Many say U.S. race relations have improved under Obama, but divides remain

By Michael A. Fletcher and Krissah Thompson
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

President Obama has ignited a surge of optimism among African Americans as they assess race relations and their prospects for the future, but the hope for reconciliation that accompanied the election of the nation's first black president remains far off.

The first year of Obama's presidency has brought the country face to face with troubling racial schisms just as often as it has promoted racial understanding.

In some ways, Obama has become a mirror for every American's racial attitudes -- reflecting perceptions, stereotypes, fears, hopes and the nation's complicated racial history. In a report released by the Pew Research Center on Tuesday, blacks, whites and Hispanics showed an inclination to racially identify him from their own vantage point.

A majority of the African Americans who responded to the Pew survey said they believe Obama's election has improved race relations, though that number has shrunk since the heady days just after the election. Thirty-two percent of whites and 42 percent of Hispanics think relations have improved since then.

Obama's presidency, however, has at times unearthed racial frictions and inspired difficult conversations that otherwise might have gone unspoken.

This week, it was the news of a private exchange between Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and the authors of the new book "Game Change," in which the senator spoke well of Obama's chances for election because he is "light-skinned" and has no "Negro dialect."

Reid apologized repeatedly for the remarks, and Obama quickly accepted, seeming eager to move beyond an unwelcome distraction. Reid is a "good man" who simply used "inartful language," the president told TV One's Roland Martin, adding that Reid has always been "on the right side of history."

His aides, meanwhile, have declined to expand on the lingering issues raised by the controversy, though others have.

"Light-skinned is equated with good, an ability to pass, to fit in the mainstream," said Peniel E. Joseph, a Tufts University historian and author of a new book about the shifting racial attitudes that allowed for Obama's election as the nation's first black president. "He's light enough and mainstream enough to appeal to a broad audience. Those who are not really stand out in a conspicuous way as 'the other.' "

Douglas Wilder was subject to similar scrutiny when he ran for Virginia governor two decades ago, becoming the first African American in the country elected to that office. He likened Reid's comments to those made by white voters he would meet in rural southwest Virginia who said that they would vote for Wilder but that they were not sure whether other whites would. Wilder found that notion implicitly racist and believed Reid's comments uncovered his own stereotypes. "Reid was saying: 'It's okay with me because the fair skin and that lack of dialect gets over with me,' " he said.

Since taking office, Obama has mostly declined to engage in the racial analyses that have come with his historic presidency. With the nation dealing with double-digit unemployment rates and the threat of global terrorism, White House aides view race as little more than a diversion. Only once last year did Obama intentionally step into the nation's racial crucible.

"He's not somebody who pours gasoline on racial controversies," said Darrell M. West, the vice president and director of governance studies at Brookings.

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