Obama and Race Relations: Civil Rights Leaders Aren't Satisfied

Some thought the first African American president would herald in a new post-racial era.

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It took a remarkably long time before someone finally popped the question. At a press conference in March, two months after he had moved into the White House, Barack Obama was asked for the first time to describe how his race has affected his presidency.

Much as he had immediately after the election, when the chattering classes were gripped by speculation that the first black president might herald in a new, post-racial future, Obama refused to give in to flights of fancy. "At the inauguration, I think there was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination in this country," Obama said, acknowledging how much his historic move to Washington had seemed to elevate the political discussion. "But that lasted about a day."

For some, the thrill of seeing a black man in the White House has lasted a little longer. Benjamin Jealous, the recently elected president of the NAACP, says he still gets a jolt every time he walks through the security screening station in the lobby of the Department of Justice and sees photographs of Obama and the new attorney general, Eric Holder, hanging on the wall. "We're used to seeing black men's faces in the windows of post offices or on wanted posters, not in a photograph of the president and the attorney general," says Jealous. "It's all very bewildering."

A weekly community service night organized by Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition in Chicago is just one of many black community gatherings throughout the country where morale went through the roof this winter. "There's been an emotional change in the group since Obama took office," says the Rev. Gregory Livingston, the coalition's national field secretary. As they have for years, a few hundred people continue to arrive every Monday looking for guidance on what to do about foreclosed homes or lost jobs. "Have their numbers changed? No," says Livingston. "But you can see it in their faces. There's a smile in their voices. They're just much more hopeful."

If there is any consensus among black leaders about the initial impact of the first black president, this seems to be it. Seeing the Obama family in the White House and watching Obama conduct himself on the world stage continue to give civil rights advocates, and many voters, a regular emotional boost. But as Obama's first hundred days came to an end, with little having changed in most people's daily lives, the first questions began to be asked about whether his presidency has had any substantive effect on lingering racial inequality.

One step back. As they have in the past, African-Americans are suffering more than most through the economic downturn: They are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed and three times as likely to live in poverty. Racial tensions, in spite of all the high-flown talk in the fall, have shown little sign of fading. Only a few weeks before Obama took office, the city of Oakland, Calif., was gripped by riots after a white transit officer killed an unarmed black man. Two months later, protesters took to the streets again when four Oakland police officers were murdered by a gun-wielding black parolee. "Obama's inauguration was a day of transformative possibility," says Jealous. "But people wake up, and Dad's still out of work and Mom's still not getting paid enough and the kids' school is still an embarrassment. There's a collective anxiety that everything can change and nothing has changed, and it's resulted in some frustration."

Among young black voters, in particular, researchers say there is a growing sense that, on matters of race, the country has taken two steps forward but may be poised to take a step back. Cathy Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, spent the first few months of the Obama administration talking to focus groups of African-Americans under 35 about their conflicted reactions to the new president. After the election, three times as many young blacks as whites said they thought elections could bring about real change. But as time has gone on, day-to-day life has begun to cloud that enthusiasm. "If you ask them, 'How do you feel about Obama?' they're effusive, very proud," says Cohen. "But you ask them if they think Obama's election will impact their interactions with the police, and to a person, they say, 'Absolutely not.' They understand it doesn't trickle down to their lives."