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With Obama as president have race relations improved in America?

After the historic election of Barack Obama, have conversations about race become more common? Or has racism become more apparent?

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Lozano, the police sergeant, remembers that when Obama visited Arizona and met with the governor, who supported the law, she wagged an angry finger in the president's face.

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"That was ugly, I've never seen anything like that," says Lozano, who also is vice president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. "There's no way that would have ever happened to a white president."

By the fall of 2010, Republicans had triumphed in the midterm elections and made history by electing Hispanic and Indian-American governors in New Mexico, South Carolina, and Nevada. Two black Republicans also went to Congress, from South Carolina and Florida.

Less than a year later, an August 2011 Gallup poll showed a further decline in racial optimism: 35 percent said race relations had improved due to Obama's election, 41 percent said no change, and 23 percent said things were worse.

Around this time, some African-American lawmakers and pundits openly complained about the president's refusal to specifically target any programs at high black unemployment. An interviewer from Black Entertainment Television asked Obama why not.

"That's not how America works," Obama replied.

Then came this February's killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is from Peru. Authorities initially declined to charge Zimmerman with a crime, causing a polarizing uproar.

This time, when asked about the case, Obama delivered a carefully calibrated message. He said all the facts were not known, the legal system should take its course — and that "if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."

The comment was factual, but it still strikes Cattaneo as a coded message to black people that Obama is on their side. "A lot of people I talk to can't understand why a man who's half-white and half-black is so anti-white."

This April, in a poll by the National Journal and the University of Phoenix, 33 percent felt race relations were getting better, 23 percent said they were getting worse, and 42 percent said they were staying about the same.

So where are we now?

Four years after Obama smashed the nation's highest racial barrier, and less than four months before America will decide whether he deserves a second term, the nation is uncertain about the meaning of a black president.

Recently, Obama was asked in a Rolling Stone magazine interview if race relations were any different than when he took office.

"I never bought into the notion," Obama said, "that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a postracial period."

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at www.twitter.com/jessewashington or jwashington(at)ap.org.

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