Race Relations and the First Black President

Certain pundits and no small number of American voters have had a rhetorical question on their minds in recent days:

How is it that after 8 years of a black presidency, race relations in America have actually become worse?

One possible response is, “why would you think they would be better?” A black president is a provocation to any number of people, not a balm. His election raised hopes and aspirations that were unlikely to be fulfilled given prevailing political realities. There are people out there who regard the very idea of a black president as an anathema, and his election made them furious. It’s also possible that his very existence heightened a perception among whites of black entitlement and a sense among blacks of the lengths whites will go to neutralize a black man’s success. There are certainly many legitimate policy differences and executive missteps that can account for the remarkable degree of vitriol and obstructionism that this particular president has attracted, but his race can’t be excluded as a partial explanation.

But, to the question: first, are race relations actually worse? Is there any way to rationally measure that? The ubiquity of smartphones and social media do account for the fact that we are now made aware when a black man gets shot or strangled by a cop, and that awareness has generated a lot more passion in the black community than previously, when these things were less likely to come to public light. But in general, race relations have been bad for our entire adult lives, they were bad when Obama was elected, and they’re bad now, degrees of badness being highly subjective (especially among whites) and rather beside the point.

If you accept the premise of the question, the left (blacks prominently among them) would answer that the reason is that Obama (not to mention Congress, which is much more concerned with the Second Amendment than the Fourteenth) hasn’t done enough to ameliorate the economic plight of blacks or rectify what they believe is a racist criminal justice system, and what we’re seeing is the fruit of that neglect. Obama gets quite a bit of heat from the left for not responding with knee-jerk assent to black assertions of victimhood and entitlement.

There can be little question that Obama (along with any number of other black leaders in a position to exert their influence) could do a lot more to arouse self-criticism and self-control in the black community, specifically around the issues of family cohesiveness, the importance of education, and the epidemic of black-on-black misogyny and gun violence. But this is a little like telling a diabetic to get better at insulin production; there are endemic disabilities that need to be addressed before a proper diet (as it were) will help, and we show few signs of addressing them except with lip service at moments like these. At the very least, Obama has provided an impeccable role model of how a man — black or white — should behave as a husband and father, though his example creates barely a ripple in the sea of tawdry narcissism that washes over us each day.

Still, as the first black president in American history, if he had made his blackness a fulcrum and black issues a major theme of his presidency, my guess is that he would have been excoriated for spending time on his own racial interests rather than representing “all the people,” thus fulfilling a stereotype (reminiscent of the warnings during Kennedy’s campaign that, if elected, he would be beholden to the Vatican) that he was trying to transcend. On the few occasions when he’s dropped his Harvard veneer and spoken overtly as a black man, he’s been criticized for creating divisiveness and “playing the race card.” Any chance he had of being president of all the people was probably DOA anyway, but emphasizing black concerns would have surely killed it. So he tried, for the most part, to be a post-racial president, which is a sure recipe for damnation from some quarter.

We expect too much of our presidents, even when they’re white. It was expecting too much to hope that our first black one would be an effective interlocutor between races, and he hasn’t been. Not a failure that justifies the personal opprobrium heaped upon him by the right, but a failure nonetheless. It’s far easier to blame him than to take on the complexities of state and local governments’ failure to address the festering racial divides in their communities. But bully pulpits notwithstanding, it’s not the president’s job; it’s the people’s, and so far we’re all too content –black and white alike– to blame others rather than come to grips with a communal responsibility.

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