AFRICANGLOBE – As crowds of people staged “die-ins” across the country last week to protest the deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of police officers, young Black activists were in the Oval Office lodging grievances with President Obama.
He of all people — the first Black president of the United States — was in a position to testify to the sense of injustice that Africans in America feel in dealing with the police every day, the activists told him. During the unrest that began with a teenager’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., they hoped for a strong response. Why was he holding back?
Mr. Obama told the group that change is “hard and incremental,” a participant said, while reminding them that he had once been mistaken for a waiter and parking valet. When they said their voices were not being heard, Mr. Obama replied, “You are sitting in the Oval Office, talking to the president of the United States.”
For Rasheen Aldridge Jr., 20, a community organizer from St. Louis who attended the meeting, it was not enough. “It hurt that he didn’t seem to want to go out there and acknowledge that he understands our pain,” Mr. Aldridge said in an interview. “It would be a great mark on his presidential legacy if he would come out and touch an issue that everyone is scared to touch.”
But Mr. Obama has not been the kind of champion for racial justice that many Africans in America say this moment demands. In the days since grand juries in Missouri and Staten Island decided not to bring charges against white police officers who had killed unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, the president has not stood behind the protesters or linked arms with civil rights leaders. Although those closest to Mr. Obama insist that he feels a new urgency to capitalize on the attention to racial divisions, few dispute that he is personally conflicted and constrained by the position he holds.
“We are really on a precipice of either going in the right direction or entrenching a very perilous racial divide in this country, so I think he’s trying to harness that and tread very carefully,” said Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. “This is a phenomenal opportunity for him to create a lasting legacy in an area that has plagued African-Americans in particular for decades.”
For his six years in the White House, aides say, Mr. Obama has been hyperconscious that he is the president of everyone and has sought to avoid defining himself or his agenda on the basis of race. Although he did address the 2012 shooting death of an unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in personal terms, Mr. Obama rose to national prominence with a 2004 Democratic National Convention speech in which he cast himself as the product of a broad American experience, a place where “there is not a Black America and a white America.”
The son of a white woman from Kansas and a Black man from Kenya has struggled with questions about his own racial identity — described in his book “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” — but Mr. Obama is by nature cool and cerebral and rarely shows emotion in public.
Yet in an interview with Black Entertainment Television that aired Monday night, Mr. Obama suggested that critics who say he has not been sufficiently outspoken in response to the deaths in Ferguson and Staten Island have their facts wrong or are expecting something he cannot deliver as president.
“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,” Mr. Obama said, referring to his response to the killings in Ferguson and on Staten Island, where Eric Garner, 43, was strangled to death by a police officer. People may be frustrated that he has not taken sides in the cases, Mr. Obama said, but “that I cannot do, institutionally.” He hinted that in private, his reactions have been stronger.
“I’ll leave it to people to speculate on what I’m saying to myself or Michelle when we’re alone at night,” the president said.
White House advisers say addressing the nation’s racial conflicts is now an imperative for the president’s final years in office. “What’s different about right now is that the president of the United States is committing that he intends to make progress on this issue,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, said in an interview last week. “We have an opportunity now, with the American people — not just in Ferguson or in New York, but across the country.”
Mr. Obama has stepped up some of his rhetoric. In a huddle with Ms. Jarrett and Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. in the Oval Office last month, the president ripped up the beginning of a speech he was about to give on immigration and added a pledge to advocates for change that “your president will be right there with you.”
His administration has also pushed for sentencing guidelines that are more fair to Africans in America, reached out to young Black men with the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative and created a task force to address tensions between Black people and law enforcement agents. A number of civil rights leaders, however, say the president has not done enough.
“People appreciate the fact that he heightened the public awareness of this by making statements and making sure that the attorney general has been present,” said Tanya Clay House, the director of public policy for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. But, she said, “there’s a desire to push the administration further.”
At this point, Mr. Obama’s response to Ferguson, Staten Island and the unrest across the country has diminished his image with important groups, according to new polling figures. Half the respondents in a Pew Research Center survey conducted Wednesday to Sunday disapproved of the president’s handling of race relations, compared with 40 percent who approved — a reversal from August, when 48 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved. While the majority of Africans in America still said the president had handled race relations well, support among them had dropped 16 points since polling in the summer.
For now, civil rights leaders continue to lobby Ms. Jarrett and other White House aides to pressure the president into seizing on the post-Ferguson anger. But Mr. Obama is limited in how directly he can engage. He sent representatives to the funeral of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot in Ferguson, and the youth’s parents said they thought it was better for Mr. Obama not to pay his respects in person rather than risk creating more chaos.
In Ms. Jarrett’s view, Michael Brown’s murder has unleashed a new energy among Africans in America on an issue that Mr. Obama is ready to embrace. During the Oval Office meeting last week, she said, the president urged the young activists to keep up the pressure on society.
Ms. Jarrett said he had told them, “Shoot for the sky.”
By: Julie Hirschfeld And Michael D. Shear