Some key moments related to race during Obama’s presidency
From the moment Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States and America’s first African-American commander in chief, race took center stage in myriad ways in the national conversation. Here are some key moments:
July 16, 2009: Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black professor at Harvard University, is arrested by a white police officer after trying to open a jammed door at his home; a suspected burglary had been reported. Days later Obama weighs in, saying he’s unsure what role race played in the incident but “that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.” That creates a stir, and Obama invites Gates and the officer to the White House for what becomes known as the “Beer Summit.”
Sept. 9. 2009: During Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on health care, Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, shouts “You lie!” The statement is seen by many observers and commentators as a breathtaking show of disrespect aimed at a black president.
Jan. 17, 2010: On his first Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as president, Obama speaks at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where King himself once spoke. He reflects on difficulties faced in pushing his agenda through Congress and the periodic distractions stemming from remarks about his race. Referring to the “post-racial” and “post-partisan” shift in the country that some had predicted would flow from his election, Obama says, “That didn’t work out so well.”
April 27, 2011: The White House releases copies of Obama’s long-form birth certificate to prove he was born in Hawaii. The president had been dogged by the “birther” movement, led by Donald Trump, which spread the falsehood that Obama was born in Africa. Many Obama supporters saw the birther conspiracy as an effort to delegitimize the first black president.
2012: Obama’s race for a second term against Republican Mitt Romney features a slew of racist remarks, incidents and bumper stickers, including one showing a picture of a chimpanzee next to “Obama 2012.”
July 19, 2013: Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman is acquitted in Florida in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black teen. After Martin was killed in 2012, Obama said he “could have been my son.” Following Zimmerman’s trial, Obama again weighs in, trying to explain black America’s reaction to the case: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” Some black activists praise Obama, while conservative commentators denounce the remarks as divisive.
Aug. 9, 2014: Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, is shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, setting off protests that bring national recognition to the then-fledgling Black Lives Matter movement.
December 2014: A grand jury declines to indict an NYPD officer in the choking death of Eric Garner, a black man who was suspected of selling loose cigarettes. Protests follow. Not long after, Obama announces the creation of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing to examine how to strengthen public trust and foster relationships between law enforcement and local communities.
March 7, 2015: Obama delivers a speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when peaceful protesters were beaten by the police as they tried to cross the bridge. The march, one of the seminal moments in civil rights history, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. “We just need to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us,” Obama tells a crowd that included some activists who participated in the 1965 protest. “We know the march is not yet over; we know the race is not yet won.”
June 17, 2015: Dylann Roof, a white man who would later admit he wanted to start a race war, fatally shoots eight black worshippers and their pastor at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The next week, Obama delivers the eulogy for the slain Rev. Clementa Pinckney, speaking about the symbolism of the Confederate flag and how racial bias infects everyday life. He ends by leading the audience in singing the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” A movement to remove the Confederate flag from state and federal buildings, license plates and elsewhere follows.
April 30, 2016: Comedian Larry Wilmore performs at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and ends with, “Yo Barry, you did it, my n---a” — an “N word” reference that sparks criticism. Obama’s press secretary says afterward that the president “appreciated the spirit” of the remark.
July 7, 2016: A sniper ambushes five Dallas police officers at an otherwise peaceful protest against the police killings earlier that week of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. With racial tensions rising, Obama speaks days later at the officers’ memorial service, praising law enforcement officials for their courage while also expressing the need to understand the grievances of African-Americans who’ve protested racial bias. “I’m here to say we must reject such despair,” the president says. “I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem. And I know that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds.”
Sept. 24, 2016: Obama dedicates the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., by ringing a bell from an 18th century black church. “This is the place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other; how men can proudly win the gold for their country but still insist on raising a black-gloved fist; how we can wear an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt and still grieve for fallen police officers,” Obama tells dignitaries gathered on the National Mall. “We’re not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America. We’re America.”