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Reaction To Obama's Speech At Police Memorial In Dallas

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Obama yesterday found himself once again talking about the fault line between race and law enforcement. He was speaking in Dallas at a memorial service for the five police officers slain there. And once again, the president sought to acknowledge the fears of both communities and the nation at large.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs can ever understand each other's experience.

MONTAGNE: And for a reaction to the president's speech, we've reached, via Skype, Jason Johnson. He is political editor of The Root, an online journal of African-American news, opinion and culture. Good morning.

JASON JOHNSON: Good morning. Good to speak to you.

MONTAGNE: Now, you know, President Obama seems to have had a particular challenge and a delicate one. He was there to mourn the officers but also could not forget to highlight the deaths of the young black men at the hands of police. What struck you about his speech and how he went about doing that?

JOHNSON: Well, I have to say that he did have a choice. This was the memorial service for the five officers that were killed in Dallas. He didn't have to mention Alton Sterling. He didn't have to mention Philando Castile. The president's decision to connect those two events was incredibly courageous on his behalf, to say, look, these events are connected, and the lives of all of these people lost in this overall civil rights conflict are worth mentioning in this environment.

MONTAGNE: Although it - you know, it has to be said that those deaths were so close and connected, apparently, to the Dallas killings that, you know, they would have hovered. So to the degree that he - you know, he had to make sure he was speaking to two groups and bringing them together, how successful do you think he was?

JOHNSON: Oh, he wasn't successful at all because I think that at the core, you can't bring together the extreme parts of the groups that were listening. The vast majority of Americans obviously despair at the idea of police officers getting shot in the course of their jobs. The vast majority of decent, well-meaning Americans are saddened by the idea of black men or any men or people of color being shot by police and then those police not suffering consequences. But the president is never going to be able to bring into the fold those people who sort of passive-aggressively describe themselves as pro-cop, you know, similar to people who say, I'm all lives matter. Those are people who, generally speaking, use their support for police as a way to sort of pretend or hide the fact that they're generally hostile towards African-Americans, or they lack empathy to these situations. So the president can't bring those people together. But as far as the vast majority of Americans who want to hear a president express empathy and establish some sort of control and decency and guidance in these times of tragedy, I think he did a good job.

MONTAGNE: You know, he asked people to move beyond the despair that they might feel after the events of the past week. One quote is, "I'm here to insist that we're not as divided as we seem." You seem to have suggested in some ways we are that divided. But do you remember a particular part that really did strike you as part of soaring rhetoric, the kind of rhetoric that might linger and have an effect?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, for me, the most impressive rhetoric is the ability to relate a story. And there are so many different stories from that night that a president could focus on. But the president's focus on the African-American woman who took her five sons to protest against police brutality, who was subsequently shot by the sniper and then praised the police for saving her - that is the kind of true story that this president focused on that I thought was the most impressive, that he didn't have to use flowery rhetoric, that he could use an actual event to demonstrate the nuance of what is going on, which is, yes, there are people out there who are adamantly, sincerely saying, we must put a stop to police brutality, to police violence and more specifically to the lack of accountability for police. But at the same time, those people don't necessarily dislike police officers who are doing their job.

MONTAGNE: Jason Johnson, thank you very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Jason Johnson is political editor of the online journal The Root. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.