President Obama was speaking, his image almost filling the television screen, but my eyes were drawn to two people in the group behind him. They sat in the front row, one on either side of the President at his shoulder level. Two white police officers, a man and a woman. Together the image of the podium, President Obama, and the two officers formed a kind of triptych of mourning. It was Dallas on Tuesday July 12th 2016, the memorial service for the five police officers slain by a black gunman in retaliation for the police shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana.
President Obama spoke with his usual measured elegance and forthright honesty on the subject of America’s racial divide, which recent events have thrown into high relief once more. It is always there of course, a simmering undercurrent in American life until it periodically erupts into the open with violence, protest, and anguish. Often it is cultural prejudices and misunderstandings that lead to unintended tragic consequences. Rodney King, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, now Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile: just a few of a kind of Stations of the Cross walked by too many Americans. President Obama has spoken on this subject many times, to some praise and some vilification. On this day there was a new tone of weariness in his address, an acknowledgement that his words may have no effect, as he pleaded for each side to listen to the other’s pain.
As the President spoke of the slain police officers and the difficult job of policing in America he was frequently interrupted by applause, sometimes standing ovations. Behind him the two white police officers in the TV frame applauded and stood on cue. But as President Obama moved on to talk about the pain of the black community, the reality of racial prejudice, and the real grievances of the Black Lives Matter movement, something changed. It was clear in the body language of the two white officers. The woman’s posture shifted to a closed off defiant stance, her facial expression from solemn to hostile. Over the President’s other shoulder the male white officer stared blankly as though absenting himself from the scene. Now when applause came the two officers did not join in, their hands studiously motionless in their laps as the group behind them, which included many black faces, clapped. The pair’s evolving reactions to the President’s words were mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
There came one moment when President Obama’s words broke through the defenses. As he referenced the many social ills imposed on black communities by deliberate policy the white officers sat stone faced. But the President followed up with:
“We ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves… we tell the police, “you’re a social worker; you’re the parent; you’re the teacher; you’re the drug counselor.” We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience; don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind. And then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over.”
The male white officer seemed to jerk awake with surprise at hearing words he could relate to. He nodded his head and mouthed, “That’s right.” The female officer looked uncomfortable, nervously adjusting her glasses and smoothing her hair. The sense of a breakthrough was fleeting.
Of course it’s a lot more complicated than black and white. The grief stricken Dallas Police Department Chief, David Brown, is a black man whose own son was killed in a shootout with police. Some of the police officers charged in the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore are themselves black. Black police officers put their lives on the line all over the country every day, just like their white counterparts. For them these racial incidents bring a special pain, a special burden.
Many words, for good and ill, will be spoken on this subject. But on this day, on my television screen, it was the words unspoken that showed how far we have to go to overcome America’s tragic racial history. The two white officers in their dress uniforms, the white gloves suggestive of a mime’s costume, formed a Greek chorus of mute commentary on President Obama’s speech. Unwittingly they found themselves in the camera’s eye, for a moment in time a symbol of white America’s resistance to change