In Wake of Police Shootings, Obama Speaks More Bluntly About Race

Perry Bacon, Jr., NBC News, January 3, 2015

Casting aside some of his past wariness on the issue, President Barack Obama has spoken more bluntly about race in the wake of a group of police killings of African-American men.

In interviews and speeches the last several weeks, after grand juries declined to indict police officers in Ferguson or Staten Island for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the president has invoked the word “racism”–a term he has used sparingly in the past when describing conditions in America today–to describe the challenges blacks and other minorities face.

He has described racial discrimination as “embedded deeply in society.”

And Obama, who in a 2012 interview told the magazine Black Enterprise “I’m not the president of Black America,” is now embracing the role of guiding the country in a public debate about how minorities and the police interact. He told Fusion in an interview “nobody’s going to be pushing harder than me” on these highly-charged issues.

“The president has essentially changed his racial rhetoric,” said Paul Butler, a Georgetown Law professor and civil rights expert. “It has evolved from cultural critiques of African-Americans to his actually saying the word ‘racism.'”

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The last few weeks are part of a broader shift by the first black president in addressing race more directly. During his 2008 campaign, Obama invoked race rarely and only when necessary, delivering a well-received speech on the issue after the controversy surrounding his onetime pastor Jeremiah Wright.

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But the administration has changed its approach since Obama won reelection, adopting policies directly targeted at blacks and other minorities and interjecting itself into racial controversies.

In the last two years, Obama has attempted to limit jail sentences for people who commit non-violent drug crimes, strongly condemned voter ID provisions decried by civil rights leaders and created My Brother’s Keeper, a set of initiatives designed to benefit black and Latino young men.

And, perhaps most memorably, the president himself has spoken in personal terms about race, saying “Trayvon Martin could have been me,” after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in Martin’s shooting death.

But in that 2013 speech about Martin, the president hinted he would not be looking to deliver more addresses on America’s racial divide.

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In part, the president seems to be reacting to the protest movement on policing around the country, and he is not the only prominent figure who has embraced some of its ideas. In a recent speech, Hillary Clinton, Obama’s potential successor, declared “black lives matter,” one of the phrases that the protesters in Ferguson and New York often invoke. Obama has praised NBA player Lebron James and other athletes who have worn shirts that say “I can’t breathe,” the phrase Garner used as New York police had him in a chokehold.

With the president’s attention on these issues now, civil rights advocates are now trying to push him to adopt policies beyond the body cameras. The NAACP Legal Fund is urging the Department of Justice to require police departments that get federal funding to have all of their officers undergo racial bias training. Other activists, including Packnett, say the federal government should stop sending excess military equipment like armored vehicles to local police departments, a proposal Obama’s team has so far rejected.

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