Commentary Magazine


Can Obama Repair the Damage He’s Done to Race Relations Before Leaving Office?

Heady optimism, embedded as it is in the American genetic code, was perhaps never more pronounced than in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Even the most cynical among us looked forward to the effect that the election of the first black president would have on lingering racial disparity and antipathy. Six and a half years later, and that sanguinity seems as misplaced as was the belief that the president’s very aura would force the tides to recede. Americans believe that Barack Obama has failed to live up to his promise on the issue of race, and polls suggest racial comity has receded to its lowest point since before Bill Clinton took office. The president and his administration bear much of the blame for this condition, but can Obama repair his legacy on race relations before he leaves office?

The spate of urban violence that rocked the nation over the course of the last nine months has led political observers to wonder whether the defining themes of the 2016 election would closely resemble those in 1968, when a losing war abroad and unrest at home propelled the “law and order” candidate into the White House. The present urban tension has its roots in fertile soil composed of chronically high black unemployment, a disproportionate African-American male prison population, and racial agitation on the part of this president and his administration.

The president’s allies spent much of the 2012 election campaign tearing at the American social fabric, particularly on the issue of race, in order to propel the beleaguered president back into the White House. Former Attorney General Eric Holder might be the worst offender in this arena. America’s chief law enforcement officer has in the past insisted that the nation was composed of “cowards,” merely because they failed to come to his preferred conclusion on matters racial. He denounced the treatment he and the president had received from Republicans as “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly, and divisive” before a predominantly African-American audience at Rev. Al Sharpton’s tax-evading charity. Holder has insisted that the ubiquitous and anodyne political petition to “take the country back” has a racial component when uttered by Republicans, though he was curiously silent about Hillary Clinton’s use of this phrase.

The president’s supporters in the media dutifully mimicked their allies in the administration, and proceeded to perfect the art of racial agitation. 2012 was the lamentable year in which the pet project of divining racial animus from everyday language was refined in liberal venues like MSNBC. “Coded” racial language became a pet fascination for the carnival barkers in the left-leaning opinion press. Words like “golf,” “Monday,” “apartment” and even “Constitution” were dubbed racially suspect.

All of this agitation has undoubtedly had far-reaching repercussions. But as the president begins to contemplate his legacy, he is perhaps looking to retroactively validate his approach to addressing racial grievances.

On Monday, the president restricted some of the surplus military equipment that could be purchased by local police forces; a policy aimed at reducing tensions between law enforcement and the communities they police. While justifying that policy shift, the president made note of the fact that racial tensions cannot be tackled comprehensively if we are unwilling to speak honestly about the subject.

One of the things I also want to focus on is the fact that a lot of the issues that have been raised here and in places like Baltimore and Ferguson and New York goes beyond policing. We can’t ask the police to contain and control problems that the rest of us aren’t willing to face or do anything about. If we as a society don’t do more to expand opportunity to everybody who is willing to work for it, then we’ll end up seeing conflicts between law enforcement and residents. If we as a society aren’t willing to deal honestly with issues of race, then we can’t just expect police departments to solve these problems.

If communities are being isolated and segregated without opportunity and without investment and without jobs, if we, politicians, are simply ramping up long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes that end up devastating communities, we can’t then ask the police to be the ones to solve the problem when there are no able bodied men in the community. Or kids are growing up without intact households.

There is no shortage of irony in this statement from a president who once said Florida teen Trayvon Martin looked like the son he never had, a clear implication that there was a racial element to his killing, well before the jury that would eventually acquit George Zimmerman of wrongdoing was even empanelled. But these are praiseworthy comments, nonetheless.

“Too many fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Obama said courageously before a black audience in 2008. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

Obama largely abandoned that premise over the course of his presidency, but his return to the theme is noble. Obama’s embrace of criminal justice reforms, particularly those relating to the practice of creating felons out of non-violent drug offenders, is equally laudable.

Americans are optimists, and that characteristic is perhaps evident in praise for the president’s most recent attempt to tackle lingering racial resentment. In concert with Obama’s post-presidential goal of serving as a role model for disaffected black male youth, the president seems to have made it a priority to at long last have a positive effect on interracial relations in America. Let’s hope he succeeds in that endeavor.

Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »

7 Responses to “Can Obama Repair the Damage He’s Done to Race Relations Before Leaving Office?”

  1. BARRY MEISLIN says:

    “…can Obama repair his legacy on race relations before he leaves office?…”

    Boy, oh boy….

    How is it that such a question can even be asked?

    (Hint: Al Sharpton)

    In other words, why do you think Al Sharpton is currently sitting in the catbird seat?

    If that’s not clear enough, then let’s try this: who in his right mind would appoint Al Sharpton to the position he currently holds if his intention was to improve or “repair…race relations…”?

    Or let’s try this: For the radical in the White House, repairing race relations is a White/Liberal/Bourgeois thang. And beneath contempt. Repair? It cannot be done. It should not even be tried. We’re beyond that now. We’re past the point of no return. For America has “failed” its Black citizens and deserves to be punished for its “failure”. Big time.

    (And for its other “failures” too.)

    You have been warned.

    File under: Thus Spake Obama.

    • JEREMY SCHAIN says:

      Agreed. The question is presented as if Obama was making these statements and taking these actions out of well-intentioned ignorance. I think it is pretty clear at this point that he has a definite agenda and repairing anything in this country is not in any way a part of it.

      • K T NOELL says:

        This IS Obama’s “legacy.” He meant this to occur. So many commentators fail to realize that he is smart, not foolish. Smart. And is “evil” too strong a word? Look at all the destruction and death floating in his wake as far as the eye can see, at home and abroad.

  2. GERALD STERN says:

    In his 2008 speech before a largely black audience, Obama used the term “responsibilities” , the basis of which is “responsible”. Everyone has to take responsibility for their own life and the choices they make regarding how they steer it. That is what is lacking in the current atmosphere, and it isn’t something the government can do for anyone. Throwing tax money at it fixes nothing. In fact, it is exactly the wrong course of action, because it removes one’s incentive to take personal responsibility for their life if they believe the government is coming to save them and fix it for them. I believe this is largely due to the War On Poverty programs of the ’60’s which threw us off the track and created programs that discouraged cohesive family units in order to maximize welfare payment eligibility. So the concept of personal responsibility went out the window for many folks.

    An additional irony is the lax border control that allows cheap illegal labor to come in and take away job opportunities for the citizens already here who can’t find work. This only adds to the sense of despair felt by so many in the Black community who tend to be hit the hardest. So what does the government under Obama do? It stirs up controversy by making it into a black vs. white issue, blaming it on the capitalists and fat cats who in fact are our only future source of salvation if job creation is ever going to come back. Government can’t create jobs; it only crates job-stifling bureaucracy. This has everyone scared, rich man and poor man alike. Obama has no concept of this.
    Can Obama repair all this before January 2017? Highly doubtful.


    BHO believes that he is Mr. RIGHT!
    As far as Iraq and the ME, he is UNDOING everything that was done under Bush.

  4. NORM FRINK says:

    The idea that Obama’s idea of criminal justice reform is laudable is nonsense. While there are some drug sentences that our unduly severe that is not the main focus of Obama and his allies in criminal justice sentencing.

    They, like former Obama administration official Van Jones, want to make deep cuts in incarceration. In fact Van Jones’s organization is called #Cut50, i.e. cut incarceration by 50%.

    They have sucked some conservatives with a superficial understanding of the criminal justice system into their dream. Let me assure you that if it is implemented it will be a nightmare.


    Hope is the wrong word, in the case of Obama and what he thinks and intends to do. I believe that he has achieved what he set out to accomplish, the change and destruction of the America that he disliked and it’s place as the leader of the “free world”.

    His view of American history is distorted and he is in a position to lead the revolution that he supported and dreamed about, during his youth.

    The damage is done and will continue until the country realizes what it has done with the election of this man.

    If we finally elect a true leader that the American people will look up to and the world will support and follow then hope will be something we can all embrace.

    Until that point in time don’t count on President Obama to finally lead this country as we hoped he would.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.