A dream deferred? Race relations in the Obama era

Amid racial tension and violence, US President Barack Obama has addressed the oldest African-American civil rights organization in the US. For some, his increasingly frank talk about race is too little, too late.  Spencer Kimball reports.

It was the dream of the civil rights movement: a multiracial democracy where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many Americans were electrified. Had the dream come true?

The country has been sobered as the president nears the end of his eight-year tenure. More than 60 percent of Americans – black and white – believe race relations are generally bad, according to a recent CBS/New York Times opinion poll.

Police killings of unarmed African-American men have touched off a wave of social unrest. Peaceful protesters have taken to the streets with the rallying cry “Black lives matter!” Tensions have boiled over into riots and confrontations with a police force that often looks more like a military.

On Tuesday, Obama addressed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for the second time since taking office. He proposed reforms to the American criminal justice system, such as reducing long mandatory sentences for non-violent drug crimes, which disproportionately impact people of color.

But many African-Americans believe the president has responded slowly to calls for reform and has not gone far enough, fast enough.

“The president has primarily only addressed or dealt with racial issues when he was absolutely forced to,” Ronnie Dunn, an urban studies professor at Cleveland State University, told DW. “There was a reluctance to candidly address such issues.”

‘Politics of respectability’

Harold McDougall, a law professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., believes Obama’s reluctance to address race has to do with “respectability politics,” a way of thinking about African-American advancement that goes back generations. It calls on African-Americans to alter their behavior or culture to win approval from the white-majority mainstream.

During the 2008 campaign, then-Senator Obama was forced to withdraw his membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ under public pressure. Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the church’s leader and the man who baptized Obama’s children, had made controversial comments about race, US politics and foreign policy.

“It looks to me as if the politics of respectability is what got him elected,” McDougall said, speaking with DW. “It’s what tripped him through his first term and half of the second term.”

“There really is no limit to how much kowtowing to people you have to do to get them to accept you on their terms rather than your own,” he added.

Change in tone

Both McDougall and Dunn agree that the president has become bolder on racial justice issues lately. He no longer has to run for re-election, and events in cities like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore have created a renewed sense of urgency.

“It’s almost as if he’s much freer now to discuss these issues,” Dunn said.

In the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson last summer, Obama established a task force on police reform. The task force called for an end to the “warrior” mentality that pervades many police departments across the country. Instead, police should engage and cooperate with communities and de-escalate conflicts.

The Justice Department also launched federal investigations into the police departments in Ferguson, Cleveland and Baltimore, issuing damning reports on the first two cities.

“The atmosphere that’s created by these events has certainly made everyone, and not just people in the African-American community, more receptive to saying these kinds of things,” said McDougall.

‘Post-racial America, this is not’

Racial tensions have been running high in America for the last year. Then, in June, a 21-year-old white supremacist entered a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He opened fire, killing nine congregants.

“Even white people are horrified,” said McDougall. “This is not what it was supposed to be. Post-racial America, this is not.”

Days after the church massacre, Obama sat down for an interview in the Los Angeles garage of popular comedian and podcast host Marc Maron. He talked about the massacre primarily in terms of the need for greater gun control. But later in the interview, the president addressed race in a such a frank manner that some listeners were taken aback.

“It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public,” Obama said. “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.”

When the president made his comments, the Confederate battle flag was still flying over state grounds in Columbia, South Carolina’s state capital. But last week, the state legislature voted to remove the flag under which Southern soldiers fought to preserve slavery during the American Civil War.

“America overall is in a serious state of denial when it comes to where we are relative to race,” Dunn said. “We’re just now bringing down the Confederate flag. In a metaphoric sense, we’ve still been fighting the civil war.”

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