Why Do We Expect Barack Obama to Fix Race Relations?

The president made it clear Tuesday he won’t shy away from the issue.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: U.S .President Barack Obama participates in a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Rose Garden of the White House April 28, 2015 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
April 28, 2015, 12:57 p.m.

Six years and three months in­to of­fice, and the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent still hasn’t solved race re­la­tions in this coun­try.

There was Trayvon Mar­tin in San­ford, Flor­ida; the ri­ots of Fer­guson, Mis­souri; Eric Garner in Staten Is­land; 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Clev­e­land; and Wal­ter Scott in South Car­o­lina. And now there is Bal­timore.

And once again, the son of a Kenyan fath­er and a Kansan moth­er who avoided mak­ing race an is­sue in his ground­break­ing run for pres­id­ent in 2008 is con­fron­ted both by those de­mand­ing that he do more to heal ra­cial di­vi­sions and those who be­lieve that his in­volve­ment only makes things worse.

(RE­LATED: Pho­tos from Bal­timore Protests

Fix­ing race re­la­tions by him­self is an im­possible task, but Tues­day, the pres­id­ent made it clear: He’s choos­ing ac­tion.

In what amoun­ted to a 14-minute speech, Pres­id­ent Obama used the un­rest in Bal­timore to steer the na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion to­ward the is­sues of poverty, com­munity re­la­tions, and race. He wanted to go bey­ond the im­me­di­ate case and put it in the con­text of the prob­lems fa­cing poor neigh­bor­hoods all over the coun­try, the White House said.

He scol­ded the ri­oters and loot­ers in Bal­timore who have made the city a cable-tele­vi­sion spec­tacle. “They’re not protest­ing, they’re not mak­ing a state­ment, they’re steal­ing, and they need to be treated as crim­in­als,” he said.

(RE­LATED: Zoom­ing In­to Bal­timore, a Se­greg­ated City

But he turned quickly to what he be­lieves is the root of the prob­lem: poor com­munit­ies, where it’s more likely that chil­dren “end up in jail or dead than that they go to col­lege,” and where drug deal­ers are the “primary em­ploy­er for a whole lot of folks.”

“Since Fer­guson and the task force that we put to­geth­er, we have seen too many in­stances of what ap­pears to be po­lice of­ficers in­ter­act­ing with in­di­vidu­als, primar­ily Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, of­ten poor, in ways that raise troub­ling ques­tions. And it comes up, it seems like, once a week now, or once every couple of weeks,” he said.

“What I’d say is this has been a slow-rolling crisis,” Obama ad­ded. “This has been go­ing on for a long time. This is not new. And we shouldn’t pre­tend that it’s new.”

(Obama on Bal­timore: Vi­ol­ent Ri­oters ‘Need to Be Treated as Crim­in­als’)

It’s cer­tainly not new to Obama, who ex­plored themes of ra­cial iden­tity in his mem­oir, Dreams From My Fath­er, two dec­ades ago. He star­ted a ment­or­ing pro­gram for young Afric­an-Amer­ic­an men, My Broth­er’s Keep­er, and has in­dic­ated that the is­sue will re­main a fo­cus for him after he leaves of­fice.

Obama shied away from deal­ing with race at all in his cam­paign, un­til be­ing forced to ad­dress it in the con­text of his con­tro­ver­sial former preach­er, Jeremi­ah Wright, in a March 2008 speech.

Since win­ning of­fice, he has come to it typ­ic­ally when news events have re­quired it, most not­ably when he said in mid-2013 that if he’d had a son, he might have looked like Trayvon Mar­tin, the Flor­ida teen who was shot and killed in an al­ter­ca­tion with a neigh­bor­hood-watch vo­lun­teer.

(RE­LATED: Is the Po­lice-Bru­tal­ity De­bate Help­ing Re­pub­lic­ans?

Tues­day’s joint news con­fer­ence with vis­it­ing Ja­pan­ese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe had been sched­uled for some time, and the top­ic of the day was sup­posed to have been a com­ing Pa­cific Rim trade deal. But Obama took the op­por­tun­ity to make a 14-minute, six-point speech that poin­ted out that, just as there is bad be­ha­vi­or on Wall Street and cor­rup­tion among some politi­cians, “There are some po­lice who aren’t do­ing the right thing.”

“But if we really want to solve the prob­lem, if our so­ci­ety really wanted to solve the prob­lem, we could,” he said. “It’s just it would re­quire every­body say­ing this is im­port­ant, this is sig­ni­fic­ant, and that we don’t just pay at­ten­tion to these com­munit­ies when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay at­ten­tion when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped.”

Of course, ac­know­ledging a long-stand­ing prob­lem and be­ing able to do something about it are two dif­fer­ent things.

(RE­LATED: How Lor­etta Lynch’s Justice De­part­ment is Go­ing to Act in Bal­timore

Obama said that there are lim­its to what he per­son­ally could ac­com­plish: “I can’t fed­er­al­ize every po­lice force in the coun­try and force them to re­train.”

As with oth­er as­pects of his agenda, Obama poin­ted a fin­ger at Con­gress, plug­ging ini­ti­at­ives—early edu­ca­tion, re­form­ing the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem, help­ing ex-felons get job train­ing and jobs—that he has pushed for years, with little res­ult. “I’m un­der no il­lu­sion that out of this Con­gress, we’re go­ing to get massive in­vest­ments in urb­an com­munit­ies,” he said.

While most Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and many white Amer­ic­ans saw Obama’s elec­tion as a mile­stone for the coun­try, a look at the broad­er pic­ture sug­gests that race re­la­tions ap­pear to have worsened slightly dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency. An Au­gust 2014 sur­vey by Pew Re­search showed that 69 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieved blacks and whites got along well, a 7 per­cent drop since 2009. Black re­spon­ders had a dim­mer view than whites, with 12 per­cent be­liev­ing things were worse com­pared with 5 per­cent of whites.

(RE­LATED: The Mys­ter­i­ous Death of Fred­die Gray

The­or­ies as to why this has happened range from blame for Obama for openly sid­ing with eth­nic minor­it­ies to a back­lash from whites who fear they are los­ing their ma­jor­ity in this coun­try.

Le­cia Brooks, out­reach dir­ect­or of the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter in Mont­gomery, Alabama, said that many whites, from work­ing class to quite wealthy, have come to see them­selves as vic­tims un­der Obama.

She said she was ju­bil­ant when Obama won in 2008. “And the back­lash began im­me­di­ately. It re­minded me that ra­cism is alive and well,” she said, adding that Obama has ac­tu­ally been con­strained in speak­ing about race be­cause of it. “Say this, and you’re wrong to one side. Say this, and you’re wrong to the oth­er. It’s a no-win situ­ation.”

Tues­day, Obama seemed not to care about win­ning—he had a lot to say and was de­term­ined to say it, re­gard­less of wheth­er his bully pul­pit by it­self can ef­fect mean­ing­ful change in such a fraught area. It’ll likely re­main the latest in­stall­ment on his thoughts on this top­ic—at least un­til the next in­cid­ent comes along.

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