President Obama on Thursday said all Americans should be troubled by the two fatal shootings of black men at the hands of police this week, urging the country to believe “we can be better than this.”
“All of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings because these are not isolated incidents,” he told reporters in Warsaw, Poland, during a rare statement made shortly after Air Force One landed there after midnight local time.
“This is not just a black issue, it is not just an Hispanic issue, it’s an American issue we should all care about.”
He rattled off statistics showing that black and Hispanic men are more likely to be pulled over, arrested and shot by police than whites.
“When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if, because the color of their skin, they’re not being treated the same,” he said. “And that hurts.”
Alton Sterling, 37, died early Tuesday after being shot by police at a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La.
Philando Castile, 32, was shot and killed Wednesday in an incident during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn.
The president echoed the national outrage sparked by their deaths, parts of which were captured in graphic videos.
The Department of Justice’s civil rights division will investigate Sterling’s shooting, and top officials in Minnesota have called for a similar probe into the killing of Castile.
Obama said earlier, in a Facebook post, that, “all Americans should be deeply troubled” by the two incidents, which took place less than 48 hours apart.
The first black president has been forced to confront a string of similar deaths in cities such as Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and New York City. And his White House has often struggled to mend frayed ties between police departments and the communities they serve.
Obama acknowledged that local police departments have been slow to adopt a series of White House recommendations issued last year meant to cut down incidents of racial bias.
“Change has been too slow, and we have to have a greater sense of urgency about this,” he said, adding that the shootings “should be a spur to action” for Congress to pass stalled legislation reforming the criminal justice system.
Obama sought to insulate himself from criticism that he has stoked anti-police sentiment by drawing attention to the killings and the problem of racial disparities in law enforcement.
The president said he has “extraordinary appreciation and respect for the vast majority of police officers” who put their lives on the line to protect their communities. But he added that does not contradict a belief that problems with bias “have to be rooted out.”
“When people say black lives matter, that doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter, it means all lives matter,” Obama said. “But the data shows that black folks are more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents.”
Top Republicans have sometimes accused Obama of not supporting police officers, which they claim has resulted in an uptick in crime.
“You’ve got a president of the United States who does not support law enforcement. Simply doesn’t,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said last November, when he was a Republican candidate for president.
Obama asked those who question the sincerity or legitimacy of protests in the wake of the killings “to step back and think, what if this happened to someone in your family. How would you feel?”
“To be concerned about these issues is not political correctness,” he said. “It’s just being American and wanting to live up to our best and highest ideals.”
Vice President Biden also weighed in on the shootings.
“More black lives lost,” Biden wrote. “More anger I share with the country. More broken trust we have to restore. We all must do this.”
More black lives lost. More anger I share with the country. More broken trust we have to restore. We all must do this.
— Vice President Biden (@VP) July 7, 2016