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U.S. President Barack Obama did not have a straight answer when asked if he would go to Ferguson, Mo., and try to heal the racial divide in a community rent by the death of a black man shot by a white police officer and now torn again by bitterness over a grand jury's decision not to indict the policeman with any crime.

Instead, as flames, gunfire and violence erupted on Monday night, the President spoke from the White House, delivering a low-key call for calm and ducking the sole question he allowed after his short speech.

Mr. Obama, the first African-American president in a nation still riven by race more than a half-century after the civil-rights movement began its unfinished struggle, has only rarely waded into the morass of race relations.

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On one occasion, when his friend and Harvard professor Henry Gates was arrested after he was seen breaking into a house (his own) late at night, Mr. Obama angrily dismissed the police as "stupid."

Sometimes he has been sorrowfully reflective, exposing a seldom-seen side of a man who knows the humiliation and anger of being presumed to be dangerous just because of his skin colour.

"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," Mr. Obama said last year. "And 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."

And just once, he touched a raw nerve, after an unarmed black teenager walking alone at night was shot and killed by a self-appointed neighbourhood watchman in Florida. "My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin," the President said, referring to the 17-year-old. "You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

But in his six years in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama has never directly tackled the vexed, sometimes violent and deeply divisive issue of race relations.

So, in the immediate aftermath of Monday's announcement that a St. Louis County grand jury had concluded there was insufficient evidence to warrant putting police officer Darren Wilson on trial for anything in connection with shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown, the President hedged.

"We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America," he said. "We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I've witnessed that in my own life. And to deny that progress, I think, is to deny America's capacity for change. But what is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of colour aren't just making these problems up."

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Progressives and civil-rights commentators were quick to fault Mr. Obama for failing to seize the moment.

"For the entirety of his presidency, and for much of his pre-presidency, Obama's been too encumbered by a real but vague set of hindrances – his ambition, his temperament, an idealistic sense of a president's significance to the country, and an acute awareness of his position in the country's racial firmament – to speak about racial issues," wrote Brian Beutler, in the liberal New Republic.

"Brown's killing isn't just about race, or local police procedure, or the militarization of police, but civil rights, a vast array of racial disparities in America, and the cardinal importance of the franchise, all of which are connected to one another. Obama is uniquely suited to trace those connections. He should do so, in Ferguson."

Paul Waldman, writing in the Washington Post said "Seldom in Barack Obama's presidency has he looked quite so impotent as he did [Monday] night, pleading from a podium in the White House for calm."

But Mr. Waldman suggested the not-so-hidden racism directed against the President makes it impossible for Mr. Obama to lead on the issue. "Conservatives are told again and again that they are the racial victims whose problems are the fault of the black President coming after them because of the colour of their skin," Mr. Waldman said.

Whether the President has been hobbled by his opponents who have managed to play the race card against the him or whether Mr. Obama has opted – out of political expediency – to avoid confronting the divide directly, there is little, if any, evidence to show the United States is any less riven along racial lines despite twice electing an African-American president.

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