Donald Trump has been president for 14 months, and in that time, he has commented on virtually everything under the sun, from able news personalities and political rivals to professional football players and prominent black celebrities. Trump is so vocal about what he likes and dislikes—so present in the national conversation—that his omissions are often more revealing than his comments. On the rare occasions when this president is silent, it is consistently when confronted with violence against nonwhites.
On Thursday, reporters asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders for comment on the shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was killed by the Sacramento, California, police while standing in his grandmother’s backyard. According to a private autopsy, Clark was shot eight times in the back by police who claimed to have seen a gun. He was holding a phone. “Certainly a terrible incident,” said Sanders, before adding that “this is something that is a local matter and that’s something that we feel should be left up to the local authorities at this point in time.”
Asked for further clarification, Sanders doubled down. “Certainly, we want to make sure that all law enforcement is carrying out the letter of the law. The president is very supportive of law enforcement, but at the same time in these specific cases and these specific instances, those will be left up to the local authorities,” she said.
Trump’s silence around incidents of racial violence, and police violence in particular, is unusual for a president. Barack Obama regularly commented on the killings of unarmed black Americans, from Trayvon Martin during his first term to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in his second. “[The shootings] are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve,” said Obama during extended remarks at a press conference in Warsaw, Poland, in 2016.
Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, took time to address outrage over the Jena Six, a group of six black teenagers arrested for the assault of a white classmate in Jena, Louisiana. The beating followed multiple racially charged incidents, including the hanging of nooses from a tree. Critics believed that local prosecutors had been overzealous—and racially discriminatory—in charging them with attempted murder. Protesters, likewise, saw their treatment as part of a pattern of racial unfairness. Given the national controversy and outrage, President Bush felt obliged to speak. “I understand the emotions,” the president said. “The Justice Department and the FBI are monitoring the situation down there and all of us in America want there to be fairness when it comes to justice.”
Bill Clinton spoke out on the shooting death of Amadou Diallo by New York City police. “I didn’t sit there and listen to the evidence, but I know most people in America of all races believe that if it had been a young white man in a young all-white neighborhood, it probably wouldn’t have happened,” said Clinton. “That doesn’t mean they were guilty under criminal law and the Justice Department is looking into that, in the Civil Rights Division, and that’s the way to handle that. But what it does mean is there’s this huge gulf out there still, in too many places, where people wonder if they can be treated fairly.”
Even George H.W. Bush commented on the major incident of his presidency, the 1991 Rodney King beating. “Civil rights leaders and just plain citizens fearful of and sometimes victimized by police brutality were deeply hurt,” said Bush in an address after the involved officers were acquitted. “And I know good and decent policemen who were equally appalled.”
Far from “local matters” that don’t rise to presidential attention, police shootings like the one that killed Clark are obviously of national concern. Presidents speak to them—and other racial incidents—because race and racism are critical parts of American life, and addressing them is an important part of representing the country as a whole.
But this assumes that Donald Trump seeks to represent all Americans. Among other things, his attacks on immigrants, disparaging language for migrants, overt disrespect for prominent black Americans, and deliberate neglect of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria say otherwise. In both word and deed, President Trump has announced who he intends to serve and represent while in the White House. Americans like Stephon Clark, unfortunately, aren’t part of that group.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.