President Obama said the shooting death of a black teen by a white police officer last month in Ferguson, Missouri, exposed the racial divide in the American justice system that “stains the heart of black children.”
Speaking at the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner in Washington on Saturday night, Mr. Obama said the death of Michael Brown “awakened our nation” to a reality that black citizens already understood.
“In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” Mr. Obama said. “Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement — guilty of walking while black or driving while black, judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness.”
About the same time Mr. Obama was speaking Saturday night, a Ferguson police officer was shot in the arm after an encounter with two men at a community center in the St. Louis suburb. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said at a media briefing early Sunday that the officer approached the men around 9:10 p.m. Saturday because the community center was closed.
As the officer approached, the men ran away. When the officer gave chase, “one of the men turned and shot,” Chief Belmar said.
The officer was shot in the arm and is expected to survive, he said. Chief Belmar did not identify the officer or give further details about his condition. He said the officer returned fire, but police have “no indication” that either suspect was shot.
A search was underway for the suspects in Ferguson, which remained calm Sunday afternoon. Chief Belmar said he did not think the officer’s shooting was related to two separate protests about the Brown shooting Saturday night about the same time.
Around midnight at the police station, approximately two dozen officers stood near a group of about 100 protesters who mingled on a street corner, occasionally shouting, “No justice; no peace.”
At the president’s speech in Washington, the audience included the parents of Mr. Brown, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., whose agency is conducting a probe to determine whether the slain teen’s civil rights were violated. Mr. Obama said because of the continuing probe, “I won’t comment on the investigation.”
But he added, “We have to close the justice gap — how justice is applied, but also how it is perceived, how it is experienced. That’s what we saw in Ferguson this summer when Michael Brown was killed and the community was divided.”
Mr. Obama said there are “significant racial disparities” in the criminal justice system “in everything from enforcing drug policy to applying the death penalty to pulling people over.”
“That has a corrosive effect,” the president said. “The worst part of it is, it scars the hearts of our children. It scars the hearts of white children who grow unnecessarily fearful of somebody who doesn’t look like them. It stains the heart of black children who feel as if no matter what he does, he’ll always be under suspicion. That is not the society we want, it is not the society our children deserve.”
The president said he will announce this week a program to address issues that impact youths, called My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge. It will expand on an initiative he unveiled in February by calling on community leaders across the country to “follow the evidence” in helping young black men succeed.
Mr. Obama also urged the audience members to get out and vote in the November midterm elections.
“Cynicism is a choice, but hope is a better choice,” he said. “Get those souls to the polls. If we do, I guarantee we’ve got a brighter future ahead.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports from Missouri.