(MintPress) — “The fantasy was that electing a black president would end racism for good, and it was just that – a fantasy, of course,” Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) quarterly investigative journal Intelligence Report told MintPress.
While many Americans heralded the 2008 election of the first African-American as a victory for race relations in the country, four years later, the question of whether the country has truly moved into a post-racial era lingers on.
President Barack Obama himself, when asked by Rolling Stone magazine if he thought race relations were any different than when he took office, said, “I never bought into the notion, that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a post-racial period.”
“In some ways electing a black president has worsened race relations,” Potok said.
Lecia Brooks, Director of Outreach and the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center, says that since Obama’s election, “what has come out is more racial animus and latent racism, and I thought we were further along.”
Yet, as Americans continue to ponder the meaning of their first black president, and hate groups in the U.S. have grown to unprecedented numbers, studies continue to document mixed feelings on the progress of race relations in the U.S.
Hate crimes up in period of “historic backlash”
While hate crimes have increased in the years following Obama’s election, some say that there is strong evidence to suggest that despite the disturbing trend, Americans are moving in a positive direction in terms of race relations. Others aren’t so certain.
“For many extremists, President Obama is the new symbol of all that’s wrong with the country – the Kenyan president, the secret Muslim who is causing our country’s decline. The election season’s overheated political rhetoric is adding fuel to the fire. The more polarized the political scene, the more people at the extremes,” Potok points out. He added, “The growth in these groups began immediately after Obama was elected.”
The SPLC found hate groups grew to a record 1,018 in 2011, up from 1,002 the year before and the latest in a series of increases going back more than a decade, MintPress first reported in April.
Potok told MintPress that the rise in hate groups was being fueled by two primary factors. Many Americans have become enraged by what they see as America’s decline, and opportunistic politicians have done their best to stoke those fears and demonize President Obama in the process.
For some, the prospect of four more years under the country’s first black president also is an infuriating reminder that non-Hispanic whites will lose their majority in this country by 2050. However, Potok said that Americans were living through a “historic backlash” and have gone through other such backlashes as slaves were freed after the Civil War, women won the right to vote in 1920 and at other points of societal change in America.
“Like other backlashes, this, too, shall pass,” said Potok. “Ultimately things will get better,” he acknowledged, pointing to studies which indicate that in each new generation, young people become more open to ideas of tolerance and multiculturalism.
However, Brooks, who has worked with juvenile hate crime offenders, offers words of caution.
“There’s an increase in hate groups as well as the number of people who are joining them,” she said in an interview with MintPress, “and a lot of them are young people.”
“If there wasn’t such a deep-seated racism, people would be able to move on,” Brooks said. “The racism that’s been leveled against the president and people of color – they have taken some extraordinary hits. Look at the photo ID laws, it is a resurgence of Jim Crow. It’s a devastating attack on people of color and the poor.”
What the polls say
“The first year of Obama’s presidency has brought the country face to face with troubling racial schisms just as often as it has promoted racial understanding,” wrote Michael A. Fletcher and Krissah Thompson in the Washington Post. “In some ways, Obama has become a mirror for every American’s racial attitudes — reflecting perceptions, stereotypes, fears, hopes and the nation’s complicated racial history. In a report released by the Pew Research Center on Tuesday, blacks, whites and Hispanics showed an inclination to racially identify him from their own vantage point.”
In the 2008 election, 56 percent of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll said that race relations would improve if Obama were elected. Then, a day after he was elected president 70 percent said race relations would improve and only 10 percent predicted they would get worse.
A Pew survey in 2009 found that the majority of African-Americans responding believed that Obama’s election improved race relations. However, the number was slightly smaller than in the days just after the 2008 presidential election. Thirty-two percent of whites and 42 percent of Hispanics said that they believed relations have improved since Obama’s election.
After taking office, Obama commented, “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 discrimination.”
Then he added, “But that lasted about a day.”
Race relations discussed across America
The president himself has remained mum on topics related to his election and the quelling of racial tensions in the U.S.
However, some of the comments he has made from time to time over the years of his presidency have raised eyebrows and started discussions around the topic of what race relations means for America.
For example, in 2009, when an African-American Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., also a personal friend of Obama’s, was arrested for yelling at a police officer, the president spoke out on the issue of racial profiling, which caused a stir.
Obama said police officers in Cambridge, Mass. acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates outside his own home.
The president’s comments on that matter eclipsed debates on health-care reform which were happening at the same time, and instead media outlets ran with headlines about a so-called “beer summit” in which Obama, Vice President Biden, Gates and the arresting officer, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, gathered to discuss the incident at the White House.
“When he was running for office, Obama, who is biracial but identifies as African-American, rarely addresses racial issues. That has led some analysts to label him a ‘de-racialized” black,’” Fletcher and Thompson wrote.
Another professor, Dr. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., who lectures in religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, has said that Obama’s choice not to discuss the topic of race relations “fails to take the country to more meaningful discussion about race,” the Washington Post reported.
Beacons of hope?
Still, while some laude the election of an African-American president as a sign America is moving toward a post-racial period, others say a presidential elections may not be a true litmus test for gaging the state of race relations in the U.S. These skeptics do say, however, that there is another indicator that may be more telling: interracial marriage rates.
A September 2011 Gallup poll reported record-high approval of black-white marriages. The study found that 96 percent of black and 84 percent of whites approve of interracial marriages.
“Americans are approaching unanimity in their views of marriages between blacks and whites,” the study pointed out, as 86 percent of Americans now approving of such unions. Americans’ views on interracial marriage have undergone a major transformation in the past five decades, since Gallup first asked about black-white marriages in 1958, when only 4 percent approved. More Americans disapproved than approved until 1983, and approvals did not exceed the majority level until 1997.
“There is a totally different psychological frame of reference that this country has never had,” William Smith, executive director of the National Center for Race Amity (NCRA) at Wheelock College, told the Associated Press this week. The NCRA, located in Boston, provides educational programs that focus on students in K-12 and at the post-secondary level, which strive for insight and understanding of both the moral and scientific truths that humankind is innately equal.
Smith said that he sees more children in his programs, which is evidence of a positive direction that race relations are moving in, as well as new history curriculums in Deep South schools.
“To me, that’s a quantum leap,” Smith said.
In the most recent poll on the topic taken in April by the National Journal and the University of Phoenix, 33 percent of respondents felt race relations were getting better, 23 percent said they were getting worse, and 42 percent said they were staying about the same.
“We are heading toward a better place,” said Potok. “We are becoming a truly democratic nation, but in the meantime, we are suffering quite a lot.”
“We are in a real period of real struggle,” Brooks concludes.