Obama: Race relations are getting better, not worse

As Barack Obama prepares to exit the White House, he’s still keeping tabs on his previous hometown on Chicago — where the news turned grotesque this past week. The CBS affiliate challenged his record on race relations as president, as Jay Levine asked him how disappointed he was that race relations had gotten worse during his eight-year term. Obama objected to that characterization, telling Levine that race relations are getting better despite the “despicable … hate crime” perpetrated by four African-American teens on a mentally disabled white classmate streamed on Facebook Live. Technology just makes it look worse than it is, Obama says:

The torture of a teenager streamed live on Facebook is “despicable” but not a sign of worsening racial tensions, President Obama said Thursday in an interview with CBS 2 Special Contributor Jay Levine.

In a one-on-one conversation at the White House as Obama winds down his term in office, the president was asked about the state of race relations in America. …

“The good news is that the next generation that’s coming behind us … have smarter, better, more thoughtful attitudes about race.

“I think the overall trajectory of race relations in this country is actually very positive. It doesn’t mean that all racial problems have gone away. It means that we have the capacity to get better.”

Obama’s description of the attack as a “hate crime” offered a surprising change of pace from yesterday’s dodge by Josh Earnest on that point. Earnest called it an “outrage” and noted the level of “depravity” involved, but emphasized the “need to defer to local law enforcement.” When asked again whether it amounted to a hate crime, Earnest replied that it was “too early to tell”:

Obama appears to have made his comments after the quartet was charged by prosecutors with hate crimes — and that deference is appropriate for a president. At least, it is to the extent we have “hate crimes” as a prosecutable category, a policy which is both redundant and a magnet for all sorts of mischief and distraction from the rule of law. Just the mere existence of the category has us discussing a prosecutorial decision that has little objectivity rather than the objective truth of the kidnapping and torture video-streamed by the suspects as a form of point-scoring.

Obama’s other point seems less defensible. There is a legitimate argument that the politics of race might have been stuck in amber in the decade or so prior to Obama’s term as president, but it’s difficult to explain how anything really improved in that arena since then. In the past couple of years we’ve had riots touched off by incidents involving government and law enforcement, even in Baltimore where the city government and police force are run by African-Americans. It even has had its own form of “fake news” in “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” an utterly false narrative that emerged from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. We’ve replaced silence with shouting and violence, and that’s not just due to technology.

On this issue, we will have to wait for the long arc of history to judge progress. At this point on the arc, though, it looks worse than it has in quite some time, and it’s not getting much better this week.