By Marcus Baldori
Associate Editor, Vol. 22
In 2008, it was an open question of how race relations would unfold under America’s first Black president. Eight years later, polling shows that 54% of Americans think race relations between Whites and Blacks have gotten worse; it is hard to recall the sense of optimism of when Obama stepped into office. In part due to his status as an African American, and in part due to the economic and social events that have created mounting racial tensions during his presidency, it is intuitive that the subject of race relations will be one of the most talked about when it comes to Obama’s legacy. It seems that the media as well as the public have been quick to identify the Obama years as either unproductive or harmful to race relations.
Polls conducted in 2016 show a significant downward trend in perception of race relations from polls taken in 2009. The New York Times/ CBS News Poll and The Washington Post-ABC News Poll reached similar results; when people were asked what they thought of race relations between Whites and Blacks generally, six out of ten Americans said relations were bad. This reflected a shift from over 60% thinking race relations were generally good in 2008 to below 35% in 2016. Affirming the sentiment implied by this data, a recent CNN poll (asking “do you think race relations between blacks and whites in the U.S. have gotten better, gotten worse, or stayed the same since Obama became president”) shows that 54% of Americans think that race relations have gotten worse since Obama became president. The Pew Research Center poll directed its study at whether people thought Obama directly made race relations worse, and indicates that more than half of adults think that Obama either had no impact on race relations or made them worse. This sentiment is a classic correlation versus causation misunderstanding.
Unsurprisingly, these polls have been used by journalists and researchers to understand Obama’s impact on race relations. More often, they have been used by (mostly) conservative advocates as key evidence that Obama, himself, caused this perceived decline in race relations. A quick sampling of article titles include ‘Why Race Relations Have Gotten Worse Under Barack Obama,’ ‘60% Say Race Relations Have Gotten Worse Since Obama’s Election,’ and ‘Racial relations reach all-time low under Obama: poll.’
Attack articles argue that Obama has unnecessarily enflamed race relations by prematurely highlighting and characterizing police conduct as discriminatory in situations where ultimately the police were not prosecuted (Michael Brown; Trayvon Martin). In other words, the argument is that he incorrectly victimizes Blacks, and doesn’t address the greater problem of Black on Black violence.
The exact opposite argument has been used by Democrats who have faulted Obama for not siding more with Black activist groups—there was an initial backlash because he didn’t use the words “police brutality” when talking about Ferguson. When it comes to deeply divisive scenarios, any statement would enflame one side or the other, and it seems like Obama’s best option has been to appear relatively neutral. In regard to Ferguson, Obama’s statement that “there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same” is undeniably true, and doesn’t undermine the concerns of Black voters.
Not only would Obama limit divisiveness surrounding hot-button racial events through restrained language, but he would later respond with backing narrowly tailored laws and programs to prevent similar events. The ‘Blue Alert’ law requires instant nationwide system for notifying police of threats (in response to the racially motivated 2015 shooting of two New York police officers). $23.2 million in grants were awarded for law enforcement agencies to purchase police body-worn cameras (in response to Michael Brown’s death in 2014).
On hot-button racial events, Obama had a limited ability to pacify one side without upsetting the other, and these events appeared with increasing frequency. A contributing factor is undoubtedly the increasing nation-wide exposure to racially charged situations through advancements in technology and social media. It seems possible that newly elevated race-related tension is the result of an abundance of new information and communication methods available to the public. Optimistically, this new information will lead to mobilization around nuanced issues like police education, police oversight agencies, state governance/funding in minority communities, gun control, harsh drug sentences, and others. The smartphone era simply coincided with Obama’s time in office, and it is entirely possible that the developments of high profile, racially divisive events have far more to do with the that than with Obama.
These high profile events have overshadowed Obama’s efforts to ease racial tensions through addressing unattended grievances and raising the quality of life of minorities. In 2010, for example, Obama oversaw a $1.2 billion settlement awarded to Black farmers based on discriminatory loan practices. In 2012, the Labor Department reformed the Fair Labor Standards Act to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to home care workers—a growing profession that is comprised of 56% minorities. Another measure in 2012 was Obama’s executive order to stop deporting certain illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children; although this was contested by Republicans, the general consensus was that these were not individuals that the immigration removal process was designed to target.
Race relations were undeniably tumultuous from 2008 to 2016; but as time allows for reflection, Obama’s approach should be regarded as prudent. He has limited further divisiveness by commenting little on hot-button media topics while keeping his eye on target when it comes to elevating the quality of life for minorities.