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Obama’s views on race anchored on US capacity to change

President Obama participated in a literacy service project at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington, D.C., to mark the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service Monday.Getty Images/Pool photo

WASHINGTON — During racially tense moments that have beset the nation recently, many Americans have longed for President Obama to display some of the passion and soaring rhetoric that made the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 86 last week, a civil rights legend.

But the messages of restraint Obama has given in response to outcry over police violence are the same ones he has been dispensing for decades, echoes of thoughts he has had since he was a young community organizer in Chicago.

His central tenets: Don’t give in to anger and violence, work to improve not destroy the legal system, and accept that change will come and things are getting better, albeit more slowly than many would like.

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Though Obama’s views have evolved on issues such as gay marriage and national security during his six years in office, his views on race have remained remarkably consistent, and recent events appear to have affirmed rather than altered those views.

The president is likely to touch on race again on Tuesday in his State of the Union address, and if so, he will probably acknowledge that on race, as on the economy, a ‘‘resurgent America’’ has made great pro-gress but still requires greater inclusiveness.

Rather than making pressing demands for economic justice like those that defined King’s crusade, Obama will make a pitch for a tax package that will aid lower- and middle-class households and serve as modest tools for economic advancement for all.

Yet nearly 47 years after the assassination of the civil rights leader, the nation and the president are still struggling with issues of race and discrimination.

In 2009, Obama replaced a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office with one of King, but a study by University of Pennsylvania researcher Daniel Gillion found that Obama talked about race less in his first two years of office than any Democratic president at least since John F. Kennedy.

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‘‘They share the gift of oratory,’’ James Campbell, an American history professor at Stanford University, said of King and Obama, ‘‘but one of the things that made King’s oratory so indelible is that it never had to be put against the grain of [a strong movement].’’

Whereas King rode a crest of growing black anger and channeled it into peaceful civil disobedience, Obama came of age as the civil rights movement splintered and dissipated, even as a new generation, Obama’s, moved to leverage its many successes.

King’s speeches in the 1960s were clarion calls for justice, action, and civil disobedience. Obama, especially as people feared the possibility of riots in cities across the country, has sounded calls for restraint, lawful demonstrations, commissions of inquiry, and slow, steady progress toward reform.

King fought and won rights — civil rights and voting rights — and led the way for black political leaders, mayors, and congressmen; Obama has tried to figure out how to use those rights as a political leader who happens to be black.

In the case of the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., he could not simply condemn the system; he sits on top of that system.

‘‘It’s important to recognize, as painful as these incidents are, we can’t equate what is happening now to what was happening 50 years ago,’’ Obama said during an interview on BET, talking about why he was not more aggressive in his statements earlier. ‘‘And the reason it’s important for us to understand progress has been made is that then gives us hope that we can make even more progress.’’

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In ‘‘Dreams From My Father,’’ written when he was still in his early 30s and fresh out of Harvard Law School, Obama distanced himself from those who believed that ‘‘the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat.’’

And he warned that the outlook of blacks in the late 1970s and 1980s too often ‘‘dissipated into an attitude rather than any concrete program, a collection of grievances.’’

Instead, a strong strain of optimism had taken hold of him.

‘‘We could tell this country where it was wrong, I would tell myself and any black friends who would listen, without ceasing to believe in its capacity for change,’’ he wrote.


The State of the Union address is scheduled for 9 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday.