WASHINGTON, D.C. - Although President Barack Obama is under increasing pressure to speak out more forcefully on the growing unrest in Ferguson, Mo., he’s waded in only gently on issues of race throughout his presidency.
The calls for Obama to take a leading role in this drama seem likely to ratchet up this week, with protests spinning out of control in the St. Louis suburb and Obama briefly interrupting his vacation to return to Washington for meetings.
A number of activists want Obama to advocate for justice in the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. It’s understandable that they’d expect to hear a lot more from the nation’s first black president other than lamenting Brown’s death as "heartbreaking and tragic".
But others say taking a more prominent role in in the case risks further polarizing views at a time when the country is already deeply polarized.
This isn’t the first time Obama has struggled to find his voice on matters of race. Several publications note Obama’s reluctance to take center stage as the country’s first “post-racial” president.
Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post, for example, notes that even as a candidate Obama “never used the words ‘black’ or ‘African American’ during his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention.”
Obama was similarly low-key during the uproar over Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said not long after the shooting.
But he didn’t have much more to say on the subject until a year later, when he added, “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”
With tensions rising in Ferguson, critics want to hear and see more from Obama this time around. Although the situation eased briefly last week when the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over enforcement from local police, violence has escalated again.
By Sunday night protestors used gunfire and firebombs, and police in riot gear responded with tear gas and smoke canisters. Gov. Jay Nixon deployed the Missouri National Guard as a next step.
“This is actually worse than Trayvon Martin, you have standoffs in the streets,” Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told NBC News. “He has met it with his dispassionate speaking. That is not useful. We have a big racial problem, and he has tiptoed around it.”
The apparent irony of violent racial protests occurring during Obama’s presidency has been noticed elsewhere. The Telegraph of London headlined a piece with: “A black president couldn’t stop the Ferguson race riots.”
Last week Obama asked the Justice Department and FBI to investigate Michael Brown’s death. Along those lines, federal investigators are reported to have interviewed witnesses to the shooting. And Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered a federal autopsy of Brown’s body, beyond those already conducted by the family and St. Louis County.
Beyond that, Obama himself has said little about the situation, mainly appealing for “calm” and “understanding,” and has taken no questions from the media.
“The president is in a tough bind because he both has to legitimately look into this, assure his African-American base that he takes it seriously enough, without getting ahead of the facts,” Jamal Simmons, a communications consultant at Washington’s Raben Group and a former Clinton administration official, told Bloomberg. “The activists are not reassured yet.”
It is a reflection both of the limits of Obama’s persuasive abilities and the nation’s partisan split that anything he does say at this point is likely to cut both ways. Two years ago, research by Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler found that Obama had so much sway over race-conscious voters that they adjusted their positions based on his viewpoint. That was true of his views on gay marriage, health care, a Supreme Court nomination and even his dog.
Indeed, what’s made Ferguson a deepening national story is not only the police shooting and questionable decisions made by the local police in its aftermath.
It’s also a connection, as The Observer editorialized, to “the social inequities that challenge African-Americans, from geographic segregation and economic inequality to police targeting and rampant bias.”
Whether you agree with that analysis may depend largely on your race. A survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center found that blacks and whites had sharply different views on the shooting. African-Americans, by a margin of four-to-one said Ferguson raises important issues about race. On the flip side, a majority of whites said the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
With that as a backdrop, while presidential leadership is needed, it’s unlikely to bridge the divide.
Jeffrey L. Katz is a 36-year veteran of print, broadcast and digital news, most recently with NPR in Washington. He’s covered politics, public policy and social policy. You can follow him on Twitter @JeffreyLKatz
DecodeDC's foremost aim is to be useful. That means being a reliable, honest and highly entertaining source of insight and explanation. It also means providing multimedia coverage of Washington's people, culture, policies and politics that is enlightening and enjoyable. Whether it's a podcast, a video, an interactive graphic, a short story or a long analysis, it will be based on this guiding principle: We are in DC but not OF DC.