Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Obama's impact on race in America

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day a year after the first African-American president took office, Americans appear to have mixed views about the impact of President Obama's election on race relations.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama shakes hands with people before giving out meals in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day during a volunteer work project at the So Others Might Eat dining room for the homeless in Washington Monday.
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For civil rights activist Si Kahn, the evolution in racial relations in America can be summed up by a visit to Mert’s Restaurant in downtown Charlotte, N.C. A nouvelle soul food place where you can dine to the sound of sweet Southern gut-bucket blues, the restaurant is packed these days with “a wonderful mix" of young people, he says.

“So many shades, shapes, sizes, facial characteristics, languages, accents,” he continues, “Across lines of race and ethnicity, they hold hands, embrace, kiss.”

Though President Obama has been in office for just a year, “a tiny blip in time for an entire culture to evolve, Mr. Kahn sees noticeable changes in American race relations. Racism among young people especially, he says, continues to fade.

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On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a year after the inauguration of America’s first black president, historians and civil rights activists offer mixed assessments about Mr. Obama's impact on race relations in the country. Some like Mr. Kahn are overwhelmingly positive. But others say there’s still a long way to go.

The mixed assessments show up in several surveys and polls. A recent Pew Research survey found a dramatic increase in how black Americans felt about their place in society. Four out of 10 black Americans say they are better off now compared with 2007, when only two in ten felt that way.

But a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday shows a decline in the number of Americans who say Obama’s presidency will help race relations, from 60 percent on the eve of his inauguration last year to about 40 percent today. The fall is highest among African-Americans. Three-quarters of blacks said they expected Obama’s presidency to advance racial equality last January, but only 51 percent of blacks now say he has helped.

“It is pure fantasy to think that the election of the first African-American President is going to change [racial inequality] overnight,” says Yolanda T. Moses, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside.

Racism and racial disparities still exist today, she says, “because there are systems in place from banking to real estate to child protective services that continue to privilege one group over another. That is what we have to change.”

Two racially-charged incidents

Both sides point to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and a prominent African-American scholar, as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s comments on Obama, to support their view.

Mr. Gates was arrested at his house in Cambridge last year after neighbors called in the police about an intruder, an incident Gates and others charged reflected racism. Obama initially weighed in on Gates's side, and then had the cop and the professor over to the White House for a reconciliatory beer. As for Senator Reid, it was recently revealed that he had said during the 2008 presidential election that Obama could win because he was a “light-skinned” African-American candidate without a “Negro dialect”.

The Gates’ episode and Senator Reid’s comments emphasize that this is a long journey with potholes and perhaps setbacks along the way,” says Dr. Benjamin Akande, dean of the School of Business and Technology at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. He adds, “They also remind us that perhaps one day, sooner rather than later, this will no longer even merit conversation.”

But those incidents weren’t really about race, counters Jason Hill, a professor of philosophy at De Paul University in Chicago. “Speaking as a black person who identifies as a liberal, I believe the [Gates] issue was about civic responsibility performed by an officer of the law and that Gate's race was purely incidental,” he says, adding, “What we ought to learn from this issue is the value of not elevating an error of judgment to the level of a national catastrophe.”

Similarly, he says the only thing offensive about Reid’s comments was the use of the word “Negro.” Everything else Reid said was true, he adds. “Race relations have improved in tandem with the continued advancement of blacks into the middle class strata,” he says. “Such blacks are non-threatening to whites because, among other things, they both share quintessential American middle-class values and, like Obama, are not distinctly "black" in the old stereotypical manner.”

The very notion of a “post-racial” society emerging from the election of a black president is a “racist idea,” according to John Altman, an associate professor of political science at York College of Pennsylvania, and one that minimizes the gains made by black leaders over the past five decades.

Continued racial disparities

Some suggest Obama himself hasn’t done enough to address the problems of African-Americans. Mr. Altman and others point to a study released Thursday by the Economic Policy Institute showing racial inequities have worsened in the recession, with unemployment among African-Americans projected to reach a 25-year high this year, soaring to 17.2 percent.

“When the only memorable thing that our current president has done to further the discourse on race relations is to bring together a white cop and a black college professor for a beer, it will be a long time before anything changes,” he says.

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