Walter Rodgers

A year into Obama’s presidency, is America postracial?

Whites like to think so, but black Americans know better. Still, give Obama credit for making progress.

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A year ago, many Americans, mostly white ones, congratulated themselves on having moved beyond the nation’s “original sin” of slavery into a “postracial America.” 

Amid the fervor over the nation’s first black president, few beyond the black media bothered to ask black Americans if they also felt the country had entered a new era. 

Most of us recall that Barack Obama beat John McCain handily. Few recall that he (like most recent Democratic presidential candidates) would have lost big-time if only white votes counted. A black friend who didn’t want to be named cynically told me that “white folks” only voted for Mr. Obama because they “decided things were so bad they would vote for the other guy even if he was black.”

Today the racial divide in Obama’s support is still stark, mirroring his voting support: 90 percent of blacks approve of his performance, while just 42 percent of whites do, according to Gallup. 

The brief honeymoon for “postracial America” evaporated last July in the altercation between black scholar Henry Louis Gates and white police officer James Crowley. When Obama weighed in on the incident at a press conference – saying the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” by arresting Gates – he picked a scab off our national scar.

For African-Americans, “Gatesgate” was a reminder of two realities: the past and present harassment of black men by white police officers, and the centrality of incarceration to black life in America. Too many whites interpreted it as another uppity black man sassing a white policeman, threatening law and order and white comfort levels. 

The Gates affair showed how each of us tends to remain locked in our racial preconceptions, perhaps because it is too painful to let them go and admit we were wrong. The same friend told me, “We want to hang on to our own stories rather than acknowledge our own fears and insecurities.”

One preconception white Americans should relinquish is the myth that black Americans are enamored of Obama. Yes, 95 percent voted for him, and 9 in 10 tell pollsters they approve of his job, but those figures are a mile wide and an inch deep. 

Black America sometimes seems as critical of our black president as are right-wing Republicans

During the campaign, some blacks questioned Obama’s capacity to identify with the African-American community, given his lack of slave roots. Today, many more blacks are openly questioning Obama’s commitment to the black community.

At the Black Agenda Report, Solomon Comissiong wrote: “Barack Obama’s presidency has seen a continuation of many of the Bush administration’s repugnant policies…. [He] has been horribly bad for black America.... He trivialized blacks’ day to day struggles, and their historical quest for human rights.” Shocked? Don’t be. It’s not just a black fringe that is disenchanted. 

The Congressional Black Caucus has been sharply critical of the president in recent weeks for not doing enough to help blacks. Their frustration is understandable. While the national jobless rate hovers around 10 percent, it’s half again higher for blacks. 

Publicly, Obama has responded by saying, for example, “I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. I’m the president of the entire United States.” Privately, he appears stung by the criticism. A few weeks ago, Obama called John Conyers (D) of Michigan to ask the longtime black lawmaker and frequent critic to stop “demeaning” him. 

In one sense, black criticism of Obama shows how much progress he has made in moving America toward a postracial society. He hasn’t scared away white folks by talking too much about race. He conducts himself with dignity and eloquence in the face of overwhelming obstacles. And he governs as president of the entire country, not just a racial bloc. 

A year later, the idea of a postracial America is not a reality, but it’s not a fantasy, either. 

“A lot of Americans were quick to embrace the idea of a postracial America because it would mean they wouldn’t have to talk about race anymore,” says Lynne Adrine, a black career and life coach. “We still want to avoid the conversation because we are still so screwed up on the racial issue.”

Perhaps, but we’re all still better off because Obama convinced black Americans they have a huge stake in the government. As Ms. Adrine put it, “Like any other relationship, you have to go through the hard part to get to a better place.”  

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition.

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