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In Obama era, have race relations improved?
“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.”
By Tom Fitton
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