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.

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