Whatever one thinks of his embattled and often erratic presidency, President Obama remains unrivaled as an orator. And America’s first black president put both law enforcement and the African-American community on notice during his 40-minute address at Tuesday’s memorial service for five Dallas police officers slain by a Black Lives Matter sympathizer bent on cold-blooded murder during an otherwise peaceful protest regarding, ironically, police use of deadly force nationwide.
At one point, the president correctly challenged police departments across our land to strategically battle the plague of black lives lost at the hands of errant cops, most recently in Minnesota and Louisiana. At another, he pointedly reminded Black Lives Matter protesters that they all too conveniently overlook not only the perils that police face in their communities daily but also one societal burden after another dumped on the cops. Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who is also black, made the same point earlier regarding everything from mental health to loose dogs.
Yet Obama acknowledged a sad reality that condemns not only our elected leaders but also those of us who repeatedly ratify and re-elect them: “I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency. I’ve hugged too many families who have lost a loved one to senseless violence. And I’ve seen how a spirit of unity, born of tragedy, can gradually dissipate, overtaken by the return to business as usual, by inertia and old habits and expediency. I see how easily we slip back into our old notions because they’re comfortable, we’re used to them.”
Almost exactly 24 hours later, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and former judge who shared the stage in Dallas with the president, was back in Washington talking with the Texas press by phone when one of us asked what the Senate’s distinguished second-in-command was doing to answer the president’s impassioned plea for action at the memorial service. Cornyn said he had introduced a bill to make killing a police officer a federal crime.
A day later, Cornyn and Ted Cruz, Texas’ other Republican senator, introduced a resolution condemning the Dallas police killings, noting that, in Cruz’s words, it “is inspirational to see Texans coming together supporting our police officers and supporting those who risk their lives to keep us safe.”
Few of us would argue against such legislation. But the real post-Dallas tragedy is that federal lawmakers are unlikely to pursue legislation that might bring healing amid the greatest racial strife some of us long in the tooth have seen since the tumultuous late 1960s and early ’70s. A New York Times/CBS News poll last week revealed 69 percent of respondents believe race relations are poor — the worst since 1992 riots over the police beating of Rodney King. Many insist they weren’t surprised at the outbreak of racially motivated violence in Dallas.
That only deepens the tragedy of July 2016. The Republican Party, which controls Congress and seeks to bolster its role in national governance, is not only woefully out of step with our state and nation’s fast-changing demographics but it’s also falling short of what very wise party leaders stressed after the humiliating 2012 presidential election defeat: doing more to demonstrate that America’s minorities are actually important to the Republican Party, not simply the hired help of White America.
What to do? Republicans ought to seize the moment to think outside the political box. For instance, how about patching up the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965? It was correctly dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 but with justices’ admonishment that Congress make updated, overdue fixes to ensure the act is relevant in modern times. So far, the Party of Lincoln has ignored it. Some party operatives count crippling the Voting Rights Act a worthy Republican accomplishment because it makes it easier to suppress minority voters, who are often reliably Democratic. And thus the cycle of minorities favoring Democrats continues.
No less than U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican whose conservative credentials are beyond question, has been the lonely voice in trying to push his Republican colleagues to fix this. “Ensuring that every eligible voter can cast a ballot without fear, deterrence and prejudice is a basic American right,” Sensenbrenner said last spring. “I would rather lose my job than suppress votes to keep it.”
What else? Many African Americans deeply resent what they view as racism by Republican lawmakers showing a decided lack of respect for Obama as president. This arose recently in the Senate’s unprecedented refusal to hold hearings or an up-or-down vote regarding the president’s pick for the U.S. Supreme Court — ironically, a white moderate, a highly reputable jurist once embraced by many of these same Republicans and an obvious olive branch by Obama to his unforgiving GOP critics.
Some African Americans note how Republican refusal to consider Obama’s nominee essentially treats the chief executive as a “three-fifths president” — an ugly historic reference to how slaves were regarded in census materials in the early days of the republic. Consider a letter in today’s Trib from Norman Manning, a military veteran, truck driver and currently the only African American on the Waco school board, who accurately notes in his epistle that the “first black family has endured hatred, racist comments and just plain disrespect. But they have endured all this with dignity and intelligence.”
Confirming Merrick Garland to the high court ought to be a no-brainer for conservative Republicans in the Party of Lincoln. They should fear a Supreme Court pick by political chameleon Donald Trump as much as one by liberal Hillary Clinton. (Ironically, Obama has taken some political heat from the far left for not picking a minority nominee.) If Clinton wins in November and picks a more liberal nominee for the court, Republicans should blame their own leadership for the court’s political drift.
Sadly, the prospect that Republicans might take even minor steps of outreach to minorities and particularly African Americans is unlikely. Frankly, there’s no short-term political dividend for them to do so and their myopia prevents them from considering long-term benefits. Many Republican leaders instead will attend this week’s National Republican Convention in Cleveland to crown as their presidential nominee one who has only aggravated strained racial relations to the extent Republicans must once again rely mostly on white voters to prevail this fall. Good luck with that.
Republican lawmakers’ parting shot before leaving for Cleveland last week: ensuring defeat of legislation battling the Zika virus in Texas and elsewhere by craftily slipping into the bill an amendment reversing a ban on flying Confederate flags in military cemeteries.
Bill Whitaker is Trib opinion editor.