The expectation that Barack Obama would reshape American race relations for the better were perhaps never higher than in March of 2008 when, as a candidate, Obama delivered his much-anticipated speech on race.
In that speech, he cast himself as a centrist on the issue of race, decried the casual prejudice of an earlier generation, denounced the bigoted aspects of American history, and expressed hope that the future of race relations in the United States would be bright. A review of the speech from some historical remove must concede that Obama did not, in fact, say all that much. It was an oration full of lofty rhetoric, and much of it was pleasing at the time. The effusive praise that the speech received in the press, however, was artificial and fabricated by a media culture that wanted the address to mean more than it did.
It is forgotten that this speech was delivered in response to the discovery of inflammatory remarks made by Obama’s long-time pastor Jerimiah Wright. The president might have hoped that he could have ignored race in the 2008 campaign, save for occasionally acknowledging his supposed ability to transcend race. In the minds of millions, Obama did rise above the thorny issue of racial tensions, and many justifiably believed what they read in the press. Maybe the future president could expunge what Obama called the “original sin of slavery?”
“Both blacks and whites carry enormous expectations for Mr. Obama,” The Wall Street Journal reported in the wake of the president’s election. “A post-election Gallup poll found that 70% of voters think race relations will improve with his election, compared with 56% who thought so five months ago.”
“Many blacks believe Mr. Obama will not only change the way whites see blacks but also the way blacks see themselves — that blacks will shed the stigma of inferiority that has haunted them since slavery, that Mr. Obama will give inner-city black kids new hope and blacks everywhere more opportunity,” the report continued.
These words and the failed promise they now represent are today heartrendingly tragic. Obama might be due some measure of sympathy for failing to live up to the impossible expectations imposed on him by the media, but he did not do anything to dispel the notion that he could serve as a savior who would offer the country absolution for its racial transgressions.
By 2009, faith in Obama’s ability to lead the country toward harmonious and neighborly relations across racial boundaries was ebbing. “Currently, 41% of Americans believe race relations have gotten better since Obama’s win; another 35% think they have not changed, while 22% say they have gotten worse,” Gallup reported in the autumn of 2009. “Last November, 70% thought race relations would improve as a result of the landmark outcome.”
“Fifty-three percent of blacks and 39% of whites think relations have improved overall, but only 11% of blacks and 7% of whites think they have improved a lot,” the poll read.
Today, Obama is a lame duck, and his administration is seen as no more post-racial than any of his predecessors.
“Assessments on how President Obama, the first African-American elected to the White House, is handling race relations have soured a bit,” a USA Today survey released on Tuesday revealed. “In a poll in August, before the two police incidents, Americans approved of how he was doing on race issues, 48%-42%. Now his disapproval rating on that issue has jumped by 10 points, to 50% disapprove, 40% approve.”
“Obama’s approval on handling race relations had dropped among whites to 33% from 42%. It also has dropped by double digits among blacks, although the small sample sizes make it hard to be precise,” the report continued.
It is strange that USA Today’s editors would decline to provide Obama’s approval rating on race among African-American respondents even despite the small sample size (a feature of all polling subgroups). USA Today’s Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page had no such qualms. “33% of whites, 57% of blacks now approve of Obama’s handling of race relations,” she wrote on Twitter.
Obama long ago gave up trying to play the role of racial healer. The low marks he is receiving from voters has much to do with the heightened racial tensions arising from events that merely occurred under his watch; the trial of George Zimmerman, and the riots and protests which followed non-indictments in two cases in which unarmed black men were killed by police.
But Obama is not blameless for the present state of racial tensions. When it served his campaign, his political operatives incubated a toxic form of victimhood in 2012. The president did nothing to tamp down poisonous concept of coded racism, a practice in which liberals parse ordinary comments with the aim of divining latent racism. The willow witching of prejudice from everyday occurrences and statements became a favored pastime for Obama supporters during his campaign, and it was irresponsible to allow this rampant practice to continue. But the Obama campaign did nothing to stop it.
As recently as the spring, Obama’s U.S. Attorney General implied before an audience of Al Sharpton supporters that both he and the president are subject to racially motivated opposition from the Republican members of the Congress of the United States. When it suits them, the administration is perfectly happy to indulge in a little agitation of their own on matters relating to race. As such, they deserve quite a bit of the blame for the present lamentable state of affairs.
When it matters, and when racial violence appears imminent, Obama often adopts the right tone. But all the tone in the world cannot account for the administration’s exploitation of racial tensions when it suited their interests. They deserve the public’s indifference and the rebuke of historians who appraise this woeful period of American history honestly.