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'Bias Remains:' A Week Of Strong Words On Race

President Barack Obama hugs Dallas Police Chief David Brown during a memorial service for the police officers killed in Dallas last week.
Eric Gay
President Barack Obama hugs Dallas Police Chief David Brown during a memorial service for the police officers killed in Dallas last week.

While race is a topic many politicians try to avoid, recent news has made that all but impossible. We've come to expect heartfelt memorial speeches after tragedies, but this week, something unusual happened: folks on both sides of the political aisle addressed the incidents in explicitly racial terms. Yes, they talked about prayer and unity and peace. But they also talked, in no uncertain terms, about racial injustice in America.

Three people in particular took the opportunity to dig into these issues: President Barack Obama, Republican Senator Tim Scott, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

President Obama spoke on Tuesday at a memorial service for Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens, the police officers who were killed at last Thursday's protest in Dallas. He honored the sacrifice and courage of each officer, and insisted that despite violence and despair, "we are not as divided as we seem." But Obama also reflected on the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, and called out how racism still afflicts the country:

"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 raise 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.

We can't simply dismiss it as a symptom of political correctness or reverse racism. To have your experience denied like that, dismissed by those in authority, dismissed perhaps even by your white friends and coworkers and fellow church members, again and again and again, it hurts. Surely we can see that, all of us."

Some folks were impressed that Obama took on the issue the way he did. Jason Johnson, the politics editor for The Root, told NPR's Renee Montagne that the president's words were courageous. "This was the memorial service for the five officers that were killed in Dallas. He didn't have to mention Alton Sterling. He didn't have to mention Philando Castile," Johnson said. While he doubted Obama's ability to diffuse the most extreme factions in the debate, he gave Obama credit for speaking of Castile and Sterling at the same time that he honored the officers who were killed. "The president's decision to connect those two events was incredibly courageous on his behalf, to say, look, these events are connected, and the lives of all of these people lost in this overall civil rights conflict are worth mentioning in this environment."

Jamil Smith of MTV News took issue with what he saw as Obama's attempt to please everyone was alienating a lot of people. "On the night before his Dallas eulogy, Obama reportedly told a group of police association officials with whom he was meeting that the attack on the officers was a 'hate crime' and would've been prosecuted as such had the shooter survived," Smith wrote.

Smith acknowledges that Obama didn't reference the term "hate crime," directly in the Tuesday speech, but he still bristles at the idea.

"Hate crime laws first emerged as a response to the Ku Klux Klan's terrorism after Reconstruction. They are meant to protect folks who have been victimized by systemic discrimination and violence because of their identity, not their job. We hear about generations of cops in a family, but no one is born into that role...In trying to make the law enforcement community feel better, Obama may have made things worse. But even in the midst of their grief, the police need to hear some hard truths."

Tim Scott is the sole African-American Republican member of the Senate, and someone who's been criticized in the past for defending the term "All Lives Matter."

In response to last week's violence, Scott prepared a three speech series that he delivered on the Senate floor. It was the second speech on Wednesday in the series that earned the most attention for highlighting the "trust gap" between black communities and law enforcement. While Scott was adamant that Americans should be "thankful and supportive of all those officers do good," he also shared stories of the racial profiling that he, his friends and colleagues have faced at the hands of law enforcement — mentioning that he's been pulled over by police seven times in the course of a year while working as a public official.

Scott said he knows very few African-American men who haven't experienced this type of racial discrimination, "No matter their profession, no matter their income, no matter their disposition in life." He continued:

"While I thank God I have not endured bodily harm, I have however felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted. I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness, and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you're being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself. As that former staffer I mentioned earlier told me yesterday, there is absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul, than when you know you're following the rules and being treated like you are not...

This is a situation that happens all across the country whether we want to recognize it or not. It may not happen a thousand times a day but it happens too many times a day. And to see it as I have had the chance to see it helps me understand why this issue has wounds that have not healed in a generation...

Just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean it does not exist. To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear. It simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable. Some search so hard to explain away injustice that they are slowly wiping away who we are as a nation."

Jack Hunter, an editor at Rare, reminded readers that Scott has been talking about this for years. "Tim Scott spoke out against racial profiling. In 2002," Hunter wrote. "He was 36 then. He's now 50 and a United States Senator. And it's still happening."

Hunter added, "The importance of Scott's speech is not that he's saying anything others haven't. It's that he's a black Republican admired by many conservatives who's saying it. He's saying it to people who don't necessarily want to hear it."

Steve Benen, writing for MSNBC, echoed that sentiment. He called Scott's remarks "striking," particularly because of who he is. "I think it's fair to say the relevance, impact, and reaction to remarks like these would be far different coming from a progressive African-American Democrat. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine what we'd hear, because so many of us have already internalized the dialog. Scott's remarks, if they were acknowledged at all, would be dismissed as 'divisive' paranoia that contributes to a 'war on police," Benen wrote.

And some Republican leaders were clearly listening. House Speaker Paul Ryan referenced Scott's speech in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. Ryan said that he trusts the word of people of color who say they feel unsafe in encounters with police. "I do believe this is a problem because people are telling me it's a problem and I believe them," Ryan said. And in a tweet, Marco Rubio called Scott's speech "moving and powerful."

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, delivered a wide-ranging address at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Abraham Lincoln gave his "House Divided" speech in 1858. In addition to covering economic inequality, gun control and other issues, she also spoke at length about race. Clinton invoked Lincoln's memory throughout her remarks, contrasting Lincoln's drive to unify a country on the brink of war, with America's current political divisiveness. She also called for all Americans to listen to their fellow citizens, even when their stories are hard to hear.

"We need to listen to the families whose loved ones have been killed in police incidents. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are just the latest in a long and painful litany of African-Americans dying after encounters with police officers. We remember Laquan McDonald, killed in Chicago a year and a half ago and Sandra Bland, who grew up in Illinois who died one year ago today. Time after time, no one is held accountable. And surely we can all agree that's deeply wrong and needs to change.

And yes we do need to listen to those who say 'Black Lives Matter.' Too many black Americans, especially young men, feel like their lives are disposable. And they worry every single day about what might happen. They have reason to feel that way. And it's absolutely unacceptable. Everyone in America, everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Surely that is something we can all unite behind.

We need to acknowledge the five Latinos who also lost their lives in police incidents last week. Their stories didn't get national media coverage, but their families and communities are mourning too."

Monique Garcia of the Chicago Tribune, wrote that "During previous speeches, Clinton tried to associate Republicans with the controversial Trump. But in Springfield, she attempted to navigate a finer point in making an appeal for unity regardless of political support." Garcia also wrote that Clinton "called for tough but necessary conversations to heal deep divisions across the nation following last week's fatal shootings."

But in an opinion piece for The New York Times, John McWhorter, criticized Clinton's emphasis on conversation to address racism. "Narrow policy proposals may not have the emotional reach of a conversation, and in and of themselves they will not stop the next Philando Castile either," McWhorter wrote. "But they would do more for black America than any amount of formulaic dialogues, or exploring the subtle contours of whites' inner feelings about black people."

Stacey Patton, writing for The Washington Post, was critical of Clinton's message more than her approach. "Clinton's call for everyone to 'do the work' to unite against hatred overlooks the fundamental fact that it's whites — and only whites — who must work to fix the racist structures in our society," Patton wrote. "While Clinton may not have intended it this way, what the message of unity winds up doing is blaming communities of color for failing to assimilate, rather than acknowledging that the very fabric of this nation is built upon a diabolical, calculated and constantly evolving system of racism."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.