President Obama said something yesterday that was really important and true, but there was also something I wish he hadn’t said.
Talking about the Baltimore situation, he said something that I’ve been saying since last summer, even before I got this job: The most gripping problems in American society today are so much more than law enforcement issues. So a “law and order solution” won’t fix problems with race relations, poverty, education, mental health, job training, and housing. The real lesson of Ferguson is not that we have a law enforcement problem, but that American society still has major unaddressed race relations wounds.
The problem is, the president’s point about broader social issues gets lost when he feels a need to say: “We have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African-American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions. It comes up, it seems like, once a week now, maybe every two weeks.”
I wish he hadn’t said that. Why? Because it’s not accurate. It’s an exaggeration of where any facts lie. It pours a lot of gasoline on a burning narrative that generalizes police as untrained, racist villains. So it’s reckless for the president to say that, but as that rhetoric of blame get repeated, it becomes less likely that people will remember that the president also said there are much broader social issues needing attention. Which police chiefs everywhere would agree with and are willing to help with — including reforming the criminal justice system.