President Barack Obama said the nation’s police have “a really tough job” for which they should be honored and supported, but he said the perception of discrimination in the justice system should be “a source of concern for all Americans.”
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Speaking in an exclusive interview with “GMA” co-anchor Robin Roberts at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture ahead of its opening this weekend, the president responded when asked about the recent unrest in cities across America following controversial police shootings.
The most recent turbulence has erupted in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, by a black police officer. Protests continued in the city for a third night last night and the mayor imposed a curfew in response.
While the president said his policy was to not comment on the specifics of cases that were being investigated, he spoke about the broader issue.
“If you have repeated instances in which the perception is at least that this might not have been handled the same way were it not for the element of race, even if it's unconscious ... Then I think it's important for all of us to say, ‘We want to get this right. We want to do something about it,’” he said.
He added that the situation requires better training of police, greater accountability in the system, better data, transparency in prosecution and community outreach to build trust and prevent crises.
“And then ultimately it requires, I think, all of us to search our hearts to make sure that, you know, we’re asking ourselves tough questions. Are we teaching our kids to see people for their character and not for their color?” he said.
Obama: Violence Won't 'Advance the Cause'
Addressing the violence that has erupted at protests, the president said heroes of the Civil Rights movement have shown that way to achieve lasting change is to engage the broader American community in a thoughtful, disciplined and peaceful manner, adding that there was “a right way of doing it and a wrong way of doing it.”
While most people who have been concerned with how police interact with the community have registered their concerns the right way, “every once in a while you see folks doing it the wrong way. Looting, you know, burning buildings, breaking glass. Those things are not going to advance the cause,” he said.
During the interview the president and first lady Michelle Obama discussed the lessons to be learned from the museum and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The first lady said the museum – with its interactive displays covering the history of African Americans from slavery to today and highlighting the community’s contributions to culture, sports and the arts – will serve as a clear reminder of the progress that has been made.
“We've been through so much. And we've overcome so much ... After you see what we've been through, there's nothing we can't handle as a community and as a nation,” she said.
The president agreed, saying the museum could be inspirational particularly for children.
“What I think you want is for this generation of kids to come away thinking, ‘Yeah, everybody can do everything.’ That if you're a little white boy or a little white girl, little black boy, little black girl, a Latino, Asian, if you grow up and you are gay or straight, if you are disabled, that you're empowered,” he said.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump could also benefit from visiting the museum, Obama said.
Legacy of 'Lawful Segregation'
Pointing to remarks Trump has recently made in which he has said African-Americans have never been worse off than they are today and that they should vote for him because they have nothing to lose, the president said: “You know, I think even most 8-year-olds'll tell you that whole slavery thing wasn't very good for black people. Jim Crow wasn't very good for black people.”
He added that it was important that white Americans understand the legacy of “lawful segregation in this country just a decade ago,” adding: “It's unrealistic to think that somehow that all just completely went away, because the Civil Rights Act was passed or because Oprah's making a lot of money or because I was elected president. You know, that's not how society works. And if you have hundreds of years of racial discrimination it's likely that the vestiges of that discrimination linger on. And we should acknowledge that and own that.”
The Obamas thanked all those whose efforts prior to their residence in the White House led to the museum becoming a reality, including Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, and former president George W. Bush.
“I think it's important to make sure that people understand this wasn't my presidency's initiative. We just happened to be here when it finally got opened,” the president said.
The first couple toured the museum with their daughters, Malia and Sasha. Asked about the exhibit that speaks about his life, the president replied that he and the first lady were “humbled” to be a part of the story, but believed they were “just a pretty small part.”
“We were an outgrowth of Frederick Douglass and white abolitionists who partnered with him,” he said. “We were the consequence of these Freedom Riders. Of all races. Young people idealistically coming down here and being willing to challenge an unjust system.”
'I Think She'll be an Outstanding President'
Asked what advice he would give to Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, Obama replied that he would tell her to be herself.
“I've gotten to know Hillary and seen her work and seen her in tough times and in good times. She is in this for the right reasons. She is motivated by a deep desire to make things better for people,” he said.
The president said she faced unique challenges to her bid for the office.
"I think there is a reason we haven't had a woman president before and so she is having to break down some barriers," he said. "There is a level of mistrust and a caricature of her that doesn't jibe with who I know, this person that cares deeply about kids, and wants to make sure they get a good education and wants to make working families have support and wants everyone to succeed and wants to keep America safe."
Clinton has kept on going despite “all the slings and arrows that have been cast at her ...," Obama said. "I trust her and I trust why she's doing this. And I think she'll be an outstanding president."