The violence in Ferguson is small beer compared to the 1965 conflagration in Watts, the rioting that swept US cities after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, and the Los Angeles riots of 1992 after the acquittal of white police officers charged with beating-up the black motorist Rodney King.
But the flare-up after the shooting of the unarmed student Michael Brown by a white police officer, constitutes the biggest race relations test for America’s first black president since he took power. And in contrast with his previous forays onto this treacherous terrain, Barack Obama is displaying a caution that is disappointing some black opinion here.
Why, these critics ask, is he not planning a visit to Ferguson himself? Instead he is dispatching Attorney General Eric Holder to the St Louis suburb today. And why has Mr Obama not condemned the behaviour of the police more forcefully?
Instead the President, in his most extensive remarks on the subject on Monday, urged all parties to “seek understanding, rather than just hollering at each other.”
He did criticise the police and said he understood the anger at Mr Brown’s death among African-Americans. But, Mr Obama added, “giving in to that anger by looting or carrying guns and even attacking the police, only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos”.
That dry, almost scripted, response contrasts with his reaction to other recent racial incidents that have made headlines – above all the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch officer, on murder and manslaughter charges after he shot Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black teenager, on a Florida estate in 2012.
“If I had a son, he’d look like that… Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” Mr Obama said then, explaining the deep resentment at what had happened: “there are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.”
But in the case of Michael Brown, the President has injected no such personal feelings. There are of course major differences. Then, Mr Obama was speaking after the legal resolution of the Zimmerman case. This time, the Ferguson investigation is barely started, with the most basic facts in dispute. All the more reason therefore, why Mr Obama should be studiously even-handed.
Bear in mind too that this black president has been burnt before when he waded into a racial controversy. After the 2009 arrest of the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, at his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, Mr Obama criticised police handling of the affair - only to stir a firestorm among police organisations, who claimed he had misrepresented the facts.
This time the President is, above all, seeking not to inflame matters, and thus leave himself room to tackle the issue at the heart of the Ferguson confrontation: the enduring white control of politics and the police in a predominately black town.Reuse content