The Obama Presidency and the State of Race Relations in America

Approximately two years since that brisk winter morning in January 2009 when the world witnessed the momentous inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, considerable interest has been expressed in Obama’s legacy as it relates to the state of race relations in America.

It could hardly be denied that quite a bit has been accomplished by the administration in terms of legislative policy initiatives that advance a more egalitarian, middle class-friendly liberal agenda.

On the domestic front, the passage of the stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), the Health Care and Credit Card Reform bills, the Making Home Affordable Plan, Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the lifting of Bush-instituted restrictions on the use of federal money for the advancement of embryonic stem cell research and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have been cited as shining examples of prescient, persevering leadership by Obama.

Internationally, notwithstanding the cessation of forward combat operations and whittling down of American military presence in Iraq, the ending of Bush-era haughty, swashbuckling, go-it-alone-and-damn-the-rest-of-the-world, cowboy orientation and restoration of a more collaborative but confident and stanch foreign policy style and recent passage of the START Treaty with Russia have been recognized as most noteworthy.

But despite these dazzling achievements, it is widely accepted that the fanfare, euphoria and palpable optimism that accompanied Obama’s ascendancy have since largely dissipated; that Obama’s allure, once lustrous and chaste, seems irrecoverably weathered by the typical slug of democratic governance is obvious.

Regarding race relations in particular, the landscape seems murkier today.

For President Obama himself, whether proactively and most endearingly stepping into the prohibitively nightmarish crisis bequeathed by his erstwhile pastor, Jeremiah Wright, at the height of the‘08 Democratic primaries or, some would say, ill-advisedly and impulsively wading into the controversy following the arrest of famed Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, by Cambridge, Mass., Police Sgt. James Crowley (an incident that would later culminate in the infamous “Beer Summit” on White House grounds last July), he certainly is anything but reticent or demure about matters of race.

Some contend that, in some respects, Obama personifies the paradox inherent in the current reality whereby to the same degree that his 2008 electoral victory offers up unimpeachable evidence of progress in tolerance and race neutrality in this country, it seems to have equally ignited hitherto latent feelings of hatred and bigotry toward African-Americans and other non-white groups in America.

One thing that is obviously different nowadays, compared to the days of Jim Crow jingoism and vigilantism, is that public expressions of prejudice are often cleverly couched in euphemistic language. Gone are the days when racists felt emboldened to openly assail or deny another’s humanity on account of an illogical and perverted sense of racial superiority. Experience has taught them that slightly modifying their patterns of expression could enable them to ingeniously cloak their hatred in a garb of social acceptability without necessarily detracting from their overall invectiveness.

So, with regards to Obama himself, an alive and thriving, albeit inglorious, movement (the “birthers”) formed around the perverse belief that he is not an American citizen; and no amount of evidence tendered to the contrary has yet assuaged their feelings.

Yet another, disguised as a legitimate, historical and ordinarily populist interest group, the Tea Party Movement, organized around a set of principles that though seemingly innocuous, became the rallying cry for a ragtag of the racist-minded, united in their avowed hatred for Obama.

It has always been my contention that if the Tea Party loyalists were indeed true to the core tenets of the professed reasons for their being, they undoubtedly would have been out in full force when George W. Bush was in power; the conditions (particularly as they related to big government/ballooning deficits and governmental intrusion/overreach) were certainly much ripe for such agitation back then than now.

Even Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Minority Leader and highest-ranking mainstream GOP leader today was on record as unashamedly declaring making Obama a one-term president (not addressing any of the nation’s more pressing economic woes) his number one priority!

Ever so often, you also hear references made by some of these elements either to the wishes of “the American people,” “the American heartland”or the need to “take the country back” as if to refute the pluralistic character of the country’s constitution or deny it’s chequered, inglorious past when it comes to matters of race.

“Take the country back?” But why now and from whom?

Granted that the ranks of hardcore racists in this country continue to dwindle, the results of the just concluded mid-term elections clearly demonstrate that they still can be quite resurgent and menacing. And regardless of concerted efforts to disguise or obfuscate their intentions, we must be ever vigilant lest the successes and victories of the last 60 years, culminating in Obama’s becoming, are rolled back.

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