Obama confronts race issues at town hall meeting

Josh Lederman
Associated Press

Washington — The son of the Louisiana man shot dead by police wants President Barack Obama to help end world racism. The mother of a policeman pleads for ways to keep her son safe. A single mom who has sent her son away from a rough Baltimore neighborhood worries over how to keep him safe when he’s home on the weekends.

America’s fraught debate about tensions between blacks and police spilled over Thursday into hang-wringing about societal problems beyond any one person’s capacity to fix — even the president. At a town hall meeting taped with ABC News's David Muir, Obama cautiously offered suggestions, but no surefire solutions.

The good news, Obama said, is at least people are finally talking about the problems. Calling for “open hearts,” he urged Americans not to cloister themselves in separate corners.

“Because of the history of this country and the legacy of race, and all the complications that are involved with that, working through these issues so that things can continue to get better will take some time,” Obama said.

More time than Obama has left in office, he readily conceded.

As 32-year-old Philando Castile’s funeral was underway in St. Paul, Minnesota, Obama took a question remotely from Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, who livestreamed the aftermath of his shooting by police on Facebook. She said she’s scared for her daughter’s future and asked the president, “What do we do?”

Choosing his words carefully, Obama said it’s key for officers to get to know the community they’re protecting. Also critical, he said, was to better train police to avoid “implicit biases.”

“We all carry around with us some assumptions about other people,” Obama said. If people are honest with themselves, he added, “oftentimes there is a presumption that black men are dangerous.”

He offered a rare reflection on how he felt racism had affected him personally, recalling how as a young boy in Hawaii, a female neighbor didn’t recognize him and refused to ride in the same elevator. “In that sense, what is true for me is true for a lot of African-American men,” he said.

Another questioner, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, came with a different viewpoint. He implored Obama to more strongly condemn those who call for killing police, and to grant a national law enforcement group’s request that the White House be lit up with blue lights in solidarity.

The White House has declined that request, and Obama insisted he’s condemned anti-police rhetoric plenty already.

In a particularly tense moment at the end of the town hall, the daughter of a man who died in a police confrontation started screaming after being denied a chance to question the president. Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, later met briefly with Obama in private, the White House said.

The question-and-answer session at a Washington theater capped a dizzying week for the president as he sought to connect with the public in a series of hastily arranged appearances: a meeting with police, a summit with law enforcement leaders and Black Lives Matter activists, a trip to Dallas to honor five white officers killed in a revenge attack.