In Obama Era, Have Race Relations Improved?

Jesse Washington, Mediacom, July 30, 2012

Ask Americans how race relations have changed under their first black president and they are ready with answers.

Ashley Ray, a white woman, hears more people debating racial issues. “I know a lot of people who really thought we were OK as a nation, a culture, and now they understand that we’re not,” she says.

Karl Douglass, a black man, sees stereotypes easing. “White people deal with me and my family differently,” he says.

Jose Lozano, who is Hispanic by way of Puerto Rico, believes prejudice is emerging from the shadows. “Now the racism is coming out,” he says.

In the afterglow of Barack Obama’s historic victory, most people in the United States believed that race relations would improve. Nearly four years later, has that dream come true? Americans have no shortage of thoughtful opinions, and no consensus.

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Shortly before the 2008 election, 56 percent of Americans surveyed by the Gallup organization said that race relations would improve if Obama were elected. One day after his victory, 70 percent said race relations would improve and only 10 percent predicted they would get worse.

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By July 2009, the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested for yelling at a white police officer who questioned whether Gates had broken into his own home. Asked to comment, Obama said he didn’t know all the facts, but Gates was a personal friend and the officer had acted “stupidly.”

The uproar was immediate. Obama acknowledged afterward, “I could’ve calibrated those words differently.”

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As Obama dealt with fallout from the Gates affair during the summer of 2009, the tea party coalesced out of opposition to Obama’s stimulus and health care proposals. The vast majority of tea partyers were white. A small number of them displayed racist signs or were connected to white supremacist groups, prompting the question: Are Obama’s opponents motivated by dislike of the president’s policies, his race—or both?

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The president has discussed race in occasional speeches to groups such as the National Urban League or the National Council of La Raza, and in interviews with Hispanic and African-American media outlets. But he usually walks a careful line, allowing the nation to get used to the idea of a black president without doing things to make race seem a central aspect of his governance.

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In the summer of 2010, race and politics collided again when Arizona Republicans passed an immigration law that critics said would lead to racial profiling of Hispanics.

Lozano, the police sergeant, remembers that when Obama visited Arizona and met with the governor, who supported the law, she wagged an angry finger in the president’s face.

{snip}

Less than a year later, an August 2011 Gallup poll showed a further decline in racial optimism: 35 percent said race relations had improved due to Obama’s election, 41 percent said no change, and 23 percent said things were worse.

Around this time, some African-American lawmakers and pundits openly complained about the president’s refusal to specifically target any programs at high black unemployment. {snip}

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Then came this February’s killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is from Peru. {snip}

This time, when asked about the case, Obama delivered a carefully calibrated message. He said all the facts were not known, the legal system should take its course—and that “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”

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This April, in a poll by the National Journal and the University of Phoenix, 33 percent felt race relations were getting better, 23 percent said they were getting worse, and 42 percent said they were staying about the same.

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Recently, Obama was asked in a Rolling Stone magazine interview if race relations were any different than when he took office.

“I never bought into the notion,” Obama said, “that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a postracial period.”

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