I was reading Obama's farewell interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. I'm not able to understand this particular quote of his:

You know, I always talk about when I was doing civil-rights law and people would talk about the dearth of African Americans in police departments and fire departments around the country. And they would say, ‘Well, this should be a meritocracy, and everybody needs to take a test, and that’s objective, and anything else is affirmative action and unfair.’ And I’m thinking, Well, when Officer O’Malley or Officer Krupke was walking the beat, nobody said it was a meritocracy then. What happened? We’re suddenly now of the notion that somebody who’s a police officer or firefighter having some affinity and familiarity with the community they are serving is completely out of bounds. What changed?

What exactly does he mean here ? A preliminary Google search, leads to these two being fictional characters. Is it some American political phrase that I'm unfamiliar with ?

FWIW, I'm from India, but follow politics around the globe including the US, and can pick the context in most of the cases, but this one got me stumped.

1 Answer 1


Both fictional examples are from times past. O'Malley is an Irish name, and stands for the stereotypical New York City beat cop from the heyday of the political machine called Tammany Hall (say the 1870s and onward), which had the support of Irish immigrants. Officer Krupke is a character in West Side Story, a musical first produced on Broadway in 1957.

O'Malley and Krupke are white characters and represent the overwhelmingly white police departments in US cities of their era. Obama is saying that anyone who remarked on this fact would be told that positions in a police department should be attained by merit and that taking race into account is unfair "affirmative action". Obama is noting that no objective standards of merit went into hiring police, and that this only became an issue when people wanted more black police officers.

  • Wow - that was fast. So, he's effectively calling out the double standards , that he feels is being applied when it comes to racial (in)equality in public services hiring. Are there any government driven affirmative action programs, that he is defending ?
    – George
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 7:33
  • 1
    Officer O'Malley is not only a stereotypical Irish policeman's name, but a character name in quite a few movies and TV shows, starting with The Great O'Malley (1937), starring Pat O'Brien as O'Malley and Humphrey Bogart as the family man he arrests. An IMDB-based Google search shows the dimensions of the Officer O'Malley phenomenon, albeit with multiple repeats.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 8:06

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