Obama’s Dallas Speech Was a Call for Unity. Will It Work?

July 13, 2016, 12:43 PM UTC

President Obama delivered somber and emotional remarks Tuesday at a memorial service with the families of the five police officers killed in the recent sniper attacks in Dallas and other members of the Dallas community. He was joined by a bipartisan delegation that included former President George W. Bush, and former First Lady Laura Bush, as well as leaders from multiple faiths.

It was the President’s eleventh visit to a community mourning gun violence, and his fifteenth speech in response to what is now routinely called a “multiple victim shooting.”

And although there are plenty of reasons to feel hopeful, the emotional toll of the seemingly intractable issues of race, class, violence and inequity that infuse every conversation online and off, now feels too heavy to bear.

The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center hall was filled to capacity, with five seats left heartbreakingly empty save for folded flags and duty hats.

“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions,” said President Bush calling for tolerance. “At our best, we recognize the image of God we see in one another.”

President Obama spoke very directly to the many different constituencies who continue to clash over race – Black Lives Matters supporters looking for justice, law enforcement who feel unfairly maligned for the work they do, or communities at large who simply want relief. “We are not as divided as we seem,” he told the crowd. But, he said, “I confess that sometimes I do experience doubt. I’ve been to too many of these things,” he said, referring to the memorial. “I’ve comforted too many families.”

He appeared determined to embrace the complexity of the country that had brought them all to that moment.

The speech became, in between touchstones of scripture and confessions of occasional uncertainty, a challenge for everyone listening to do the difficult work of considering life through another person’s eyes. The call was not just for healing, but for empathy.

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Critics, though, have argued that the black president sides with activists, inflaming tensions between communities and police.

In a conversation this past spring, I asked Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, to help put this frustration into context.

“He had no expectations that his election would signal a post-racial society. And anyone who thought over night that we would heal wounds that are old and deep was being naïve,” she said, citing his remarks at Howard University. She said the rise of video, has galvanized both the press and youth movements who have “called on duly elected representatives to do better for communities that for far too long had a breach of trust,” she said. This is good news, she said.

Should President Obama have done more in his presidency, talked more about racial issues, as some have said? “The two speeches that he gave that really focused on race – the first in Philadelphia during his first campaign, and more recently in Charleston, at Reverend Pinckney’s funeral, were given at a time where he felt his voice could move our country forward in a positive direction,” Jarrett said.

Speaking for speaking sake, she says, would not have worked. “In both of those instances, people were really searching for answers.”

For anyone searching for answers yesterday, Obama’s prescription was direct: We are all in this together.

“Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime. But we know that bias remains. We know it! We have all seen this bigotry in our lives. Perhaps we’ve heard it in our own heads and felt in in our own hearts. None of us is entirely innocent and no institution is entirely immune.”

Inclusion is about accepting the humanity of other people, no matter what the voice in your head tells you about them.

“It’s not about finding policies that work,” he said. “It’s about forging consensus and fighting cynicism.Can we do this? Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other?”

It is a question that every leader should be asking today.


When she’s not writing about the world’s greatest rock star-leader, Ellen McGirt is busy working on Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.