The question after Dallas, after Baton Rouge, after Falcon Heights, is whether we are a nation in the midst of crisis or simply a nation in the midst of a presidential campaign.
Hillary Clinton went to the Old State House in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech, to talk about race and how, in Lincoln’s memorable words, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Clinton rightly pointed out that we’re not facing the existential crisis that the country faced before the Civil War. And yet, not surprisingly, her most pointed remarks were on the house-divided part — a campaign-style riff on how Republicans were moving from the party of Lincoln to the party of Trump and how Donald Trump’s demagoguery risked tearing a nation apart.
Meanwhile, Trump, who has memorably said the country couldn’t survive if he lost, has warned of the beginning of a long, hot summer of civil unrest, of “our cities exploding,” of finding ourselves in a time so dangerous that some people have actually “asked for a moment of silence” for the Dallas killer. Except there’s no evidence of anyone ever asking for anything for the killer. Trump was probably thinking of those same people who were celebrating on 9/11 in New Jersey.
Not to be outdone, Trump also visited a sacred American site: the Bill O’Reilly Show. O’Reilly asked Trump what he can say to black Americans who feel the system is biased against them. And Trump replied: “Well, I have been saying even against me the system is rigged …” And so “I can relate it really very much to myself.”
The quote is being widely mocked. Trump understands racism because he didn’t understand how the caucus system worked in Colorado? The polls, meanwhile, show a race tightening in several swing states — if not at home in Colorado — and what are we to think?
It brings us to Barack Obama’s moving speech in Dallas. Obama is sadly at his best in these situations, having had so much practice. This was, he said, the 11th city he had visited following a mass shooting. Some of those speeches will be remembered long after Obama has left the stage. But this speech would be different.
The headline would be Obama’s insistence that “we are not as divided as we seem.” It’s the same thing, in different settings, in different registers, that Obama has been saying forever, or at least since the not-red-states/not-blue-states speech at the 2004 Democratic convention that made his career.
But the subhead could have been Obama’s concession that words are not enough. “I’ve seen,” he said, “how inadequate my own words can be.” And so he turned to scripture to make his point: “Let us long not with words and speech but with actions and truth.”
After honoring each of the dead cops, after giving human dimension to each, after saying that we must know, and must honor, that these are the people who run toward the gunfire, after saying how Chief Brown’s leadership and outreach is the American story, he went further.
“If we’re to sustain the unity we need to get through these difficult times, if we are to honor these five outstanding officers who we’ve lost, then we will need to act on the truths that we know. And that’s not easy, it makes us uncomfortable. But we’re going to have to be honest with each other and ourselves,” he said.
And then he spoke the truths: that we know that racism persists, that we know young black men must get “the talk” about dealing with police, that we know the statistics showing how differently blacks and whites are treated by the criminal justice system. We know these things to be true, Obama would say. We know them.
And, if you don’t understand the context, the next day The New York Times wrote of how Trump’s name has become a symbol for white identity and for those who don’t want to know these things. As The Times wrote: “In countless collisions of color and creed, Donald J. Trump’s name evokes an easily understood message of racial hostility. Defying modern conventions of political civility and language, Mr. Trump has breached the boundaries that have long constrained Americans’ public discussion of race.”
Even so, before Dallas, the story line seemed clear. Two black men were killed at the hands of police. The incidents were separated by a day and more than a thousand miles, but both deaths would be characterized, even by Trump, as “senseless.”
There was raw video, of course — video so raw that it could not possibly be ignored. We saw what we could not unsee, how these two black lives must have mattered and how, if we just allow ourselves the chance, we can also see that, whatever Rudy Giuliani thinks, Black Lives Matter means that Black Lives Also Matter.
And then came Dallas. It was a scene of raw carnage and more senselessness, a hateful revenge desire played out against innocent cops peacefully policing a peaceful protest against police violence in other cities.
After Dallas, nothing was clear except that something was very wrong. The collision of events demanded nuance, which George W. Bush, one of the anti-Trump Bushes, provided in his Dallas speech: “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
It wasn’t supposed to be quite this way. The election of Obama as the first black president was a historic watershed. It changed everything and, the same time, it changed nothing. All serious people understood this. Obama’s election and re-election didn’t mean that hundreds of years of racism would suddenly end, but that we’d be forced in ways not before possible to confront that racism. Obama knew this. When elected, he said it would take more than a single term — he might as well have said two terms — to move beyond history.
But he couldn’t have known then that as his presidency neared an end, we’d be where we are today, with partisanship at record levels, with race still at the center of debate, with the 2016 campaign so divided along racial and ethnic and gender and religious lines.
So, are we as divided as it seems? The November election, between two presidential candidates with staggeringly high unfavorable ratings, is many things. It’s a referendum on Obama, a referendum on Trump, a referendum on Clinton, a referendum on our times. And, if nothing else, it should be a referendum on just how wide the divide has grown.
Photo credit: Kelli, Creative Commons, Flickr