Six years ago, if someone was asked how President Obama would shape race relations, undoubtedly the themes of hope and change would have come up. Few would have said race relations (a really vague concept, by the way), would get worse under Obama. But here we are.
What's behind these numbers? Well, they're likely a bit skewed because they come at such a fraught time, but they do reflect a sentiment captured in other polls and the kind of head-shaking going on in many households over what's playing out in the news media.
But there are also other, more constant dynamics at play:
Obama, because he is black, faces much higher expectations among blacks and whites on race than your average president. This is for different reasons, but those expectations are both, in large part, about Obama being black.
With race, it has often been this way. African American civil rights leaders, elected officials and activists have seen it as their duty to be out-front in pushing the country forward on race relations, steadily re-shaping American society bit by bit. And for many African Americans, Obama's ascendancy to the presidency came with not only symbolic expectations but also substantive ones.
For many whites, though, Obama's election in and of itself operated as a kind of symbolic absolution -- its own evidence of racial progress without many strings attached. That's the whole post-race fantasy at work.
The political dividing line finds liberals often wanting him to say and do more about race/racism, with conservatives insisting that he says too much. The two sides paint Obama's words as either being a healing balm or utterly corrosive. Either way, there is bipartisan and cross-racial disappointment over expectations not met.
A recent story by my colleague, Vanessa Williams, compares Obama's approach to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's and lays out those expectations:
“People want the president to be out front the same way he did with immigration, gay rights and women’s rights. They want him to make this an American issue,” said Howard University student body President Leighton Watson, who met with Obama. “The consensus from everyone — the students and the mayors — was that we wanted the president to be more out in front in a visual and audible way. We don’t question his commitment. We just want him to continue it in a way people can feel.”
Being "out front" on race, though, is much trickier -- partly because what put Obama out front on immigration and women's rights (he was actually more of a laggard on gay rights) were actual pieces of legislation and policy proposals that had broad support among congressional Democrats. There isn't a clear equivalent for black America -- though Obama has pushed for several changes in the criminal justice system, as well as unveiling the My Brother's Keeper initiative, which comes with private money and public support.
But the idea of doing something in a "way people can feel" speaks both to policy and emotion.
His critics want Obama to drop the Mr. Spock-like approach to race and show that he feels their pain and validates their experiences of race and racism. But, asking this president to emote on almost anything has often left his supporters wanting. It's no different on race.
And finally, the main reason these numbers are so bad: Dealing with race is just hard. Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder famously talked about America as a "nation of cowards." And Obama lamented that conversations about race relations only come up around some big, divisive incident.
Many Americans really do have willful amnesia when it comes to race. That explains why Obama and de Blasio keep talking about broader perceptions of African Americans that go back centuries and still resonate today. Their discussions of race, which delight many liberals and rankle many conservatives, try to make this point: It's not that race is the elephant in the room, it's the very room itself.