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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."


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4 thoughts on “In Obama Era, Have Race Relations Improved?

  1. msfineonenhere on said:

    racisum will never go away it has been here since time began one race against another race and within their own race histroy states that when the european country first went to africa and saw that some of the african tribes had taken captured slaves from tribes they had fought against so the new vistors to africa said to them can we trade our beans coffee rice etc etc etc for some of your slaves and we said yes and that is how our slavery first started but it has been going on even before then all over the world now we rob and kill each other each day in our own race without a second thought and other races do the same in their own race i do not believe personally that mankind will ever stop and do the rodney king saying “can we just all get along” r.i.p. my brother they just do not listen

  2. cm20 on said:

    Do you think that European people have an agenda to insure the survival of their race? It seems that in the time of The Obama era European countries including America are in economic turmoil even close to economic collapse. America’s vital signs are not good and it seems that the congress, scholars and the so called economist have lost the ability to guide her out of the problems her policies and way of life has created. As you know throughout history in times of depression and economic down slides racism rears its ugly head just ask the Jewish people of Germany. Germany at the time was in great economic despair which was the underline enabler of what happened. So I don’t think now is the time to judge race relations all we have to know is racism is still to the point that it has a profound effect on the black economic community. I asked a question in the beginning of this post do you think European people have an agenda to insure the survival of their race through this economic down spiral? Now I ask this question do you think Africans and Americans of African descent have an agenda to insure their survival through this economic down fall? Or do they just think the European agenda includes them. It’s past time that blacks stop wondering how European people feel about them we are a nation within a nation able to generate our own economic stability. But if you really want to know how white people feel, look at a map of America in 1861 and look at the slave driven confederate states. Then look at a map of America now in 2012 and look at the republican red states. The map looks just about the same. Our cowardly black leaders and scholars are holding on to their 400 year old enemy as though he has all of a sudden become their friends. Frederick Douglass said: “A race of people can’t be truly free when their freedom and economic stability is based on the thoughts, actions and feelings of another race”. Obama in the White house is a good thing and I love that brother with all my heart, but I wonder sometimes what was behind it. It seems almost impossible for most blacks in America to rap their minds around some of the things that have happened in America and I think thats because it’s impossible for us to think like Satan. Race Survival it’s not a joke and with all that said European people manufacture money. WHAT?

  3. DUKODY1 on said:

    Blacks were invisible to White folks and now invisible to their FBPOTUS Obama. One of the best this nation has ever had, and the worst Black Americans ever had. The Blacks that are gaining power are the same Black cowards that are afraid to challenge Obama. Obama was elected by White folks that believed he would change the Washington political way of doing business. Skin color and race relations were not their focus, replacing Bush devastation was. With weak Obama as the leader of the free world, White folks are more confident as ever. Blacks still get no respect from Whites because they see how Obama ignores Blacks. Blacks are last in Obama’s circle. Obama wants Blacks to have his back, while White folks have his front with all smiles and hugging. Face it Black folks, Obama is embarrass and can’t relate to poor and middle class Blacks. All he can offer is the same handouts that the White man has shamefully done. Obama has done no more than any other POTUS because He thinks the same way as all the others. The same tone as the White man has for poor and middle class Blacks, LAZY and Want FREE Handouts. Worst President for Blacks EVER. Black folks DON’T be Obama’s BEHIND. Remember, White folks are watching,

  4. msveenie on said:

    The operative phrase is “blacks gaining power”. When we had little wealth and no political clout we were not a threat to the power structure. We were as Ralph Ellison stated, invisible to white Americans. We did not penetrate their sphere odf exixtence. But with Barack serving as president (as one of the best this nation ever had) whites can’t ignore reality. It’s right in their faces.

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