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The huge racial divide the State of the Union ignored

Spencer Platt/ Getty Images

There are plenty of things that it's fair to say most Americans can "surely" agree on. But, memo to President Obama: empathy for the victims of racially-biased policing is not on the list of topics that get us all on the same page. Not even close.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Obama said, in a clear reference to the unpunished deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — black men who were unarmed when they were killed in confrontations with police officers — and their aftermaths, "We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York, but surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed."

Wait, "surely"?

Not quite. This is not a given. It's not even an almost-given. Just one example: a December 2014 CNN/ORC poll showed that whites are much more likely than blacks to believe the criminal justice system treats African Americans fairly. 50% of whites, compared to only 21% of non-whites, agreed with this idea. And when asked, "How many police officers in the area where you live ... are prejudiced against blacks?" only 17% of white respondents, compared to 42% of non-white respondents, guessed "most or some."

That chunk of people, who simply don't believe that black fathers have a reason to fear that their sons will be harassed by police while walking home, matters. It means the capacity of Americans as a whole to empathize with the plight of black people in Ferguson, or New York, or anywhere else — the ones who are disproportionately likely to be arrested and killed during an attempted arrest, and have to navigate this reality daily — is not "sure" at all. In fact, it's one of the least sure things I can think of.

Of course, it's clear what Obama was trying to do here. He was giving a compliment ("you understand this, of course") with the hope that people would live up to it. He was framing the issue as uncontroversial, in an attempt to bring along that 50 percent of white Americans, and others who fundamentally don't agree with the premise that racism means some fathers have to have more fear for their son's lives.  He even strategically left out any specific reference to race in his example, in an apparent effort to get listeners to think about the father and son in his story as human before black.  To be fair, he was trying to be encouraging. And saying something like "a huge chunk of you still deny that racism exists and refuse to believe that innocent people ever have reason to fear police" wouldn't have fit the hopeful "turn the page" theme of the speech.

The effort to characterize American sentiments about race as much more agreed-upon than they actually are was a nice try, but it didn't work. Obama tried to squeeze this issue into the old "We may disagree about X controversial thing, but certainly we can understand Y uncontroversial thing" construction, which he's used since the original "there is not a black America and a white America" days. This works nicely if Y is actually something people tend to agree on (Jobs! Education for children! Security!) But concern for the day-to-day experience of African Americans, and acceptance of the fact of racially biased policing, are not in this category.

Here's a clue: If this were a "surely," thousands of people across the country wouldn't feel the need to protest for months to communicate the simple sentiment that "Black lives matter."

If this were a "surely," the reaction to protests in Ferguson and New York City wouldn't be to characterize them as "anti-police," and demonstrators practicing civil disobedience wouldn't be written off as "thugs."

Maybe Obama has already forgotten that when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio talked about his fears for his own black son — the very same kinds of fears mentioned in the State of the Union address —  police officers got so angry that they turned their backs to him when he spoke, and basically stopped working.

Maybe the president hasn't had the chance to get onto Twitter, or scan the comments section of news coverage of Ferguson. So he's missed the very widespread view that any black father who's concerned for his son's safety should simply tell his son to stop acting like a thug, or looking like a thug, or that he should teach his child to follow police instructions and he'll be fine. Maybe Obama's chosen not to think about the way, in response to data on "staggering" racial arrest disparities and endless reports and anecdotes about racial profiling, so many insist on pivoting immediately to talk instead about  "black-on-black crime."

But the truth is, Obama must understand all of this. And his hopeful effort to fix it all — by smoothing over the giant divide between those who acknowledge that racism affects black Americans' lives, and those who don't — fell way short.

By trying to put empathy for black victims of racialized police violence and their families in the category of things we can easily "all understand." Obama gave Americans as a whole way too much credit. Surely, he knew better.