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For President Obama, racist comments pose extra leadership burden

When President Obama responded to racist comments – this time allegedly by L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling – he was in a familiar mode: reacting to a racially charged news event.

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President Obama answers a question during a joint news conference with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at his residence in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, April 27, 2014. Obama responded to ugly racial comments – allegedly by Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team – during the press conference.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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When President Obama responded over the weekend to ugly racial comments – allegedly by Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team – he was in a familiar mode: reacting to a racially charged news event. 

American presidents have often found themselves in this spot. Race is a never-ending source of friction, debate, and at times discovery. But for Mr. Obama, it’s freighted with extra meaning. He is responding not only as president, but as the nation’s first black president. 

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“He’s always in this position,” says Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “Does he have some special obligation to tackle the issue of race? Is it better politically for him to stay out? Is it something he shouldn’t be obligated to deal with, just because he’s a black president?”

In this most recent case, Obama didn’t speak out unbidden. He responded to a question during a press conference Sunday in Malaysia. The day before, the gossip site TMZ had posted a recording purportedly of the Clippers owner telling his girlfriend not to bring black people to his team’s games. The identities of those speaking on the tape still have not been confirmed. Obama referred to comments “the owner is reported” to have made. But he didn’t hold back on what was said.

“I don’t think I have to interpret those statements for you; they kind of speak for themselves,” Obama said. “When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance you don’t really have to do anything, you just let them talk.”

The president also sought to put the incident in a larger context, noting that while the United States continues to wrestle with a legacy of slavery and segregation, it is evolving in a positive direction.

“We’ve made enormous strides, but you’re going to continue to see this percolate up every so often,” Obama said. “And I think that we just have to be clear and steady in denouncing it, teaching our children differently, but also remaining hopeful that part of why some statements like this stand out so much is because there has been this shift in how we view ourselves.”

For Obama, this latest episode is more than a teachable moment, “it’s a leadership moment,” says Mr. Zelizer.

But every time racial matters rise to the top of public discourse – from Henry Louis Gates Jr. to Trayvon Martin to Cliven Bundy – there’s an additional dimension for Obama.

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“Will he alienate white working-class and middle-class Democrats by talking too much about this?” Zelizer says. “Maybe with a liberal white Democrat, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue.”

In July 2009, Obama stepped into the middle of the Gates controversy when he responded to a reporter’s question. Obama said the police had acted “stupidly” when they arrested Mr. Gates, an African-American professor at Harvard University, as he tried to enter his own home.

In 2012, the racially charged killing of Trayvon Martin also spurred comments from Obama, who said the black Florida teen could have been his son. Later, Obama said Martin “could have been me.”

During the recent flap over Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy – initially famous for refusing to pay federal grazing fees and then for making racist comments about blacks and slavery – Obama has remained silent.

On policy matters, Obama also picks his spots. After the US Supreme Court’s recent ruling on affirmative action, in which the court upheld a Michigan referendum banning the practice in admissions to public universities, the White House press secretary issued a nuanced reaction. Obama himself said nothing.  

But the president has been vocal on voting rights, such as last June, when the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act. He and his attorney general have also spoken out on voter ID laws, saying they pose an undue hardship on minority voters.

In February, Obama unveiled “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative that pulls together foundation and corporate money to help young men of color avoid the “school to prison pipeline.”

From one perspective, the effort reflected a growing boldness by the president in tackling minority issues. But some African-American scholars dismissed it as ineffectual because it did not involve an infusion of federal resources.   

Lester Spence, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is one such scholar. He describes Obama as having a “voice in his head” that tells him to avoid discussing race, and decries what he sees as a lack of boldness by Obama.

“If he had listened to that voice in 2007, he never would have run in the first place,” says Mr. Spence. “So the whole critique that he’s walking a tightrope is self-serving to the president, and it blatantly ignores the role of history and creative endeavor in political struggle.”

After the alleged Sterling comments burst into the public arena, Spence wrote a blog post with several observations on the matter. Obama does not merit a mention. Spence says he doesn’t necessarily see Obama as having a role in the issue.

But Obama was asked what he thought, and he responded.

“So he said something, but what does that something mean, given what happened?” Spence says. “Would I have expected Obama to say something transformative? The answer is no.”