President Barack Obama participates in a conversation on criminal justice reform while flanked by Bill Keller (left) of The Marshall Project, and Charlie Beck (right) of the Los Angleles Police, at the White House in Washington on Oct. 22, 2015.
Mark Wilson—Getty Images
October 22, 2015 5:22 PM EDT

President Obama defended the Black Lives Matter movement during a panel discussion Thursday, saying the campaign’s grievances are based in truth.

“There is a specific problem that is happening in the African American community that is not happening in other communities,” Obama said toward the end of a wide-ranging conversation on criminal justice reform hosted by the Marshall Project, a non-profit criminal justice news organization. “And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”

He added, “There is a specific concern as to whether African Americans in specific jurisdictions are sometimes not treated fairly or subject to excessive force more frequently.”

The President also reiterated a point he has made repeatedly since the Black Lives Matter movement took on new life during the Ferguson protests: police officers have a tough job and the majority of police officers want to and are doing the right thing. But, as a society, he said, we need to take seriously the concerns of those who feel they’re being treated unfairly by law enforcement.

“The African American community is not just making this up. It’s not just something being politicized,” he said. “It’s real.”

President Obama appeared on the panel alongside Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck, John Walsh, the U.S. Attorney from the District of Colorado, and former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller who served as moderator. While most of the afternoon conversation focused on ways the federal, state, and local government can go about reforming the criminal justice system, Obama also used the discussion as an opportunity to talk about the racial aspect of criminal justice. He noted disparities in incarceration rates and interactions with police, even recalling being pulled over by police when he was a private citizen without knowing why he had been stopped.

After facing criticism from some quarters during his first term for treading too lightly on the subject of race, Obama has been speaking more openly about issues of race and criminal justice reform as his second term draws to a close. In the past year, since the wave of Black Lives Matter protests brought renewed attention to community police relations, Obama has commissioned a task force to recommend steps law enforcement can take to mend ties in disillusioned and distrusting communities. The panel discussion followed an emotional event in Charleston, West Virigina where the President spoke to and heard from individuals battling the state’s heroin epidemic, including those whose family members struggle with opioid addiction.

During Thursday’s conversation, Obama made a point of rejecting the idea that the statement “black lives matter” suggests that other lives don’t—a complaint that has been voiced by some critics of the movement.

“I think everybody understands that all lives matter,” Obama said. “Everybody wants strong effective law enforcement. Everybody wants their kids to be safe when they’re walking to school. Nobody wants to see police officers, when they’re doing their job fairly, hurt.”

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