Have race relations improved during Obama’s presidency?

Have race relations improved during Obama’s presidency?
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When President Obama was elected as the nation’s first black president six years ago, many hoped his election would mark a new day for the country on race.

But on the heels of the events in Ferguson, Mo., beginning earlier this summer and carrying into last week’s rioting and looting, some wonder whether the country has made much progress on easing racial tensions.

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The criticism is coming both from people who think Obama should speak out more on behalf of African-Americans and those who see him as too often taking positions based on race.

“What he’s failed to do consistently is express the anger and frustration of a very important constituency of his own to not just cultural misunderstandings, but to structural oppression,” said Jason Johnson, a professor of political science at Hiram College who faulted Obama for taking a middle of the road approach on issues of race.

But to possible 2016 GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, who is black, race relations were better before Obama’s election. “I think that things have gotten worse because of his unusual emphasis on race,” Carson said last week on the conservative “Hugh Hewitt Show.”

At the White House on Monday, Obama sought to play the mediator in chief on tensions related to a Missouri grand jury’s decision to not indict a white police officer in the shooting last summer of an unarmed black teenager. Obama met with law enforcement officials and black leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, to discuss how to “strengthen neighborhoods.”

It’s a familiar stance for Obama, who has tried several times over the course of his administration — and even before he was elected — to mend ties over race.

Johnson, who is black, faulted Obama for not using terms such as “police brutality” or “institutional racism” when talking last week about Ferguson.

“His failure to take a symbolic role initially is why there’s so much anger now,” Johnson said.

In an interview with The Hill, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, defended Obama’s actions on race and said that those who have criticized his actions “need to bathe in the waters of sensibility.”

“He is not an evangelist who is supposed to travel around the country converting people,” Cleaver said in the interview. “He is the president of the United States.”

Cleaver said critics “need to quit trying to make our president a civil rights leader.”

“He’s done as much as he can do,” Cleaver said, adding, “we need to be careful about putting this kind of luggage on the president’s back.”

After Monday’s meeting, Sharpton argued the White House session should not be an isolated event.

“What happens after the meeting will determine whether we just had a feel-good session or whether we’re moving toward change. I believe we’re moving toward change,” he said.

And Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League, praised the White House for holding the event, saying he had “never participated in a gathering like the one that took place right now.”

The White House on Monday took a few steps that would seem to align Obama with voices criticizing the police in Ferguson.

It announced plans to overhaul how the federal government disperses military equipment to local police departments, an implicit criticism of the tactics used in Ferguson last summer.

Obama is also doling out $263 million for law enforcement agencies to purchase body-worn cameras and improve training. The family of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old killed last summer in Ferguson, has called for police to wear body cameras.

Cleaver called the moves a “positive first step.” 

But an aide to one Congressional Black Caucus member expressed disappointment that racial tensions haven’t improved under Obama.

“I don’t think it’s gotten worse, but I certainly don’t think it has improved,” the senior aide said. “Is racism alive and well? Very much so.”

  Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture in the Department of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, said he has felt let down by Obama’s actions. He said Obama has been “much more willing to be professor and lecturer on the issue than the president representing the humanity of black folks in this country.”

He suggested that Obama deliver a speech on race similar to the one he made during the 2008 primary on the heels of the controversy surrounding his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

“He’s got a moment now where he has nothing to lose,” Neal said.  “It’s a great opportunity for him to be honest about race in a way that no president has ever been.”

“He knows what it means to be inside a black male body,” Neal continued, adding that he should call out law enforcement for aggressive policing.

Asked if Obama felt a greater responsibility to resolve issues of trust as the first black president, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the issue was something the president had worked on throughout his career in public service.

He said the president would be leaning on his “strong relationships” with civil rights leaders when asked if he was better able to persuade minorities on such issues.

“He talked on a number of occasions about his own personal experience with some of these matters,” Earnest said. “And the president certainly believes that this is a conversation that is important not just in Ferguson, but it’s important that this kind of conversation take place in communities all across the country.”