PHILADELPHIA - 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
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
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 that he didn't know all the facts but that 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
"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 meat in a
butcher shop in Philadelphia. 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.
TEA PARTY EMERGES
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