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Obama tiptoes around Ferguson, mindful of recurring dilemma on race

Guarded remarks contrast with personal tone of Trayvon Martin statements, which led some to cry 'race-baiting'

It’s been a recurring dilemma for President Barack Obama in his six years in office.

When an incident highlighting the still-deep racial wounds of the United States breaks through into national news, the clamor for Obama to do or say something to alleviate the situation inevitably grows louder – a unique burden placed on the nation’s first African-American president.  

The escalating crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, with tense clashes between law enforcement authorities and outraged protesters after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager fatally shot by a white police officer, has proven no different.

After making initial remarks on Ferguson that were criticized among some for being tepid and cautious, Obama tried again on Monday afternoon – calling for calm and asking that the ongoing police investigation be respected, while also acknowledging the anger and hurt among African-Americans – all in one fell swoop.

“While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving into that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos. It undermines rather than advancing justice,” he said. “Let me also be clear that our constitutional rights to speak freely, to assemble, and to report in the press must be vigilantly safeguarded: especially in moments like these. There’s no excuse for excessive force by police or any action that denies people the right to protest peacefully.”

The president noted that he had dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to travel to Ferguson next week to meet with local law enforcement officials and that the Department of Justice had opened an independent civil rights investigation into Brown’s death. Obama dodged the question of whether he would travel to Missouri.

He also tried to acknowledge that disparities driven by race continue to plague minority communities, particularly African-American men.

“In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen as objects of fear,” the president said.

In all of his public remarks about Ferguson, Obama has struck a measured, level-headed tone – a departure from the emotional and deeply personal comments he made after the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, a black, unarmed teenager gunned down in Florida in 2012.

Part of the conundrum facing Obama, said Leola Johnson, chair of the media and cultural studies department at Macalester College, is that it is nearly impossible for the president to appease all of his critics – those who seek a figure of authority who is more attuned to the African-American community and those who have long accused the president of “race-baiting.”

“He’s this lightning rod for all of this latent anxiety about race in this country which is becoming even more pronounced as people really start confronting this demographic crisis white people are facing,” she said. “No matter what he does, he’s going to get stomped on.”

Obama’s other forays into addressing the role of race in America during the course of his presidency have borne out that fact. In 2009, after Obama criticized the arrest of friend and noted scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. inside his own home, he was assailed for unfairly maligning law enforcement officials. Similarly, he was lampooned by conservative critics when, in addressing the death of Martin, he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Still, some said the events unfolding in Ferguson were too important for the president to dodge or to address with his typically dispassionate approach.

“I yearn for more response from the White House," said commentator Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, on Face the Nation Sunday. "This president knows better than most what happens in poor communities that have been antagonized historically by the hostile relationship between black people and the police department.”

“It is not enough for him to come on national television and pretend there is a false moral equivalency between police people who are armed and black people who are vulnerable constantly to this,” said Dyson.

“We need presidential leadership. He needs to step up to the plate and be responsible,” Dyson added.

Others noted that little had changed in the policy realm under Obama’s presidency to bring an end to such tragic killings.

"There are all sorts of things that people wanted policy-wise, after the president expressed something personally [after the Martin incident] that we haven't seen manifested,” said Jason Johnson, a political analyst who is a scholar in residence at Hiram College on MSNBC.

Leola Johnson said she understood African-Americans’ craving for a president who would speak specifically to their grievances.

“I don’t think it’s the bravest thing for him to do … but I understand,” she said of his current tone. “It’s frustrating for so many black Americans to have a black president who cannot be a black leader or who at least thinks he can’t be a black leader.”

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