Criticisms of President Barack Obama’s approach to race relations are unlikely to fade in the wake of his comments about the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
Some black activists say Obama’s response to this and similar situations show that he is too reluctant to address directly issues of race.
As he did in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing and George Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal, Obama played the role of unifier in his speech at Martha’s Vineyard, condemning the police actions in Ferguson but also urging blacks not to respond with violence. He called for “healing.”
But there is a concern, particularly among African-American activists, that soothing words from the president are not enough. They want to see the president, in his speeches, directly connect the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, both black men, to police brutality and persistent racism. Obama has generally avoided both subjects.
And they wonder if the first black president is doing enough to address issues like police shootings and the jobless rate among blacks, which is double that of whites.
“What have you done? What have you done President Obama? We still have ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws everywhere. There are all sorts of things that people wanted policy-wise, after the president expressed something personally (after the Martin incident) that we haven’t seen manifested,” said Jason Johnson, a politics editor at The Source magazine and a political science professor, in an interview on MSNBC Wednesday.
The president spoke on Thursday amid growing pressure from the media and on Twitter, including from African-Americans, to interrupt his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard (which has included him playing golf and attending a birthday party) and broadly address the killing of the 18-year-old Brown and an escalating situation in Ferguson that has led to riots, the use of tear gas and the arrests of journalists. Obama almost always succumbs to such public pressure to speak, as critics said the written statement he issued on Tuesday calling Brown’s death “heartbreaking” was not enough.
The president struck a careful tone, as he did in the wake of Martin’s death. And it is likely Obama will say more as details of Brown’s death emerge.
But the situation in Ferguson has angered African-Americans, and some have been disappointed by Obama’s reaction. They say it fits into a larger pattern: the first black president is often afraid to call out behavior that directly harms blacks.
“This is actually worse than Trayvon Martin, you have standoffs in the streets. He has met it with his dispassionate speaking. That is not useful,” said Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at The University of Pennsylvania. “We have a big racial problem, and he has tiptoed around it.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said that she would like to see the federal government push local police departments to better train officers to avoid these kinds of incidents But having Obama speak more about race is not itself a solution, she argued.
“I think we have to be careful we don’t become addicted to the habit of saying, ‘what will President Obama say,” Ifill said.
The debate about how Obama should react to the Ferguson situation continues a long-running discussion about how the first black president should speak and act on issues of race. Obama has at times spoken in deeply personal terms about issues that affect blacks, as he did in a long speech last year in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal. He has pushed for changes to America’s criminal justice system in a direct attempt to reduce the huge number of black men serving long prison sentences for drug crimes.
Obama appointed the first ever black attorney general, Eric Holder and has empowered him broadly to enact policy on a number of issues that involve race. In a statement about the situation, Holder said he was “deeply concerned” about the use of power being used to control protests, saying, “the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.”
At the same time, black critics say Obama, particularly during his first term, was too reluctant to target and address elevated home foreclosure and unemployment rates in the black community and presided over a huge decline in black wealth in the midst of the recession. And in his speeches, his critics say, Obama is too eager to suggest blacks don’t work hard enough to better themselves instead of highlighting racial discrimination that might hold them back.
“My Brother’s Keeper doesn’t deal with the issues men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and other unarmed black men who were killed,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University professor of African & African American Studies. He was referring to a program Obama started earlier year that seeks to address challenges black and Latino boys face.
Obama’s caution on what happened in Ferguson is not surprising. It’s not just a racial issue, but one of policing and local control. Early in this tenure, Obama, at a press conference, had said Massachusetts police “acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard professor and Obama friend Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in front of his home. The police action was probably unwise, but the president was criticized for weighing into a local law enforcement matter.
Aides said he has taken a lesson from that incident, which turned into a days-long controversy, and wants to knows all the facts before taking on such fraught issues in the future.
“Some of the criticisms, though well-intentioned, you have to very cautious of,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, an Obama ally. “What we don’t need is defendants and defense attorneys saying the president forced a prosecution” through his comments.