforcement. This is a good reason to rethink how it is fought, and whether it is worth fighting at all.

But that isn’t going to happen overnight, and maybe not ever. In the meantime, perhaps the best that can be achieved is “first, do no harm.” Unfortunately, a president in the best position to do good cannot muster even that.





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  1. This post is fair and unfair. In aggregate police have done themselves no favors. One focus of police unions has been on building a framework that essentially makes it impossible to hold officer’s responsible. The legal statues allow for almost unlimited discretion. The investigative process is hopelessly compromised with “cooling off times” and other procedural defenses. Off-the-books, prosecutors throw (or at least exert desultory effort) cases against misbehaving officers. To pick an obvious example, in my city the few times an officer has been tried he has never been overcharged, despite that appearing standard procedure in typical criminal trial and thus, even in the off chance that prosecutors accidentally win, the penalties are minor. I don’t blame prosecutors: the union is powerful and doesn’t look kindly to those aggressively prosecuting misconduct. Putting away officers loses elections.

    Most police are good officers and good people. However, the lack of accountability for the small percentage of violent and ill-suited officers erodes overall credibility. I don’t blame the police force in my city for hiring a Neo-Nazi. Mistakes happen. I blame them for sheltering him and marching in protest when the mayor tried to fire him. Similarly, I don’t blame the police force for the an individual’s lying in court. However, when an officer faces no penalty for lying so blatantly in court that the presiding judge all but accused him of perjury in the ruling (an acquittal for a defendant accused of assaulting the officer) due to directly contradictory video evidence, that is a problem. The plural of anecdote is not data, but at least locally there is clearly no penalty for officers who either behave reprehensibly or outright break the law (most frequently through perjury). And the web makes it impossible to surpress how depressingly frequent these cases are (puppycide is not a good website for police PR).

    This lack of accountability is fuel to BLM’s fire. Most of the famous cases are weak at best (that is, a better system would likely not produce a different outcome). However, if it’s commonly seen as all-but-impossible to hold police responsible even when there is clear evidence of misconduct, why should anyone trust the system to handle borderline cases? I certainly don’t like BLM but I equally don’t trust the current watchers of the watchers. Fix that and the oxygen fueling the race baiters will be sucked out of the room. But simply castigating BLM ignores that there are at least some rational reason for the movement.

    Comment by FTR — July 13, 2016 @ 10:54 pm

  2. I do find BLM inflammatory (by design, I suppose) and at times counterproductive, but I find the suggestion of a “concerted effort to marginalize” the movement deeply unsettling. I agree with this post to the extent that BLM takes an extremely selective approach to data to promote its agenda, and I think it has an unfortunate tendency to exempt itself from criticism. But to suggest that the appropriate response to a movement that is a symptom of social and racial marginalisation is to explicitly marginalise it, quell its arguments and take a pick-and-choose approach to who gets to represent the black community is wrong. I wish BLM was one of a wealth of voices of America’s black community, but as it is I (being a British white guy with relatively limited consumption of US news) think BLM is over-represented in the media. President Obama’s explicit endorsement of BLM no doubt contributes to this. But that said, to say he has pledged allegiance to it is just as confrontational and divisive as anything of which you can accuse BLM.

    Comment by MD — July 14, 2016 @ 2:59 am

  3. As a rule I don’t comment on US domestic issues as it seems impolite from even further abroad than a British white guy – Australia. However, notwithstanding nuances such as accountability, I think that the gist of the Professor’s post, honesty in facts, is spot on.

    Complex issues, be they clearing or social issues, are unresolvable if facts are suppressed as unhelpful to a political narrative.

    Comment by noir — July 14, 2016 @ 7:01 pm

  4. @FTR. I am by no means a reflexive defender of law enforcement. In fact, I brought up the need to improve the credibility of investigations (and if warranted) the prosecution of police who commit criminal acts. This is one of the few policy levers available to mitigate the current tension, and deflate BLM. Therefore, I think the post was fair.

    I have no illusions about police. In particular, I know that law enforcement careers are particularly attractive for those who get off on exercising authority and control, and in some cases, for those who want to be able to use violent force. Self-selection means that there are going to be abusive cops. Moreover, the job can be morally corrosive, which tends to break down inhibitions and leads some officers (who deal with the worst of human behavior daily) to believe that most everyone they interact with is deeply suspect.

    Your point about police unions is particularly well-taken. Public sector unions are extremely problematic generally, because they undermine holding their members accountable for misconduct. The costs of police misconduct are particularly high, which makes this indiscriminate protection particularly damaging.

    That said, demagogues are prone to go on witch hunts against law enforcement, especially in the aftermath of a fatal confrontation. The challenge is creating a process which punishes the guilty and protects those who have properly performed their duties, and does so in a way that is widely accepted as reliable and credible.

    One thing I know. Having the president of the United States validate an organization like BLM will move us further away from that goal, not closer to it.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 14, 2016 @ 7:21 pm

  5. @The Professor:

    I don’t see what motivates more credible investigations and prosecution for misconduct besides BLM. Republicans won’t reign in law enforcement, quite the opposite. Democrats won’t fight a public employee union. Libertarians care but are 2% of the electorate. Local media won’t risk their privileged access to prosecutor and police information. There’s no group with meaningful influence with any interest in tackling the issue besides BLM. Unfortunately, they’re uninterested in the key technocratic details and instead want to rant about racism and other progressive issues but have no clear path forward. Absent BLM, I don’t see what impetus for reform is.

    I don’t understand President Obama’s plan. If he wants change, set up a panel to draft model legislation and set the Justice Department on those who don’t adopt it. (A few lawsuits alleging departments are violating constitutional rights to due failure to limit misconduct would get things rolling.)

    As to demagogues, the only sustainable solution is a system that fairly punishes misconduct and is seen as credible. That system cannot have the rules written by politicians put in office with police union support. Right now, there is no credibility. Were there a betting market on convictions for major police misconduct cases, the traded odds of conviction would be stunningly low for a judicial system with America’s overall conviction rates.

    Comment by FTR — July 14, 2016 @ 8:36 pm

  6. The St. Louis office of Teach for America organized and supported the protests in Ferguson, and that organization/its hierarchy also organized the protests in Baltimore and elsewhere. They are the funding and motivators of BLM.
    Enough with all the wondering about BHO’s intentions. He can only misdirect, obfuscate and decontextualize, because otherwise he is exposed. This has been his life-long pathology.
    Would you even wonder about these things (BHO’s words and actions) if it was William Ayers instead? Of course not. Ayers has clearly an anti-American agenda. So why wonder when Ayers’ puppet says and does the same things?
    And it is ‘way past the time to wonder about BHO’s circumscription of references to Islam. He is a Muslim. All else, all the words, policy, actions, speeches, bowing, all of that, follows. William of Occam would be relieved that the simplest statement that explains the phenomena completely was stated. Sometime after this term of office, he will ‘convert’ to Islam. But watch then how many will be ‘surprised!’.

    Comment by Richard Whitney — July 15, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

  7. Well, the Democrats are hell bent on supporting the “former” Islamist Erdogan in Turkey. Make of that what you will…..

    Comment by Andrew — July 18, 2016 @ 7:52 am

  8. One thing I don’t understand (and perhaps never will)

    Haven’t American cops learned the difference between shooting to incapacitate and shooting to kill? I mean, if you empty the magazine, you will probably fill the target with lead.

    Comment by Simple Simon — July 19, 2016 @ 8:36 am

  9. @Simon-shooting to incapacitate is a myth. It exists in Lone Ranger reruns. A law enforcement officer can use deadly force when his/her life, or someone else’s life, is at risk. Under those circumstances, it is imperative to target areas of the body where a hit is most likely to stop the threat. These are shots to the torso and head, which are more likely to be fatal.

    And truth be told, many (most?) police officers are bad shots. There are many instances of police (inc. multiple officers) unleashing a hail of bullets and not hitting anyone: many do empty a magazine (or multiple magazines) and put holes only in the air. Lack of skill, lack of realistic training, the fact that most officers never have to discharge their weapons (fortunately), and the stress of the situation when they do conspire to make their accuracy abysmal. To expect them to make trick shots that somehow remove the threat but do not kill is beyond unrealistic.

    I should also note that some assailants are very difficult to bring down, because of their size or because they are intoxicated/high or both: a big guy on PCP or meth isn’t going to stop if you just wing him. Case in point. Michael Brown–a very large man–continued to charge after being hit with several shots in the arm and torso. Only a shot through the top of his head stopped him. If you read the autopsy, it is pretty clear that the officer aimed center of mass low, didn’t hit center (hitting the hand/arm instead), and continued to fire rapidly as Brown advanced on him. As his muzzle crept up after each discharge, each shot hit higher until the fatal head shot. The only incapacitating shot was the kill shot.

    Sometimes, a wounding shot only serves to make the guy more pissed off and more dangerous.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 19, 2016 @ 8:14 pm

  10. @FTR: The problem with BLM is they don’t really want to change the system and cut down on police violence and judicial misconduct nationwide. To achieve that, you need allies across racial lines. You need at least some sympathy from the poorer whites and Hispanics, also victimized by the system, plus support from the defense bar and a few prominent judges and prosecutors. But then the movement would be called “Stop police violence” or “Innocence matters.” If they were serious about the rights of the accused, they wouldn’t have demanded that Darren Wilson be denied a grand jury hearing. On the contrary, they would have requested that every potential defendant in Missouri be given the right to such hearing.

    Comment by Alex K. — July 24, 2016 @ 4:23 pm

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