Updated: May 17
A Rasmussen poll published in Fall 2010 reveals that only 36 percent of Americans think the relationship between blacks and whites is getting better. This number is down from 62 percent who, in July 2009, reported feeling that race relations are improving. That was the same month in which Cambridge, Massachusetts, police arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and at a news conference following the arrest, President Barack Obama criticized the police. He acknowledged that he did not know the full situation, “not having been there and not seeing the facts,” but nonetheless he said that the police had “acted stupidly.”
He continued: “[T]here’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.” For some people, this was just a half-fact, forcefully but inartfully expressed at that.
Obama’s response here may have been the beginning of a fracture along racial lines about precisely what Obama represents in “postracial America.” For the man who, as Joe Klein put it for Time magazine in 2006, “transcends the racial divide so effortlessly,”2 there was nothing postracial in the president’s analysis of the Gates affair.
For blacks, Obama spoke the pure and simple truth: blacks and Latinos are stopped – harassed, really – much more by the police than whites. Young black and Latino males in particular live in a virtual police and penal state, where they are under constant suspicion. Consider the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer on January 1, 2009, in Oakland, California. Grant is just one example of the many unarmed blacks who have been assaulted or killed by the police.
(On November 5, 2010, the officer was sentenced to two years in prison; many blacks in Oakland, feeling the sentence far too lenient, responded with protest demonstrations.) And to think that a black professor at Harvard would be arrested on the grounds of his own home! That he would be asked to produce identification and prove that he lived there! For blacks, Obama was right to side with “the brother,” despite not knowing the facts of the case. He was right to be skeptical of cops and the so-called justice bureaucracy they represent.3
Many whites, on the other hand conservatives in many instances, but not exclusively or even mainly so – were appalled. How could the president adopt a stance on a case whose details were largely unknown to him? Why, indeed, was he even commenting on a case that involved local law enforcement? It was in no way a federal matter, and therefore the president, rightly, should have made no comment. To these white Americans, Obama’s response seemed as crazy as if Bill Clinton had commented on O. J. Simpson’s arrest in 1995 for the murder of his wife.
As defined by federalism, presidents should not talk about matters of state law enforcement unless some urgent federal interest compels it. Moreover, many whites were uncomfortable about the president’s rush to judgment of the Cambridge police. After all, it is true that blacks and Latinos are stopped disproportionately by the police, but it is also true that they commit a hugely disproportionate share of violent crime in America – the other half of the fact that Obama’s initial response seemed to elide. (Blacks and Latinos, for instance, committed 89 percent of all murders in New York City between 2003 and 2009.
Blacks are generally proud that Obama openly took their side in this matter, that he understood, articulated, and, more important, legitimated their position. Many whites, however, were surprised that the president took any side at all, that he did not see the necessity as president to transcend such a matter. This was not Little Rock or Selma. The Cambridge police officer was not Bull Connor. (Indeed, the Cambridge Police Department is highly diverse, and its officers are given sensitivity training.)
Henry Louis Gates is not an uneducated, unemployed black victim of the inner city but rather a man of considerable intellectual,financial, and institutional resources who can well take care of himself in his disputes with the city of Cambridge. The problem with African Americans (and their liberal left enablers and comrades), as many whites see it, is that they are constantly seeking to relive the days of grand martyrdom from the civil rights movement, recasting every racial disparity and every racial incident as a sign that nothing has changed.
Blacks feel that they must be forever vigilant lest things, in fact, do change for the worse. Yes, the Gates arrest and Obama’s reaction may have marked the beginning of the end of the fragile racial unity and hope that Obama’s presidency had inspired in many Americans. Put another way, it may have been the end of the beginning of a stage in America’s relationship with its new president as we have come to know and understand him; it may have set in motion the work of unraveling a bit of the mystery of his political art and his extraordinarily packed persona.
Is Obama as emblem of post-racial America nothing more than the hopeful repository of all our racial desires? Is he the brave new world of American politics? Is he the representative, the embodiment of a new wave of post- American, minority-centered nationalism that will free us at last from a hegemonic white nationalist past? Is he the hero, the last grand martyr of a final American civil rights campaign? Is he the philosopher-king whose subjects are unworthy of him, a man who, as White House adviser Valerie Jarrett put it, “has never really been challenged intellectually”?
6 Is he an abject failure, the affirmative action kid in over his head? Is he the confidence man in his ultimate masquerade, the king of bullshitters, the Ellisonian Rinehart, fooling both whites and blacks? Is he simply the confused, contradictory illusion of our collective – both black and white – racial hysteria and misperceptions? Who can say? What can be said is that for a time, Obama brought together, or possessed the promise of bringing together, what the late historian John Hope Franklin called “the two worlds of race.”
7 He brought together the privileged majority and the aggrieved minority in a new way: instead of each complaining about how the other is dependent on it, each cooperated to achieve a common goal, electing Obama as a way to restart or redefine American history. Many hoped that Obama could permanently unify the two worlds of race: this was the prospect they found so exciting about his candidacy. Obama the bridge, the mixed race messiah, Obama the blended beneficence. Alas, it is questionable if he can unify us. In the end, the two worlds of race demand that we be on either one side or the other.
In the Fall 2010 Rasmussen poll mentioned above, 27 percent of all respondents reported feeling that race relations are getting worse. Thirty-nine percent of whites think race relations are getting better compared to only 13 percent of blacks. The low percentage among blacks seems especially remarkable given we now have an African American president – or, more accurately, a president of American and African parentage whose ascent to the highest political office in the realm was meant to signal a remarkable coming of racial age in the United States, the proof of a new American exceptionalism. (Obama’s story could only have happened here. What are the chances of a person from a historically despised and persecuted minority being elected leader of some other nation?)
Indeed, the poll numbers show a disparity of sorts in black opinion: while few blacks think race relations are getting better, 59 percent of blacks think the United States is moving in the right direction, more than twice the percentage of whites who share that view (27 percent).
These numbers invite several observations. First, the era of good racial feelings that Obama ushered in at the beginning of his term in 2009 has, at least for now, ended, particularly as determined by African Americans themselves. In other words, African Americans generally are now both optimistic about Obama’s policies but increasingly pessimistic about his fate as president, insofar as that fate is somehow contingent on the belief that he represents a giant step forward in race relations.
But for many African Americans, a step forward in race relations directly depends on white America’s belief in Obama’s policies.
Second, as of Fall 2010, whites are giving up on Obama, while African Americans, by a large margin, are remaining steadfast in their loyalty, although there is a significant gap among blacks between their overall approval rating for Obama, ranging between 85 and 91 percent, and their support of his policies.
The latter is still a solid, healthy majority but is nowhere near his overall approval rating among blacks. (The president’s approval rating among whites, as of Fall 2010, is 38 percent. In the 2010 midterm elections, 90 percent of black voters voted for the Democratic Party, in support of President Obama’s policies, whereas only 37 percent of whites voted Democratic.)
This consistent support from blacks is not simply because Obama, too, is black.
Electing just any black person president would not necessarily have warmed the cockles of the hearts of most blacks. In fact, one can imagine some blacks being elected president who would have been vehemently opposed by most blacks. (Consider someone along the lines of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or political activist and businessman Ward Connerly or some other outspoken opponent of affirmative action, someone who believes in a color-blind America or espouses the view that racism is no longer a factor in American life.)
Blacks remain loyal to Obama because he is black and is pursuing policies that seem, contrarily, to place limits on American power abroad (or recognize the limits and abuses of that power) while at the same time expanding the reach of the federal government at home. Obama is not a quintessential liberal; he is a quintessential black liberal. Most blacks are comfortable with the way that he seems to represent the decline of an official American exceptionalism – an ideology born of the belief that America is blessed by providence to be the foremost power in white Western hegemony – and the concurrent rise of domestic federal power as an unabashed bulwark against markets and private wealth, against the provinces of white power and privilege. Since the days of slavery, blacks have sought protection from the federal government (frequently not receiving it), they have been skeptical of the old version of American exceptionalism, and they have despaired at being at the mercy of local or state power.
Third, blacks feel that moving the country in what they think is the right direction is jeopardizing the overall relationship between blacks and whites; however, they likely feel that this is a necessary price for seeing Obama succeed where change is needed. As much as blacks may feel that broad acceptance of Obama’s policies and leadership among whites would be a major step forward in race relations, there is uncertainty about how strong the black support of Obama would remain if his approval numbers were high among whites.
Many blacks still have the sneaking suspicion that any black leader or any leader who happens to be black, as in Obama’s case, and who is making whites extraordinarily happy is probably doing it at the expense of blacks, selling them out or kowtowing to the white folk. In other words, blacks expect Obama to govern as a black or minority president, voicing a black or minority perspective, a black or minority consciousness, and redefining what it means to be an American.
If whites oppose him, according to the view of many blacks, it is because many or most whites cannot abide having the minority perspective as the representative or standard interpretation of American experience.
What blacks and whites do have in common is a belief that race relations are somehow reflected as progress; either they are getting better or worse, improving or deteriorating. When race relations are framed in a larger narrative of progress, then some millennial aim or goal emerges: a moment to be reached when race relations or race itself shall be no more. For whites, this time could perhaps be when blacks no longer view themselves as a distinct grievance group, when they fit in, at last, no longer requiring special cheer-leading and enabling, no longer making claims of exceptionalism as Americans because of their historical status as slaves.
For blacks, perhaps it is when they have percentage representation in every profession and occupation, in every social and economic category, that is at least the equal of their percentage in the population; when their representation in negative categories, such as incarceration or single-parent households, aligns with their percentage in the population; when they cease to be a population defined by their pathologies, which they feel are not their fault. This moment will be the end of racism, and thus the end of race relations, which for blacks are just a calibration of the extent to which racism affects their lives at any given moment, as there would be no distortion in black American life.
Since his election, polling has shown Americans wary of Trump when it comes to race. But views of the president, racism in the U.S. and what defines American culture vary significantly based on political alignment.
RACE RELATIONS IN THE TRUMP ERA
In January 2019, a CBS News poll found nearly 6 in 10 Americans saying race relations in the country are generally bad.
It wasn’t always that way. Positive views of the state of race relations in the country peaked with President Barack Obama’s inauguration, after which 66% of Americans said race relations were generally good in an April 2009 CBS News/New York Times poll. But views started to sour in 2014 following a number of high-profile shootings of black men by police officers and have continued to be more negative than positive in the Trump era.
And Americans think Trump is contributing to the problem. A Pew Research Center poll earlier this year showed 56% of Americans saying Trump has made race relations worse.
Americans gave similarly poor assessments of the president’s impact on specific racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Nearly 6 in 10 considered Trump’s actions to be bad for Hispanics and Muslims, and about half said they were bad for African Americans, according to a February 2018 poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research .
That poll also found that 57% of Americans considered Trump to be racist.
RACE AS A POLITICAL FAULT LINE
Polls show stark differences in assessments of the state of race relations and Trump’s impact by party identification, along with racial and ethnic identity and educational attainment.
In Pew’s poll, fully 84% of Democrats said Trump has worsened race relations, while only about 2 in 10 Republicans agreed. About a third of Republicans said Trump has made progress toward improving race relations, while a quarter said he has tried but failed.
Majorities of Americans who are black, Hispanic and Asian said Trump has made race relations worse, compared with about half of white Americans. Among white Americans, views diverged by education — 64% of whites with a college degree think Trump has worsened race relations, compared with 41% of those without.
Democrats in Congress immediately called out the president’s comments on Sunday as racist and divisive, while many Republicans have remained silent.
Polling shows Democratic and Republican Americans fundamentally disagree on the way people should approach offensive language in the country.
Eighty-two percent of Republicans feel that too many people are easily offended over language today, according to a poll conducted in May by Pew Research Center , compared with about half as many Democrats who said the same. A majority of Democrats said people need to be more careful with their language.
Since Trump’s election, most Americans think it has become more common for people to express racist views, and 45% said it has become more acceptable as well, according to Pew’s February poll.
Majorities of Democrats said it has become both more common and more acceptable. Among Republicans, 42% said it has become more common and 22% said it has become more acceptable.
DIVERGING VIEWS OF AMERICA’S IDENTITY
Throughout his presidency, Trump has stoked racial and ethnic division building on his campaign promise to secure the border and country. In 2017, Trump instituted a travel ban restricting entry into the U.S. for people from five predominantly Muslim countries. Earlier this year, the president declared a national emergency to appropriate billions of dollars in funds from government agencies to expand the U.S.-Mexico border wall. And most recently, Trump moved on Monday to halt protections for most Central American asylum seekers.
Trump’s response to the firestorm signaled that he thinks it’s a winning stance for him. “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” Trump said.
In an AP-NORC poll from February 2017 , half of Americans said the mixing of culture and values from around the world is an important part of America’s identity. Fewer — about a third — said the same of a culture established by early European immigrants.
But partisans were divided over these aspects of the nation’s identity. Nearly half of Republicans, but just about a quarter of Democrats, saw the culture of early European immigrants as important. By comparison, about two-thirds of Democrats, and about a third of Republicans, considered the mixing of world cultures important to the country’s identity.
The AP-NORC poll also found 57% of Americans saying that the U.S. should be a country with an essential culture that immigrants adopt when they come. Eight in 10 Republicans preferred immigrants to the U.S. adapt to an American culture, though a similar share said they thought recent immigrants have not done so.