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In Wake of Police Shootings, Obama Speaks More Bluntly About Race

Image: Barack Obama

President Barack Obama speaks during the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference, at the Capital Hilton in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. The president spoke about a grant jury that cleared a white New York City Police officer in the videotaped chokehold death of an unarmed black man who had been stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. The decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo threatened to add to the tensions that have simmered in the city since the July 17 death of Eric Garner. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP file

Casting aside some of his past wariness on the issue, President Barack Obama has spoken more bluntly about race in the wake of a group of police killings of African-American men.

In interviews and speeches the last several weeks, after grand juries declined to indict police officers in Ferguson or Staten Island for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the president has invoked the word "racism" — a term he has used sparingly in the past when describing conditions in America today — to describe the challenges blacks and other minorities face.

He has described racial discrimination as "embedded deeply in society."

Obama on Race Relations and Garner, Ferguson Cases 3:14

And Obama, who in a 2012 interview told the magazine Black Enterprise "I'm not the president of Black America," is now embracing the role of guiding the country in a public debate about how minorities and the police interact. He told Fusion in an interview "nobody's going to be pushing harder than me" on these highly-charged issues.

"The president has essentially changed his racial rhetoric," said Paul Butler, a Georgetown Law professor and civil rights expert. "It has evolved from cultural critiques of African-Americans to his actually saying the word 'racism.'"

Butler, who has criticized Obama's racial policies in the past, added, "I give the president credit for this evolution. I think he understands that recent events illustrate the inadequacy of his signature racial justice initiative — 'My Brother's Keeper.' The problem isn't so much Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner needing to pull up their pants as it is systemic discrimination in criminal justice and other arenas."

Some conservatives have criticized Obama's comments, mostly notably former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who said in a recent FOX News interview, "We've had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police."

Several of the president's remarks came before the shooting deaths of two New York City police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, at the hands of a killer who suggested he was acting in retaliation for the deaths of Garner and Brown. In a statement after those shootings, Obama emphasized "his profound respect and gratitude for all law enforcement officers who serve and protect our communities, risking their own safety for ours everyday."

Some African-Americans worry that Obama's focus on changing police interactions with blacks is too narrow and potentially ineffective. And they argue that the recent comments by both the president and the First Lady on their personal experiences with racial profiling, such as Obama being mistaken for a valet in his years before being elected president, aren't representative of the much more dire situations many minorities face.

Obama Urges Peaceful Reaction to Grand Jury Decision 9:22

"Talking about how you can't get a cab is not the same thing as talking about how you live in an impoverished neighborhood or go to a failing school. It sort of makes the way racism works in America seem sort of quaint, people are being mean to you, as opposed to things that are consequential and things that are systemic," said Gene Demby, the lead blogger at NPR's "Code Switch," which covers issues of race, ethnicity and culture.

The last few weeks are part of a broader shift by the first black president in addressing race more directly. During his 2008 campaign, Obama invoked race rarely and only when necessary, delivering a well-received speech on the issue after the controversy surrounding his onetime pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Once in office, Obama publicly criticized Holder after the attorney general said America was a "nation of cowards" when it came to directly confronting racial issues. The administration felt that Holder's comment was incendiary.

After a national controversy started in 2009 after the president himself declared a Massachusetts police officer had "acted stupidly" in arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, who is black, Obama aides say they realized the president needed to be very deliberate when he addressed racial issues.

But the administration has changed its approach since Obama won reelection, adopting policies directly targeted at blacks and other minorities and interjecting itself into racial controversies.

In the last two years, Obama has attempted to limit jail sentences for people who commit non-violent drug crimes, strongly condemned voter ID provisions decried by civil rights leaders and created My Brother's Keeper, a set of initiatives designed to benefit black and Latino young men.

And, perhaps most memorably, the president himself has spoken in personal terms about race, saying "Trayvon Martin could have been me," after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in Martin's shooting death.

But in that 2013 speech about Martin, the president hinted he would not be looking to deliver more addresses on America's racial divide.

"There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race," he said at the time. "I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have."

Obama Says Holder Is Headed to Ferguson 1:00

Over the last two months, if not quite a formal "conversation on race" as Bill Clinton convened in the 1990's (an initiative Obama has privately disparaged, according to aides), the president has set in motion a process both to discuss issues of minorities and policing more explicitly and to enact some policy changes. Obama and his aides organized a White House meeting with some of the protesters from Ferguson. He conducted an interview on race with BET's "106 & Park", a program with a large audience of young African-Americans, the group the White House wanted to reach.

His administration also formed a task force on policing in the wake of the deaths of Garner and Brown, and the president has embraced having more officers wear body cameras.

"He seemed very intent that future conversations would be about progress we make and not us spinning our wheels," said Brittany Packnett, one of the young activists in Ferguson who met with the president last month and is now serving on the task force.

And with polls showing that Americans feel race relations are at their lowest point in more than a decade —and blacks in particular expressing concerns — Obama has tried to reframe those perceptions.

The focus should be on policing, not "stewing in the hopelessness of race relations in this country," he told NPR in an interview.

He has argued emphatically that no matter what Americans say in polls, race relations are in fact improving.

"The task force that I formed is supposed to report back to me in 90 days — not with a bunch of abstract musings about race relations, but some really concrete, practical things that police departments and law enforcement agencies can begin implementing right now to rebuild trust between communities of color and the police," Obama said at a recent press conference.

In part, the president seems to be reacting to the protest movement on policing around the country, and he is not the only prominent figure who has embraced some of its ideas. In a recent speech, Hillary Clinton, Obama's potential successor, declared "black lives matter," one of the phrases that the protesters in Ferguson and New York often invoke. Obama has praised NBA player Lebron James and other athletes who have worn shirts that say "I can't breathe," the phrase Garner used as New York police had him in a chokehold.

With the president's attention on these issues now, civil rights advocates are now trying to push him to adopt policies beyond the body cameras. The NAACP Legal Fund is urging the Department of Justice to require police departments that get federal funding to have all of their officers undergo racial bias training. Other activists, including Packnett, say the federal government should stop sending excess military equipment like armored vehicles to local police departments, a proposal Obama's team has so far rejected.

"I get the sense that he really wants to lead on this issue, but that he feels like his hands are tied in leading such a diverse American population. Some will think he's talking about race too much and taking us backward, while others will think he's not talking about it enough," said Aaron Graham, a Washington D.C. pastor who attended one of the meetings Obama convened on race and policing last month.

"He's settled for a more pragmatic approach of wanting to see and celebrate incremental policy change. While policy change is important and has the power to restrain evil and injustice, what our country needs is much deeper than just legislative change," said Graham. "We need our president to find his moral voice again."