Archived: President Obama ‘Feels Great Urgency’ Toward Race Relations

By Sheryl Estrada

President Obama speaks at the annual convention of the NAACP in Philadelphia in July 2015.

“There has been an awakening around the country to some problems in race relations and police-community relations that date back for decades,”President Obamasaid last week in an interview with NPR just days before theone-year anniversaryofMichael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo.”Because of smartphones and cameras, social media, I think people have become more aware of it both black and white. That gives me an opportunity, I think, then to try to help to constructively shape the debate.”

NPR Host SteveInskeep thenasked the presidentif the politics surrounding him being the first black president kept him from tacking race issues “very hard” in his first term.

“I don’t buy that,” President Obamasaid. “Here’s one thing I will say, is that, I feel a great urgency to get as much done as possible. And there’s no doubt that after over six-and-a-half years on this job, I probably have an easier time juggling a lot of different issues. And it may be that my passions show a little bit more just because I’ve been around this track for a while.”

A forthright President Obama came to light following theJune 19 murders of nine black members ofEmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, S.C., including pastor and State Sen. Clementa Pinckney. The Justice Department has classified the tragedy as ahate crime.

On June 22,the presidentused the n-word during apodcast interviewwhen explaining America’s racial history. He also discussed his growth while in office.

“It’s sort of like an athlete,” President Obama said. “You might slow down a little bit, you might not jump as high as you used to but I know what I’m doing, and I’m fearless.”

Also in June, he gave a profound eulogyat Pinckney’s funeral, explaining why theConfederate battle flagneeded to be removed from South Carolina’s capitol grounds.

“For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation,”he said. “We see that now.”

In July, he visited a federal prison in El Reno, Okla., to talk about criminal justice reform. He is the first sitting president to do so.He commuted 46 sentences of prisoners serving time for nonviolent drug crimes.

During the annual convention of the NAACP in Philadelphia, also in July, President Obama presented his criminal-justice reform agenda, highlighting that $80 billion a year is spent on incarceration. He also didn’t mince words about the system disproportionately affecting black and Latino males.

Here’s a clip:

America’s long struggle with racial issues surfaced early in President Obama’s tenure. But as he focused on matters, such as keeping the U.S. out of a financial depression and dealt with country’s involvement in two wars, straight talk on race happened infrequently despite a desire for it from his supporters, particularly his black supporters.

Racial matters would still be a prominent part of his presidency, includingracial insultshe and First LadyMichelle Obamahave incurred, a part of whatEric Holder, former attorney general, referred to as“racial animus”toward the Obama administration,and the now widely documented police-related deaths of unarmed black males.

In 2013, President Obama questioned claims that race did not play a role in the shooting ofTrayvon Martinand the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, telling reporters, “Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.”

Brown’s death last year in Ferguson and public outcries for justice when police officer Darren Wilson (who later resigned) was not indicted by a grand jury for the shooting galvanized theBlack Lives Mattermovement.

In the past year, activists have brought attention to multiple police-related deaths of unarmed Black men, including Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray, as well as unarmed black women.

Michael Eric Dyson is aprofessor of sociology at Georgetown University and author of 16 books covering themes of race andclass in America.On Aug. 17, 2014, duringFace the Nation, Dyson criticized President Obama’s response to Brown’s shooting and the events that followed.

A year later, Dyson wrote the following in anop-edfor The New York Times published Aug. 1:

“WE finally have the president we thought we elected: one who talks directly and forcefully about race and human rights This country continues to grapple with what feels like an onslaught of black death. But now we are doing it with a president our first African-American president who has found a confident voice on race.”

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