President Barack Obama gave a majestic speech in Dallas, one of the best of his presidency, at once a soaring tribute to slain police officers and an affirmation of peaceful protest. But he was wrong about one thing: On race, sadly, we are as divided as we seem.
This condition is not due to anything Obama has said or done. He bends so far backward to avoid giving offense, even to those who richly deserve offending, that he must need regular sessions with a chiropractor. The racial divide, which has its roots in lingering claims of white supremacy, has been there all along. It was mostly silent and unacknowledged until the very fact of the Obama presidency cast it in stark and unforgiving light.
So I am not surprised at recent polls showing that Americans believe race relations are worsening. It is as if a dark corner has been illuminated to reveal the mess that was swept there long ago and willfully ignored.
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I have long believed that the most revolutionary act the first African American president could ever perform is to go about his official duties for all the world to see. A black man stands to deliver the State of the Union address. A black man toasts foreign leaders at glittering White House dinners. A black family crosses the South Lawn to board the Marine One helicopter and be lifted into the sky.
These scenes are irrefutable evidence of how much America has changed, and to some they are threatening. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan – “Make America Great Again” – cannot be read simply as misty nostalgia for an economic golden age. For the overwhelmingly white crowds who fill his raucous rallies, Trump promises a return to a time when the nation’s leadership and cultural norms reflected what was then a clear ethnic and racial majority.
Not all who support Trump, of course, are racists; and not all whites who blame Obama for heightening racial tension are Republicans. There are many others who honestly and naively thought the election of an African American president meant that race was no longer an issue. Now we can just move on, they believed – looking past the disparities between black and white that still exist.
One glaring disparity is in how blacks and whites are treated by the criminal justice system. The high-profile incidents that have happened since Obama took office are nothing new. Trayvon Martin was not the first young black man to be racially profiled, nor was Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. the first older black man to have the experience. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were obviously not the first black men to be killed by police officers under highly questionable circumstances.
What is novel, though, is that the president of the United States is himself African American. So when Obama says that arresting Gates on his own front porch was stupid, or that if he had a son the boy would look like Martin – simple statements of fact, in my view – to some whites it sounds as if he is taking sides. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, once just came out and said it: Obama, he claimed, “has a default mechanism … that favors the black person.”
Obama takes pains to avoid having whites see him this way – which frustrates some African Americans who wonder how he can watch the video of Castile’s life bleeding away and not speak with the raw anguish and anger that so many of us feel.
For black Americans, too, the Obama presidency creates perhaps unrealistic expectations – not that racism could somehow magically end but that it would be fully acknowledged and frontally addressed. I think some commentators underestimate the resistance that stronger words from the president would encounter. To win the White House, I once wrote, Obama had to be seen as the least aggrieved black man in America. As he prepares to leave office, this remains largely true.
When the next president is sworn in, Obama will leave office without having healed the nation’s festering racial wounds. He will not have made them worse; rather, he will have allowed us to see how deep they remain and how much healing still needs to take place. It may take years to fully appreciate how dramatically this presidency has bent the arc of history toward justice.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.