In the months after Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, 66 percent of Americans told the researchers behind the New York Times /CBS News poll that race relations in the United States were generally good.
Perhaps most notably, the long-standing gap between the share of white Americans and black Americans who felt this way narrowed in a way it hadn't since 1990. Race relations in America were good, and on this black-and-white America generally and pretty overwhelmingly agreed.
Whatever the heady admixture of ideas and emotions that produced that data, that picture of America in 2009 is now orphaned. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows just 37 percent of all Americans describe race relations as generally good. (Accordingly, other polling in recent months has shown a majority of Americans believe race relations have gotten worse under the nation's first black president.)
The last time there was such a negative attitude about race relations was May 1992. That date, of course, corresponds with riots that began after the video-taped police beating of a black Los Angeles man named Rodney King prompted prosecutors to charge four officers with excessive use of force. A nearly all-white jury acquitted the group on all charges, sparking violent attacks and riots. A group of black rioters set on a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, during the unrest, beating him nearly to death.
So, what is driving all this anxiety and perhaps disappointment? Why do Americans now regard the country's racial situation as bad? And are race relations really worse now, nearly seven years after Obama took office?
First, let's look back to 1992, the last time we know that Americans viewed race relations so dimly. At the time, Rodney King asked a poignant question: “Can we all get along?”
(Note: This quote has often been mis-remembered as "Can't we all just get along?" King didn't utter "can't" or "just.")
But perhaps that line of thinking is also part of America's problem; violence is hardly the only barometer of race relations that matters.
When the Kerner Commission looked at the series of riots that set cities across the country ablaze in the 1960s, it found that conflicts with police were typically only the spark, the catalyzing event that ultimately ignited unrest -- not the underlying cause. Long-standing racial disparities in almost every major facet of life — health, education, employment, political influence and engagement — had created a bed of strong and deep kindling that preceded the fire. The commission's recommendation: Get to work narrowing those gaps and eliminating the very real existence of two disparate and largely unequal Americas, immediately.
In the intervening decades, legal changes were made. Individual black Americans have been elected to public office, become quite wealthy and yes, moved in next door. Successive waves of immigrants from every corner of the world have also benefited from the removal of those legal brambles.
But socially and effectively, there's a lot that, for the vast majority of Americans, has remained the same.
In 2013, deep into the Obama presidency, the Pew Research Center produced a report assessing racial disparities in a series of social and economic matters. And what Pew's researchers found generally cannot be described as good. Black and Latino Americans had significantly narrowed gaps in high-school graduation rates and seen their life expectancies climb closer to (and in the case of Latinos, surpass) those of white Americans.
But on other measures, like actual wealth (assets minus debts) and home-ownership, infant mortality, quality of education and discipline in schools, yawning racial and ethnic gaps remain. So many Americans continue to live in such racially segregated communities that by some measures 90 percent of blacks and Latinos would today need to move to a new neighborhood to create real residential integration. And the pattern does not stop there. Even on lighter matters — including with whom Americans elect to spend their time — evidence remains of a deep racial divide.
No violence required.
And so, it seems, the kindling has not been cleared.
Of course, its against that backdrop that events like the death of unarmed black teens such as Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Renesha McBride have entered the national consciousness. It's on that social and economic landscape that names like Eric Garner and Michael Brown have become known. Now, a stream of police officers have been caught — on tape — engaged in activities that many Americans see as abusive. It's in a country where all of these things had happened that a gunman recently entered a Charleston, S.C., church and shot and killed nine people reportedly in hopes of igniting a race war.
Now, after a series of what can only be described as racial disasters, America has apparently been confronted with a state of often-ignored social realities — the kindling.
What evidence do we have of that?
In May 2014, just before the shooting death of Brown in Ferguson, Mo., just 33 percent of Americans described race relations as generally bad in that same New York Times/CBS News poll. Just 27 percent of white Americans felt that way, versus 46 percent of African Americans.
Then, in August, officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown, igniting unrest in the heavily black St. Louis suburb. By the end of that month, the number of whites who viewed race relations as bad jumped from 27 percent to 41 percent. Black Americans stayed about the same, with close to half saying they were bad.
Since then, those figures have climbed steadily among black Americans and oscillated among whites. But, it's another poll — one released by Gallup on Monday — that reveals something even more telling. That litany of racial disasters and cataclysmic events that drew global attention to American racial affairs seems to have produced no quantifiable change in the way that African Americans view their lives in the United States.
Last month, the Gallup poll found black Americans were no more likely to report having been mistreated by the police than they were were in 2013 or in previous surveys, dating back to 1997.
So then, how does this all connect to Obama? Why does he — one president in 43 — remain so central to so many of our assessments of race relations?
Ultimately the answer might lie in Obama's own words. In 2004, when Obama was just a Senate candidate from Illinois delivering the Democratic Convention keynote speech, he described an America in which many people want very much to believe.
"There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America," he said.
That ideal, it seems, has been very difficult to turn into a reality.