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Race Relations in the United States

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Race relations are a hot issue in the United States. The question of whether or not the United States has moved past its racist past involving slavery is a fascinating one, and this sociology research paper takes a look at the extent to which race relations in the United States have truly changed.

Have race relations improved in the U.S.?

It has been less than 150 years since the end of the Civil War marked the end of slavery in America. So much has transpired since this time, not least of all the Civil Rights Movement and, most recently, the election of a Black Man to the nation’s highest office. Based upon these realities alone, one would expect that the country has come quite a ways with regard to race relations. However, as evidenced both empirically and anecdotally, race relations in America continue to deteriorate, partly because of the man who was chosen to lead the nation into a period of racial and general harmony.

Through the uneven manner in which he has attended to instances of racial unrest, President Obama has focused attention on the race-related failings of American society, as opposed to speaking to the progress made on this front in such a short time. In so doing, President Obama has eroded a good deal of the foundation of progress made towards this end to date and threatens to further erode this foundation going forward.

Additional Reading: Learn more about America's racial history.

Current racial tensions

A recent Pew Research poll in 2009 indicates almost twice as many Blacks and Whites in America believe that race relations have become worse (Lott). The president’s missteps towards racial discord began in the very first days of his presidency, when he accused Cambridge police:

“acted stupidly” in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, identifying the arrest as part and parcel of “a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately” (Lott).

Professor Gates' arrest

Of course, the arrest of Gates, an African-American, had been justified pursuant to the corroborating accounts of several witnesses, each of whom confirmed that Gates aggressively threatened law enforcement officers after his neighbors witnessed a man with a back-pack, whom they did not know to be Gates at the time, attempting to forcibly enter Gates’ home. As it happened, Gates was attempting to break into his own home because his front door’s lock was malfunctioning.

Indeed, police response in this instance was entirely appropriate, especially given that Gates himself acknowledged that his neighbors rightfully suspected that he himself might have been the same burglar who had recently attempted to break into the Gates residence, damaging the front door lock in the process (Thompson). Since providing his ill-informed commentary with regard to the Gates matter, President Obama has continued to stoke the flames of racial tension in America by drawing an inordinate amount of attention to instances in which Whites and Blacks have somehow clashed.

President's response to Trayvon Martin case

When President Obama announced his belief that George Zimmerman’s fatal altercation with Trayvon Martin was racially motivated, he also determined it necessary to claim Trayvon as his hypothetical son. In so doing, President Obama provided additional material for pundits and columnists to use in commentary designed to provoke racially-charged discourse, which inevitably contributed to racially-motivated violence all across the U.S., notwithstanding that few media outlets have reported to this effect. The Martin case also sparked a nation-wide debate on whether or not to repeal the "Stand Your Own Ground" laws.

To cite just a few examples, a Caucasian male was severely beaten by a group of African-American men, each of whom cried “Trayvon!” as they perpetrated their crime. Just outside Chicago, two Black men took turns taking punches at a lone White male, with one of the attackers explaining to police that “the Trayvon case” had upset him.

In Toledo, Ohio, an elderly man was also severely beaten by a group of African-American kids, who shouted “this is for Trayvon!” And in our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., three Black mugged and assaulted a White male, with one of the attackers announcing, “this is for Trayvon Martin” prior to the assault (Lott). These are just a few instances of race-related violence that President Obama has not only failed to address, but also possibly provoked through his rhetoric, in addition to his policies, as described below. 

Racial relations may be linked to the White House.

Some may wonder whether there is any direct link between President Obama’s rhetoric and his administration’s facilitation of racially-charged forms of hostile expression. It has been firmly established, through formal expense report filings, that The Department of Justice, at the direction of President Obama, sent DOJ employees to organize and provide security for anti-Zimmerman protests in Florida that featured violent outbursts and racially-charged commentary (Johns).

If President Obama thought it advisable in March to direct his Justice Department to send a “peacekeeping” force to Florida in order to ensure that no harm would come as a result of these protests, then he was, at the very least, dangerously careless in July, when he announced his support of the assumptions motivating these protesters. In this regard, President Obama’s rhetoric, in tandem with his policy-making decisions, served to gratuitously encourage racial discord, albeit perhaps unwittingly, irrespective of whether his actions prompted such discord or merely served to implicitly substantiate the racially-charged beliefs of those seeking to further it.

Racism growth hurts racial relations

Research indicates that the number of Americans with explicitly racist attitudes rose from 48 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2012, while implicitly racist attitudes rose from 49 percent to 56 percent over the same time span (Potak). Some sources, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, have suggested that these increases amount to growing pains on the nation’s road to racial harmony and that they cannot be avoided, at least to some extent (Ibid).

However, others have pointed to the disparate manner in which President Obama has chosen to attend to certain instances of racism. When Oklahoma college student, Christopher Lane, was murdered by three young Black males in broad daylight, and for no apparent reason, President Obama’s assistant press secretary declined to comment for fear that doing so would interfere with the legal process (Lott). And yet, this was simply not the approach that the White House took with regard to either the Trayvon Martin case or the Henry Louis Gates matter.

President Obama's rhetoric hurts racial relations

To this end, much of the uptick in racial tension has been a result of President Obama’s failure to explicitly condemn certain racially-motivated acts, choosing instead to pick and choose the instances upon which he will comment, presumably with an eye towards his own personal feelings. For this reason, what many Americans believe may or may not be true: that President Obama “has a deep-seeded hatred of White people” (Potak). 

Indeed, President Obama’s 2008 speech on race relations identified slavery as “the original sin of this nation” (Ibid.). This comment offended thousands of Americans who either a) do not have familial roots planted in this nation, but rather immigrated from elsewhere long after the slave trade had been abolished or b) simply did not identify slavery as one of the ills that they themselves had perpetrated. Nevertheless, President Obama’s comments served to privilege the racial shortcomings of our national discourse, as opposed to championing the strides we have made in resolving racial injustice. Given President Obama’s apparent concern with race relations, it seems reasonable to expect that he is not satisfied with where the nation is today with regard to racial equality. 

It is perhaps most useful to frame President Obama’s failure of leadership in this regard within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and its two most prominent Black figures, one lost to history and the other unfoundedly elevated by it. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sought a seat at what Malcolm Shabazz or “Malcolm X” identified as “the white man’s table.” Malcolm X’s assassination, perpetrated by Nation of Islam radicals hell-bent on keeping Black America desperately subservient to their violent ways as means of achieving equality, put an end to the opportunity for Black Americans to forge their own collective identity, as opposed to molding it in relation to White America (Street, Washington, Hall & McLaughlin, 27).

President Obama’s rhetoric has always praised the work of Dr. King while rarely so much as referencing the work of Malcolm X, despite previous Presidents, such as Bill Clinton, were actively engaged in promoting the values of Malcolm X (Ibid.). Moreover, President Obama’s conceptions of Dr. King’s vision have clouded his treatment of national economic issues (Foster). This was readily apparent when President Obama announced in July that “[R]acial tensions won’t get better…They may get worse” as a result of too many people fighting over a “shrinking pot” or, in other words, a table without enough seats. At the very least, this is yet another example of the dangerously irresponsible manner in which President Obama has handled race-related issues.

Final thoughts on racial relations

Ultimately, it has been a very short time since slavery was ended as a practice in this nation. However, if this nation is to persist in its infinite unity and socio-political value, it will require a leader unwilling to subjugate its foundational achievements to his personal feelings on race relations, just one of many imperfections that afflict the union today. Announcing that the constitution itself is “stained” by “original sin” and that this sin is one for which all Americans and their predecessors somehow bear blame does little to either further this nation’s future or cure racial inequality and discord.

It is not merely that our president must begin to treat equally all instances of supposed racism, but that he must shed his vision of an America in which White citizens are to bear the blame for the sins of their fathers, whatever they may be. Such a vindictive attitude only serves to further the racial divide that has plagued this country for so long; a divide that can and should be bridged through casting off the shackles of racial definition and distinguishing between meaningful race-related encounters and those that simply reflect the prejudice or stupidity of the few. In order for this to transpire, our nation’s highest office must take the lead in quelling racial discord, as opposed to stoking its flames, whether intentionally or by way of irresponsible fact-ignorant commentary that serves only to unnecessarily heighten racial tension. Otherwise, the nation risks its future as a socio-political bastion of freedom, democracy, and equality. 

Works Cited

Foster, Peter. “US Race Relations Will Worsen if Economy Doesn't Improve, Barack Obama Warns.” Telegraph.co.uk. The Telegraph, 28 Jul. 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

Johns, Joe R. “Justice Department ‘Peacekeepers’ Worked Trayvon Rally, Group Claims.” Cnn.com Cnn. 3 Jul. 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

Lott, James R. Jr. “Obama’s Racial Imbalance.” Nationalreview.com The National Review Online, 3 Aug. 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

Potok, Mark. “A Backlash, Not Necessarily a Setback.” NYTimes.com The New York Times, 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

Streetirresponsiblegton, Margaret, Hall, Simon, McLaughlin, Malcolm. “Roundtable: Marable Manning.” The Journal of American Studies, 47.1, February 2013: 23-47.

Thompson, Damian. “Henry Louis Gates Arrested and Alleges Racism. But Read the Police Report.” Telegraph.co.uk. The Telegraph, 21 Jul. 2009. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

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