A woman holds up a sign of support during a prayer vigil in a park following the shooting of multiple police officers in Dallas, Texas. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Mike Rawlings bluntly invoked the legacy of racism in speaking about recent violence by and against police.

When Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings spoke at a public prayer service Friday afternoon honoring the victims of Thursday night’s sniper attacks on police, he dared to broach the topic of racism at a time when many in positions of authority have been reticent to do so.

“We will not shy away from the very real fact that we, as a city, as a state, as a nation, are struggling with racial issues,” said Rawlings. “They continue to divide us. Yes, it’s that word, ‘race,’ and we’ve got to attack it head on.”

The person law-enforcement officials believe to be the lone gunman in Thursday night’s attack, Micah Xavier Johnson, reportedly told police that he was upset about police killings of African Americans and that he wanted to do harm to white police officers. Rawlings called for prayers for the five slain officers and the nine other shooting victims, but accepted blame for failing to deal with racial animosity in his city. Said Rawlings:

I will tell you—this is on my generation of leaders. It is on our watch that we have allowed this to fester. We have led the next generation down a vicious path of rhetoric and actions that pit one against the other. ...

Can we as a community truly and deeply understand the pain that racial discrimination and the greatest sin in america slavery has created through history? ...

Can we do it by being honest about today’s shortcomings and building a society that truly gives all citizens what we all love: the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? I think we can.  

Rawlings said in his speech that “race is complicated,” but that we “must step up our game and face complicated issues in a different way.”

It was a much more direct, emotional appeal than the speech given by President Barack Obama on Thursday, before the Dallas shootings, in regard to the police killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. Obama pointed to a series of statistics on racial inequities in the criminal justice system, as a way of explaining why people—and African Americans in particular—were protesting.

But Rawlings, who is white, relied less on empirical data and focused more on racial atonement. His comments echoed those of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who also addressed the police shooting this week in his state without shying away from the racial tension at its heart.

“Would this have happened if those passengers—the driver, the passenger—were white? I don’t think it would have,” said Dayton at a press conference Thursday. “This kind of racism exists. And it’s coming up now on all of us to vow to do whatever we can to see that it doesn’t happen, that it doesn’t continue to happen.”

Many in political positions often tip-toe around the reality of racism when dealing with racially charged issues such as police shootings. The infuriated response from police groups to Governor Dayton’s comments is just one example of how law-enforcement officials often want to stifle speech that attempts to examine race.

But Black Lives Matter activists have pushed back effectively against allowing racism to go unaddressed in these circumstances—and that’s necessary. The next step is to see what concrete steps mayors and governors will take to address the racism embedded in our nation’s institutions.

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