With Obama, not a post-racial nation, but something more complex


Deborah Solomon of Rochester, N.Y., sings along with “God Bless America,” which was performed just after President Obama took his oath. She watched the ceremonies via a big-screen TV monitor on the Mall. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
January 21, 2013

The huge oil painting propped up on a bridge table at 13th and F streets NW was arresting enough to stop people even as they hurried toward the Mall. There they were, heroes of black America, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Tupac Shakur, Huey Newton and Barack Obama, all on horseback in a classic Western tableau.

One after another, potential customers, almost all of them black, stepped up to inspect the painting and the $20 prints of it that were for sale Monday. Then they did a double take, because the couple selling the prints, Corey Francis and Kelly Allen, were white.

Francis pointed to the center of the painting, to a convincing likeness of the president: “That’s Will Smith, isn’t it?”

A suspicious silence fell over his black customers — was the white guy making fun or having fun? And then Francis smiled, they all cracked up, and three more Obama supporters bought a print.

On the day the nation witnessed the second swearing-in of the first black president, race mattered, as it has at every turn throughout American history. But blacks and whites along the Mall and the parade route, as well as others across the land, say it matters in different ways at the midpoint of this historic presidency.

Suspicions and animosities, stereotypes and fears, they’re all still there, but they’re more out in the open now, as if Obama’s presence in the White House has liberated some people to say what until now they felt constrained from speaking aloud. At times, those words have been healing in their candor or empathy; sometimes, they have been ugly, provoking pain or anger. But for an optimistic few in the crowd Monday, the mere fact that they are being said has kindled a fragile hope.

“Some of the people I work with, the truth came out of them since Obama came in. The ones that don’t like Obama, they say things about him that they wouldn’t say about a white president,” said Francine Jenkins, a black Washingtonian who works for the Social Security Administration and bought one of the prints.

Still, Jenkins says, “It’s a very slow process, but we’re getting there.”

Four years ago, blacks and whites alike allowed themselves to speak of a post-racial America in which Obama would inspire people of all races to be more accepting. But the president’s first term tempered such idealism.

On one side of the ledger, there has been an easing of tensions, as 93-year-old William Horne has discovered. As he pushed his walker slowly along Pennsylvania Avenue, a World War II veteran’s cap on his head, Horne, who came by bus from Columbus, Ga., said the past four years have brought a change that stands out even in a life that witnessed Jim Crow and the civil rights movement.

“I notice I get a lot more respect from different people,” he said. “I can be going shopping at the grocery store or Sam’s Club. A white person will see me coming and hold the door for me” — not because he’s elderly, he said, but because the tone of the country has changed.

“I think some people didn’t feel as though a black man was capable,” Horne said. “Since they find he is capable to take on responsibility, they give more respect to other black people as well.”

But along with some eased tensions, there has been more open antagonism. Some whites say they feel more comfortable talking about race or sense that it is less of an obstacle. Many blacks find that conclusion too facile, however, and whites say their remarks are sometimes met with suspicion.

Vic Ingram, a retired sheriff’s captain from southern Virginia, is conservative, white and opinionated. He says his critiques of Obama’s policies, in conversation or via Facebook, draw retorts.

“When I try to talk to friends, both black and white, about the issues, they always come back with, ‘Well, deep down you’re a closet racist,’ ” he said.

When he argued that some of the president’s policies amounted to “trading social programs for votes,” one white friend deleted Ingram as a Facebook friend, he said. And some black colleagues he worked with for many years told him, “You just can’t handle a black man being the president.”

“I do support our president,” Ingram said. “I pray for him every day.”

Although the symbolism of having a black role model in the White House retains its power, few would argue that prejudice has dramatically diminished.

Before the 2008 vote, a Gallup poll found 56 percent of Americans saying that race relations would improve during an Obama presidency. In the euphoria immediately after his election, that number shot up to 70 percent. Obama acknowledged the sky-high expectations, noting a “justifiable pride . . . that we had taken a step to move us beyond” discrimination. But, he said in early 2009, “that lasted about a day.”

The president was joking, but survey data backs him up. When Gallup asked the same questions three years later, 64 percent of Americans said having a black president had either made no difference or had made relations worse than before.

Sue Swanhorst and her son Matt, 17, who are white and from Falls Church, say race comes up only when there’s talk of affirmative action at Matt’s school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

“At Thomas Jefferson, we don’t support it,” Matt said as his mother nodded. “We worked hard to get here, and admission should be based on merit, versus other issues.”

But really, “race is a non-issue,” Sue Swanhorst said.

Race remains an issue for many blacks, according to Stanford University political psychologist Jon Krosnick. A study he developed showed that the share of voters expressing favorable attitudes toward blacks declined during Obama’s first term.

Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University who studies black leadership, said that “the election of President Obama was groundbreaking and hugely symbolic, but it was no panacea for race relations.” Even so, she knows the president has made a huge difference: “For the first six years of her life, my 2-year-old niece will only know an African American president, and that’s amazing.”

Obama has been careful to warn against expectations that he would cater to black concerns. In a 2011 interview with BET News, he rejected the idea that he should focus on black America because blacks were disproportionately hit by the recession.

“No, no, no, that’s not how America works,” he said. “America works when all of us are pulling together and everybody is focused on making sure that every single person has opportunity.”

Expectations that Obama will now focus on black concerns are not likely to be fulfilled, Gillespie said: “It’s a core value of his not to talk about race. To some black elites, that’s frustrating, but most African Americans have greater forbearance for the president.”

Still, Obama’s presidency has altered race relations, said William Smith, executive director of the National Center for Race Amity at Wheelock College in Boston. “We are living through the death rattle of racism,” he said, pointing to a marked increase in interracial friendships and relationships as evidence that “we have made quantum leaps. The Obama presidency demonstrates the reality that race and color are increasingly irrelevant to what today’s kids can do and who they can be.”

Huge majorities of young adults of all races now approve of interracial relationships, according to a Pew Research Center study. The number of marriages across racial lines has doubled in three decades.

Ed and Freda Butler, who came from Rahway, N.J., to see the inaugural parade, remember thinking in 2008 that Obama “was going to change the face of blacks,” Freda said, but they have learned that “it just takes time.” Ed, a landscaper, tries to avoid racial topics with white co-workers because “that can be touchy, pretty much the same as before.”

Freda still hears racism in the comments of some white opponents of Obama’s health-care overhaul: “They refer to ‘our America.’ Well, who are they talking about? It’s our America, too.”

David Montgomery and Lonnae O’Neal Parker contributed to this report.

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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