Obama gets his black history wrong

As John has noted, President Obama’s speech today at a rally commemorating the great civil rights march of 1963 was, not surprisingly, an exercise in partisan demagoguery. Even when Obama tried to “honest,” he didn’t quite get it right:

And then, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.

And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support — as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.

There’s much to agree with in this passage, especially the part about the desire for government support. But it’s not accurate to attribute black rioting to “the anguish of assassinations.” Martin Luther King’s assassination did set off rioting in many cities including Washington, D.C. But the highest profile black rioting preceded the killing of King and was not associated with any other assassination.

The infamous rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles occurred in August 1965. It produced 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. The 12th Street riot in Detroit occurred in July 1967. The toll was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. Rioting that same month in Newark left 26 dead and hundreds injured.

I understand that Obama feels compelled to counterbalance even the slightest criticism of the black community by blaming some offense on the part of whites. But that’s no excuse for misstating the facts.

Moreover, this sort of misstatement negates Obama’s high-minded call for honest self-criticism and the taking of ownership for one’s “liberation.” It’s a pity that Obama can’t quite attain genuine high-mindedness on a topic of such importance, to which he once brought so much credibility.