Obama urges deeper look at race, hints at his future

Washington (AFP) - President Barack Obama on Monday urged Americans to address the root causes of recent racially-tinged unrest, focusing not just on police actions but improving opportunities for young black men.

As police again mobilized on the streets of Baltimore to calm tempers after a false report of a man shot by officers, Obama weighed in on anger over police treatment of blacks that has prompted protests from New York to Ferguson.

Demanding more than stop-gap measures and a familiar cycle of waxing and waning public interest, Obama said protests were fuelled not just by police mistreatment, but a festering sense of "unfairness and of powerlessness."

"If we're just looking at policing, we're looking at it too narrowly," he said, sketching a grim picture of city neighborhoods plagued by absent fathers and drug-addicted mothers, where jail is a more likely career path than university.

"By almost every measure, the life chances of the average young man of color are worse than his peers," Obama said, making a highly personal pitch for change.

"Those opportunity gaps begin early, often at birth, and they compound over time, becoming harder and harder to bridge."

"There are consequences to inaction. There are consequences to indifference... over time, it wears us out. Over time, it weakens our nation as a whole."

Obama's comments came during a visit to New York to spin off his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative.

Started as a White House policy to talk about improving opportunities for young black men, it will now become an independent non-profit organization.

Making the initiative independent of the White House could portend a future role for Obama when he leaves the Oval Office in 2017.

Predecessors Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have both engaged in charity and policy work since leaving office.

"This will remain a mission for me and for Michelle, not just for the rest of my presidency, but for the rest of my life," Obama said.

"This is personal. Because in these young men, we see ourselves," he said, noting his father was also absent during his formative years.

Recent violence in Baltimore was prompted by the death in police custody of 25-year-old African-American Freddie Gray.

Stores were looted, hundreds were arrested, a curfew imposed and the National Guard deployed -- all in a city which lies about an hour's drive away from the US capital.

Obama has been criticized in some quarters for not becoming more involved in easing tensions.

My Brother's Keeper is expected to focus on improving education for boys and young men of color, as well as reducing violence.

Leveraging his presidential pulpit, Obama has convinced a series of high-profile businessmen, political leaders and entertainment stars to become involved including singer John Legend and former secretary of state Colin Powell.

It will be run by retired Deloitte CEO Joe Echevarria.