President Obama is delivering a pointed message to younger African Americans that the nation has made progress on race relations, urging patience and resolve in the wake of new protests in New York and elsewhere.
In an interview to air Monday, Obama acknowledged that the distrust between minority communities and law enforcement is “deeply rooted in our history” and cautioned that it “will not be solved overnight.” But in his first extended remarks on the subject since a New York grand jury decided last week not to indict a white police officer in the death of an unarmed African American man in July, the president also sought to remind his audience that life has improved for black Americans over recent generations.
“It’s important to recognize that as painful as these incidents are, we can’t equate what is happening now to what happened 50 years ago,” Obama said in an excerpt of the interview released by BET Networks. “If you talk to your parents, your grandparents, they’ll tell you things are better. Not good, in some cases, but better. The reason it’s important to understand that progress has been made is that it then gives us hope we can make even more progress.”
That message is one Obama has delivered in previous meetings with black youths, including a conference at the White House last Monday, convened a week after a grand jury cleared a white officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. He told the young activists that “better is good” when it comes to race relations.
Meanwhile, the ruling in New York last week has spawned a new round of protests across the country. On Saturday night, police in Berkeley, Calif., used rubber bullets and tear gas to break up a throng of several hundred protesters after demonstrations turned violent. At least two officers were injured in the melee, in which protesters smashed windows and threw rocks and police responded with smoke and tear gas, according to the Associated Press.
Obama’s bid to calm tensions amid massive street protests has been marked by a tempered tone and notable lack of raw personal emotion from the nation’s first African American president, who had so directly addressed his own racial heritage in an autobiography and the nation’s painful legacy during a much-heralded “race speech” during his 2008 campaign.
The deaths of 43-year-old Eric Garner in New York and 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson have frayed civic bonds in those communities and presented a challenge for the Obama administration, which has sought to mount a federal response to the growing crisis. The Justice Department has announced civil rights investigations in both cases, and Obama has called for new resources, including body cameras for police officers.
But if Obama’s presidency seemed to carry a unique burden in terms of race relations, rarely since assuming office has he offered a personal or emotional response to match the moment. Last week, in the wake of the New York grand jury’s verdict, it was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio who offered the more poignant reaction.
De Blasio referred to a “profound and lasting” history of racism and confided that he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, who is black, have spoken to their 17-year-old biracial son, Dante, “about the dangers he may face” in potential encounters with police.
“We are dealing with centuries of racism that have brought us to this day,” the mayor said. “That is how profound the crisis is. And that is how fundamental the task at hand is, to turn from that history and to make a change that is profound and lasting.”
The next day, Obama went before an audience of minority college students at a White House college affordability summit in Washington and offered praise for de Blasio. “I commended him for his words,” Obama said.
“We have to be persistent,” Obama said in the BET interview. “Typically, progress is in steps. It’s in increments. When you’re dealing with something as deeply rooted as racism or bias in any society, you’ve got to have vigilance, but you have to recognize it will take some time, and you have to be steady so you don’t give up when we don’t get all the way there.”
The president has resisted calls from some African American leaders to visit Ferguson or to deliver a major speech on race. Obama instead held the series of meetings last week with Cabinet members, community officials and youth leaders at the White House, during which he announced the creation of a task force chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.
Some of the president’s allies chalk up his reticence to an incident just months into his first term when Obama criticized Cambridge, Mass., police for their treatment of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates. Gates, having locked himself out of his house, got into a confrontation with an officer who arrived to investigate and ultimately arrested the professor at his home. The president sought to put the incident in the context of racial profiling and was swiftly denounced by lawmakers, commentators and police groups, after which Obama said he regretted his words.
Shortly after the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Again, critics accused him of inserting race into the incident.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, director of the African American Policy Forum, said de Blasio was channeling “the old Obama,” who tried to talk about race in personal terms but has been stung by the backlash. Now, she said, Obama has “begun to speak about race in the third person — he’s the arbiter of how black people are feeling. . . . It’s ‘people may perceive’ or ‘people may think’ or ‘people have lost confidence.’ ”
Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP from 2008 to 2013, said he first heard of Obama when the president was an Illinois state senator championing a bill in the legislature to curb racial profiling in the early 2000s. Now, Jealous said, “I suspect the president wants to do more than he has done, and I suspect his advisers were shell-shocked after the Gates incident.”
Jealous added that “they’re probably doing everything they can to get the president not to follow his own instincts.”
White House aides dispute such an assessment, noting that Obama has spoken several times about the situation in Ferguson, including making a rare late-night appearance in the White House briefing room on Nov. 24 to urge protesters there to remain peaceful after the grand jury decision.
Obama has dispatched Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who is also black, to Ferguson, where he visited in August and shared personal stories of being racially profiled by police. Holder was in Cleveland on Thursday to issue a Justice Department report accusing the city’s police department of using excessive and deadly force against citizens in violation of their constitutional rights.
“Going back to what the president heard from many of the activists on the ground, even more than visits, they want action and they want justice,” said Joshua DuBois, the former head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “Whether it’s body cameras for officers or changes to the grand jury process to federal civil rights investigations — the very savvy and very effective folks working on these issues on the ground appear to be requesting very practical steps rather than symbolic ones.”
De Blasio has faced backlash from the New York Police Department, with a union official blasting the mayor for throwing rank-and-file officers “under the bus.” The mayor responded to that criticism Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“I have immense respect for the men and women who protect us,” de Blasio said. “What we have to do is change the fundamental relationship between police and the communities. Our police keep us safe, and yet there’s been a history of centuries of racism that undergird this reality. We can transcend that.”
Obama, in his remarks last week, made a point to say that police officers “are putting their lives at risk to protect us.”
Yet there are signs that Obama, in private, is reflecting more personally on the Brown and Garner cases. De Blasio, who attended the meetings at the White House last Monday, said Obama told him that his son Dante reminded the president “of what he looked like as a teenager.”
Obama, de Blasio said, told him, “I know you see this crisis through a very personal lens.”
“I said to him I did,” the mayor said, “because Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers he may face.”
Josh Hicks and Peter Holley contributed to this report.