Former President Barack Obama speaking in a commencement video on May 16, 2020. | Getty Images for EIF & XQ
“This shouldn’t be normal in 2020 America.”
Former President Barack Obama released a statement on the unrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and across the country over the police killing of George Floyd.
Obama called on everyone — including law enforcement — to work together to create a “new normal” that overcomes bigotry and unequal treatment of black Americans.
“It’s natural to wish for life ‘to just get back to normal’ as a pandemic and economic crisis upend everything around us,” said Obama in the statement. “But we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly, ‘normal.’ … This shouldn’t be normal in 2020 America.”
The statement, released on Twitter Friday, references an email the former president received from a middle-aged African American businessman explaining his distress over the Floyd killing. “The ‘knee on the neck’ is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down, ignoring the cries for help. People don’t care. Truly tragic,’” read the email quoted in Obama’s statement.
My statement on the death of George Floyd: pic.twitter.com/Hg1k9JHT6R
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) May 29, 2020
Obama also references another conversation he had with a friend who used the lyrics from 12-year-old Keedron Bryant’s viral song about the Floyd killing to explain the frustration the friend was feeling over the current circumstances. Though Obama doesn’t specify which particular lyrics he’s referring to, Bryant’s song has gotten attention for how it expresses the fears and hopes of black Americans.
“I’m a young black man, doin’ all that I can to stand,” Bryant sings. “Oh, but when I look around and I see what’s being done to my kind every day, I’m being hunted as prey.”
The former president’s statement stands in stark contrast to that of President Donald Trump, who called the protesters “thugs” and tweeted, in part, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The tweet, and a subsequent retweet from the official White House account, were both flagged by Twitter as violating the social media platform’s rules against inciting violence.
Obama’s statement also departs from the tone he typically used while he was in office to address similar protests. Under his administration, he dealt with numerous high profile police killings and subsequent protests, most notably in Ferguson, Missouri.
After teenager Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Obama released a much shorter statement, more centered on keeping the peace than creating a new normal.
“The death of Michael Brown is heartbreaking, and Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to his family.” —Obama pic.twitter.com/j9R08mf0Zq
— White House Archived (@ObamaWhiteHouse) August 12, 2014
And in the wake of the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015, Obama called some protesters “criminals” during a White House press conference.
But being a former president is different. Now that he is out of office, Obama is more free to try to lead the social change his candidacy once promised — and during a time when America needs compassionate leadership.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.