Obama's measured approach to race is a letdown for some backers

Many Obama supporters have had to adjust ideas of how the first black president would tackle race

Faced with the most racially charged period of his presidency, President Obama is grappling with the persistent tensions of his relationship with African American leaders and activists — some of his most loyal supporters, but also the most ardent force pushing him to lead on civil rights.

In the months since protests over the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., captured national attention, Obama has walked a careful line between empathizing with those outraged by what they see as police bias and avoiding any escalation of a debate that cuts along race lines.

The measured approach from the first African American president has disappointed some, particularly the young people who see the widespread outrage over the killing in Ferguson and the death of another black man in an apparent police chokehold in Staten Island, N.Y., as a potential turning point.

But it has not surprised others.

"We didn't elect a national civil rights leader; we elected a president," said the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, who leads the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., and met with Obama last week. "I think there was an expectation. But there is the rub of the frustration."

For many African Americans, the six years of Obama's presidency have been an exercise in adjusting expectations for what he will say and do about matters involving race. Many who once thought Obama would lead the charge have learned to accept him as a more distant guide. Hoping he would do more — visit protesters or use his bully pulpit for passionate oratory — misunderstands his role and leads to disappointment, some noted.

That disappointment appears to be palpable.

Although African American support for Obama remains high overall, blacks' approval of his handling of race relations dropped sharply in the last few months, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday.

In August, shortly after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, 73% of black Americans approved of Obama's handling of race relations. But in the most recent poll, taken Wednesday through Sunday, approval dropped to 57%.

"Many in our community expect a lot more of him" compared with previous presidents, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a black civil rights leader. "It's a Catch-22 that doesn't result in us moving the issue forward."

The White House has been working to contain and channel frustration among African Americans, who have been a bedrock of support.

Obama has created a task force to look for ways to improve community policing practices and lessen tensions between law enforcement and communities of color. He has promised to change federal policies on providing military-grade equipment to local police.

He announced the initiatives last week at meetings with civil rights leaders, police and young organizers, where he emphasized repeatedly that he was listening to their concerns, participants said.

Obama gave his first extended interview on the subject to BET Networks and was ready to counter some of the critics of his calibrated response.

In a handful of public statements over the last few weeks, Obama repeatedly worried that some communities "feel" that police deal with them unfairly. But in the BET interview airing Monday, he emphasized his belief that those feelings are grounded in reality.

"I'm being pretty explicit about my concern, and being pretty explicit about the fact that this is a systemic problem, that black folks and Latinos and others are not just making this up. I describe it in very personal terms," Obama said.

At the same time, he acknowledged he was constrained by his office. With open federal investigations, he does not want to taint the process or put "my thumb on the scale of justice," he said.

"What sometimes people are frustrated by is me not simply saying, 'This is what the outcome should have been.' And that I cannot do, institutionally," Obama said. "So I'm sure that there's some folks who just want me to say, in such and such a case, this is what I think should have happened, and if I had been on a grand jury this is what I would have said, and so forth and so on."

If the president has discussed his personal experience with racial bias recently, it has been in the private meetings. Last week, he told young organizers of being mistaken for a waiter at a fundraiser, of struggling to catch a cab in Chicago, and of someone tossing him keys as he stood on a sidewalk, assuming that he was a valet, participants in the meeting said.

Still, one organizer left the meeting aware that he and the president did not see eye to eye on the pace of change.

"The president was talking about how change is slow and how we have to be patient; we have to be willing to take incremental gain," said James Hayes, a 24-year-old organizer with the Ohio Student Assn., a group seeking to raise awareness about criminal justice and policing reforms.

But sometimes "moments of an earthquake erupting" can accelerate change, and this could be one of those moments, Hayes said, pointing to the racial turmoil of the mid-20th century.

"Fifty years ago was a time of social upheaval in this country," he said. "And now I think we're seeing it again."

Although the feeling that Obama could do more may be prevalent, there is little consensus on what the "more" would be. The White House has resisted calls for the president to go to Ferguson or New York, where separate grand juries declined to indict white police officers in the deaths of Brown and Eric Garner. Obama has also resisted suggestions that now is the time to make his first major address on race as president — a sort of sequel to his much-praised speech on the topic in Philadelphia in 2008, when he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Advisors and some supporters express skepticism that a speech would move the needle, and wonder whether it would just spark more unrest. The president has seen such unintended consequences before, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Obama's election was a historic high point, but it also stirred up latent racism that is currently on display, Cleaver contended.

"He always has spoken about these issues in ways that no other president could. He has placed himself as an illustration, he has not denied his blackness — even though each time he does it, he has been roundly criticized," Cleaver said. "If you remember from English lit class — 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' I think that Charles Dickens could be used on any newscast in the United States right now."

Times staff writer David Lauter in Washington contributed to this report.

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