President Obama said Friday that although he doesn’t think the abuses of power in Ferguson are “typical” of America, there are individuals and possibly whole departments in American law enforcement that may struggle to prevent prejudice in their ranks.
“I don’t think that is typical of what happens across the country, but it’s not an isolated incident,” Obama said in an interview taped Sunday that aired Friday on SiriusXM’s “Urban View” channel.
“I think there are circumstances in which trust between communities and law enforcement have broken down, and individuals or entire departments may not have the training or the accountability to make sure they are protecting serving all people, and not just some.”
Obama’s comments were his first public reaction to a shocking report from the Justice Department revealing a range of abuses committed against African American residents by the Ferguson police force. In the aftermath of racial unrest and widespread protests following the death of Ferguson resident Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, at the hands of a white Ferguson police officer, the White House announced the creation of a task force force on 21st century policing.
The group presented their findings this week and the President said he will be moving forward with that agenda.
His Friday interview was focused around the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, and Obama’s trip to Selma Saturday to mark the occasion. Obama emphasized the importance of voting rights as the seminal issue of the civil rights movement and called on Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act. But he also called on African Americans to vote in bigger numbers, saying that statistics showing that only half or one-third of African Americans vote are “not living up to the legacy that has been presented.”
And he argued that the march on Selma, and the civil rights movement as a whole, extends to the rights of the children of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally, as well as gay Americans.
“The notion that say some young kid who was brought here when he was 2 or 3 years old might somehow be deported at the age of 20 or 25, even though they’ve grown up as Americans — that’s not who we are. That’s not true to the spirit of what the march on Selma was about,” Obama said.
“The idea that we would discriminate against people with different sexual orientations, the basic concept was everybody has to be treated equally under the law, not that you have to, that everybody has to have an equal lifestyle.”
The civil rights movement, he said, “didn’t just open door for black folks, it wasn’t just about black folks, it was about America.”
The President stressed the government’s responsibility to overcome the legacy of slavery and racism in America, saying the government must do more to “make sure young people, and young men in particular, are steered towards careers and opportunity rather than prison. That’s an area where we’ve got a lot more progress to make.”
One such initiative the White House has started in the last year is “My Brother’s Keeper” — a mentorship ship program for young men of color. Obama said Friday he’s “worried” that young Americans may see the civil rights movement as “something way back in the past,” and that it’s important to show them how the movement affects their lives to empower them to continue the fight. His own mother did that by playing him Mahalia Jackson songs, he said in a later interview, and by giving him books about the civil rights movement when he was a child.
In a later interview, Obama said pop culture can help preserve those memories — as with the film “Selma.” The President screened the Oscar-nominated film at the White House in January with the film’s cast, Oprah, and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis.
The president said he’s taking his daughters, Malia and Sasha, to Selma to impress upon them that very point.
“I want them to get that sense — that enormous change can happen just because a group of people decide that they’re going to take risks on the behalf of justice. And I also want the girls to understand you don’t have to have a high office, you don’t have to have a fancy title or have great wealth in order to make a difference,” he said.