Amid 'powder keg' of US racial tensions, call for empathy

Obama has argued that at heart the nation is not as divided as its angriest voices suggest. Now is a moment to prove it.

Irwin Thompson/The Dallas Morning News/AP
DART Police officer Cpl. Luevada Campbell (r.) gets a hug from Tracy McGehee, a chaplain with Billy Graham, during a prayer service for officers in Dallas on Sunday.

Will tomorrow bring another terrible headline? That’s what many Americans worry about at the moment. First it was apparently senseless police shootings of African-American men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Then came the murder of five Dallas cops. Last week was a shock to the nation. With two national political conventions looming, the US is on edge.

“You can call it a powder keg. You can see that we’re handling nitroglycerin. But obviously, when you just look at what is going on, we’re in a very, very critical point in the history of this country,” said former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.

But powder kegs do not explode by themselves. They require a spark. And in the wake of an awful week there were many signs that America was coming together to prevent the violence of early July from deepening into a darker calamity.

The key may be empathy. As Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland said Monday, it is time to turn toward each other, not away.

In a CBS “This Morning” interview Representative Cummings praised former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for the latter’s words in reaction to the violence. Mr. Gingrich has said that as a white man in America it has taken him a long time to understand being black and he has instinctively underestimated the dangers African-Americans face.

“I don’t think we have a choice... Everybody’s upset and concerned, but I think we need to do what Newt Gingrich said he’s been trying to do... We have to look at both sides of this and try and put ourselves in the place of the other,” said Cummings.

Modern technology may make that easier. If there is one difference at this moment from past times of domestic unrest, it is the ubiquity of phone images and means of sharing them. Never before have Americans had such an intimate view of the shocking suddenness of violence against police, or of a fatal encounter between a law enforcement officer and an African-American male that appears senseless.

We have always known the bare facts of such incidents. The emotions have been harder to convey. These images add to our knowledge of what goes on in the world, notes The Economist’s Lexington column.

“Perhaps through their sheer immediacy and the raw intimacy of their images, today’s ever-present smartphone cameras are not just tools for recording facts, but instruments with a rare power to foster empathy,” Lexington writes.

Empathy is a mutual condition. On Tuesday it is the pain of the families of the fallen Dallas officers that will take center stage. At the request of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, President Obama will speak Tuesday at an interfaith memorial service for the five slain police officers. Former President George W. Bush, a prominent Texan, will join him.

Obama on Sunday condemned all who attack police officers, saying violence directed at cops is a “reprehensible crime.”

As to the national atmosphere of the moment, Mr. Obama said that in movements such as Black Lives Matter there would always be people who say stupid or over-generalized things. That is self-defeating, the president said.

“I would just say to everybody who’s concerned about the issue of police shootings or racial bias in the criminal justice system that maintaining a truthful and serious and respectful tone is going to help mobilize American society to bring about real change,” Obama said.

The president noted, as have other observers, that the tragedy of the police shootings was compounded by where they occurred. The Dallas Police Department has been in the forefront of training and community engagement aimed at reducing police shootings and complaints of misconduct.

America is a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society. Without a degree of empathy it cannot move forward. Obama has argued that at heart the nation is not nearly as divided as its angriest voices suggest, and that young people in particular have moved far beyond the racial attitudes and animus of the past. Now is a moment for the US as a whole to prove that is the case.

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