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Obama speaks about racism, but what has he done about it?

Mandel Ngan, AFP | US President Barack Obama speaks during an interfaith memorial service for the victims of the Dallas police shooting on July 12 in Dallas, Texas.

President Barack Obama spoke Wednesday at a memorial for five Dallas officers shot by a sniper angered by the deaths of black men at the hands of police. But has the first African-American US president gone beyond words in tackling racial issues?

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There were two names and three little words that many in the nation were waiting to hear – or hoping not to – on Tuesday, when Obama addressed a solemn memorial service at a cavernous Dallas symphony hall.

Surrounded by Dallas city police officers on a stage bearing large photographs of the five policemen slain by a black US Army veteran, Obama was navigating tricky waters as the ghosts of the near and distant past appeared to haunt the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center.

America’s 44th – and first black – president was at yet another memorial service for the victims of gun violence. This time the victims were police officers slain at a Dallas rally protesting the police killings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota last week.

The two names the nation was waiting to hear were those of Alton Sterling, a Baton Rouge resident gunned down by two white police officers, and Philando Castile, a Minnesota native, whose killing by a police officer was streamed live on Facebook by his girlfriend.

The three words guaranteed to get the pundits talking were: Black Lives Matter.

In the lead-up to Tuesday’s interfaith service, some critics noted that Obama chose to memorialise the slain police officers but was not planning to visit the Louisiana and Minnesota communities where the two black men were killed.

On the other hand, those opposed to what they say is the politically loaded name chosen by the Black Lives Matter movement were on alert for any mention of the phrase.

In the end, Obama included them all: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Black Lives Matter all got a mention in an address touted as an important presidential speech on race.

Come together, Obama tells the nation

Their names, however, were mentioned in a conciliatory context during a speech aimed at drawing the nation together, stemming a slide into despair, and underscoring the “goodness and decency” of the country and its people.

After an emotionally fraught week that once again shone a spotlight on an issue that has remained part of the American social fabric from slavery to Jim Crow to post-Civil Rights discrimination, Obama was once again playing “conciliator-in-chief”.

It was a role, and a tone, that the first African-American leader established at the start of his presidency. But nearly eight years after he took office, few are using the “post-racial era” phrase that was bandied about in those heady days.

“President Obama had to, and largely did succeed in, straddling that fine line between a tribute to the five slain white police officers of the Dallas police department and a sermon. It was a sermon that reminded Americans of their current realities: race relations might have improved since the Civil Rights struggle but racism is alive and well in the United States, and police brutality and killings by the police of African-Americans are showing that reality to the world,” said FRANCE 24’s Washington, DC correspondent, Philip Crowther.

‘His eulogy was on point’

The immediate reaction to Obama’s speech in some circles, particularly among African-Americans, was overwhelmingly positive.

“I’m a police officer in Los Angeles, and I’ve been one for about 24 years now. I’m an African-American. So this past week has been one of the roughest weeks that I’ve had in my career. I was trying to deal with this, and I was so frustrated. I was angry,” a caller identified as Rodney told a California community radio station. “Hearing this speech, his eulogy, it brought me to a place – I mean I’m crying, as I am right now – to where now I can see that there is a part of me in both of these that I can bring together... His eulogy was on point. It was relevant.”

But not everyone was taken in by the message. Conservative US political commentator Ben Shapiro reeled off his critiques of Obama’s speech in a column titled, “7 Disgusting Things Obama Said While Hijacking Memorial for Slain Dallas Police”. The list included mentioning the Sterling and Castile cases, “defending the Black Lives Matter agenda” and “pushing gun control”.

The divisions on gun control were clearly visible Tuesday even as Obama was trying to drive home his unity message. The president’s comments on the bravery of police officers drew applause from the 2,000-strong crowd of mostly police officers, prosecutors and mayors from across the country. His comments on the need for gun control and on racial bias within the criminal justice system, however, were met with stony silence.

But a day after Obama delivered what was widely regarded as a landmark speech on race relations, the consensus among a number of experts was that the US president did a commendable job of setting a unifying tone.

According to Jean-Eric Branaa, an expert on US politics at Sorbonne University in Paris, the address was an example of Obama "donning his presidential suit".

"What he said was very important and very symbolic in the context of his role as president," Branaa said. "He had to do the trip [to Dallas] because it’s a shaken nation. It was a message of extraordinary strength and unity in the current context. It needed to be done.”

A president for all Americans

The problem is that it needs to be done too often, as Obama himself has repeatedly said in his memorial speeches following gun attacks. 

“I’ve spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency,” Obama told the gathering in Dallas on Tuesday. “I’ve hugged too many families. I’ve seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I’ve seen how inadequate my own words have been.”

Critics maintain that, since he came into office and barring a few soaring speeches, Obama has done little to address race relations. They cite a growing number of high-profile cases in which police have killed unarmed black men, from Ferguson to Cleveland, to argue that racism remains a problem and that the message of hope and change that ushered a black candidate into the White House is all but dead.

When Obama began his meteoric political rise in US power circles, his conciliatory message was in sharp contrast to those of old school black leaders such as Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton. His vision of a post-racial society spurred black comedians such as Chris Rock to good-naturedly quip that Obama was the “white president you can trust”.

In a 2009 USA Today-Detroit Free Press interview, Obama stressed that his goal was to be a post-racial president for all – and not just black – Americans. "The most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community. Period. And that is to get the economy going again and get people hiring again," he said. "It's a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are going to get out of this together."

"Barack Obama has always presented himself as the president of all Americans and has actually governed as a white president, paying particular attention not to be seen as the representative of one community,” said Branaa. “Hence the misunderstanding of blacks, 86% of whom voted for him and expected him to do more for the African-American community."

The black paradox

The US economy may have emerged from economic crisis, but study after study shows that the fruits of that recovery have largely bypassed the African-American community.

The recession widened racial and ethnic wealth gaps, with post-recession median household incomes for black families plummeting 13 times lower than those of white families in 2013. Add to that the entrenched effects of poverty, including generations relegated to high-crime neighbourhoods and the disproportionate number of black men in the US criminal justice system, and the picture looks even bleaker.

These days, Obama’s post-racial message can sometimes seem outdated or out of touch. Experts say the inroads African-Americans have made, from the White House to Hollywood as well as the pervasiveness of black culture in US pop culture, must be viewed as a black paradox.

Many African-Americans, however, are willing to cut Obama some slack, blaming the system’s insidious but pervasive racism instead. “We have an African-American president who cannot talk about race, who is exposed to hostility anytime he talks about race,” Bryan Stevenson, a black lawyer specialising in death penalty cases, told the New York Times in June 2015.

“These little manifestations of black artistry and athleticism and excellence have always existed,” Stevenson said. “But they don’t change the day-to-day experience of black Americans living in most parts of this country.”

Black disappointment over Obama’s perceived failure to tackle the challenges facing the community is particularly high in elite liberal circles. Princeton University’s Cornel West, a noted African-American studies scholar, for instance, once dismissed Obama as “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface”, while Tavis Smiley, a national public radio anchor, has accused progressives of overlooking Obama’s poor track record on poverty eradication in the community.

Extent of racism no surprise

But West and Smiley themselves came under attack from African-Americans for what was viewed as the “cattiness” of their overheated discourse.

A recent study found that, eight years after Obama came to power, vast majorities of African-Americans and Hispanics think the country’s first black president at least tried to improve race relations in the United States. In contrast, almost a third of whites said the president “made race relations worse”. The study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that 85 percent of blacks thought Obama had improved, or tried to improve, race relations. Among whites, 32 percent said the president has made things worse.

The findings suggest that the incidents of police brutality circulated on social media have increased consciousness among white Americans of the pervasiveness of racism – a reality African-Americans have always known.

While the footage of police actions has increased public anger, African-Americans seem aware that one man in the White House cannot overturn the historic legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, economic inequalities and discrimination.

For the vast majority of African-Americans, Obama mentioning the black victims of police violence in his Tuesday speech – and his pointed acknowledgment of the Black Lives Matter movement – were welcome steps on the long journey in fighting racism in the USA.

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