After Two Terms of Obama, a Post-Racial America is Still Elusive

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on May 21, 2015. Bernd Debusmann writes that 70 percent of Americans thought race relations would improve under Obama. They did not. Jonathan Ernst/reuters

This article first appeared in the Chatham House magazine The World Today.

When Barack Obama became America's first black president, optimistic pundits pondered the prospect of a "post-racial" society—color-blind, egalitarian and free of racial prejudice.

A poll taken a few days after he won elections in November 2008 found that 70 percent of Americans thought race relations would improve under his presidency. By most measures, they did not.

The notion that the United States was moving toward a "post-racial" state has been laid to rest by a string of mass protests and riots triggered by the killing of black men by white police officers and, in July, the retaliatory killing of five white policemen by a black army veteran in Dallas.

Only 12 days later, a black ex-Marine murdered three policemen in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He left a note saying the shootings were aimed at forcing "substantial change in America's police forces."

Surveys after the mass killings showed that six out of 10 Americans thought race relations were getting worse.

As Obama winds up his final weeks in the White House, racial tension in America is running so high it has prompted comparisons with the turbulent 1960s, an era marked by race riots and clashes between civil rights activists and white defenders of segregation. In 1967, a presidential commission came to the gloomy conclusion that "our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."

In May this year, four decades later, a statistics-laden report by America's oldest black pressure group, the National Urban League, echoed such pessimistic language. "The historic Obama presidency has not been a panacea for America's long-standing race problem," Marc Morial, the league's president, wrote in the introduction to the report, "State of Black America." "Its findings tell an all too familiar story of persistent racial disparities."

They include black unemployment roughly twice that for white Americans; income 40 percent lower, on average; and home ownership, 42 percent compared with 72 percent for white Americans.

The black poverty rate is twice as high as that of whites. By far the widest gap is in household wealth: $144,000 for whites, $11,000 for African-Americans, the group hit hardest by the 2007-09 recession.

Parallels with the struggles of the civil rights movement ignore advances that would have been considered unthinkable half a century ago. Not even the most optimistic civil rights campaigner in the days of Martin Luther King Jr. could have imagined that a black man would be elected president not once but twice.

How much difference that black man made for race relations will remain a matter of dispute long after he is gone. What is not in doubt is that the most contentious issue in the latest chapter of America's long-running debate over race is a criminal justice system African-Americans say is rigged against them, and the harsh treatment of African-Americans at the hands of police.

Thanks to the ubiquitous use of smartphones, incidents of police brutality that in the past might have gone largely unnoticed or been disputed are now documented by witnesses in shockingly graphic form.

One of the most searing scenes was streamed live on Facebook. It showed a black man, Philando Castile, slumped in his car and moaning in pain as he bleeds to death from gunshot wounds on July 6. Narrating as she records the harrowing footage, his girlfriend says the police officer who shot him four times had opened fire as Castile reached for his ID at a traffic stop in a small town in Minnesota.

Two days earlier, two white policemen responded to a call that a black man, Alton Sterling, had wielded a gun as he was selling CDs outside a supermarket. They wrestled him to the pavement and pinned him down. Cellphone video shot by bystanders showed one of the officers shooting him four times, at point-blank range.

Obama, who was on a visit to Warsaw, took to Facebook to comment: "These fatal shootings are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve."

Two more police shootings in September, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Charlotte, North Carolina, led to widespread protests, a curfew and the mobilization of the National Guard.

Oddly, in a country as data-obsessed as the United States, the government does not keep a comprehensive national record on the number of people killed by police. James Comey, director of the FBI, has described the information void as embarrassing.

At a congressional hearing last year, he complained that "people have data about who went to a movie last weekend, or how many books were sold, or how many cases of the flu walked into an emergency room. And I cannot tell you how many people were shot by police in the United States last month, last year or anything about the demographics. And that's a very bad place to be."

No change is in sight. The main obstacle to a reliable official database is the profusion of police forces: There are close to 18,000 federal, state, local and city departments, all with their own rules. In comparison, Germany has one federal police force plus one police department for each of the 16 states. Britain has roughly 50 separate police forces.

The most detailed data collection on the use of lethal force by police comes from initiatives run by two newspapers, the Washington Post's Fatal Force project and the Guardian's The Counted. According to the Post, police shoot more white people, but African-Americans are shot at 2.5 times the rate of whites as a proportion of the population. Is that evidence of institutional bias in the country's predominantly white police forces?

Yes, say most African-Americans, according to polls. Six out of 10 support Black Lives Matter, the grassroots protest movement that grew from the 2013 killing of an unarmed black teenager in Florida and morphed from a hashtag used by a relatively small circle of black activists into a national phenomenon.

The transformation highlighted the power of online activism: Black Lives Matter became instrumental in organizing mass demonstrations demanding police reforms and more accountability.

No is the answer if you ask police officials. No is also the answer from the political right: African-Americans proportionally commit more crimes and therefore have more confrontations with law enforcement.

That argument is backed by an oft-cited statistic: African-Americans make up around 12 percent of the population but account for about 50 percent of murders. In the first eight months of this year, according to The Counted, police killed 730 suspects, an average of three a day. No other Western country comes even close.

Why? Part of the explanation is police training in a country that has more guns in private hands than any other.

"In most police shootings, officers don't shoot out of anger or frustration or hatred. They shoot because they are afraid," Seth Stoughton, a law professor and former policeman wrote in an essay after the anti-police riots that shook Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. "And they are afraid because they are constantly barraged with the [training] message that they should be afraid that their survival depends on it."

American juries tend to sympathize with police officers who argue that they acted because they felt threatened. Convictions in police shooting trials are relatively rare.

Which helps us understand what is said to be a guiding principle for many in U.S. law enforcement: "Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six," the standard number of pallbearers at police funerals.

Bernd Debusmann is a former Reuters news editor and columnist.