Once upon a time, millions of people seemed to believe that electing Barack Obama president would automatically improve race relations in America. Jason Wilhite, an African-American from Charleston, S.C., was one of them. “I did a jig around the house I was so happy,” Wilhite says. “I thought Americans really had made progress in how they viewed black people as a whole.” His assessment now? “Man, did I read that wrong.”
Wilhite isn’t alone. Nearly four years into the Age of Obama, many Americans are coming to the conclusion that choosing a black man as commander in chief has done little to speed up racial progress or soothe racial tensions. In fact, some even suspect that Obama’s presence in the Oval Office may be slowing us down—and pushing us farther apart.
A new Newsweek poll puts this remarkable shift in stark relief for the first time. Back in 2008, 52 percent of Americans told Pew Research Center that they expected race relations to get better as a result of Obama’s election; only 9 percent anticipated a decline. But today that 43-point gap has vanished. According to the Newsweek survey, only 32 percent of Americans now think that race relations have improved since the president’s inauguration; roughly the same number (30 percent) believe they have gotten worse. Factor in those who say nothing has changed and the result is staggering: nearly 60 percent of Americans are now convinced that race relations have either deteriorated or stagnated under Obama.
Whites are especially critical of Obama’s approach: a majority (51 percent) actually believe he’s been unhelpful in bridging the country’s racial divide. Even blacks have concluded, by a 20-point margin, that race relations have not improved on Obama’s watch.
The question now is why. It is no surprise that race still divides America; it has divided us since the first settlers landed on our shores. (Even in 1969, in the wake of landmark civil-rights legislation, 59 percent of blacks told Newsweek that the pace of change was too slow.) And it is no surprise that African-Americans are feeling particularly pessimistic after a recession that drove black unemployment as high as 16.7 percent. The surprise is that one of the most encouraging signs of racial progress in our nation’s history, the election of an African-American president, now seems to be deepening our divisions rather than diminishing them. But perhaps that shouldn’t be so shocking either. What the Newsweek poll reveals—and what a review of recent history reiterates—is that Obama didn’t create the misunderstandings and resentments that complicate a controversy like Trayvon Martin’s death. He’s just the spark that sets them off.
In other words, it’s not him. It’s us. Despite the powerful symbolism of Obama’s election, blacks and whites are still living in two different worlds.
At the heart of America’s persistent racial divide is a fundamental disagreement over the frequency and severity of discrimination against African-Americans. When asked, vast majorities—89 percent of blacks and 80 percent of whites—agree that racial stereotyping still occurs in America today. But ask how racial stereotyping actually affects people’s lives, and blacks and whites no longer see eye to eye. Seventy percent of whites, for example, think that blacks have an equal shot at affordable housing; only 35 percent of blacks say the same. Seventy percent of whites believe that the two races receive equal treatment in the job market; a mere 25 percent of blacks concur. And while more than 80 percent of white people say the cops and courts usually or always treat blacks the same as whites, that number doesn’t even clear 50 percent among African-Americans. It’s no wonder, then, that blacks are twice as likely as whites (82 percent versus 38 percent) to say that race played a role in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. They are simply more likely than whites to still see race as a factor in how people are treated, period.
The reason for this divide is simple but often overlooked: most blacks know how it feels to experience racism; most whites do not. According to the Newsweek poll, 74 percent of blacks have personally felt they were being discriminated against because of their race; only 31 percent of whites have ever felt the same way. Forty-five percent of blacks, meanwhile, sense that other people fear them some or all of the time; only 10 percent of whites can empathize. Blacks are four times more likely than whites to say they have been unfairly stopped by police, and twice as likely to say they have been insulted, threatened, or attacked because of their skin color. Of course you’re going to suspect that racism is making other people’s lives harder—that it got Trayvon Martin shot or skewed the job market—when it has so often had the same effect on you.
“I had no idea that what we’d fought for in the ’50s and ’60s would still need to be fought for today,” Rep. James Clyburn tells Newsweek. But this is the dilemma Obama inherited: a white America eager to be convinced that racism is a thing of the past and a black America still painfully aware that it is not.
So how is Obama’s presence in the Oval Office driving us farther apart? By pushing all of this racial misunderstanding out onto the political playing field, where it is amplified and distorted by the polarizing forces of partisanship.
Consider the events of March 23. Before that day the right and left seemed to agree that Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragedy and that political posturing was verboten. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) called police inaction “an outrage.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was “glad” the shooting was “being investigated.” National Review editor Rich Lowry went so far as to write an essay headlined “Al Sharpton Is Right.”
Then Obama decided to weigh in. “If I had a son,” he said, “he’d look like Trayvon.” According to a senior aide to the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama had “planned to say those words for days, and he knew the impact they’d have. He was really giving a wink and nod to black people that said, ‘I feel your pain.’ He can’t talk openly about race because it pisses too many people off.”
But even Obama’s wink-and-nod approach wasn’t subtle enough to forestall another flare-up. As soon as his Trayvon remarks hit the wires, conservatives pulled a 180, abandoning the muted comity of the past few weeks in favor of apoplectic outrage. Michelle Malkin quickly accused the president of “pour[ing] gas on the fire.” Rick Santorum said Obama was “seiz[ing] upon this horrific thing where families are suffering and inject[ing] ... divisive rhetoric.” Newt Gingrich asked whether Obama would be “OK” if “a white ... had been shot” because “it didn’t look like him.” And so on. According to the Newsweek poll, a majority of whites now disapprove of Obama’s handling of the Martin tragedy.
There may be no way out of this rut. Whenever a race controversy goes national, Obama seems to feel compelled to comment—which makes sense, because he is black. Whenever Obama comments on race, Republicans seem to feel compelled to object—which makes sense, because that’s how they react to everything he does. Liberals accuse conservatives of racism; conservatives accuse liberals of playing the race card. Everyone feels more divided than before.
And yet these frustrating feuds won’t last forever. In the long run, the mere fact of a President Obama—a brown face alongside all those chalky portraits in our history books—will begin to have its own effect. White children will look at black children differently. Black children will look at themselves differently. And that, one hopes, will be more than enough to make up for whatever growing pains we’re experiencing right now.