As we learn more about Micah Xavier Johnson, whose deadly rampage against Dallas police officers has shaken Dallas to its core, it is increasingly apparent that he shares much with Dylann Roof. That’s right, Dylann Roof.
As you might recall, Roof killed innocent worshipers at Mother Emanuel AME church in South Carolina in a fit of blind rage against black people whom he deemed a threat to his notion of white supremacy. He called himself the last Rhodesian, a misguided desire to embrace the ideals of a failed country that abused its nonwhite residents.
That is not unlike the motivations of Johnson, who also created his own warped narrative to justify mass killings of white police officers. Dallas just happened to be the place of opportunity. And, like Roof, Johnson plotted and practiced and increasingly immersed himself in the symbols and language of racism. On Monday, President Obama called Johnson’s murder of police officers in Dallas a hate crime, which puts it on the same level as Roof’s murder of black churchgoers.
And that is why we must not lose perspective about what is possible and what isn’t as the nation enters another cycle of conversations on race that are supposed to change minds and hearts.
Frankly, I don’t think conversations about race change hearts and minds, and that it is a bit naive to expect that outcome. I care more about establishing laws and procedures that protect police and minority citizens and assure neighborhoods are safe. I care about constitutional protections that let those whose basic human and civil rights have been violated — be they police officers or citizens — have remedies under the law. It matters not whether Americans like one another, but it does matter that laws protect all Americans from violations of their civil liberties.
Conversations have been held for as long as this country has existed. The founding fathers had conversations about race. So did America in the Reconstruction era and all throughout the last century. And when these conversations weren’t backed by laws and a commitment to protect all citizens, progress took generations.
Former President Bill Clinton had a series of town hall conversations before he left office, for example. To my knowledge, he never finished the final report from those chats. Or if he did, I can’t tell you what those chats accomplished. Every president since has asked that we understand one another in a national coming together. So I see a pattern: Conversations about race end up in missed opportunities.
Presidents should ask us to be better listeners. In fact, I want presidents to unite us. But more than that, I want presidents and other lawmakers right down to the city level to put aside conversations and enforce equal protections under the law. That is the missing ingredient and it is why committed community policing based on serving and protecting works. And it is why various task force recommendations that have been gathering dust need to be put into place now.
Conversations about race generally amount to preaching to the choir. Those who are willing to hold a conversation are people who already are willing to listen. My concern is that increasingly aggressive verbal combat has drowned out an opportunity for a conversation, and as a nation, our first instinct is to disparage rather than resolve.
It is sad to say racial conversations aren’t learning experiences. You have to speak the same language to have a conversation, and I see less evidence that we’re of a single tongue, let alone of a single message of universal justice.
My hope is not in hearts and minds changing, but in Americans realizing that our liberty is at stake — not just my liberty, but your liberty and the liberty of your sons and daughters, regardless of race. Once we commit to protecting liberty, then we’ll find our way beyond destructive recriminations.
Until then, we’ll look at troubled folks like Micah Johnson and Dylann Roof as excuses to have conversations that are likely to end up going nowhere.
Jim Mitchell is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Readers may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.