It seemed to sum up so much about Barack Obama’s presidency. As he stood at a lectern in the White House urging calm and discoursing in detached fashion about the “enormous progress” made in American race relations over past decades, out on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, the bricks and bottles were flying.
“He doesn’t get it,” screamed one young protester, referring to the Kenyan ancestry that has always left America’s first black president in the uncertain middle ground of the ever-charged race debate.
“The president is not even one of us. I would say that to his face.”
And so Mr Obama is attacked by both sides. Conservatives rush to mock his apparent ineffectualness and his playing of the race card, while their opponents simultaneously accuse him of not doing enough. The president is too black for some whites, and not black enough for some African-Americans.
But it is also true that Mr Obama’s racial and social hinterland – before he became vice president, Joe Biden stereotyped him as “articulate and bright and clean” – has been his fundamental strength in seeking to move America forward when it comes to the issue of race. On Monday night, he stuck to his guns by keeping them firmly holstered.
Instead of angered denunciation, he reprised the arguments that he first made back in 2008 when he delivered the ‘More Perfect Union’ speech that set out his vision for a post-racial America. Speaking of the enormous progress made, he insisted: “I’ve witnessed that in my own life. And to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change.”
Mr Obama has never tried to ignore the fact that America remains deeply divided over race. But despite the pressure from both sides, he has shown himself determined to look forward to a world where that is no longer the case.
For many who voted for him in 2008, flushed with the prospects of hope and change, such sang froid in the face of the events in Ferguson – in particular, what appears to be yet another apparently egregious piece of white-on-black police misconduct – is deeply frustrating. They charge him with naivety, arguing that as in so many areas, Mr Obama’s belief in his own personal ability to deliver change has simply not been matched by the facts on the ground.
Recent polls reflect disappointment that Mr Obama has been unable to deliver more on race. Yet as with his promises to halt the rise of the oceans and bring peace to the Middle East, those expectations were always unrealistic. African-Americans continue to get a raw deal in the US – in schools, in prisons and out on the streets, where they are disproportionately targeted by a police force whose trigger-happiness is backed by a legal framework that sometimes seems barely changed since the days of the frontier.
Blacks make up 14pc of drug users, but 37pc of those arrested for it. According to the US Sentencing Commission, they also receive sentences that are 10pc longer than those given to whites for the same crimes.
Outside America’s liberal, urban enclaves, racial prejudice is still all too common – sometimes overt and conscious, sometimes delivered apparently unawares, but clearly present none the less.
Over the past three years, I have been harangued in the white suburbs of Michigan about how the “lazy blacks” destroyed Detroit; told by a Maryland grandmother at a political fund-raiser that Hispanics are “breeding too fast for us to keep up”; and informed by a bunch of white farmers out in the cornfields of Wyoming that no one “really believes” America could have elected Mr Obama fair and square.
It has even been argued the president’s election actually deepened the race divide, with several studies finding the number of hate groups increased between 2008 and 2012.
Mr Obama knows all this. His strategy is not to confront it but to rise above it, self-consciously eschewing the inflammatory rhetoric of the previous generation of civil rights leaders to try to break what he has called the “racial stalemate”. (© Daily Telegraph London)