Last Updated:November 25 @ 11:18 am

Have race relations improved under Obama?

By Jesse Washington

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- 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.

"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."


Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press.

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  1. capricorn1Comment by capricorn1
    July 30, 2012 @ 9:01 am

    is this a trick question?

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    • SAnnComment by SAnn
      July 30, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

      It has to be as well as a joke!

      Obama has instigated this issue to a new high! It is on his agenda.

      Wonder why the black gangs are grouping as flash mobs running into stores stealing harassing employees and on the streets beating up whites and the ‘so called’ Justice Dept or the police in the areas or the city officials do not want to call it what it is racism against whites which this administration wanted.

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  2. cxComment by genesal
    July 30, 2012 @ 9:12 am

    They’re as good now as they were in the sixties.

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  3. nickster99Comment by nickster99
    July 30, 2012 @ 9:21 am

    Yes I believe we have regressed back to the 60′s as far as race relations. And we can all thank obummer and his administration. It is all part of his plan to dismantle the U. S. as we once knew it. God help us all if this abomination is re-elected!

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  4. agent007Comment by agent007
    July 30, 2012 @ 10:07 am

    I will keep it short: Every time this administration, especially President, DOJ, and campaign officials play the race card, race relations deteriorate. Because every time they themselves assume that there is a difference between the races, even while most regular Americans are trying to treat a human being regardless of their color the same, it is this administration which is stating that there is a difference.
    That is the most harmful thing to race relations and religious relations.
    Like in so many aspects, this administration is just divisive. It ‘rules’ and campaigns right now as well by the principle ‘divide and conquer’.

    Don’t fall for it America, please, let’s get rid of him and this divisive culture!

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  5. brightlightComment by brightlight
    July 30, 2012 @ 10:25 am

    We had entered into a postracial periood before Obama was elected and he knows it.Steven Chen the grad student in the article pointed out that when he was elected “it was an american thing” now it has deteriorated and right he is. Divide and conquer.
    When Obama was running for office The Boston Globe ran a story where David Axlerod stated he didn’t want Obama to appear to be too black when asked why Obama wasn’t visiting the south more often.He wanted him to be the man for all seasons was the implication. Should blacks in Boston have been offended? one would think so, but they were’nt.So the beat went on.
    Obama is responsible for the devisive nature of society brought about by his surrogates with the support of many black leaders who were on the verge of extinction because they had no further cause to engage in so much having been done for the black community.Discrimination in schools,the workplacehad virtually ended.Medical care improved,doors to professional careers became wide open in all fields.Absent the few neandrathals, the majority of Americans were getting along.Contrary to Obamas remarks the was a pride in America for what was going on but I might add it lasted a long time,many years infact. His comment is indicative of his stoking the racial fire for votes and his own power.

    Lazono, the police sergeant in Arizona is totally wrong.Had it been any white president doing what Obama had done, they would have had a finger in their face as well and probably more.Sergeant Lazano,President of the MASSACHUSSETS Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, who has nothing to do with,or concern about Arizona’s situation and not Knowing Gov. Brewer, is, in my estimation, an example of one of those racist surrogates doing Obamas bidding to justify his position with his membership.He is supposed to be fighting racism not fanning the flames.
    Obama is NOT the champion of the black community as most blacks would like to believe.Not wanting to appear to be too black remember.If his only answer for his refusal to engage in the black unemployment situation is “Thats how America works”It is because he and Axlerod don’t want to engage in an issue that they know he has no answers for, nor do they want to be involved in any long, protracted debates with the black community as to what to do and if they do anything will it be enough.This would be a huge consumption of time and energy which could negatively impact his re-election.

    Racism has gotten worse since he was elected.It is not what we wanted.He knows people are upset about illegal immigration but his measures to date to handle the problem have caused major divisions among all of us knwing this can only help him in the long run with the latino electorate.
    We need a change and I don’t care if he/she is black, white pink, green, yellow,brown or blue in the face for change,we just need him and his surrogates to be gone.

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    • nickster99Comment by nickster99
      July 30, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

      Dont forget! The blacks did not get obama elected! The independents did! There are not enough black and latino voters to re-elect him. He must have the independent vote! Look out for an October surprise to swing the independents back to his side. It is almost sure to happen. He needs them and he knows it!

      I believe that many of his supporters are so unhappy with, “the messiah” that they will stay away from the polls not wanting to vote for Romney. That is why they need dead people, dogs and cats! Remember their motto is: “by any means necessary”! We must encourage every conservative we know to get out and vote this November for Romney! God bless America!

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  6. guzoncaComment by guzonca
    July 30, 2012 @ 10:48 am

    QKarl Douglass, a black man, sees stereotypes easing. “White people deal with me and my family differently,” he says.

    Well, Karl: Cud it be that the white persons u deal w/, treat u the same as everyone else; but it is your black “brothers” who treat you special? Do you look at all thru race glasses & think of blacks
    as your brothers?

    As to ZIMMERMAN:

    Let me correct the ethnicity. Zim’s mother is Afro-peruvian!

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  7. JDZComment by JDZ
    July 30, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    Many thought that the election of a Black President would finally put the issues associated with race behinds us, but unfortunately, it has gotten worse in both the African American community and to a lesser extent, the Hispanic community. Race is being used more in this election cycle then at any other election since the 1960′s.

    When the African American voters basically all (over 90%) vote for the Black candidate(s) is there any doubt that it is race driven? When the majority of high paid political appointees in the senior positions in the administration are African Americans it has to be be race based. When elected Black officals actually make public statements to the effect that the criticisms of the President are primarily race based, doesn’t that suggest that race is still an issue. When a Black Attorney General openly shows racial bias in actions involving the NBP (New Black Panthers) and overtly changes internal policies to avoid prosecution of voting intimidation or issues if the perpetrator is a “person of color”, doesn’t that show racial bias. When the administration changes policies, like those associated with reparations payouts to Black farmers in the South, doesn’t that bring race into the equation again. ETC.

    Instead of putting race behind us as an issue, this administration has made it more of an issue and continues to use it to their advantage, as long as it works for them politically. For example, it is the excuse by prominent Black politicians for the mounting criticism of the poor performance of the Obama administration.

    No, this President has actually been used by the progressive/socialist hacks to leverage their agenda and using the race card has become more of a normal part of their strategy then ever before.

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  8. guzoncaComment by guzonca
    July 30, 2012 @ 10:53 am

    The (misnomer) “race” ~history:
    1) segregation 100 years,
    2) MLK integration 1 year ~1970 (as an ideal),
    3) Multi-culturalism (forget integration)! 40 years!

    It seems that Obama has chosen not to bring us
    all together with a push for to forget multiculturalism & go back to integration, color-blind-ism.

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  9. commonsense4uComment by commonsense4u
    July 30, 2012 @ 10:57 am



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  10. CharlieComment by vietnamvet
    July 30, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

    When Obama was elected, many blacks thought that meant that they would become the dominant force in America. That was illustrated in comments like the one by the NBPP thug at the polls saying that we (whites) would have to listen to the man, now.

    Since that time, there has been an increasing phenomenon of black ‘flashgangs’ attacking unsuspecting whites in public venues while crowds of black bystanders cheer them on.

    The media don’t report these attacks, so little is known about them … and when one IS reported in the news the perpetrators are termed ‘teenagers’. Their race is carefully hidden.

    Race relations are deteriorating under Obama, and at some point it will flare up into an undeniable ‘news story’.

    Here is some background …

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    • nickster99Comment by nickster99
      July 30, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

      It happens here in Chicago daily. Yesterday a group of thugs entered a downtown store and made off with $3,000.00 worth of clothing. AND THEY WERE ALL BLACK!

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  11. Col.GrampawComment by Col.Grampaw
    July 30, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

    nickster99, please keep us posted on the news coverage. Anyone taking bets that it’ll make national news?

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    • CharieComment by Charie
      July 31, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

      Milwaukee has had several incidents of black gangs running amok and attacking white people because they were white. Practically nothing is done as punishment so it will only escalate.

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  12. lizzietookanaxeComment by lizzietookanaxe
    July 30, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    Hmmmmmm I guess Rahm is right,Chick-Fil-A most certainly does not represent Chicago values.

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  13. CharieComment by Charie
    July 31, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

    I do not believe the percentages in this article. I believe a whole lot more people believe racial relations are worse now than when Obama took office. There should have been more first person stories from the other side. Everyone seemed to look at the problem from only one perspective. Was the question asked as to how white people were being treated by black people?

    I’m sure the percentages would totally turn around were that question asked.

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