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

By Michael A. Fletcher and Krissah Thompson
Wednesday, January 13, 2010; A04

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.

"I think he understands that he's the one who gets burned when that happens," West said.

Obama created a storm last year when he spoke about racial profiling and said police officers in Cambridge, Mass., acted "stupidly" in arresting Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. outside his own home. The president's comments, made in response to a question at a news conference, eclipsed the health-care reform debate for a week and forced a much-hyped "beer summit" at the White House with Obama, Vice President Biden, Gates, and the arresting officer, Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley.

Obama's choice not to discuss the topic fails to take the country to more meaningful discussion about race, said Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton. Glaude said his own reflections on the first year of Obama's presidency sent him to a passage from James Baldwin's "Many Thousands Gone" essay, in which the writer speaks of an American desire to make "the Negro face" blank, washing away "the guilt" of the past.

That is a continuation of the posture Obama struck as a candidate. When he was running for office, Obama, who is biracial but identifies as African American, rarely addresses racial issues. That has led some analysts to label him a "de-racialized" black politician.

"Obama basically is a bargainer and appeals to whites by communicating to them that he will not see them as racist," said Shelby Steele, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "Someone such as Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson . . . would be off-putting to whites. Obama sort of cleanses himself of that. And whites are grateful."

Still, Obama is not immune from some stubborn racial attitudes. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November, research participants were shown three photos of Obama -- one in which his skin tone was darkened, one in which it was lightened and one in which it was unaltered. Participants were then asked to rate how well each photo represented who Obama "really is."

Those who shared political affiliation with the president tended to think the lightened photos were more representative. People who did not share his political views chose the darkened photos.

Obama's supporters point out that many of his policies, such as extending unemployment benefits and greatly expanding education aid and health-care coverage, benefit a broad spectrum of economically struggling Americans and many are disproportionately black. That, they say, is more important than rhetoric.

Nearly a year after taking office, Obama retains the support of nearly 90 percent of African Americans, while his approval rating among whites has dropped precipitously, going from 61 percent in February to 41 percent last month, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

African Americans also have experienced an increase in optimism with Obama in the Oval Office. Though it is disproportionately affected by the bad economy, job losses and foreclosures, the new Pew poll found that the African American community's assessment of its prospects has risen more dramatically during the past two years than at any time in the past quarter-century.

Nearly twice as many blacks now, 39 percent, as in 2007 say that the "situation of black people in this country" is better than it was five years earlier. Similarly, 56 percent of blacks and nearly two-thirds of whites say the standard-of-living gap between whites and blacks has narrowed in the past decade.

"We expected that there may be an Obama effect, and it was really quite dramatic, which isn't to say that this era as measured in this survey means that all is fine between blacks and whites," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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