WASHINGTON — When racial tensions erupted midway through his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama came to Philadelphia to decry the “racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.” Over time, he said, such wounds, rooted in America’s painful history on race, can be healed.
Six years later, the stalemate suddenly seems more entrenched than ever. As Obama pleads for calm and understanding in Ferguson, Missouri, he’s struggling to determine what role — if any — the nation’s first black president can play in defusing a crisis that has laid bare the profound sense of injustice felt by African-Americans across the country.
As Obama sought to strike the appropriate tone Monday, he appeared to be trapped between the need, as president and commander in chief, to stand up for the government’s right to ensure law and order, and the inclination, as an African-American, to empathize with those whose say the killing of an unarmed black man just goes to show how blacks are treated differently by police.
“In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear,” Obama said at the White House, in his most expansive comments to date about the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown just outside St. Louis.
But while Obama lamented the disproportional apprehension of young black men, he pointedly argued that’s not solely the fault of overzealous cops. Police officers must be honored and respected for the difficult job they perform, Obama said.
“There are young black men that commit crime,” the president said. “We can argue about why that happens — because of the poverty they were born into and the lack of opportunity or school systems that fail them or what have you — but if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted, because every community has an interest in public safety.”
It’s a delicate balance that’s likely to leave no one fully satisfied.
Aiming to reassure edgy Americans that the federal government is fully engaged, Obama announced that Attorney General Eric Holder would travel Wednesday to Ferguson to meet with FBI and other officials carrying out an independent federal investigation into Brown’s death. Obama said he also spoke to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has deployed National Guard units, and urged him to ensure the use of those units is limited and constructive. “I’ll be watching over the next several days,” the president said.
But there are no plans for Obama himself to visit Ferguson soon. White House officials said they were mindful that a presidential visit, with all the security and logistics required, could divert law enforcement resources that are already stretched thin.
Obama also called for the U.S. to reassess the militarization of local police departments that have purchased military gear from the Pentagon. Federal grants for such equipment have come under intense scrutiny amid the alarming images of armored vehicles and tear gas canisters filling the streets of an American suburb.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement,” Obama said. “We don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.”
Yet for all the talk of procurement and sentencing disparities and police tactics, Obama has steadfastly avoided personalizing this latest bout of racial friction.
Unlike in 2013, when Obama declared that slain teen Trayvon Martin “could have been me,” Obama has been careful not to describe Brown’s death through the lens of his own experience as an African-American.
And unlike in 2009, when Obama exacerbated tensions by saying police acted “stupidly” by arresting a black Harvard University professor at his own home, this time Obama is leaving the fault-finding to investigators. Obama said Monday he has to be careful about appearing to put his thumb on the scale by weighing in while a federal probe is underway.
Witnesses have said Brown’s hands were above his head when an officer shot him repeatedly on Aug. 9 in Ferguson. But police have said the officer was physically assaulted during a struggle over his weapon. Meanwhile, the aggressive police response to the subsequent protests has drawn criticism from across the U.S.
Obama’s impassive response to the unrest in Ferguson contrasts with a second-term approach in which he generally has been more willing to engage on issues of race. In his remarks Monday, which came during a brief break from Obama’s two-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, the president pointed to his signature initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, which aims to bring government, business and nonprofit groups together to empower young minorities to pursue a better future.
“We’re making some significant progress as people of good will of all races are ready to chip in,” Obama said. “But that requires that we build and not tear down, and that requires we listen and not just shout.”