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With Ferguson, Obama Forced To Confront Race Yet Again

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With Ferguson, Obama Forced To Confront Race Yet Again

Politics

With Ferguson, Obama Forced To Confront Race Yet Again

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will arrive in Ferguson today. He'll be meeting with FBI agents who are investigating the death of Michael Brown. He'll also talk with local community leaders about the protests and the police crackdown that followed. The events in Ferguson have been a test for the Obama administration and for President Obama himself. He has struggled at times to navigate tensions between police and African-Americans. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama says he understands the passions that have engulfed Ferguson over the last weeks and half. But he's carefully avoided taking sides. His warning against violent confrontations have been directed equally at the protest and the police.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Ours is a nation of laws for the citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them.

HORSLEY: That even-handedness disappoints some African-American observers. Paul Butler who studies race and criminal justice at Georgetown Law school wants to hear more outrage for the president about the conduct of a nearly all-white police force in a town that's two-thirds black.

PAUL BUTLER: With the specter of urban insurrections in American cities that looks more like Fallujah than Ferguson, this is not the time to be detached.

HORSLEY: Others, however, defend the president's cautious approach. Joshua Dubois who used to head the White House office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships says now that the Justice Department is investigating the Ferguson shooting, it's important that Obama not appear to be putting his thumb on the scale.

JOSHUA DUBOIS: There's a lot of folks who want President Obama to be all sorts of things - an activist, a marcher, a poet, a race theorist - but I need him to be the president. I need him to make sure that this investigation is carried out in a fair way and that Ferguson has closure in terms of the way the criminal justice system operates.

HORSLEY: A survey by the Pew Research Center finds sharp differences in the way blacks and whites and Democrats and Republicans view the Ferguson shooting and the police crackdown that followed. It's possible that stronger language from the president would simply deepen those divisions and add to the tension in Ferguson. But Butler argues that's no reason for Obama to hold back.

BUTLER: Look, the president has his haters, and he's always going to have his haters. He's gone out of his way to try to appease them, and that's resulted in neglecting not just his political base, but a large segment of the American population, including African-Americans, who need his leadership on these issues.

HORSLEY: Butler had high hopes when the first black president was elected, but Obama quickly learned the perils of speaking bluntly about race and law enforcement. Obama had been in office just six months when he was asked about Henry Louis Gates, a black Harvard professor who was arrested after locking himself out of his house and forcing his way in.

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OBAMA: The Cambridge police acted stupidly.

HORSLEY: That comment was catnip for cable TV. But just two days later, the president had to backtrack.

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OBAMA: To the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy - I think that was unfortunate.

HORSLEY: Obama later hosted a beer summit for the professor and the policeman. Afterwards, he scarcely mentioned race for the next three years, until Trayvon Martin, a black Florida teenager, was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon, Obama famously said. And while he was careful not to second-guess the Florida jury that acquitted the shooter, Obama spoke in unusually personal terms about what it's like growing up under a constant shadow of suspicion.

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OBAMA: There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

HORSLEY: That Trayvon Martin killing inspired the president's initiative this year aimed at addressing the unique challenges facing young black men. It's not a one- or two-year project, he says, tackling problems with deep historical roots. Some observers, like Lester Spence of Johns Hopkins University, are growing impatient each time another young black man is killed in a place like Ferguson, Missouri.

LESTER SPENCE: I am so tired and frustrated. And I know America's a better place than it was, but this continues to happen and we got a black guy as the president - you got to be kidding me.

HORSLEY: Obama's tried to turn each of these racially charged events into a teachable moment for the country, appealing to all sides for more understanding. We've made progress, the president said this week, but we have not made enough. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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