But a majority of Americans don't believe Obama has affected race relations in the US one way or the other, according to a new Monitor/TIPP poll.
Blacks and Republicans are more likely than anyone else to say that the presidency of Barack Obama, America's first black chief executive, has impaired race relations in the United States and made race more difficult to discuss.
But more broadly, according to a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, a majority of Americans – in both genders and across all ages, incomes, political persuasions, and races – don't believe the Obama presidency has had any effect on race relations in the US beyond affirming the country's willingness to move past race as a factor in presidential electability.
"The majority of Americans polled felt [Mr. Obama's race] was not a factor [in race relations]," says Raghavan Mayur, the TIPP pollster in Ramsey, N.J. "Most people look at him not in terms of race; they look to him as the president of the country."
Since his inauguration, Obama has walked a tightrope, dividing America more by class than by race when he's talked about forcing the rich to pay a larger share of the US tax burden. His comments on race have been both eloquent – for example, the Philadelphia "race" speech during the 2008 primary season – and awkward, as in last year's episode in which he said that Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" in arresting his friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
"Obama's liberal supporters have made a big deal about him becoming the first black president, and his detractors have made a big deal about him supposedly practicing reverse discrimination," says political historian Jason Sokol. "He's always been in a difficult spot."
But at least some black scholars hold Obama accountable for raising the racial stakes.
Carol Swain, a law professor and race expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., raises several examples, including the Gates affair and Sonia Sotomayor's appointment to the Supreme Court. In these examples, she says, "it seems like Obama has made race more salient in a negative sort of way that will make white people feel like they're not represented."
The poll findings come on the heels of several high-profile racial flash points this summer and ahead of midterm elections that will determine the balance of power in Washington. Thirty-two percent of Republicans say race relations have worsened (and 8 percent say they've improved), while 37 percent of Democrats say they're better (16 percent say they're worse).
Some liberal groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), have publicly chided one of Obama's main opposition groups, the "tea party" movement, for allegedly harboring racists.
Conservatives have fired back, saying that what experts call "nonfalsifiable claims of racism" – i.e., using the race card – has become an irrelevant tactic in the eyes of most Americans.
The divisions in race attitudes, says Professor Alexander, goes back to the birth of the modern conservative movement in the 1950s and to the perception by many liberals that the right's ideas are mean-spirited and intellectually corrupt. With a black president in office and conservatives staging a challenge to his policies, the divides in perceptions have flared up in earnest.
One newsy example: Indian-born author Dinesh D'Souza's recent Forbes story about Obama entitled, "How he thinks." Mr. D'Souza proposed that Obama's estranged Kenyan father inspired the president to adopt "the cause of anticolonialism."
The Columbia Journalism Review called D'Souza's article "the worst kind of smear journalism – a singularly disgusting work."
Given such reactions, many conservatives feel it's better not to speak their piece at all. "When conservatives want to chip into conversations – race being the most obvious one – they find themselves getting their heads bitten off," Alexander says.
But if mostly white conservatives are feeling put upon by the current tenor of the race debate, they are joined by blacks – 26 percent of whom said race relations have gotten worse under Obama (versus 22 percent who said they felt it's better).
(Hispanics felt differently, with 36 percent saying race relations are better and 22 percent saying they're worse. White men are nearly evenly split on the question, with 21 percent believing relations are worse and 20 percent believing things are better.)
Blacks, too, are reacting to the "racialized" political and cultural battles – but from a vastly different vantage point.
The tea-party insurgency has demoralized many African-Americans, especially after hotly contested allegations earlier this year that a group of tea partyers shouted racial epithets to a group of black politicians near the Capitol, says William Boone, a political science professor at historically black Clark Atlanta University.
For blacks, "some of the things these folks are supporting would be interpreted as being antiblack or detrimental to black progress," even though many blacks share some of the same conservative values politically, says Professor Boone.
He adds, "Black folk in general indicate that a lot of hits [Obama] has taken is solely because he's black. Whether that's factual or not, that's the perception."
By region in the poll, New England and the West offered the starkest contrast on perceptions of race relations: Twenty-seven percent of New Englanders said relations have improved, while 26 percent of Westerners said relations have worsened. Within one region, the disparity in beliefs was largest in the South: Twenty-four percent of respondents said Obama has worsened race relations, and 16 percent said the president has helped calm racial tensions.
The poll of 908 US adults took place between Sept. 9 and 12. The poll has a 3.3 percent margin of error.