Obama’s difficult legacy on race

Obama’s difficult legacy on race

From Ferguson to Baltimore, the nation’s first black president is encountering the limits of his power when it comes to healing the nation’s racial wounds.

A series of racially-charged police killings, most recently in Baltimore, are quickly becoming a part of President Obama's second-term legacy, defying predictions that his election to the White House would help bridge the country's oldest divide.

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Obama appears increasingly frustrated by the situation, this week lashing out at people rioting in Baltimore as “thugs” and “criminals.”

The president has also brushed off critics who say his administration should be taking a more forceful approach toward police misconduct. 

“The challenge for us as the federal government is, is that we don't run these police forces,” he said Tuesday during a Rose Garden press conference. “I can't federalize every police force in the country and force them to retrain.”

The president has struggled to find the right balance between backing law enforcement and criticizing their questionable practices when police-related deaths of black men occur.  

Since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Obama has found himself stuck between civil-rights advocates who say he needs to do more to aid black communities and critics, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who accuse him of inflaming racial tensions when he speaks about the issue.

The president showed restraint when six Baltimore police officers were charged on Friday in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, saying that “justice needs to be served.” 

Obama has no plans to visit Baltimore in the near future and he has stayed away from the sites of other killings that have inflamed racial tensions in Cleveland, Ohio; Staten Island, New York; and Ferguson, Missouri.

During his Rose Garden statement, Obama spoke passionately about how mistrust of authority in minority communities is not just rooted in police misconduct, but also drugs, lack of economic opportunity, and a broken education system. 

But the president said he is “under no illusion” that the Republican Congress is ready to pass new spending programs to address urban communities. 

Despite Obama’s comments, civil-rights groups say there is a lot more the president and Congress could be doing to address the problem at the national level.

“This is a crisis for America, not just for the black and brown communities,” said Tanya House Clay, public policy director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. 

Clay said that when Obama has been stymied by Congress, like he was on immigration, he’s used sweeping executive actions instead. 

“When the president wanted to get some things done, he made it happen,” she said. “He’s got 18 months, a lot can be done to hand off to the next president.” 

While the White House acknowledges more can be done, it says its actions to address the problem should not be ignored. 

The president’s post-Ferguson police task force in March released a series of recommendations for local departments to rebuild trust with their communities, including better record-keeping of police shootings, independent investigations of police-related deaths and training to reduce racial bias. 

Attorney General Loretta Lynch and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett phoned mayors around the country on Tuesday about the task force’s recommendations. The president said Friday he would call a group of mayors meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the task force.  

But civil rights groups say the White House should exert more leverage against local law enforcement agencies to adopt the panel’s recommendations, like making federal funding continent on adopting them. 

“There is more that the administration can be doing to ensure proper training, supervision, and transparency at the local level through the funding structure and civil rights compliance structure that is already in place,” said Leslie Proll, director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund’s Washington office. 

One of the most popular reforms to emerge after Ferguson was the widespread use of body cameras by police. 

Cell phone video was crucial in murder charges being filed against a North Charleston, S.C., police officer last month in the death of Walter Scott. Hillary Clinton, the undisputed Democratic presidential frontrunner, said all police departments should use body cameras. 

But the White House has launched a more limited body-camera program. Obama has requested $75 million over three years to equip 50,000 police officers with body cameras. The first $20 million in funding was announced Friday. 

“The little evidence that does exist does indicate that they could positively contribute to” police-community relations, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said this week, but “there is not a strong body of evidence to this point about what impact body-worn cameras actually have.”

To address the underlying social ills in minority communities, the president will announce a new non-profit group to help young men and boys of color based off the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

Launched last year, My Brother’s Keeper received more than $300 million in private commitments to fund reading, college prep and career readiness programs.

The administration last week rolled out a second round of “Promise Zones” that give preferential treatment to struggling municipalities applying for anti-poverty and crime prevention grants. The St. Louis area, where Ferguson is located, was among the communities selected. 

“The president is very visible when we have these flashpoints, when the media is paying attention,” Earnest said Thursday. “But what’s also true, and what is undeniable, is that the president is focused on these issues even when you guys aren’t.”

Civil rights groups acknowledge that the president does have restraints on how much he can do to force reforms at local police departments. They note Congress has made little headway on highly-touted bipartisan criminal justice reforms. 

But as the president juggles issues such as the Iran nuclear negotiations and a new free-trade pact, civil rights groups say he should not let the issues of police misconduct and race slip off the radar. 

“It’s up to us to make sure the pressure is there … to do what we think needs to be done,” said Clay. “This is an ongoing issue that has to be confronted not only in his administration, but the next and in future generations.”