White House

Obama on race: Watch what he does as much as what he says

U.S. President Barack Obama, Aug. 18, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)
U.S. President Barack Obama, Aug. 18, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT) MCT

President Barack Obama’s reluctance to delve intensely into the issue of race is drawing criticism from some African-Americans, who say he needs to contribute to the dialogue on race in America, especially as violence continues to roil Ferguson, Mo.

Yet Obama in his second term has been more vocal on issues of economic inequality, voting rights and criminal justice, and some leaders give him high marks for putting the full force of the Department of Justice in play to investigate what happened in Ferguson.

“This has been a very, very deep engagement that the administration has authorized and ultimately, to those of us who are focused on accountability and justice, that matters more than the president’s words,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“I understand the feeling of many people, that as an African-American president they want to hear from him,” she said. “But we have heard from him, you have the deployment of the resources to ensure that justice is done.”

Obama, who gave an anguished response to the 2012 shooting death of an unarmed teenager in Florida, has offered more measured comments about the death of Michael Brown, 18, at the hands of a Missouri police officer.

Obama’s most extensive remarks on Brown’s death came Monday at the White House, where Obama met with Attorney General Eric Holder. Unlike weeks after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, when Obama told reporters that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama focused on his decision to dispatch Holder to Missouri as he called for calm.

Holder and White House adviser Valerie Jarrett held a conference call with civil rights leaders and others on Monday.

“Ours is a nation of laws, of citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them,” Obama said. “So, to a community in Ferguson that is rightly hurting and looking for answers, let me call once again for us to seek some understanding rather than simply holler at each other. Let’s seek to heal rather than to wound each other.”

Civil rights groups noted Obama would draw criticism regardless of what he says.

“In this particular case, he can’t win for losing,” said Pamela Meanes, president of the National Bar Association, noting that if Obama were “too passionate,” he’d be accused of meddling in the investigation. But she acknowledged his tone on Monday left some saying “he’s not passionate enough.”

Obama on Monday referred to a program he had launched, My Brother’s Keeper, which seeks to empower young minority men whose lives are disproportionately affected by poverty and prison. “Part of the ongoing challenge of perfecting our union has involved dealing with communities that feel left behind,” he said Monday.

And Holder has pushed a proposal to change the federal sentencing guidelines for some convicted of drug crimes, arguing it’s a civil rights issue because African-Americans make up such a large percentage of the prison population.

Obama’s first response came three days after the shooting, describing Brown’s death in a statement as “heartbreaking” and urging Americans to remember Brown through “reflection and understanding.”

He spoke two days later from his vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., calling “for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.”

In July 2013, Obama delivered some of his most extensive and personal remarks on race since entering the White House, describing what it’s like to be a black man in America, but only after a jury in Florida found a neighborhood watch volunteer not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

This time, observers note, there’s not yet been any charges filed or a trial – and Brown was shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.

“It’s complicated by the fact it’s a person of the state, not a rogue individual taking justice into his own hands,” said Shawn Alexander, an associate professor of African and African American studies and the director of the Langston Hughes Center at the University of Kansas.

Obama in 2009 admitted that he hadn’t helped calm a racially charged debate by saying that police acted “stupidly” for arresting a prominent African-American professor in his own home and a “beer summit” on the White House lawn among the principals yielded little.

Obama as the first African-American president is in a unique position and hasn’t always figured out how to respond, Alexander said.

“We constantly view him through the lens of race and that puts a different pressure on him,” Alexander said. “We need now a spokesperson to talk about race and because he’s in the Oval Office, he must be that person and at same time he’s trying to be the president of the nation.”

“He sometimes gets stuck between a rock and a hard place and I don’t know he’s figured out how to navigate it,” Alexander said. “Should he speak out more? Probably. We have serious problems and if you’re going to lead it, get out in front of it, speak about it.”