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Sunday, February 17, 2019

By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Faced with the most racially charged period of his presidency, President Barack Obama is grappling with the persistent tensions of his relationship with African-American leaders and activists — some of his most loyal supporters, but also the most ardent force pushing him to lead on civil rights.

In the months since protests over the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., captured national attention, Obama has walked a careful line between empathizing with those outraged by what they see as police bias and avoiding any escalation of a debate that cuts along race lines.

The measured approach from the first African-American president has disappointed some, particularly the young people who see the widespread outrage over the killing in Ferguson and the death of another black man in an apparent police chokehold in Staten Island, N.Y., as a potential turning point.

But it has not surprised others.

“We didn’t elect a national civil rights leader; we elected a president,” said the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, who leads the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., and met with Obama last week. “I think there was an expectation. But there is the rub of the frustration.”

For many African-Americans, the six years of Obama’s presidency have been an exercise in adjusting expectations for what he will say and do about matters involving race. Many who once thought Obama would lead the charge have learned to accept him as a more distant guide. Hoping he would do more — visit protesters or use his bully pulpit for passionate oratory — misunderstands his role and leads to disappointment, some noted.

That disappointment appears to be palpable.

Although African-American support for Obama remains high overall, blacks’ approval of his handling of race relations dropped sharply in the last few months, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday.

In August, shortly after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, 73 percent of black Americans approved of Obama’s handling of race relations. But in the most recent poll, taken Wednesday through Sunday, approval dropped to 57 percent.

“Many in our community expect a lot more of him” compared with previous presidents, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a black civil rights leader. “It’s a Catch-22 that doesn’t result in us moving the issue forward.”

The White House has been working to contain and channel frustration among African-Americans, who have been a bedrock of support.

Obama has created a task force to look for ways to improve community policing practices and lessen tensions between law enforcement and communities of color. He has promised to change federal policies on providing military-grade equipment to local police.

He announced the initiatives last week at meetings with civil rights leaders, police and young organizers, where he emphasized repeatedly that he was listening to their concerns, participants said.

Obama gave his first extended interview on the subject to BET Networks and was ready to counter some of the critics of his calibrated response.

In a handful of public statements over the last few weeks, Obama repeatedly worried that some communities “feel” that police deal with them unfairly. But in the BET interview airing Monday, he emphasized his belief that those feelings are grounded in reality.

“I’m being pretty explicit about my concern, and being pretty explicit about the fact that this is a systemic problem, that black folks and Latinos and others are not just making this up. I describe it in very personal terms,” Obama said.

At the same time, he acknowledged he was constrained by his office. With open federal investigations, he does not want to taint the process or put “my thumb on the scale of justice,” he said.

“What sometimes people are frustrated by is me not simply saying, ‘This is what the outcome should have been.’ And that I cannot do, institutionally,” Obama said. “So I’m sure that there’s some folks who just want me to say, in such and such a case, this is what I think should have happened, and if I had been on a grand jury this is what I would have said, and so forth and so on.”

If the president has discussed his personal experience with racial bias recently, it has been in the private meetings. Last week, he told young organizers of being mistaken for a waiter at a fundraiser, of struggling to catch a cab in Chicago, and of someone tossing him keys as he stood on a sidewalk, assuming that he was a valet, participants in the meeting said.

Still, one organizer left the meeting aware that he and the president did not see eye to eye on the pace of change.

“The president was talking about how change is slow and how we have to be patient; we have to be willing to take incremental gain,” said James Hayes, a 24-year-old organizer with the Ohio Student Association, a group seeking to raise awareness about criminal justice and policing reforms.

But sometimes “moments of an earthquake erupting” can accelerate change, and this could be one of those moments, Hayes said, pointing to the racial turmoil of the mid-20th century.

“Fifty years ago was a time of social upheaval in this country,” he said. “And now I think we’re seeing it again.”

Although the feeling that Obama could do more may be prevalent, there is little consensus on what the “more” would be. The White House has resisted calls for the president to go to Ferguson or New York, where separate grand juries declined to indict white police officers in the deaths of Brown and Eric Garner. Obama has also resisted suggestions that now is the time to make his first major address on race as president — a sort of sequel to his much-praised speech on the topic in Philadelphia in 2008, when he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Advisers and some supporters express skepticism that a speech would move the needle, and wonder whether it would just spark more unrest. The president has seen such unintended consequences before, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Obama’s election was a historic high point, but it also stirred up latent racism that is currently on display, Cleaver contended.

“He always has spoken about these issues in ways that no other president could. He has placed himself as an illustration, he has not denied his blackness — even though each time he does it, he has been roundly criticized,” Cleaver said. “If you remember from English lit class — ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ I think that Charles Dickens could be used on any newscast in the United States right now.”

(Staff writer David Lauter in Washington contributed to this report.)

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

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17 responses to “Obama’s Measured Approach To Race Is A Letdown For Some Backers”

  1. plc97477 says:

    If Obama had a magic wand and could fix things easily I am sure he would have done so already. He has already done more than anyone else to get the conversation started. Now we have to get on board and move the conversation to the next step.

    • TMZ1928 says:

      He picked a poor issue on which to create an issue. Brown and Garner both resisted arrest, and Brown physically attacked a cop and tried to take his gun. The problem is within the black communities, not with the cops. Apparently, they want a different set of rules and for any lawlessness to be ignored.

      • WhutHeSaid says:

        Cops who commit crimes are criminals, and need to be sent to prison. Cops who commit crimes make it hard for honest cops to do their jobs. If you want to join the bad cops in their crimes, there’s plenty of room in prison for you too.

      • highpckts says:

        If you think there are no good cops then you are in trouble. In every situation there is always one bad apple! You are condemning ALL cops for 3 incidences. Grow up and look at both sides. If the cop was wrong then he should be tried given all the evidence. Same holds true for anyone in the b;ack community. No one should be immune to laws. I know there will always be racist out there, white or black, but that can’t be the norm or the human race is doomed to fightng the rest of our lives.

        • dreamjoehill says:

          This is a rather naïve comment. cops are far less likely to be prosecuted for their crimes than “anyone in the black community” or any non-elite citizen, for that matter.
          Also I’ve encountered many whites who support racism but very few blacks that are prejudiced against whites

          • highpckts says:

            No prejudice against whites??? Really? I am not taking sides but first there has to be some truth and denying racism in both races is not the truth!

  2. Sean Maguire says:

    The ideology of Obama is marxism.

  3. TMZ1928 says:

    Obama’s measured approach? He came out on the side of the perpetrator within the first 24-48 hours and sent White House representatives to the perp’s funeral. Obama and Holder chose to make Ferguson an issue for political purposes, which backfired on them big time in the mid-terms. They are happy to have unrest and chaos now to generate a civil rights issue they can use as a smokescreen for this failed presidency. And now the Democrats have declared war on the cops and the CIA.

    • WhutHeSaid says:

      The joke will be on you racists and bigots in 2016, when all of America (not just the KKK refugees) will be voting. Keep up the racist hate — nothing is accelerating change faster than your vile antics.

    • highpckts says:

      The President is the President for ALL the people not just Blacks! He has to straddle a very fine line! What the blacks want is complete capitulation to their issues regardless of who is right or wrong! If they choose not to back him they are only hurting themselves in the long run!

      • dreamjoehill says:

        “What the blacks want is complete capitulation to their issues regardless of who is right or wrong! ”
        Another incredibly naïve comment. Blacks want Obama to do something to stop police abuse of their communities. how is that asking for “complete capitulation?”

        • highpckts says:

          NO! they want to be above the law! There are good cops and bad cops!
          That is what has to be resolved. If you ask the Blacks what they want I bet they really couldn’t tell you. I am not denying there is blatant racism but they are only hurting their cause by looting and burning their own neighborhoods.

          • dreamjoehill says:

            NO! they want to be above the law!
            That’s a blatantly racist statement, made in an hysterical manner, without a shred of evidence.
            Blacks, and the leaders of the anti-police brutality movement, have been very clear that they want cops held accountable when they murder people. So your allegations that blacks can’t enunciate what they want are just more blatant racism.
            Do you belong to the KKK, or are you just ignorant?

          • dreamjoehill says:

            Just repeating your original point doesn’t make it any less racist. The black protestors do not want to be above the law. They want an end to the police being above the law.
            Your comment that blacks can’t say what they want is more vile racism. The protestors are clear that they want an end to police brutality and murder.

  4. Charles Winter says:

    President Obama needs to read Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

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