On Thursday, President Barack Obama held a “National Conversation” on race, and even though it left much to be desired, his comments about policing and the black community start to look a little better when you consider who might take his place in the White House come January.
Imagine an America in which Donald Trump, the current presumptive GOP nominee, is president. That America, like this one, will struggle with longstanding problems of racism and police departments that routinely abuse their power in black communities.
In an effort to smooth over the tension, imagine the (admittedly unlikely) scenario in which President Trump agrees to host a town hall discussion where he’ll field questions from family members of black men and women who were slain by members of law enforcement.
That’s the mission Obama embarked upon last night, all while trying to balance his role as leader of 320 million Americans ― including plenty of racist white people ― and his own experiences as a black man in America. It disappointed a number of activists, who say Obama missed an opportunity to more candidly and aggressively address anti-black racism.
The whole event was the latest instance of Obama, the first black president, taking on the nearly impossible role of a racial healer. He tried, and even if he ultimately failed to move the needle last night, that could be more than we’ll ever be able to say for his successor.
Seriously, can you picture Donald Trump taking a shot at this? Imagine, if you will, a dialogue that goes something like this:
Audience member: What are you going to do to stop police violence?
Trump: Well, you know, police violence is very, very bad and ― I’ve said this before to the blacks, and this is why the blacks love me ― but it’s bad. It’s sad, but the police are [yelling] BY FAR the most underappreciated and neglected group in America. They are. By far. It’s true. And it’s terrible. It’s very true that they are, by far. And, let me just say, black-on-black crime is out of control … [Pulls out phone to retweet racist meme.]
Even Trump understands that this wouldn’t go well, which is why he would likely avoid taking on the issue entirely. He is not a “racial healer,” despite what his surrogates say. “The blacks” don’t love Trump. A recent poll of black swing-state voters showed him getting literally zero percent support. Zilch.
Trump’s base trends older, whiter, more male. He’s become a figurehead for the very people most responsible for sowing racial resentment in the U.S. over the past few generations. And while Obama regularly faces accusations from people who think even his most mild-mannered, even-handed comments about race in America are dividing us, we can’t help but wonder how a Trumpian approach would be more effective.
Whatever you think about how Obama tackles these difficult discussions about race, we shouldn’t take for granted the ambition of his attempts. We may not see anything like them for a while with a President Trump ― or even a President Clinton ― in office.