Is Obama Making It Worse?

By Samuels, Andrew Romano And Allison | Newsweek, April 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

Is Obama Making It Worse?

Samuels, Andrew Romano And Allison, Newsweek

Byline: Andrew Romano And Allison Samuels

An exclusive Newsweek poll reveals the persistenceof America's stark racial divide.

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. …

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