Beyond Dallas, Obama acknowledges America's long road on race relations

The president uses a nationally broadcast town hall meeting to frankly acknowledge that healing of America's race legacy extends well beyond the bounds of his presidency.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama shakes hands with participants after taking part in a televised town hall about trust and safety inside communities in Washington on Thursday.

President Obama has laid out a tender and frank appraisal of race relations in the United States, calling for “open hearts,” while acknowledging America’s legacy of racial tension means resolution is a task well beyond the limits of his presidential term.

"Because of the history of this country and the legacy of race, and all the complications that are involved with that, working through these issues so that things can continue to get better will take some time," Mr. Obama said during a nationally broadcast, primetime town hall meeting. The event was one of a number of quickly organized public appearances by the president following the assassination of five police officers in Dallas last week.

Obama took questions from the live audience and remotely, some from those directly affected by the high-profile police shootings of black men, including Diamond Renyolds, who livestreamed the aftermath of her boyfriend Philando Castile’s shooting by police on Facebook. Another questioner from the other side of the debate, Texas's Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urged Obama to heed a national law enforcement request to light the White House blue as a sign of solidarity – a request Obama refused.

But beyond the debate surrounding backsplash from the most recent spate of violence, Obama pointed to the more tricky and nuanced task of healing America’s self-inflicted wounds stemming from deep-seated racial divisions, a task he reiterated is not the quick fix of a few presidential words or a single policy.

For one, in his request that Americans keep their hearts open, he said now was not the time for people to turn their backs on each other by hiding in cliques.

He did, however, re-emphasize certain policy suggestions he thinks would help if adopted, even as he said there were other more fundamental societal problems that are undergirding the ongoing racial tensions between police and the black community.

Obama suggested, for example, that police officers be assigned to their home communities and that police receive better training in how to de-escalate a confrontation. He also recommended increasing access to police altercation statistics and more transparent investigations following fatal interactions between police and community members.

At the same time, he pointed to the broader social inequalities that mean many African-Americans disproportionately struggle with issues such as unemployment, drugs, poverty, and unequal access to education.

"We expect police to solve a whole range of societal problems that we ourselves have neglected," Obama said. He said prominent incidents sometimes prove "the catalyst for all the other stuff that may not even have to do with policing coming out."

When Obama said the nation needed to do some soul-searching after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin back in 2012, he also acknowledged he shouldn’t be the national mediator.

Every time there has been a high-profile case since – for example, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., or Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md. – the president has tried to shift the public focus away from the cycle of blame around the specific incident, but he said the nation is "not even close to being there yet."

Obama acknowledged the "deep divisions" around the right way to resolve national tensions between the black community and police, but said there would be more "this month, next month, next year, for quite some time."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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