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."
For all the symbolism of Obama's position in the White House, he has not yet used his bully pulpit to take on the issue of race. On several occasions, in fact, the president has seemed to deliberately shy away from the subject. When Attorney General Holder picked up the reins this winter, chiding Americans for being "a nation of cowards" on racial matters, Obama pushed back firmly. "I'm not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions," he said.
There is general agreement among civil rights leaders that Obama doesn't need to wade into the fray in the same way that, say, Al Sharpton has in the past. But some are beginning to worry that it is conservatives, not civil rights groups, who are seizing the political moment, using the promise of "post-racialism" to try to scale back protections for minorities in the legal system. Race is a central issue in at least four Supreme Court cases in the next term, and there has been a growing chorus on the right demanding the repeal of everything from affirmative action to the Voting Rights Act now that a black man is in the White House.
Some civil rights leaders are frustrated by Obama's refusal to point out how little has actually changed for the average black person—and how much minorities are struggling in the down economy. Black borrowers, for example, were more than twice as likely as whites to receive subprime loans and are losing their homes to foreclosure at much higher rates. But Obama's public pronouncements on the housing crisis have rarely reflected this disparity. "It's not clear the administration has figured out how to engage the public on race," says John Powell, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. "A lot of the people around Obama seem to think race is the third rail, and it's best to avoid it. Their major approach is 'We're going to do something for everybody.' But that's not really a solution."
In the weeks after Obama was elected, there was a wave of excitement over his selection of Holder to be the nation's first black attorney general, and civil rights groups cheered the number of African-Americans picked to join Obama's White House staff. But as the Obama administration has moved on to the business of governing, the first critics have emerged in the black community, some of whom point out that the first black president has made the same number of black cabinet appointments as Bill Clinton did—but without Clinton's intense focus on racial inequality.
After skimming over the issue of race in both his acceptance speech in November and his inaugural in January, Obama hasn't given a major speech on race since last year. Even then, for all his eloquence, Obama was forced to speak out, these critics say, because of the controversy over the inflammatory sermons of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "There's a whole lot of space between always talking about race and never talking about race," says Michael Fauntroy, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University. "The only time he's ever talked about race was when his campaign was in a sling. There's a reticence on his part that I think is worrisome."
The Obama administration has taken some steps to allay these concerns, pushing legislation on workers' rights and opening a new office for urban affairs inside the White House. Still, some black leaders are beginning to grumble that the list of things Obama has not done is much longer. "If he can immediately say, 'I'm sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan,' he can immediately do some other things, too," says Kevin Alexander Gray, a civil rights veteran who was Jesse Jackson's South Carolina campaign organizer in 1988. "Black folks are afraid to go after Barack Obama because there's such a love fest, but where's the urban plan? You haven't seen it. A white person who was in office would have to talk about disproportionate poverty. It's not his fault, but it's starting to be his fault."
Obama has been in office only a few months, of course, and even the most impatient civil rights leaders agree on at least one thing: They want him to succeed. But as the first black president moves on to his next hundred days, there seems to be an increased willingness to hold him to his own high standards. "People are still coming up to me and saying they've been inspired by Obama. But they want the change to be real. That's what people are most eager for," says Jealous. "Life hasn't changed that much, but expectations are higher."
As time goes by, they seem likely to get higher still.