Race relations: Hope and disappointment of Obama years

IF Barack Obama was elected on a wave of optimism, eight years later, hopes of a post-racial America have soured amid recognition that it takes more than a black president to overcome centuries of racism.

A recent poll confirmed findings of a number of studies published in the final months of the Obama administration: 52% of Americans questioned by Gallup said the country had taken a step backwards on issues of race. Just 25% thought things had improved since 2009.

Obama admitted as much in his farewell speech in Chicago.

"After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America," he said. "Such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic."

"Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society," he said, warning that attitudes can take generations to change.

Quoting America's much loved literary hero, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, Obama added: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

It was an appeal for understanding that the 44th president repeated numerous times throughout his presidency, particularly in the later years as the country grappled with police shootings – often of unarmed black men.

The Black Lives Matter movement, established in 2013 after a white man was acquitted over the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, rose up against the killings in a series of protests that in some cities degenerated into clashes and vandalism.

In some quarters, people raged openly on social media against having a black president. Hardly surprising then that more than 50 years after segregation was outlawed and 150 years after slavery was abolished, some thought progress had stalled.

Fight

"Everybody was hopeful and people cried" over Obama's inauguration, remembered Maria Fragosa, a self-employed Puerto Rican.

"But it did not change anything," she added. "Racism is still going on and I don't think anybody can change that."

Shakeya Mervin, a 30-year-old barber at a black hair salon in Harlem, agreed.

"I don't really see a difference," he told AFP. "I think he did the best he could. Anything else – it would have been a fight, he is only one man, he can't appease everybody."

Dennis Carlson, a white data analyst at a nearby health insurance company, also believed Obama was not responsible.

"I don't think it's his fault," Carlson said. "He did what he could to keep his cool. He led by example."

Sharon Rush, co-founder of The Centre for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida, says Obama walked a tightrope.

"As a black man, he knows colour makes a difference but he also represents everybody, and the philosophy while he was in office is the philosophy that race doesn't matter," she said.

"He tried to do what he could so as not to inflame things, but because of that he may have encouraged the disapproval of people who thought he was not doing enough," she added.

One of the sensitivities with race relations, Rush said, is that it is easy to misunderstand and easy to be misunderstood.

Privilege

"It can make people afraid to talk about it and yet people need to talk about it. That's part of the tension," she explained.

Rush singled out the "Black Lives Matter" catchphrase as a classic example in that some choose to interpret it as "white lives don't matter".

For now, what's clear is that no one is expecting a rapid improvement under President-elect Donald Trump, who used his campaign to rile up and espouse divisive rhetoric, particularly against Hispanics and Muslims.

But Jena Delville-Joseph, a 32-year-old black colleague of Carlson's, hopes that younger generations will move things along.

"This was probably the last push by people who think this country should look a certain way," she said of Trump's election. "In 20 years, this country will look a lot different, because of the demographics."

Birth rates and immigration suggest that the percentage of white Americans will fall 16% by 2055 as Hispanic and Asian communities increase.

But fewer whites do not necessary mean less power, warned Rush pointing to traditional monopolies on Congress or on the judiciary.

"It takes a long journey to understand each other," she said. "I had to learn a lot about race to understand the privilege that I had with my whiteness." — AFP