President Barack Obama cut short his state visit to Spain to attend an interfaith service for the five slain Dallas police officers and give aid and comfort to their families this week. That was the right thing to do.
The slaying of the officers was just as Obama called it: vicious and despicable. They were public servants, guardians of the law, and the killing was a brutal and frontal challenge to state authority. No president could ignore that threat.
In the wanton police murders of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, there was no special duty or obligation for the president to take time to give personal reassurance of support to their families.
But their murders do represent a major public crisis and challenge to the president just as if they were public servants. The crisis and challenge is first and foremost too tackle frontally the endless issue of race and whether black lives are less valued than those of others.
Obama has certainly not ignored the horrendous killings of Sterling and Castile, just as he didn’t ignore other slayings of young blacks, such as Trayvon Martin. He has expressed agony over their deaths and the polarization and insensitivity to the lives of blacks.
But that is not the same as personally visiting the scenes of those tragedies to address the issue. Obama has established a precedent for personally flying to memorials and tributes, and giving aid and comfort to the victims and families of those slain in Aurora, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; San Bernardino, and Orlando, Florida.
He was applauded for that and he should have been for it was the right thing to do. However, police violence against unarmed young blacks is a relentless and horrific plague. He has pled, cajoled and prodded the nation and even law enforcement to take proactive, reform steps to curb that violence.
A stop in either Baton Rouge or Minnesota would have been the perfect opportunity for Obama to further drive home the message that the pain and anguish black victims of police violence suffer is a legitimate national public policy concern.
The Sterling and Castile killings, as shocking and horrendous as they were, are no different than other controversial cases that involve compelling racial issues. In every case, Obama has been pressed to speak out on, and in this case, he should have shown up on.
Obama, like all sitting presidents, almost always avoids on the scene involvement in controversial local issues. Yet, police violence in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and dozens of other cities is not a garden variety local issue, handled by local authorities, and local communities.
It is a national crisis issue for the very reason that the perpetrators act under the authority of the state and law.
That is not a lose-lose political minefield for him to step into. It would not open the floodgate for any and every individual and group that has a legal wrong, grievance or injustice to expect, even demand, that the president show up for their cause.
The deaths are crucial public policy concerns and there is a need to provide redress for a situation that has gone badly awry. His visit would bridge the traditional firewall between federal and state powers.
It’s true that presidential statements on a controversial issue have at times polarized and fueled political backlash. In fact, the Sterling and Castile slayings are a near textbook example of the fury and passion that racial cases and issues always stir.
Obama is African-American and there’s rarely been a moment during his tenure in the White House that he hasn’t been relentlessly reminded of that. The one time that he gingerly ventured into a racially charged local issue was his mild rebuke of the white officer that cuffed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009.
The reaction was instant and rabid. Polls after his mild rebuke showed that a majority of whites condemned Obama for backing Gates and, even more ominously, expressed big doubts about his policies.
The police murders in Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge do have profound racial implications. They raise painful questions.
Why do so many police officers kill young blacks? Why do police and public officials often seem helpless to stop the killings?
Why are black males so relentlessly typecast as violent-prone criminals that make them even greater sitting ducks for police violence? Why is it the rarest of rare case where prosecutors bring charges against police officers that wantonly kill?
The Sterling and Castile murders cast another horrific glare on the gaping racial disparities in how the lives of young blacks who are killed by police are publicly viewed and treated. They burst open even wider the perilous divisions, polarization and seeds of violence that the Dallas police slayings horrifically show exist.
No president can afford to ignore that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “Let’s Stop Denying Made in America Terrorism,” (Amazon Kindle). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.