WASHINGTON — With President Obama’s term entering the home stretch, White House officials increasingly concerned about his legacy on race issues are turning their attention to the sometimes difficult relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement, and are hoping to expand the number of activists it engages before he leaves office.
As the nation’s first black president, issues of race were inevitably going to be a part of Obama’s legacy. And while the administration has aggressively pushed agenda items aimed at addressing systemic racism — most notably criminal justice policy — the resurgence of open, and often violent, racial tensions across the country has taken center stage.
Although the administration has been reaching out to BLM activists since its inception in the wake of massive protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 (Obama has twice met with activists), many within the movement have treated those overtures with some skepticism. That, in turn has frustrated Obama and his top aides, who feel that activists need to work within the system, even as they use direct action protests to bring pressure on it.
“The federal government is a complex entity,” a senior administration official said of the frustration some inside White House had explaining what it would take to work effectively with the administration. “It takes a while to appreciate the difference between what can happen at state and local and federal government. It takes a willingness to engage and understand those limitations and those responsibilities in order to figure out how to actually effect positive change.”
But while officials may counsel patience, with just nine months left in Obama’s presidency, questions of legacy and unresolved tensions have taken on greater significance. Inside the White House, there is a strain of thought among some aides — the same aides who had once obsessed over the protesters’ fervor that captivated the entire country — that the activists aren’t serious about effecting change, as much as they want, as one person close to the situation said, “a never-ending crisis.”
Those tensions came into focus last weekend during Obama’s commencement speech at Howard University. Obama’s speech struck many of his traditional notes, lauding the efforts of young activists while urging them to for ways to translate their momentum into concrete accomplishments.
“It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened — white, black, Democrat, Republican‚ to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system. But to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in custom,” Obama said at Howard.
Indeed, White House officials have engaged with the movement with success; at the February meeting, Obama and DeRay Mckesson had a back-and-forth over the role the federal government could play in standardizing police use of force. And yet, Obama’s speech at Howard was designed to “encourage” even more activists inside the movement to commit themselves to meaningful action, a White House official familiar with Obama’s thinking said.
In many ways, the speech was a clear signal to activists that, despite their chafing at Obama’s repeated urging that they work within the system, he isn’t going to change course, even after Aislinn Pulley, a cofounder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, publicly protested a meeting with the president in February.
Pulley called work to end police brutality and institutional racism a “false narrative” and said the government officials are “perpetrators and enablers” to whom her appearance would amount to “political cover.”
White House officials were “livid,” according to a source who attended the meeting. Pulley had originally accepted the invitation to participate in the summit, only to pull out and level harsh criticism at the effort.
"They had worked hard to earn her trust," the senior administration official said of White House staffers who engaged with Pulley. "And initially she has indicated that she would come and then she changed her mind. But that's on her. She gets to make that decision for herself. And we’re hopeful at some point she will see it to be in the interest of her movement to engage with us. But there are plenty of people who do show up and do engage and that gives us hope."
After the Pulley episode, many observers wondered how committed Obama was to continuing the dialogue. But senior adviser Valerie Jarrett has in recent weeks implored members of the office of public engagement not to give up on a more radical wing of the movement, a group which has clashed with political groups, shouted down presidential candidates, decried the current political system as oppressive and sharply critiqued Obama himself.
“We believe in engagement and bringing as many diverse voices to the table as possible,” a senior administration official said in an email to BuzzFeed News. “And we have seen many activists come to the table and engage with us and we look forward to continuing and broadening our relationship with the activist community.”
The notion of engaging with institutions of power has been a hallmark of Obama’s advice to the Black Lives Matter movement, including in answer to a question in London in which he warned against simply fighting the system.
“Once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you,” Obama said then. “Then you can’t just keep on yelling at them. You can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position.”
A senior administration official acknowledged that the White House isn’t backing down from its strategy, saying “since day one President Obama and his team have widely opened the door to the White House for the purpose of civil engagement. As the president noted in his Howard commencement speech, he believes that real progress requires us all to work together for the greater good.”