January 17th, 2019


Did President Obama Go Far Enough on Baltimore?

Bernard Goldberg

By Bernard Goldberg

Published April 29, 2015

Civic-minded citizens.

Two cheers for President Obama.

Speaking about the mayhem in Baltimore, Mr. Obama says, "There's no excuse for the kind of violence we saw [the other day]. It is counter-productive. When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they're not protesting. They're not making a statement. They're stealing. When they burn down a building, they're committing arson. And they're destroying and undermining businesses in their own communities that rob jobs and opportunities of people in that area."

The president is absolutely right.

"It is not a protest, it is not a statement, it is a handful of people taking advantage of a situation for their own purposes and they need to be treated as criminals," he went on to say.

It was more than a "handful", but let's not quibble. The president is right again.

He also said there are "Too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African-American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions. And it comes up it seems once every couple of weeks."

He's right on that, too. We don't know what happened in Baltimore inside that police van, but there are some bad cops on the street. More than we like to admit. And when they are invested with so much authority, when the government gives them guns and badges, bad things can happen — and too often do.

This isn't new, the president said. And we shouldn't pretend that it's new. What is new is that these days everybody walks around with a cell phone camera and now we know a lot more than we used to know. Cops who cross the line used to lie and often get away with it. It's tougher now. That's a good thing.

Then, Mr. Obama, went on to say what he has said before: that while the police are expected to deal with the immediate problem, they're not the ones who should be called on to make fundamental changes. That, he says, is up to society.

"And without making any excuses for criminal activities that take place in these communities," the president said, "we also know that if you have impoverished communities that have been stripped away of opportunity, where children are born in abject poverty, they've got parents often because of substance abuse problems or incarceration or lack of education themselves can't do right by their kids, if it's more likely that those kids end up in jail or dead than they go to college; in communities where there are no fathers who can provide guidance to young men, communities where there's no investment and manufacturing has been stripped away, and drugs have flooded the community and the drug industry ends up being the primary employer for a whole lot of folks, in those environments if we think that we're just going to send the police of doing the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without, as a nation and a society, saying 'What can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity,' then we're not going to solve this problem and we'll go through the same cycles of conflict between the police and communities and the occasional riots in the streets and everybody will feign concern until it goes away and then we go about our business as usual."

There's a lot of truth in all of that, too. But this is where Mr. Obama only walks up to the edge. It would have helped, I think, if he aimed his message, not only at "society" in general, but at the community he wants to mend, in particular.

Condemning the rioters is a necessary start. But if the president really wants fundamental change, then he needs to go further. What if he had said, "Dysfunctional behavior is a dead end. If you have babies when you're just a child yourself, odds are that you and your baby will live in poverty."

What if he said, "You're not a man simply because you impregnate a young girl and walk away and let the state take care of her and the baby."

What if he said, "Education is the way out. And it's free. Take advantage of it."

President Obama, whatever else you think of him, is a bright man. He knows government can create programs for job training and the like, but I suspect he also knows that government is not very good at changing destructive behavior in individuals. That's really hard.

The president says a lot of things that make sense, but stops short of saying, "Stop playing the victim. You're making yourself the victim. Who would want to build a business in a community where thugs burn businesses down from time to time? Business go into safe communities. Make your community safe, he

could have said, and jobs along with other good things will follow." This is not to suggest that racial discrimination has been wiped out. It doesn't mean slavery and segregation haven't taken a toll. But the slaveholders are dead and the bigots have no interest in making things better for African Americans. That's why African Americans have to lead the way.

Mr. Obama is a man with charisma. On rare occasions he has used it to speak to black kids the way a good parent would speak to a kid on the wrong path. But he doesn't do it often enough.

Two cheers, Mr. President.

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