President Barack Obama’s hour-long town hall with ABC Thursday night was supposed to be a watershed moment. Finally, we’d see the beginning of that "national conversation on race" we’ve been hearing about for decades. There was even some hope that, for once, Obama would frankly acknowledge the serious issues that black and other minority communities suffer under the pressure of the US justice system.
But as the event drew on, it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. Obama gave the same middle-of-the-road statements he’s given every time he talks about policing and race. It was anything but a "candid discussion." And the mood on social media quickly soured:
With every comment Obama made that acknowledged racial disparities in the justice system, he made comments doubling down on his "unequivocal" support for police. His go-to line was, "We are not as divided as we seem." And he touted how things are now in fact better than ever, pointing to historically low crime rates.
Take one moment in the event, when Obama was asked by the girlfriend of Philando Castile, whom police shot and killed, about how he would make families like hers safer. His immediate comment wasn’t the kind of soaring rhetoric that’s typical of Obama speeches, but instead a vague comment on respecting police officers: "I think that the place to start is for everybody to recognize that we need police officers. And we need those police officers to be embraced by the community."
It was clear what Obama was trying to do: promote unity at a time of great division. But for many of his supporters and Black Lives Matter activists, this came off as ineffectual — they want him to convincingly speak to their passion and concerns about racial disparities in the justice system. In this context, his attempts at painting a rosy picture of America today, even if backed by the crime statistics, and how much police matter — even if most people don’t wish cops ill — come off as tone-deaf.
So the reaction to the town hall came down to one question: Why does Obama try so hard to gain the love of both sides in discussions about police, the justice system, and race — to the point that it feels like he’s saying nothing at all?
The answers aren’t really satisfying for anyone. Even as the US has moved in a direction that has put far more attention on race issues and the vast disparities in the criminal justice system, the Obama administration has grown more careful about his ability as president to stoke further divisions. So even as Obama’s staunchest backers call on him to do more, he seems to feel like he can’t.
Obama’s supporters have long wanted another "race speech"
For many people, it feels like Obama should have something more to say. He has in the past mentioned the criminal justice system’s grave racial disparities — in both police use of force and mass incarceration. And many people feel that as the first black president, Obama should have more to say about issues uniquely plaguing black Americans.
But he hasn’t, at least not to the satisfaction of some of his supporters and Black Lives Matter activists.
This is a problem that has long dogged the president. When Obama gave his first big remarks on the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, many liberals and Black Lives Matter activists reacted in the same way as they did to the town hall: Why does Obama keep playing to both sides? Where is the passion and anger that matches how we feel? (There are some exceptions, like when Obama said after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, "If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.")
But what Obama won’t say has only gotten more pronounced since then. Consider the backdrop: Police shootings get far more attention. Black Lives Matter is continuing to push forward. The 2016 election will be a contest between Donald Trump, a racist demagogue, and Hillary Clinton, who doesn’t hesitate to say "black lives matter" and has spoken candidly about how it’s on white Americans to help end systemic racism.
In this political environment, it feels like America’s conversation about race has moved far ahead of Obama. And yet he keeps drumming the same beat — with the same old platitudes about unity, togetherness, and how most police officers mean well.
So why? Why is Obama seemingly reluctant to go back to that moment in 2008, when he made a speech simply known as "the race speech" after racially charged remarks by his church pastor drew scrutiny? Or that moment in 2012, when he compared Trayvon Martin to his potential son?
Obama is frequently a divider — and his administration knows it
As Ezra Klein wrote for Vox, the answer is that Obama and his staff sense a risk in him speaking more pointedly about race. To the White House, it’s clear that America’s attitudes on race, or other divisive issues, can’t be settled with a big speech. In fact, in the highly polarized politics of today, the White House understands that Obama would only stoke divisions if he leaned too hard on one side of this issue — with every word he says angering Republicans, even if what he says pleases Democrats.
Back in 2012, Ta-Nehisi Coates captured the problem Obama faces in his article "Fear of a Black President": "The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being 'clean' (as Joe Biden once labeled him) — and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches."
Coates pointed out, for instance, that the one time Obama did show some of his anger — after the death of Trayvon Martin — the public discussion went from just racialized to also politicized: "Rush Limbaugh denounced Obama’s claim of empathy. The Daily Caller, a conservative Web site, broadcast all of Martin’s tweets, the most loutish of which revealed him to have committed the unpardonable sin of speaking like a 17-year-old boy. A white-supremacist site called Stormfront produced a photo of Martin with pants sagging, flipping the bird. Business Insider posted the photograph and took it down without apology when it was revealed to be a fake."
There’s research to back this up. As political scientist Michael Tesler has shown, during the Obama years America has become increasingly divided along red-blue lines when it comes to race.
Consider what Americans previously said about some past issues that touched on race:
And what they said about issues that touched on race during Obama’s time in office:
The shift is remarkable: These issues are suddenly very polarized, even when it comes to whether a movie should win an Oscar. These trends toward polarization have been coming for a long time, but they have reached extremes during Obama’s presidency.
This is something all of us intuitively feel when these conversations come up, as it can often feel like both sides are speaking past each other or even speaking in completely different languages.
On one side, you have white Americans who generally grew up in a world in which police did not harass them, weren’t a constant presence in their neighborhoods, and as a result were generally seen as allies and protectors. For them, discussions about race are all about how we’re focused far too much on race, and it’s only dividing the country further. And, of course, there are some genuine racists among this group who really see minority communities as deserving of a punitive, excessive criminal justice system.
On the other side, you have black and brown Americans who largely grew up in places where the police are a persistent — if not harassing — presence, so cops are seen as overbearing abusers of power instead of defenders. For them, discussions about race are all about taking once-neglected minority voices more seriously to demonstrate that black and brown lives do in fact matter, and to help make the justice system far less punitive.
In these circumstances, the White House has — in my view, justifiably — concluded that having a black, Democratic president speak strongly on issues of race will only stoke divisions further. These are two sides coming from two completely different worlds, and Obama’s comments would only grow the divide between those two worlds. So when he does speak, everything he says is meant to push back against any potential divisions he could stoke.
This is why Obama’s town hall on race felt so unsatisfying: His administration feels like he needs to be unsatisfying. So as America’s conversation on race moves forward, the president’s voice will by and large stay behind.