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Obama’s George Floyd statement calls for a “new normal” for black Americans

“This shouldn’t be normal in 2020 America.”

Former US president Barack Obama and wife Michelle Obama attend an event for the Obama Foundation in Kuala Lumpur on December 12, 2019.
Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama released a statement on the unrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and across the country over the police killing of George Floyd.

Obama called on everyone — including law enforcement — to work together to create a “new normal” that overcomes bigotry and unequal treatment of black Americans.

“It’s natural to wish for life ‘to just get back to normal’ as a pandemic and economic crisis upend everything around us,” said Obama in the statement. “But we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly, ‘normal.’ ... This shouldn’t be normal in 2020 America.”

The statement, released on Twitter Friday, references an email the former president received from a middle-aged African American businessman explaining his distress over the Floyd killing. “The ‘knee on the neck’ is a metaphor for how the system so cavalierly holds black folks down, ignoring the cries for help. People don’t care. Truly tragic,’” read the email quoted in Obama’s statement.

Obama also references another conversation he had with a friend who used the lyrics from 12-year-old Keedron Bryant’s viral song about the Floyd killing to explain the frustration the friend was feeling over the current circumstances. Though Obama doesn’t specify which particular lyrics he’s referring to, Bryant’s song has gotten attention for how it expresses the fears and hopes of black Americans.

“I’m a young black man, doin’ all that I can to stand,” Bryant sings. “Oh, but when I look around and I see what’s being done to my kind every day, I’m being hunted as prey.”

The former president’s statement stands in stark contrast to that of President Donald Trump, who called the protesters “thugs” and tweeted, in part, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The tweet, and a subsequent retweet from the official White House account, were both flagged by Twitter as violating the social media platform’s rules against inciting violence.

Obama’s statement also departs from the tone he typically used while in office to address similar protests. Under his administration, he dealt with numerous high-profile police killings and subsequent protests, most notably in Ferguson, Missouri.

After teenager Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Obama released a much shorter statement, more centered on keeping the peace than creating a new normal.

And in the wake of the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015, Obama called some protesters “criminals” during a White House press conference.

But being a former president is different. Now that he is out of office, Obama is more free to try to lead the social change his candidacy once promised — and during a time when America needs compassionate leadership.