Has Obama Ushered in the Most Racially Divided Period in Recent History?

The following is an excerpt from the new book Post-Racial or Most-Racial? by Michael Tesler (University of Chicago Press, 2016): 


"You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away." — President Obama, July 19, 2013

Barack Obama stunned the presidential press corps when he unexpectedly entered the White House Briefing Room on July 19, 2013. It had been nearly a week since George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager whom Zimmerman claimed to shoot and kill in self-defense, and racial tensions in the United States were running high. With African Americans more than fifty percentage points more likely to disapprove of the verdict than whites, the jury’s decision was yet another profound reminder of the enduring racial divisions in American society. As angry protests of the verdict mounted, so, too, did the pressure on Barack Obama to address the case’s racial dynamics as the country’s first African American president. So, days after his initial written response to the verdict, which made no mention of race, President Obama decided that it was time to speak candidly to the nation about why the acquittal of George Zimmerman had caused such pain in the black community.

The media was understandably surprised to see him deliver the speech. With a few notable exceptions, Barack Obama had refused to engage in racial controversies during his political career. The president’s usual inclination toward racial silence was nowhere to be found on that afternoon, though. Instead, he spoke extemporaneously for roughly twenty minutes about race and crime in the United States. Barack Obama, as the epigraph indicated, explained how the African American community was looking at the Trayvon Martin incident “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” Experiences, he detailed, which included racial disparities in the application of criminal laws and black America’s regular encounters with racial profiling. Experiences, the president added, that he also frequently confronted before being elected to the United States Senate.

Many applauded the speech for doing, as Dan Balz wrote in his Washington Post column, what “no other American president could have done—giving voice, in calm and measured terms, to what it means still to be black in America.” Some commentators, however, condemned the president for emphasizing the importance of past and present encounters with white prejudice as a root cause of African Americans’ emotional reactions to the Trayvon Martin incident. Rush Limbaugh used the speech to “corroborate” his 2008 claim that Barack Obama was no different from controversial civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Bill O’Reilly carried on for several episodes of his top-rated cable news show about “Obama and the race problem,” where he angrily called on “the African-American leadership, including President Obama, to stop the nonsense. Walk away from the world of victimization and grievance and lead the way out of the mess [in the black community].” A few prominent conservatives even branded President Obama as a “race baiter” for his comments.

The differing reactions to President Obama’s comments corresponded to the large partisan and racial divisions in public opinion about the George Zimmerman trial. Ever since the earliest polling on the Trayvon Martin incident in March 2012, Democrats and African Americans had been much more likely than Republicans and white Americans to think that Zimmerman should have been arrested for murder. The large racial divide in public opinion about the case should not have surprised anyone. Black and white Americans have long had “separate realities” about the criminal justice system, and perceptions of O. J. Simpson’s innocence were similarly split along racial lines during his murder trial in the mid-1990s. The partisan divide in white Americans’ responses to the Zimmerman trial was more peculiar, though. Figure I.1 shows that, although white Democrats and white Republicans responded almost identically to the O. J. Simpson verdict in October 1995, there was a forty-percentage-point gulf between white partisans in their dissatisfaction with the Zimmerman trial’s outcome.

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figure i.1. White Partisans’ Reactions to the O. J. Simpson and George Zimmerman Verdicts Source: Gallup/CNN/USA Today, October 5–7, 1995 (accessed from the Roper Center’s Data Archive); Pew Poll, July 17–21, 2013 (results reported by the Pew Research Center 2013b). 

To be sure, there are several good reasons why those two race-infused murder trials generated such different levels of partisan polarization. A large piece of the puzzle, though, can surely be explained by this claim: Mass politics had become more polarized by racial attitudes since Barack Obama’s rise to prominence. That is, the election of President Obama helped usher in a “most-racial” political era where racially liberal and racially conservative Americans were more divided over a whole host of political positions than they had been in modern times. A natural upshot of that growing racialization of American politics is that Democrats and Republicans increasingly viewed racial controversies like the Trayvon Martin incident through very different lenses. 

How could the ascendancy of Barack Obama—a presidential candidate who once embodied the country’s great hope of moving beyond age-old racial divisions—help usher in this most-racial political era? His election, as David Sears and I put it in the subtitle our 2010 book, Obama’s Race, carried with it “the dream of a post-racial America.” That election night dream, many will recall, was immortalized in Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential concession speech:

"I’ve always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too. But we both recognize that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound. A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit—to dine at the White House—was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth."

The American people generally shared in Senator McCain’s hope for a post-racial America as well. Public opinion polls taken shortly before and after the 2008 election showed that citizens of all races were optimistic about the effect of Barack Obama’s presidency on American race relations (see fig. I.2). Black and white citizens alike were also more upbeat about racial progress in the United States after Barack Obama’s election than they had been in recent years (Pew Research Center 2010, 2013b).

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figure i.2. Perceptions of Barack Obama’s Impact on Race Relations, 2008–11 Source: iPOLL databank search for “race relations” and “Obama.” 

But those high hopes rapidly receded. Figure I.2 shows a large disconnect between the percentage of Americans who thought Barack Obama’s presidency would improve race relations in 2008 and early 2009 and the percentage who thought his presidency actually had made relations better in 2010 and 2011. In fact, national surveys commissioned by Fox News, CBS/New York Times, the Economist, and NBC News during Barack Obama’s first term in the White House all found that Americans were more likely to think race relations had become worse since Barack Obama took office. This belief that Obama’s presidency helped make race relations worse intensified over time. Public opinion polls conducted by Rasmussen, YouGov/Economist, and CBS/New York Times in 2013 and 2014 all suggested that Americans were about four times more likely to think that race relations had deteriorated since President Obama’s first inauguration than they were to say they had improved. The above-referenced spike in the percentage of blacks and whites who thought that conditions for ordinary African Americans had improved also quickly returned to their pre-2008 levels (Pew Research Center 2010, 2013b).

It was clear to most astute observers, then, that the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency had not marked a post-racial moment in American politics. Moreover, any lingering doubts were all but eradicated by the 2012 election results: Barack Obama won a second term in the White House with only 39 percent of the white vote—a slightly lower share of white support than the 40 percent that Michael Dukakis received when he lost the 1988 presidential election to George H. W. Bush in a landslide. With the racial and ethnic breakdown of 2012 voting factoring heavily into political commentators’ postelection analyses, the 2008 election night hopes of racial unity had given way four years later to growing fears of racial polarization in American politics.

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