Jolted by Deaths, Obama Found His Voice on Race
Only weeks after 70 million Americans chose a black man for president, shattering a racial barrier that had stood for the entirety of the nation’s 232-year history, no one in the White House, especially the man in the Oval Office, wanted to talk about race.
President Obama had made a pragmatic calculation in January 2009, as the financial crisis drove communities across the United States toward economic collapse. Whatever he did for African-Americans, whose neighborhoods were suffering more than others, he would not describe as efforts to specifically help Black America.
Mr. Obama made the decision knowing how powerfully his election had raised the hopes of African-Americans — and knowing that no matter what he did, it would not be seen as enough.
“I remember thinking, ‘They are going to hate us one day,’” said Melody Barnes, who is black and served as Mr. Obama’s first domestic policy adviser, recalling her sadness when she stood in an auditorium in those early months as a crowd cheered for the success of the new president. “I knew that we couldn’t do everything that people wanted to meet those expectations.”
The fear inside the West Wing was that promoting a “black agenda” and aiming programs directly at African-Americans at a time of widespread economic anxiety would provoke a white backlash — the kind that, years later, White House officials would view as helping to elect Donald J. Trump.
“At a minimum, that would have been tone deaf,” said Eric H. Holder Jr., who served as the nation’s first African-American attorney general during much of Mr. Obama’s presidency, “and at worst, would have created a reaction in the larger community that would have prevented the things you wanted to do.”
Mr. Obama, who had grown up straddling two worlds as the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, wanted to be the president of all America. Framing his efforts in racial terms could exacerbate something that was already simmering, he thought.
“The most important thing I can do is to lift the economy over all,” Mr. Obama told reporters in the summer of 2009 when he was asked about doing more to help African-Americans recover economically.
But over the next seven and a half years, racial tensions across the country forced Mr. Obama to abandon his early reticence on race again and again. Ultimately he led a national conversation on race ignited by spasms of violence — police shootings and protests in Florida, South Carolina, Missouri and elsewhere. Inside the White House, aides recall them as among his most painful moments as president.
“After my election there was talk of a post-racial America,” Mr. Obama said in his farewell speech on Tuesday in Chicago, reflecting on the threat that racial strife poses for the country’s democratic ideals. “Such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”
After he leaves office, Mr. Obama will continue that conversation in work for My Brother’s Keeper and other programs to help black youths. There is plenty to do. As much as his once-unthinkable presidency has inspired and empowered African-Americans, black unemployment is still about double that for whites. Nearly a quarter of blacks are living in poverty, almost the same as in 1976.
“He made it seem like everything was all good, and it’s not,” said Thelonious Stokes, 21, a black artist whose experiences of being racially profiled in Chicago left him jaded about the state of race relations. “We almost needed Trump to show the true state of America.”
The ‘Beer Summit’ Backlash
Mr. Obama’s earliest public reflection about race as president backfired. Asked about a black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., a friend of Mr. Obama’s who was arrested in July 2009 trying to enter his own house by a white officer, Mr. Obama immediately took sides.
“It is fair to say,” the president said six days after the arrest at a prime-time news conference, “that the Cambridge police acted stupidly.”
Those words — and the frenzied reaction to them — helped deepen the caution about racial issues inside the White House. For days, the president’s critique of the arresting officer dominated the news and the morning staff meetings in the West Wing. Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, was especially agitated, his colleagues recalled, and argued that the White House had to do something to change the subject.
Mr. Gibbs succeeded in pushing for what the news media quickly labeled a “beer summit” on the edge of the Rose Garden in the White House, where Mr. Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, joined Mr. Obama over beer for a discussion. “It had to be cauterized in a way that it would stop leading the news,” Valerie Jarrett, Mr. Obama’s closest adviser, conceded.
Professor Gates, for one, was pleased. “I don’t think anybody but Barack Obama would have thought about bringing us together,” he said at the time.
As a candidate for president in 2008, Mr. Obama had drawn praise for confronting racial divisions during a powerful speech he delivered about his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who had characterized the United States as fundamentally racist and the government as corrupt.
“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had been made,” Mr. Obama said that March day in Philadelphia, urging people to move beyond old racial wounds. “Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.”
But the beer summit was deeply disturbing to many of the president’s African-American advisers, who thought he should not have backed down. The officer had acted stupidly, they thought, and the nation’s first black president ought to be able to say so.
The meeting “was demeaning and diminished his leadership and his voice at that moment,” one of them recalled, asking for anonymity to bluntly discuss the topic. “People thought we were being punked. I got so many emails, so many phone calls from people I respected: ‘He was right. Why are you backpedaling?’”
Inside the West Wing, the impact was clear. Mr. Obama would have to be more cautious when it came to racial issues, particularly ahead of the 2012 re-election campaign. The issue of race was too divisive at a time when Mr. Obama needed to emphasize inclusion.
“What it did teach us is that you just have to be careful about the words that you choose,” Ms. Jarrett said. “It doesn’t mean you shy away from issues that arise that deal with race, just as he didn’t shy away from Reverend Wright. But you have to be sensitive to a long history of people reacting strongly to the topic.”
Outside the White House, people noticed, too: “He plainly arrested him because he was black,” said Edward G. Robinson Sr., who is black and works at a box factory in Cleveland. Mr. Obama “backtracked because he wanted to be everybody’s president.”
Like others, Mr. Robinson said the president was met with racially motivated disrespect in Washington, and pointed to the moment when a white Republican lawmaker yelled, “You lie!” at the president during a congressional address.
The White House would go on to publish reports about its efforts to help African-Americans, including details about the impact that the Affordable Care Act was having to help poor blacks. But Mr. Obama rarely talked about race publicly during the next few years.
A Personal Connection
The president’s voice was shaking with emotion.
“If I had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin,” Mr. Obama told Ms. Jarrett and David Plouffe, his senior adviser and former campaign manager, as the three talked in the Oval Office about what the president should say publicly about the death of the 17-year-old African-American at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida. “I am going to say that.”
It was March 2012, nearly three years after the beer summit. The specter of that meeting still hovered and Mr. Obama was, in a sense, taking sides again.
But in personalizing the shooting, his aides recalled, Mr. Obama’s hope was that people might view African-African boys differently if they saw Trayvon through the president’s own eyes.
Mr. Obama headed out to the Rose Garden, announced his nomination of a new World Bank president, then took the question from a reporter that everyone knew was coming: “Can you comment on the Trayvon Martin case, sir?”
Mr. Obama called it a tragedy, said he was glad the Justice Department was looking into it, reflected on how the nation was doing necessary soul searching and then concluded: “But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.’’
Moments after Mr. Obama returned to the Oval Office, Gene Sperling, one of his top economic advisers, stopped by with tears in his eyes.
“You can’t imagine what that will mean to my son,” Mr. Sperling, who is white and is married to an African-American woman, told the president, according to a colleague who was there at the time.
This time, the president’s comments were embraced by many outside the White House, too. Media reports focused on the emotion Mr. Obama had displayed — rare for a politician whose usual demeanor was cool and professorial.
“For him to say things like that in front of the entire country and the world, I think sends a strong message to people,” Ryan Shultz, 33, an art teacher in Chicago who is white, said in a recent interview.
But others viewed the president’s comments that day as a continuing affront to police officers and a saw in them a willingness to take sides in the racial debate. For at least one person, it went further. Dylann S. Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine parishioners in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, later said he was inspired to kill because of media coverage of Trayvon’s shooting.
“Crime is still bad and police are still shooting black people left and right,” Mr. Shultz said. “I live in Chicago — a murder capital of the United States — and it’s crazy and it hasn’t gotten that much better, I don’t think.”
The Circuit Breaks
Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Mo., shortly after noon on Aug. 9, 2014. Only minutes before, Mr. Obama had arrived on Martha’s Vineyard for his summer vacation, which would soon be dominated by how to respond to the racial violence that Mr. Brown’s death unleashed.
The president and his aides, including Mr. Holder and Ms. Jarrett, who were also vacationing on the island, made urgent calls to Missouri’s governor, state police officials and civil rights leaders. They debated whether Mr. Obama should go to Ferguson, and decided against it, knowing that a presidential visit would be disruptive. Mr. Holder would go instead.
But the more urgent question for the three of them was how to weigh in. The president was wary of putting his thumb on the scale in a case destined to be investigated by the federal authorities. But it was just as clear that tensions between the police and African-Americans were increasing — not only in Ferguson, but also around the country. If Mr. Obama wasn’t the right person to step into that issue, who was?
“You want to try to calm the situation,” Mr. Holder said, recalling the discussions he had with the president and Ms. Jarrett about what to say. “You want to reassure the community that an investigation will be done and done fully. But you want to make sure that the people in law enforcement know it is done fairly.”
“There was that trust gap,” he added. “That was something that had to be dealt with.”
As the violence worsened, Mr. Holder, Mr. Obama and Ms. Jarrett concluded that the president needed to denounce the violence — and at the same time criticize the police for their conduct during the protests.
“There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting,” the president said in a televised statement on Aug. 14 from Edgartown, Mass. But he added, “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.”
For the rest of his presidency, Mr. Obama would strive for the balance he struck in his remarks that day: empathy and understanding for African-Americans and support for the police and the rule of law. But however he weighed in, the events in Ferguson made clear that he could no longer hang back and instead had to lead a national debate about race, violence and unity.
“Once it was so in America’s face, police brutality, it blew the circuit,” said Bill Burton, an African-American who served as deputy White House press secretary during the first term. “It made it possible to have that conversation that our country had actively not been having.”
Inevitably, Mr. Obama’s striving for balance often left him vilified by both sides.
Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, rebuked Mr. Obama for not being “helpful” in discussing police tactics from his vacation. Years later, Mr. Pasco told NPR that the president often struck the wrong tone when he talked about race and policing.
“The president has never been a police officer. He’s never walked in a police officer’s shoes,” Mr. Pasco said last July. “There’s kind of a breakdown in communication more than there is a breakdown in insincerity or intent.”
Ja’Mal Green, a 21-year-old Black Lives Matter activist based in Chicago, said he thought Mr. Obama “ignored” the calls of organizers for federal policy and funding aimed at stopping police brutality. Mr. Green said he also grew tired of hearing Mr. Obama couple his grief for families in racially charged shooting episodes with statements supporting white police officers.
“He is trying to walk a neutral line and he wants to please both sides,” Mr. Green said. “He wants to please black people and then he wants to please police supporters and police officers and police unions. But sometimes you have to pick a side in situations. You need to pick your time when you fight for home or you’ll just have everybody hating you.’”
Mr. Stokes, the 21-year-old artist from Chicago, felt similarly disappointed.
“Chicago is the exact same,” Mr. Stokes said. “He simply opened up, maybe, a lane for young men like me to just maybe be accepted a little bit more to people that don’t accept educated black people. But that’s it, literally. White America is still running everything, and that means that nothing is changing.”
A Time for Grace
Less than a year after Mr. Brown’s death in Ferguson, on June 17, 2015, nine African-American parishioners, including a pastor, were gunned down by a 21-year-old white supremacist during a church meeting in Charleston. Two days later, the victims’ families addressed Mr. Roof, the gunman, at a court hearing, where one by one they forgave him.
“You took something very precious away from me,” Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, told Mr. Roof, as her voice rose in anguish. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
It was an extraordinary scene, broadcast live on television, which moved many who saw it to tears. Mr. Obama was traveling and did not see it in real time, but when Eric Schultz, the deputy press secretary, read Ms. Collier’s words out loud to Mr. Obama on Marine One, the presidential helicopter, the president was awed by what he heard.
“He said, ‘That’s what we need to recognize here, the ability of people to forgive on the worst day of their lives.’ It really struck him,” Ms Jarrett recalled. “We sat there and talked about it on the helicopter. About that quality, the amazing grace.”
Later, in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama struggled with his chief speechwriter, Cody Keenan, to come up with the right words for a eulogy for the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the pastor of the Charleston church and a friend of the president’s.
“I’ve got nothing to say,” Mr. Keenan told Mr. Obama, according to Ms. Jarrett. “You’ve said everything that one could possibly say on the subject.”
Eventually, the president decided that instead of talking about guns he would talk about what black churches stood for and the meaning of grace.
“It would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again,” the president told a hushed audience at the memorial service. “Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual — that’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change — that’s how we lose our way again.”
The week before, during a podcast interview with Marc Maron, the comedian, Mr. Obama had caused a minor stir by using the word “nigger” in answering a question about race relations. He knew it would cause a ripple, an aide with him recalled, but he shrugged.
At the beginning of his term, the podcast could have caused a fury and Mr. Obama might have pulled back again. But events in the country — especially the deaths of young black men — had given him more opportunities to engage the topic. Mr. Pinckney’s funeral was one of them.
“He’s not going to just whistle in the wind,” Ms. Jarrett said. “He’s looking for a chance to talk to people when they are ready to hear him. He doesn’t ignore moments.”
Chiding the Movement
One of those moments came this past May.
Mr. Obama had a little more than eight months left in office, and he had already said plenty about race. But as he headed to deliver the 2016 commencement address at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, Mr. Obama said he had something he wanted to add.
It was a message to young African-Americans, the ones who wanted to protest the injustices they saw around them. The president had invited some of them to the White House to talk with him about their cause, and in a few cases, they refused the invitation. People close to him said that made him burn.
“You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you,” Mr. Obama told the students that day, speaking more to members of the Black Lives Matter movement than to the graduates before him. Being “as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.”
For the president, a onetime community organizer in Chicago, it was a crucial distinction. Mr. Obama had tilted against the powerful and connected — he called his time as an organizer “the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School.” His approach had always been more strategic than confrontational and foreshadowed his cautious, meticulous attitude in the White House.
In the speech, Mr. Obama recalled working as a young Illinois state senator to fight racial profiling, not by calling the police racist, but by sitting down and negotiating a new law. “So we engaged and we listened, and we kept working until we built consensus,” he said.
By the time he became president, people close to Mr. Obama said, he was frustrated by the idea that young activists would view themselves as tainted if they came into the White House to talk to him. In the speech, he urged the young protesters not to give in to the idea that the system is rigged.
“That will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair,” he said. “And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.”
“Listen,” he told the students. “Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them.”
Mr. Obama has told people that he avoided framing his early White House efforts in overtly racial terms because he wanted to avoid a white backlash — but acknowledges that he got one anyway.
Still, the president repeatedly tells crowds like the students at Howard that race relations are better since he graduated from college. “To deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers,” he told them last May.
Two days after the 2016 election, Mr. Obama took his own advice about engaging adversaries by sitting down in the Oval Office for 90 minutes with Mr. Trump. Many in his party were still in shock about the election’s results, and wanted to see fury from their president. Instead, he offered a hand.
In Atlanta, Latonda Henderson, a 40-year-old marketing consultant, watched Mr. Obama’s meeting with Mr. Trump with admiration as the president she loved sat down with the man who had led the movement questioning the legitimacy of his birth certificate.
“You sit down with people who opposed you,” said Ms. Henderson, who is black. “You sit down and try to find a common ground with people who were attacking your family, spitting on your family. That’s President Obama’s legacy.”
Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Yamiche Alcindor from New York.