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Say The Right Thing

No one, especially not the president, should call the Dallas attack on police officers a “hate crime”

Unity was the catchword of the day on Tuesday, from the Hillary Clinton "Stronger Together" rally in New Hampshire where Bernie Sanders endorsed his rival to, hours later, a memorial for the five police officers killed last week in Dallas. There, both George W. Bush and President Obama spoke movingly of the fallen, and of what we need to do, moving forward, to heal as a nation. It's presidential work, bringing people together at moments of crisis.

Presidents get into trouble, though, when they try to please everyone. On the night before his Dallas eulogy, Obama reportedly told a group of police association officials with whom he was meeting that the attack on the officers was a "hate crime" and would've been prosecuted as such had the shooter survived. Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, told Politico that he "very much" appreciated the remark and hoped that the president would repeat it publicly.

He didn't do so directly, at least not in Tuesday's speech. And we're hearing about this secondhand, so there's a possibility Obama didn't say exactly that. Still, rhetoric like this is all too common from people who aren't the president, like officers and their supporters who chant "blue lives matter!" without really understanding (or caring about) why so many others have been shouting "black lives matter!" in the first place. It's in this spirit, out of anger and hurt or the need to embolden those suffering after the loss of the five officers, that one might call the attack a "hate crime."

For Obama, such an attempt to reach across the aisle to assuage and unite would be so ... him. This president is great at comforting. He should be; he's as skilled an orator as we've ever had in the office, and he has had more than enough practice honing his consolation skills. His go-to rhetorical move is to reaffirm his personal belief in national unity, despite what the rest of us may be feeling or hearing, which he did again in Dallas. "I’m here to insist that we are not so divided as we seem," he said. "I say that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds. I know we’ll make it because of what I’ve experienced in my own life."

This is an Obama staple, a belief in the inherent synergy of American cultures that could elevate the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan to the highest office we have. It's the same belief that permits so many to indulge in the fiction that his election meant that the work of overcoming racism was over. Overall, his messages have a certain soothing effect, seeking to calm nerves and quiet any desires for revenge. He's used Abraham Lincoln's "better angels of our nature" refrain since he first became a candidate, reaching for it after the George Zimmerman verdict and again last week after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

But by trying too hard to show policemen that he cares, Obama was actually careless. I've written previously about Louisiana's insipid "blue lives matter" bill, since signed into law, that classifies crimes against cops as hate crimes. That isn't a throwaway term, meant to accentuate the act for a headline; it's a legal classification for crimes against people who actually need the protection. Hate crime laws first emerged as a response to the Ku Klux Klan's terrorism after Reconstruction. They are meant to protect folks who have been victimized by systemic discrimination and violence because of their identity, not their job.

We hear about generations of cops in a family, but no one is born into that role. A police officer accepts employment in an inherently dangerous business. Both the president and I, however, are among millions born into a nation where our blackness itself is considered dangerous. Obama should know that the whole notion of "blue lives matter" is a ploy not to embolden police officers but to undermine those who challenge police violence. Was the Dallas attack politically motivated? It sure seems that way. But by supposedly telling these officers that he'd have prosecuted it as a hate crime, the President would be indirectly helping the push for more laws like Louisiana's, which promises to pervert the idea (and, perhaps, the actual protections) of hate crime laws.

In trying to make the law enforcement community feel better, Obama may have made things worse. But even in the midst of their grief, the police need to hear some hard truths. We're not as unified as the president thinks, and a lot of that is the fault of abusive and killer cops. We need consensus on that fact, not some fantasy that we're already living in a unified America.