ABOVE PHOTO: President Barack Obama signs the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans Executive Order in the Oval Office, July 26, 2012. Standing behind the President, from left, are: Patricia Coulter, CEO National Urban League of Philadelphia; Rep. Danny Davis, D- Ill.; Reverend Al Sharpton; Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, President of University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Benjamin Jealous, President of the NAACP; Ingrid Saunders- Jones, Chair of the National Council of Negro Women; Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa.; Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of DC Public Schools; and Michael Lomax, President of the United Negro College Fund.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
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.
As the nation moves toward the multiracial future heralded by this son of an African father and white mother, the events of Obama’s first term, and what people make of them, help trace the racial arc of his presidency.
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.
Just weeks after taking office, Obama said, “There was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination.”
Then he joked, “But that lasted about a day.”
Or, rather, three months.
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.”
Ed Cattaneo, a retired computer training manager from Cape May, N.J., points to that episode as evidence of how Obama has hurt race relations.
PHOTO: In this file photo taken by a neighbor July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr. center, the director of Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, is arrested at his home in Cambridge, Mass.
(AP Photo/Demotix Images, B. Carter, File)
“He’s made them terrible,” says Cattaneo, who is white. He also sees Obama as siding against white people through actions such as his Justice Department’s decision to drop voter intimidation charges against New Black Panthers and in a program to turn out the black vote called “African-Americans for Obama.”
Larry Sharkey, also white, draws different conclusions from the past four years.
“Attitudes are much better,” Sharkey says as he slices raw meat in a Philadelphia butcher shop. He remembers welcoming a black family that moved next door to him 20 years ago in Claymont, Del. A white neighbor advised him not to associate with the new arrivals, warning, “Your property values are going to go down.”
That kind of thing would never happen today, Sharkey says.
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?
As that debate grew, Obama retreated to the race-neutral stance that has been a hallmark of his career. An October 2009 Gallup poll showed a large drop in racial optimism since the election, with 41 percent of respondents saying that race relations had improved under Obama. Thirty-five percent said there was no change and 22 percent said race relations were worse.
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.
“There is a totally different psychological frame of reference that this country has never had,” says William Smith, executive director of the National Center for Race Amity at Wheelock College.
He cites evidence of progress from the mindset of children in his programs to new history curriculums in Deep South schools.
“To me, that’s a quantum leap,” Smith says.
Douglass, a real estate agent from Columbus, Ga., says white people seem less surprised to see him with his wife and daughter in places such as an art museum or a foreign language school.
“I think white people deal with me and my family differently since an African-American man is leader of the free world and a nuclear black family lives in the White House,” he says.
But Steven Chen, an Asian-American graduate student in Philadelphia, points to racial rhetoric he has heard directed toward Obama, in person and online, as proof that race relations have deteriorated.
He also has observed a more visible sign of division: fewer Obama T-shirts.
“When he was elected, it was an American thing. People of all races wore them,” says Chen. “Today it’s a distinctly black phenomenon.”
Ray, a graduate school administrator from Chicago, is uncertain whether race relations have remained the same or gotten worse.
It’s good that people are talking about race more, she says, “but I know quite a few people who are sick of those discussions and blame him for all of it.”
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.
“That was ugly, I’ve never seen anything like that,” says Lozano, who also is vice president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. “There’s no way that would have ever happened to a white president.”
By the fall of 2010, Republicans had triumphed in the midterm elections and made history by electing Hispanic and Indian-American governors in New Mexico, South Carolina, and Nevada. Two black Republicans also went to Congress, from South Carolina and Florida.
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. An interviewer from Black Entertainment Television asked Obama why not.
“That’s not how America works,” Obama replied.
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. Authorities initially declined to charge Zimmerman with a crime, causing a polarizing uproar.
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.”
The comment was factual, but it still strikes Cattaneo as a coded message to black people that Obama is on their side. “A lot of people I talk to can’t understand why a man who’s half-white and half-black is so anti-white.”
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.
So where are we now?
Four years after Obama smashed the nation’s highest racial barrier, and less than four months before America will decide whether he deserves a second term, the nation is uncertain about the meaning of a black president.
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.”