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With Obama as president have race relations improved in America?

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That kind of thing would never happen today, Sharkey says.

As Obama dealt with fallout from the Gates affair during the summer of 2009, the tea party coalesced out of opposition to Obama's stimulus and health care proposals. The vast majority of tea partyers were white. A small number of them displayed racist signs or were connected to white supremacist groups, prompting the question: Are Obama's opponents motivated by dislike of the president's policies, his race — or both?

As that debate grew, Obama retreated to the race-neutral stance that has been a hallmark of his career. An October 2009 Gallup poll showed a large drop in racial optimism since the election, with 41 percent of respondents saying that race relations had improved under Obama. Thirty-five percent said there was no change and 22 percent said race relations were worse.

The president has discussed race in occasional speeches to groups such as the National Urban League or the National Council of La Raza, and in interviews with Hispanic and African-American media outlets. But he usually walks a careful line, allowing the nation to get used to the idea of a black president without doing things to make race seem a central aspect of his governance.

"There is a totally different psychological frame of reference that this country has never had," says William Smith, executive director of the National Center for Race Amity at Wheelock College.

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