Some days the White House, in one brief statement, reminds us just how far we’ve drifted.
How much the presidency has changed from the days when comments on race were laced with insight and historical context and infused with a knowledge gained from life experienced as a black man in America — President Barack Obama’s experience.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivered a press conference reply Wednesday that makes the soul ache for those days.
Tensions continue to churn in Sacramento. Outrage is not dissipating, nor should it, as questions go unanswered about the death of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old African-American man, armed only with a cellphone, who was shot and killed by police in his grandmother’s backyard.
Every police chief and mayor in America likely goes to bed thanking the heavens the day passed without a similar incident in their city.
Yet here was Sanders, asked about the two officers who were not charged in the 2016 police shooting death of Alton Sterling, sharply stating that there was no role for the federal government in police shootings.
Such incidents, she said, should be “left up to local authorities to make that determination and not something for the federal government to weigh in to.” Sanders held to that statement when queried about Sacramento and other cases in numerous cities that have generated protests.
This is where the Donald Trump presidency appears to be most comfortable. Asked to weigh in on behalf of non-whites? Nope. Not going there, nothing to say.
Using race as a way to divide, to generate fear of immigrants, to rally support for a day when America was “great” just because it was a little less brown and therefore less scary, that’s their safe place.
Sanders’ statements sidestepped the reason why the federal government must always be ready to play a role. Maybe she is unaware?
There was a time when it was local law enforcement, often a Southern sheriff, who unleashed the dogs on civil rights protesters, who turned a blind eye as racists did their mischief, dissuading a black vote or desegregated schools. And it was the federal government that had to step in.
That need for federal oversight still exists, but don’t expect to get the sort of work the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights arm did for the city of Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown.
Following Brown’s death, the DOJ produced a 100-page report examining not what happened to him, but why people were so angry about it. And while nothing excuses violent protests — the looting, the plundering, destruction of public property — the report certainly explained why people were fed up with police gunning down African Americans in alarming numbers.
The DOJ report detailed how through the years court systems and policing policies began to drive revenue for city coffers, unencumbered by the effect it had on community relations and who was targeted. It also, quite adeptly, explained how good people, including many white police officers, had tried to push back against the inherent unfairness, the outright discrimination, and were silenced.
This type of deep-dive is the role of the federal government, especially when local authorities either won’t or can’t sufficiently act.
Yet Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled long ago that his Justice Department has no interest in producing these types of reports, or aiding troubled police departments through consent decrees, as happened in Ferguson, whereby the federal government monitors municipalities to ensure they meet set benchmarks intended to “improve community policing, ensure bias-free practices, protect First Amendment rights, prevent excessive force, recruit a diverse workforce and increase officer accountability and transparency.”
Certainly, the mythical post-racial America that Obama’s presidency was to deliver was always a lark. As if a majority of votes cast for one highly electable man, could raise the fortunes of millions. But Obama’s presence did matter. He understood race and that understanding served as a foundation for how his administration acted.
Trump’s legacy might well be a harsh lesson in how quickly race relations can tumble and splinter. Without the monitors of the federal government, without DOJ guidance, backed by a president comfortable with and engaged in issues relating to race, we see the vacuum left behind.
Sanders didn’t flinch. She didn’t mince words. No.
Her declarative statements were a stellar performance underscoring how aloof, obtuse and ultimately obstructive this administration is to the racial soul of America.