The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote that Obama is the “first president who could credibly teach a Black-studies class. He is fully versed in the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X.” From the new, nationwide conversation on police militarization to the disturbing pictures of tear-gassed protesters and civil disarray, Ferguson is probably the most important racial event of the Obama administration. In which case, why didn’t Obama—elected on the promise of greater racial understanding—address it with the wisdom we know he has? Why the cautious words?

One answer is that the White House is keenly aware of the president’s poor standing with large parts of the public. “[T]he White House,” writes Vox’s Ezra Klein, “no longer believes Obama can bridge divides. They believe—with good reason—that he widens them. They learned this early in his presidency, when Obama said that the police had ‘acted stupidly’ when they arrested Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates on the porch of his own home. The backlash was fierce. To defuse it, Obama ended up inviting both Gates and the arresting officer for a ‘beer summit’ at the White House.”