In a pattern that has become achingly familiar to him and the nation, President Obama again entered the White House briefing room to issue a statement of mourning and grief as he called on the country to unify in the face of tragedy.
The massacre of a black pastor and his parishioners at a South Carolina church late Wednesday once again confronted President Obama with a moment of racial turmoil in a country that for all its progress has yet to completely shed the burden of hatred and division.
After a series of police shootings, protests and riots, this latest eruption of violence reflected a country on edge and a president struggling to pull the American people together. Any hopes of what supporters once called a “post-racial” era seem fanciful as Obama’s second term increasingly focuses on what he termed “the dark part of our history.”
In a pattern that has become achingly familiar to him and the nation, Obama on Thursday entered the White House briefing room to issue a statement of mourning and grief as he called on the country to unify in the face of tragedy. This time, though, the ritual was made all the more poignant because Obama knew the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor slain at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and other members of the congregation.
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“This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know that hatred across races and faiths poses a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals,” Obama said. “The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”
If those words of optimism were belied by his own grim face and subdued tone, perhaps it reflected a certain frustration over the limits of his ability to change the nation he leads.
He grew especially pointed when he noted that this was the latest in a spate of mass shootings, and he lamented what he called the easy access to guns, an issue he has tried and failed to address with legislation.
“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama said.
He added: “It is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of the avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point, it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it.”
To many, including the president, the shootings echoed the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 that killed four black girls. Obama quoted extensively from the eulogy delivered then by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In that speech, King expressed hope that the tragedy would “transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.”
Obama’s election seemed to promise a brighter future in race relations, but events of recent years appear to mock that hope. The 1963 bombing reflected a broad campaign of white resistance to civil rights, and this week’s shootings represented a violent fringe condemned by whites and blacks alike. Yet Charleston now joins Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, North Chaleston, S.C., and Baltimore in putting the nation’s unfinished business back on the agenda.
By virtue of his own background, Obama has addressed these episodes with a personal perspective none of his predecessors in the White House could. And yet easy solutions elude him, just as they did them. Even his responses have generated criticism on cable television and talk radio, from those saying his rhetoric has been divisive, fanning the flames of the racial divide by blaming the police or white America.
“Part of what I take from this is on the one hand the realization that this struggle still continues and despite profound change there is still profound hatred,” said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, set to open in Washington next year. “It is a fundamentally different country. It’s a country that has changed in ways that are amazing. But it is still a country that is still torn apart by race.”
Obama has spent much of the final years of his administration addressing race in a more expansive way than he did in his first term, because of stark events as well as because of the anniversaries of iconic moments in the civil-rights movement.
He has started an initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, to help young Latino and African-American men, and advanced policies in education, criminal justice and economics that are designed, in part, to address the racial divide.
No magic wand
Yet in the end, he has run into the same limitations that other presidents have encountered. “The president has the power of the bully pulpit, but his authority to effect change is very limited, at least on his own,” said Judith Winston, who was the executive director of former President Clinton’s race initiative in the late 1990s.
The challenge, Winston said, was even more complex for Obama than it was for Clinton. “He’s in a very difficult position politically,” she said. “My sense is there’s been not much conversation or policy action that’s been explicitly directed at racial bias because of concerns that it would be seen as favoring people of his own race.”
Joshua DuBois, a former director of faith-based initiatives in Obama’s White House, said the president cannot change deeply embedded attitudes by himself.
“Hopefully most reasonable folks in the country are clear that he is doing all that is within his power to address issues of race in this country,” DuBois said. “But at the same time, he does not have a magic wand to fix issues that have been lying dormant and unaddressed for a long time.”
The shootings in Charleston hit close to home in the White House, where Pinckney, a state senator, was known. Obama recognized the name when he was informed about the victims.
“They met and formed a bond back in 2007 when they were campaigning early on in the president’s effort to get to the White House,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman.
In Obama’s televised remarks, he noted the long history of the Charleston church. “Mother Emanuel church and its congregation have risen before — from flames, from an earthquake, from other dark times — to give hope to generations of Charlestonians,” Obama said. “And with our prayers and our love, and the buoyancy of hope, it will rise again now as a place of peace.”