“Jason Wilhite, an African-American from Charleston, S.C., was one of them. “I did a jig around the house I was so happy,” Wilhite says. “I thought Americans really had made progress in how they viewed black people as a whole.” His assessment now? “Man, did I read that wrong.”
“Wilhite isn’t alone. Nearly four years into the Age of Obama, many Americans are coming to the conclusion that choosing a black man as commander in chief has done little to speed up racial progress or soothe racial tensions. In fact, some even suspect that Obama’s presence in the Oval Office may be slowing us down—and pushing us farther apart.
A new Newsweek poll puts this remarkable shift in stark relief for the first time. Back in 2008, 52 percent of Americans told Pew Research Center that they expected race relations to get better as a result of Obama’s election; only 9 percent anticipated a decline. But today that 43-point gap has vanished. According to the Newsweek survey, only 32 percent of Americans now think that race relations have improved since the president’s inauguration; roughly the same number (30 percent) believe they have gotten worse. Factor in those who say nothing has changed and the result is staggering: nearly 60 percent of Americans are now convinced that race relations have either deteriorated or stagnated under Obama.
“Whites are especially critical of Obama’s approach: a majority (51 percent) actually believe he’s been unhelpful in bridging the country’s racial divide. Even blacks have concluded, by a 20-point margin, that race relations have not improved on Obama’s watch.
“The question now is why. It is no surprise that race still divides America; it has divided us since the first settlers landed on our shores. (Even in 1969, in the wake of landmark civil-rights legislation, 59 percent of blacks told Newsweek that the pace of change was too slow.) And it is no surprise that African-Americans are feeling particularly pessimistic after a recession that drove black unemployment as high as 16.7 percent. The surprise is that one of the most encouraging signs of racial progress in our nation’s history, the election of an African-American president, now seems to be deepening our divisions rather than diminishing them. But perhaps that shouldn’t be so shocking either. What the Newsweek poll reveals—and what a review of recent history reiterates—is that Obama didn’t create the misunderstandings and resentments that complicate a controversy like Trayvon Martin’s death. He’s just the spark that sets them off.”