The Root: When Barack Obama was elected president, some people assumed that one man and one election would be enough to help our country heal a racial wound 250 years in the making. In addition to his handling of the economic crisis and the war on terror, his first term was to be judged by some Americans according to one unspoken campaign promise: to permanently fix U.S. race relations.
Despite his critics’ most ambitious attempts to paint his first term as a failure, by a number of measures — among them the killing of Osama bin Laden and the troop drawdown in Iraq — it has not been. But one measure in which it could be deemed a failure is its impact on race relations.
According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, this will be the most polarized election since 1988. Furthermore, a new Associated Press poll has found that anti-black attitudes have actually increased among Americans since the president took office, with a slight majority now holding anti-black feelings. An ABC Nightline special on “the new Klan” called President Obama’s election a great recruiting tool for hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Well known KKK recruiter…
For these reasons it could be argued that Barack Obama’s first term will be regarded as disastrous for U.S. race relations. This is precisely why a second term could be seen as one of the most important steps forward in this country’s race relations since the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
A Continual Cycle
Since its inception, our country has followed a somewhat reliable pattern when it comes to race: It usually consists of one small step forward, followed by a gigantic step back and eventually a step forward that’s too big to be pulled back again.
The end of slavery represented a step forward for our nation. So did the number of black legislators who took seats in Congress as part of Reconstruction. But that seemingly momentous step forward was followed by a horrifying step back. The same year that slavery was abolished, in 1865, disgruntled former Confederate soldiers founded the Ku Klux Klan. African-American lawmakers began to disappear as newly restrictive voting laws kept many blacks from the polls. Jim Crow segregation policies and the Klan became additional tools for ensuring that black Americans remained second-class citizens. The lesson learned? When some people fear losing the only America they know, they turn to hate.
We would see this pattern repeated time and time again. In the early decades of the 20th century, while the wealthy black boxer Jack Johnson flaunted his interracial marriages and so-called Black Wall Street prospered in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Okla., the number of lynchings reached an all-time high and race riots rocked the nation. It was a race riot that would lead to the destruction of Greenwood, as well as the Florida town of Rosewood (the destruction of which was chronicled in a 1997 film of the same name). Klan membership also skyrocketed, particularly after the release of the D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation in 1915. With the dawn of the modern-day civil rights movement in the mid-20th century, again we saw our country step forward, but there were some painful steps back along the way to bring us where we are today. Among them was the re-emergence of the Klan as a powerful and intimidating force, resulting in the deaths of four little girls in a church bombing; and the killing of three teenage civil rights workers, which would inspire a federal investigation and the film Mississippi Burning. The list goes on.
A step forward…
But when it was all said and done, not only was our nation left with the Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended legalized school segregation, but the man who litigated that case before the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, became the first black man to occupy a seat on the high court. Just three years ago the first black mayor was elected in Philadelphia, Miss., the town in which those three civil rights workers were murdered and whose leaders helped cover it up.
The Next Step Forward
This is all to say that none of us should be surprised that race relations appear to have gotten worse since President Obama’s election. What would be surprising is if they had not. But history has shown us that in the long run, as long as our nation is willing to risk taking that first step and has the collective courage to try to keep moving forward, we will progress.
Billy cub-wielding Black Panthers at a Philadelphia polling station, 2008
Today, in many ways, race relations are better than they have ever been. Unlike 100 years ago, today most young people are growing up to see those of different races not only as not so different but also as potential mates, and therefore potential family members. According to a Pew Research Center study in 2010, nearly 100 percent of millennials approve of interracial relationships. According to Census Bureau data, biracial children are the fastest-growing demographic in America. And if Barack Obama gets a second term, there will be a whole new generation of kids whose formative years and entire childhood have been shaped by the presence of a black man from a multiracial family in the White House. It will officially be the “new normal” and the only America they know.Such a step forward in race relations may just be too big for anyone to pull back.
My, how far we’ve come…