Riots test Obama's power to heal racial divide

Obama: Violence in Baltimore is 'counterproductive'
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Obama: Violence in Baltimore is 'counterproductive' 03:25

Washington (CNN)No one understands the limits of a president's power to bridge deep racial divides better than Barack Obama.

As the nation's first black president, Obama has wrestled with an enduring expectation that he could do more than any other figure to heal racial tensions.
But on this score, Obama has mostly come up short, often leaving his supporters wanting more and his adversaries blaming him for exacerbating age-old conflicts. With parts of Baltimore burned out and protesters demanding answers after the death of yet another black man in police custody, Obama seemed to acknowledge just that, pointing to the limits of the presidency and the tragic sameness of it all.
Dispatches from Baltimore
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Dispatches from Baltimore 01:11
"This is not new," he said Tuesday, addressing the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old West Baltimore man whose spine was snapped while he was in police custody. "It's been going on for decades."
    It was a familiar role for Obama, who addressed the high profile deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner with the same exasperated tone.
    "Since Ferguson and the task force that we put together, we have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions," he said. "And it comes up, it seems, like once a week now or once every couple of weeks."
    And so he came with the same script, shorn of the soaring rhetoric that helped bring him into the White House six years ago. He ticked off six separate bullet points, listing them as he went along.

    'Criminals and thugs'

    He acknowledged Freddie Gray's family, the injured officers, said there was a Department of Justice investigation, praised the good people of Baltimore and condemned the violence that broke out last night, calling the perpetrators "criminals and thugs who tore up the place."
    "When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they're not protesting, they're not making a statement. They're stealing, he said. "When they burn down a building, they're committing arson. And they're destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities that rob jobs and opportunity from people in that area."
    But even that language -- especially the "thugs" comment -- posed some problems for Obama.
    "If the headline is that he is calling protestors thugs -- which is the new n-word -- and certainly the president is not thinking that, then that's not helpful. We have to have a more thoughtful response than him calling them names that a lot of others are calling them," said Paul D. Butler, a professor of law at Georgetown University. "It was ironic that he was saying that the criminal justice system needs to treat young black men like criminals. They don't need to be told that because that's part of the problem. That's how they see them automatically."
    Obama's comments skimmed over a broader point: Those crowds of looters and the people stomping on police cars were often school kids. And one of those kids was pulled from the scene by his mother in an episode that went viral as people applauded her for responsible parenting.
    Famously even-handed on race, in the past Obama could dispatch Attorney General Eric H. Holder, who served as the emotional counterweight to Obama's more clinical approach. But Baltimore boiled over just as Loretta Lynch was taking over Holder's job, highlighting a changing of the guard that could have broader implications about how the administration responds to such incidents -- if not on policy, than perhaps on optics.
    "The question is does Lynch become the new race woman like Holder was the race man. It's possible, but she has never made race part of her portfolio" Butler said. "The other alternative is that maybe Obama, thinking about his legacy, takes on the role. But for now, when he talks about race, he doesn't sound like the most powerful man in the world, he doesn't have his famous swag. People want to see his confidence and talent brought to bear on these issues."

    Obama's legacy

    When it comes to racial issues, Obama's biggest legacy item so far is My Brother's Keeper, a public-private initiative aimed at helping boys of color mired in the school-to-prison pipeline (though it leaves out young girls of color, who often languish in the same poor neighborhoods). Holder also moved to reform some of the federal "mandatory minimum" drug sentencing laws, which disproportionately affected minorities.
    Some want to see Obama on the ground in Baltimore, an echo of a similar call last year when Ferguson erupted. Obama never went to Ferguson, sending Holder instead.
    "The optics of being on the ground and recognizing what has happened is more important than anything he has to say," said Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University professor who blogs frequently about race. "I would like for once to see him go off script and have a human, angry reaction to this, because it would humanize him and it would humanize this situation that the country seems almost desensitized to."
    In an interview with Steve Harvey that aired Wednesday morning, Obama said that he might go to Baltimore "once things clear up," but would stay away for now as law enforcement tries to keep a lid on the unrest.
    Near the end of his remarks Tuesday, which ran about 15 minutes, Obama, who campaigned on hope and change, sounded rather hopeless and as if even he wasn't expecting much change. The politics are tough, he said, and Congress is unlikely to make any investments in urban areas.
    "But if we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It's just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant, and that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns and we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped," he said. "We're paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids and we think they're important and they shouldn't be living in poverty and violence. That's how I feel."
    Adding later on Harvey's morning show, which reaches 7 million predominantly African American listeners, Obama said that urban areas where the drug trade is rampant have faced neglect for decades, putting more pressure on police officers.
    He also suggested that the Gray incident and the civil unrest that followed could mark a tipping point in terms of how his administration and the country deals with some of the root causes.
    "People have a tendency when the fires are put out, once the cars aren't being tipped over...then folks want to go back and focus on whatever reality TV thing is going on," Obama said. "We've just got to make sure that we don't brush this aside after the crisis has passed."
    10 years of President Obama discussing race
    10 years of President Obama discussing race

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    10 years of President Obama discussing race 03:10