In 2008, the election of President Barack Obama was a milestone event in American race relations; many African Americans were very hopeful his election could help resolve lingering racial issues. But in the few years since then, Obama has been rather cool on racial issues, trying to take a “please both sides” approach to diffusing tense situations. However, as the recent shooting death of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown shows, this “please both sides” method of resolution is not working, and is in desperate need of adjustment.
Early in his presidency, Obama adopted a “make big problems small, and solve small problems” method, hoping to make large racial problems personal, and then solving on a personal (micro) level. For example, on July 16, 2009, 58-year-old Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, returning from a business trip, was locked out of his house. Along with his chauffeur, who is also black, they attempted to force the door open. However, neighbors alerted the police, who arrested the professor under the charge of disorderly conduct. Soon after, the events made major headlines, with the professor claiming the police were racist, while policeman Sgt. James Crowley insisting he carried out his duties according to the law. In this case, Obama sought to solve the problems with a “beer summit,” which was held on July 30, 2009. Along with Joe Biden, Obama, the professor, and the police officer had lunch and beers at the White House, seeking to solve the controversy and arguments about police racism caused by this event. Although afterward Obama claimed that the two parties had been able to talk it out, the debate over racial discrimination did not subside.
In 2012, when Obama also faced racial problems, he played his “tragedy” trump card in a sensational speech. On Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, 17-year-old high school student Trayvon Martin was killed by 29-year-old neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, inciting major local protests. Obama made a moving speech, saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” and urged a complete and clear investigation of the events. In an enthusiastic July 2013 speech, Obama first expressed he could relate to Martin, because he himself had been followed when out shopping, and people questioned his background and experience. At the same time, he urged for calm, asking that everyone respect the rulings of the courts. He said he would consider again how to reduce gun violence, to reconcile problems in society, and to work to avoid having these problems happen again. Toward this response, a segment of African Americans expressed disappointment in Obama’s attitude.
But as can be seen, Obama’s playing of the “emotional card” is just posturing, and there has been no substantive progress on his calls to reduce gun violence and to reconcile society. Many minorities are quite disappointed in his approach, believing Obama hasn’t been doing his duty as an African American president.
On Aug. 9 of this year, after the killing of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Obama, who was on vacation, made a speech reprimanding both police and protesters. He urged the Department of Justice and FBI to thoroughly investigate, and emphasized that local police should uphold their duties and obligations to the public. The authorities should carry out an investigation transparently and according to proper procedures, and they have no reason or excuse to use excessive force to deal with demonstrators. Nor do they have any right to arrest anyone who is rightfully exercising their first amendment rights. However, it seems as though his words have had little real effect, as the demonstrations and riots in Ferguson have gotten worse and worse, continuing to grow.
It seems Obama still hopes to use his own personal charisma and charm to solve issues, adopting a “please both sides” approach to dealing with racial problems in America. However, by using this method to balance both sides, there has been little success. This method can’t solve actual problems in society, and only serves to fuel the mistrust that some people feel toward the president, and to diminish the president’s authority.
Since the events have already passed, the best method for resolution is via the judiciary. However, even a judicial ruling that fairly weighs all evidence will be unable to heal the wounds and close the gaps caused by racism in America. That is what people had looked to Obama to accomplish. However, looking at his accomplishments over the past six years and recent polls, Obama remains far from reaching those goals.