Yesterday one of our posters posted a poll from Rasmussen Reports from last September that found that “Only 20% of Likely U.S. Voters believe President Obama has brought Americans of different races closer together.” A Google search reveals that, while the numbers and the polling question vary, the numbers have been relatively stable over the course of the last four years.
A New York Times article from last July found that 60 percent of the voters “think race relations are generally bad, and that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse.” Only 15 percent said race relations had improved.
There are those who want to push this problem onto President Obama himself – and, while I get that, I think they are wrong. Up until the last few years, I have not been much of a fan of the President, but in the last few years, overall my impression has improved, particularly on race issues.
For me a key moment came in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing, when President Obama was able to articulate to the entire country what it was like to be a black man in America. He pointed out, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” He was also able to articulate what it was like to be racially profiled, to be treated with suspicion due to the color of his skin.
My view is that President Obama isn’t causing the divide, but, rather, he’s reflecting the divide. For most black people, the string of highly publicized incidents of police officers killing unarmed black men is not a novel revelation, but rather a “welcome to my world” moment, where white America is being consistently invited into a world that they do not experience, absent these news reports.
On July 1, ironically before the recent incidents, CNN had a story “What black America won’t miss about Obama.” The take away message was, “I didn’t know how racist America was until it elected its first black president.”
Writes CNN, Linnyette Richardson-Hall, an African-American event planner, “has restrained herself more than she ever expected in the past eight years. She fumed when she saw a poster of Obama dressed as an African witch doctor, online images of First Lady Michelle Obama depicted as a monkey, and racist Facebook comments by white people she thought she knew.”
Bottom line: “Some say they’ve never felt so much pessimism about white America, such hopelessness.” CNN adds, “It’s not that black people aren’t proud of Obama or his family. His approval rating among blacks has been astronomically high throughout his presidency. But that pride has been accompanied by pain.”
The take away for me here is that, for white America, they are being forced to confront the notion that maybe all wasn’t as well with black America as they thought in 2007, and black America is being forced to confront the fact that there is a lot more racism in this country than they wanted to believe in 2007.
Part of what is missing here is an appreciation from history that this really isn’t new. This takes me back to the presentation by Melissa Harris-Perry in San Francisco back in May. There was, of course, the haunting image of people casually gathered around the tree with two dead black men hanging from it, but there was also her modern narrative.
There was the treatment of New Orleans post-Katrina, and the horrific treatment of the displaced, and also the total breakdown of the justice system there. There was the 2006 Jena Six incident.
Some of the biggest challenges to racial profiling – both the New Jersey and California cases – occurred before Barack Obama became President.
The bottom line, I think, is that racial incidents did not begin when Obama became President, they continued. What changed is that people pushed back.
For Melissa Harris-Perry, the incident where Henry “Skip” Gates was arrested in front of his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after he couldn’t find his keys was a message to black America that things hadn’t changed.
“He thinks the world has changed,” she explained. “(But) nothing had changed. This ends up being the whole thing and we sort of miss it because – oh, the President waded in on race and so should he.” She said, “The whole rest of it is whether or not these black men and these black women who just elected this black man president, changed a damn thing in this country. Whether or not they are actually citizens. Whether or not they can actually stand there to the police, ‘oh no you didn’t.’ Or whether or not they are going to have to continue to stand on their knees and crawl and defer.”
Ms. Harris-Perry’s narrative was that black people, in essence, had thought that Barack Obama being elected as President meant that things had changed and that Skip Gates’ treatment in 2009 was a reminder that it hadn’t.
However, the reaction was to push for more change. This is similar to what happened after World War II – black Americans had fought the Nazis and Japanese and came home as heroes to find that they were second class citizens upon their return and they weren’t willing to take that.
The situation at home hadn’t gotten worse, but the expectations had increased. Many scholars believe that revolutions and social movements happen not when things are at their lowest level, but rather when reality fails to meet expectations. This is known as the rising expectations thesis for revolution, and some of what is happening is the result of that.
Where I give Barack Obama a lot of credit here is that he is not being silent on this issue. The speech he gave on Thursday may be long-overshadowed by the tragedy that night in Dallas, but it continued to articulate the frustration of the black community over their treatment by police.
The report out of Chicago was quite damning, because it rang true – a common thread in all of these shootings – whether justified, legal, or illegal – is the lack of apparent sanctity for black human lives. Different approaches by the police could have preserved their safety while handling the situation in a way that preserved life, or at least gave the individual a better chance to survive the encounter.
To their credit, most police departments understand changes are needed and have been implementing them – whether it be simple use of body-worn cameras or PERF (Police Executive Research Forum)-recommended changes to use of force.
I see no way to confront these problems without cracking a few eggs, and therefore I am less troubled that people see a decline in race relations. I believe that race relations were never really as good as we wanted to believe they were, and this is a better reflection of the true reality we face.
—David M. Greenwald reporting