When President Obama follows in Martin Luther King Jr.’s footsteps on Wednesday with an address at the Lincoln Memorial, he will face a nation where race remains the great divide.
Black lawmakers say the election of the nation’s first African-America president has not been a salve for racial tensions, a view that the public has also voiced in recent polling.
While Democratic lawmakers place the lion’s share of the blame on Republicans for the state of affairs, they betray disappointment that more progress has not been made since the civil rights movement won its biggest victories.
Asked whether the overall trajectory of race relations has been positive or negative in recent years, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) paused for a moment.
“Right after the election of the president, I would have thought it was going in a positive direction, but I am not so sure anymore,” she said.
“I think we have lost ground as it relates to our tolerance of people who are different or people who we believe have not worked hard enough. You hear the language all the time on talk radio—the buzzwords, often primarily directed at low-income people and communities of color.”
Fudge’s party colleague and fellow CBC member Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.) suggested that the presence of the first black president has sparked more open conversation about racial issues. This, she suggested, could be seen as a positive development overall, yet one that has also led to bruised feelings.
In the past, “so much was swept under the rug,” Lee said. “The country, for whatever reason, has not confronted race in the way that it should. With stop-and-frisk and all the issues around income inequality, you really have to wonder [how much things have improved.] But I think a lot of it is to do with the idea that race has been an issue that we can talk about.”
Large swathes of the general public also hold a nuanced view of the country’s progress, according to a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center.
While 45 percent of Americans said they think the United States has made a lot of progress toward realizing King’s dream of racial equality, 36 percent were more circumspect, saying only “some” progress has been made. Fifteen percent said that the advancements had either been small or nonexistent.
Forty-nine percent of Americans believe there is a long way to go before something akin to a color-blind society can be realized.
Many Democrats insist that the ferocious opposition to Obama has a racial component.
“How do you overcome it?” Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a founding member of the CBC said, referring to racial inequalities. “We certainly haven’t done it with an African-American president.
“I saw the people who scream and shout about ObamaCare. I saw the hatred that was in people’s eyes. People are not being honest with themselves if they don’t realize that the roots of racism go deep, that we still have not been able to cut that cancer out of the side of America.”
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) is the first black woman to hold a congressional seat in her native state. Part of a younger generation of black lawmakers, she was born 16 months after the March on Washington took place.
“My dad grew up in Selma, but our experiences are as different as night and day,” she said. “I can’t imagine my dad drinking from colored-only water fountains. But it happened.”
Sewell emphasizes the economic inequalities, racial and otherwise, that continue to bedevil the nation. But she insisted that Obama’s tenure has pushed the United States at least somewhat closer to King’s dream.
“I think his very presence has made a big difference,” she said. “My little nephew wants to be a CEO or the president—and there is Barack Obama running the United States of America. That changes the psyche, and the willingness of other generations to see beyond race.”