ATLANTA — Just as President Barack Obama, the nation's first black chief executive, urged people in a televised broadcast not to throw bottles or smash windows, they did exactly that.
"There are ways of channeling your concerns constructively," Obama counseled Monday night while protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, began torching police cars, burning down buildings and looting businesses after a St. Louis County prosecutor announced there would be no grand jury indictment of a police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager.
Six years into the Obama presidency, the historic symbolism of a black leader in the White House has collided with the systemic reality of continuing racial divisions aggravated by the economy and violent interactions between the judicial system and young black men.
"It's a rebellion against a system that is killing our young people and then has no repercussions, nor transparency in their investigations," said Elizabeth Vega, 48, a St. Louis artist who has been demonstrating in Ferguson since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot Aug. 9.
Yet the divide is complex and not as clear-cut as it used to be. Two decades ago, the acquittal of former football star O.J. Simpson on murder charges provoked sharp disagreements between blacks and whites, and served as a touchstone on how the two races can view things through distinctly different eyes.
The situation now is more nuanced, said Wendell Worjroh, a 42-year-old African-American IT salesman in Atlanta.
"It depends on the demographics, on where you are," he said. "You have some Caucasians who live in certain areas who understand what this is about. And you have African-Americans living in affluent areas who are wondering why the community is pushing the limits."
As the St. Louis suburb erupted into chaos on Nov. 24, supportive protests in other major cities didn't follow a similar destructive path. In Chicago, where African-Americans and the police have long had a contentious relationship, dozens of protesters promised to hold a 28-hour sit-in Tuesday in front of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office. By evening, after police threatened arrests, the demonstrators left City Hall and marched through downtown.
The Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network had called for a separate protest several blocks away at Chicago's federal courthouse. It drew no demonstrators.
In New York's City Hall, 15 black, Hispanic and Asian City Council members walked out of a formal meeting of the 51-member body and gathered in the atrium near its spiral stairwell, in what several described as a response to Ferguson, and began chanting "Black Lives Matter" and "Hands Up! Don't Shoot!"
To be sure, views on Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson's shooting of Brown are often separated by race. Fifty- four percent of nonwhites — blacks, Latinos and Asians — said Wilson should be charged with murder, while only 23 percent of whites agreed, according to a CNN/ORC poll of 1,045 Americans conducted Nov. 21-23. The margin of error was plus or minus three percentage points.
"In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected, a lot of people held out the idea that America was post-racial," said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. "Race is still very much the subtext of American life and American politics, for all the talk of being post-racial."
Economic gains for black Americans are mixed. About 10 percent of African-American households earned at least $100,000 in 2011, according to census data. That's up from 7 percent in 1991.
And the poverty rate for blacks has declined for the past five decades. Still, it's roughly 25 percent, almost three times that of whites. On key economic measurements — income, economic mobility, housing, education, employment and life expectancy — blacks lag behind whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and data compiled by Bloomberg.
Blacks also represented about half of all homicide victims and 38 percent of the prison population in 2011, according to data from the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Recent shootings of blacks by police have sharpened the focus on Ferguson. In Cleveland, an officer fatally shot a 12- year-old boy who was wielding a BB gun on Nov. 22. Two days earlier, an unarmed 19-year-old man was killed by a rookie police officer in New York.
The Obama administration, under Attorney General Eric Holder, has moved against some police departments. It ordered an overhaul of the New Orleans police force, accused of killing black citizens during Hurricane Katrina, and also ordered more lenient handling of federal drug offenders.
Ferguson, a north St. Louis suburb of 21,000 people, embodies what black critics say is wrong with the political and justice systems. The city's population is two-thirds black yet the government is overwhelmingly white. Blacks hold three positions on the 53-officer police force. The racial imbalance tipped the scales against Michael Brown, said Benjamin Crump, the family's attorney.
"The process should be indicted. It should be indicted because of continuous systematic results that are yielded by this process," Crump said in a news conference Tuesday.
At Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, pastor Raphael Warnock said the nation's criminal justice system "is more racially skewed now than it was during Dr. King's lifetime."
Among prisoners ages 18 to 19, black males were imprisoned at nine times the rate of white males, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 2011, 3 percent of all black males were in prison, compared to 0.5 percent of white males.
"The data shows that the civil rights movement had little to no impact on our criminal justice system," Warnock said. "The criminal justice system is the very place where deep patterns of racism have been reinscribed in the U.S."