The violence in Ferguson caused President Barack Obama to use language more forceful than he has in the past about race, breaking taboos about the issue for Americans — many of whom hoped that having a black president in the White House would mean scenes like these would be a thing of the past.
Violence erupted in Ferguson the night the nation learned that Darren Wilson, a white police officer, would not be indicted for fatally shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. In appealing for calm, Obama said the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges still facing the nation.
“We need to recognize this is not an issue just for Ferguson," he said. "This is an issue for America. We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the last several decades. I have witnessed this in my own life, and to deny this progress is to deny America’s capacity for change. But what is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color are not making these problems up.”
Analysts say it is not the pain and anger alone of the demonstrators that prompted Obama to speak more openly about race relations. With only two years left in his term, they say, Obama has less to lose by taking the conversation on race relations a step further.
“The political risk, obviously, he’s not running for re-election anymore, so that’s sort of mitigated," said Daniella Gibbs Leger of the Center for American Progress, a former senior aide to the president. "Is there other types of risk? Always, whenever you’re talking about race in this country. But I also think that it goes beyond the political risk, and it’s something that’s very personal to him.”
Obama has spoken passionately on race issues before. In 2012, when black teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida in another racially charged case, the president said Martin could have been his son.
This time, the president warned that inaction could lead to more tension and violence.
“Those who are only interested in focusing on the violence and just want the problem to go away need to recognize that we do have work to do here and we shouldn’t try to paper it over,” he said.
Michael Fauntroy, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, said that while Obama’s remarks on race were more forceful than before, he questioned whether the president was forceful enough.
“What happened in Ferguson, Missouri, and the aftermath that happened is something that the president was sort of forced to comment on," he said. "So, yes, that is true, he is breaking a taboo. But I hope that now that the taboo is broken, that he will actually do something with it.”
When Obama took office, there were hopes among many Americans, both black and white, that America’s race problems would largely go away. Events in Ferguson show that resolving hundreds of years of racial strife will take more than one man and one presidency.