Editor’s Note: Barack Obama was inaugurated as President of the United States, elected on a platform of change, on Jan. 20, 2009. He took the oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as the country confronted its gravest set of circumstances in at least a generation.
A year into the Obama presidency, the Gazette invited leaders in their fields to write about the changes still needed, nationally as well as locally.
The night Barack Obama crossed the finish line to make history as the first African-American president, the song I repeatedly played was Sam Cook’s Change Gon’ Come. And as tears flowed down the cheeks of even the most masculine men in the room, the lyrical words spoke for our hopes on that night. Finally, maybe, with the election of a brilliant black man, black people as a whole would reap the benefits; and there would be a hard strike against racism across the globe.
Now, one year on, while President Obama is still held in high esteem the world over (especially in Africa which claims him as its own), ironically it fell to a young black child at a Louisiana town hall meeting to provide a reality check on his standing at home. He asked the president: “Why do they hate you?” For some, the answer to the question had nothing to do with race and was all about policy. But even before the question was asked, former President Jimmy Carter had already “waded into the murky waters of racism,” as New York Times columnist Charles Blow put it. Murky waters they may be, but Carter was crystal clear about why he thought Obama was hated in his own country. “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward him is based on the fact that he is a black man.”
To be sure, the verbal temperature on race has risen dramatically and virulently since Obama’s election. For example, when he was elected, 70 per cent of Americans believed his presidency would lead to improved race relations. But a recent Gallup poll has indicated that people in the United States have essentially the same attitudes about race as they did in 1963. And blacks are more pessimistic about race relations since Obama’s election, according to Gallup. Their pessimism is fueled, in part, by the fact that even when everyone is suffering from the shrinking economy, blacks are suffering the most, their unemployment rate twice that of whites. Moreover, a shrinking economy has always tended to be a trigger for narrow-mindedness and self-preservation. People feel expansive when the economy is growing, but they withdraw when it contracts. And whites, already believing themselves the victims of affirmative action, also tend to feel the heat of rising immigrant populations. Some of these attitudes have led to a dramatic rise in racist hate groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a more than 50 per cent increase since 2000. And those who are most vicious and vocal are finding kindred spirits on the airwaves, where their ratings from racist rants are skyrocketing. When on-air personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck question Obama’s citizenship, for example, blacks as a whole feel attacked. At the same time, when a white Louisiana justice of the peace recently refused to marry a black man and a white woman because “there is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage,” it adds red pepper to the bubbling cauldron of racism in the U.S. A beer summit at the White House may have eased tensions between Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the white policeman who arrested him despite Gates having proved he was lawfully in his own house. But it highlights what is a common experience of black men all over the U.S.
Here are the numbers. Research suggests that one in 100 Americans are behind bars. Of these one in 15 are African American. One in nine black men in prison are between the ages of 20 and 34. Most of these are nonviolent criminals, arrested for arbitrary disorderly conduct — the initial charge laid against Gates. Outside of prison, civil rights organizations are still being confronted with cases like a recent one in Rockford, Ill. Here two white police officers shot an unarmed black man in front of a group of children at a church. The case is still under investigation, but the optics feed the perception that black men are at greater risk than whites from the police. The good news is that the demonstrations against the shooting in Rockford were interracial, as was the attentive audience at various panel discussions on race that I have chaired recently. Also, the Louisiana justice who turned down the interracial couple wanting to wed resigned under pressure. And some whites have told friends of mine in the South that they are a lot more comfortable talking openly about race with blacks than before Obama’s election a year ago.
And workshops and sensitivity sessions on race are springing up around the country. Moreover, it appears through anecdotal evidence that increasingly African Americans are moving in to the middle and upper classes and also reaching the top rung of ladders in the corporate world. But this is only a start.
Much has been made over the past year of Obama’s constructive policy of engagement with Africa, his tough-love approach to some of the continent’s rogue states and his recent historic visit to the continent during which he spoke of the lasting and destructive legacy of slavery. But back home the jury is still out on how much the Obama presidency will change the dynamics of race and racism — itself a painful legacy of slavery — and lead to a truly postracial society. Over the past year, Obama himself has rarely confronted the subject at home, believing that it is as critical to address class as race issues. As a solution to both, he continues to push for a revival of the economy. One just hopes he might appreciate, if not agree with, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd who wrote recently: “It’s nice to talk about change, but you can’t wipe away yesterday.”
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an American journalist based in Johannesburg who contributes to National Public Radio and other media. She was formerly the Africa bureau chief for CNN, and is a longtime seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs. This article first appeared in the January-March edition of the BBC Focus on Africa magazine.