When President Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black president in 2008, it suggested a move toward a post-racial America, the kind of society that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned in his “I Have a Dream” speech a half-century before.
No doubt, the votes of a majority of U.S. voters for an African-American was a watershed of monumental proportion. But six years into the Age of Obama, relations between blacks and whites are arguably worse in communities across the nation.
As protesters take to the streets after a pair of grand juries decided not to charge white police officers for killing unarmed black men in Missouri and New York, it’s clear that America’s longstanding racial divide not only remains but has deepened.
“We are more racially fractured and fragmented,” said James Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
“It has exposed more wounds than it has healed,” he said of Obama’s election. “It has exposed how racist our society still is.”
Obama has pushed for a slew of policies to boost blacks, with some success: increasing access to health care, making college more affordable, and changing sentencing guidelines. And he launched My Brother’s Keeper, a program designed to empower young minority men.
Yet vast disparities between blacks and whites remain. Blacks earn less money, graduate from college at lower rates and are imprisoned at disproportionately higher rates than whites. The unemployment rate for blacks is more than double the national average, 11.1 percent, while it’s 4.9 percent for whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Improving African-Americans’ qualify of life may help empower them and narrow the quantifiable gap between black and white. But ultimately race relations come down to what’s in a person’s head. And even the first black president can’t change how people feel about each other.
“You have to separate steps that can be done that level the playing field and ensure justice from how people feel in their hearts,” senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett said in an interview. “We have been evolving for generations now. . . . That’s not something you can just simply change in six years, but we can certainly make progress and move in the right direction.”
A new McClatchy-Marist Poll being released Friday finds voters divided over whether Obama’s race helped or set back race relations. By 43 percent to 34 percent, voters think the fact that the country has an African-American president has helped rather than hurt.
Whites and Latinos think it’s helped, by percentages of 44-35 and 46-25, respectively. But African-Americans think it’s hurt race relations rather than helped, by 42 percent to 33 percent.
The number of people who think blacks and whites do not get along has increased throughout Obama’s presidency, from 19 percent in late 2009 to 28 percent in 2014, according to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center and USA Today.
In 2013, just before the 50th anniversary of King’s speech, fewer than half – 45 percent – of Americans said the country had made substantial progress toward racial equality. About the same share – 49 percent – said that “a lot more” remains to be done.
Shawn Alexander, a professor of African and African-American studies and director of Langston Hughes Center at the University of Kansas, said the nation’s systemic racial problem will not dissipate until Americans talk about race and change their policies to level the playing field.
“America is not honest about race,” he said. “We failed to confront race.”
Obama’s election brought race to the forefront. And some say it led Obama to face an increased number of death threats and less cooperation in Washington.
“I think racial issues have really gotten worse,” said Colette Flanagan, an African-American who founded the group Mothers Against Police Brutality after her 25-year-old son was killed last year by a white police officer in Dallas. A grand jury declined to indict the officer.
Still, Obama says Americans should not discount the progress that has been made.
“If you look at the history of race in America, it’s usually not a single moment when suddenly everything gets solved. It’s a process,” Obama said this week on the Spanish-language network Univision. “We have to recognize that issues of racial prejudice and discrimination, they’re embedded deeply in society, and they don’t transform overnight, but each successive generation, what we’ve seen in America is we’ve seen improvement.”
Obama rose to national prominence with a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in which he envisioned a post-racial America. “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America,” he said.
Obama’s election was a source of pride for many blacks, especially for older people who never thought they would see a president that looked like them in their lifetime. It remains a tremendous symbolic significance to many.
“It showed enormous progress in our country that he was able to be elected not once, but twice,” Jarrett said. “. . . But I think that he looks at it as a larger arc than just over his presidency and would certainly say we have made progress but we still have a ways to go.”
But Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, noted that while Obama may have carried the majority of white voters in some states, none were in the Deep South. An often underlooked deep geographical divide remains in the country, he said.
“From the very beginning many people misread the president’s election,” he said. “The white community is not of one mind. . . . It’s not that simple.”
Presidents often get blamed for the nation’s problems. But when it comes to race, Obama has faced more criticism than his predecessors from people who say that he should be contributing to a greater dialogue on race in America.
Obama’s rating for handling race relations has declined this year.
Voters by 47 percent to 44 percent disapprove of the way Obama’s handling race relations, according to the new McClatchy-Marist Poll being released Friday. In August, shortly after the shooting in Ferguson, a plurality approved of the way he was handling race, 48 percent to 42 percent, according to Pew.
Robert Doar, who studies how federal policies can provide opportunities for vulnerable Americans at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank, said that Obama’s record is disappointing, because poverty is up and median household income is down. He stressed, though, that Obama’s significance will eventually outweigh that.
“We’ve had some difficulties with his presidency . . . but in the long run of history, his election will be more positive than negative,” he said.
Obama reluctantly dives into the national debate over race, usually only after a high-profile incident, and he has not made it a central focus of his presidency.
In 2009, Obama admitted that he hadn’t helped calm a racially charged debate when he said police acted “stupidly” for arresting a prominent African-American professor in his own home and holding what later became known as a “beer summit” between the professor, the arresting police officer and the president at the White House.
In 2012, after black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was shot to death by a white neighbhorhood watch volunteer, Obama spoke in personal terms about race, saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
This year, Obama has spoken numerous times after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, but in much less personal terms. He held several meetings on the issue and unveiled a spending request, including $75 million, to buy 50,000 body-worn cameras for local law enforcement.
He told a group of young activists last week that change is “hard” and “incremental,” but that he was redoubling his efforts on the issue, according to a senior administration official who is knowledgeable about the meetings but not authorized to speak as a matter of White House practice. Obama told the activists about his own experiences with discrimination, when keys were tossed to him because someone thought he was a valet and when he was asked to bring tea to someone because someone thought he was a waiter.
“I don’t think he ever said that we have become race neutral as a society, but we certainly have made an enormous amount of progress,” Jarrett said. “If there are people who are frustrated with his efforts so far, he would encourage them to join that fight. It will be a lot easier to achieve that goal with the kind of support that we are seeing around the country.”