Politics & Policy

Remember Hope?

President Obama waves to the crowd at his first inauguration, January 20, 2009. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
Are racial tensions so high now because of the optimism that fueled Obama’s rise?

After nearly eight years of the first African-American president, why are America’s race relations so bad?

Reading the words of African Americans on the day of President Obama’s inauguration, with their high hopes and relentless optimism — some would say, naïve optimism — is striking and more than a little heartbreaking, considering the state of the country today:

The men were history teachers by trade but on this day were part of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Company, the African American unit whose story was memorialized in the movie “Glory.”

Marching in the parade of the country’s first black president is “a privilege and an honor,” said Gerard Grimes, 49. To which his friend, Emmett Bell-Sykes, 35, interjected, “To honor our forebearers who survived slavery, legalized racism, to honor this country making amends to come together and unify.”

The New York Times called the inauguration “a civil rights victory party on the Mall,” and “a watershed event in the nation’s racial history — the culmination of the long struggle for civil rights.”

This wasn’t just liberal hyperbole, either. It reflected a real, broad optimism about Obama’s ability to heal the nation’s wounds and fix its nagging problems: When he entered office in January 2009, 67 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing, as opposed to just 13 percent who disapproved.

Fast forward to today, and that brief moment of unity seems a distant memory. The long, hot summer of Black Lives Matter drags on, each day bringing fresh news of unrest to feed a ceaseless cycle of outrage and recrimination. In Minnesota, highways are being shut down and protesters are dropping concrete onto police. In Dallas, a deranged gunman, motivated by racial animus, just targeted and killed five police officers, inspiring copycat ambushes of police in other states. Only 29 percent of African Americans say they have confidence in the police, according to Gallup; the percentage of Americans of all races who say they are worried about race relations is higher than ever before.

Even some of Obama’s closest African American allies can’t hide their disappointment.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. African Americans still express approval of the president, but it’s not too hard to find voices among them willing to point out an inconvenient truth: Many black Americans haven’t seen much change since Obama was elected, and the last embers of the hope of 2008 are burning out.

 “Sadly — and it pains me to say this — over the last decade, black folk, in the era of Obama, have lost ground in every major economic category,” declared talk show host Tavis Smiley in January. The unemployment rate has dropped for African Americans since Obama took office, but the percentage of those below the poverty line is up, food-stamp use is up, and home-ownership rates and the median-income level are down.

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Even some of Obama’s closest African American allies can’t hide their disappointment; Al Sharpton has visited the White House and spoken to the president so often that Politico called him Obama’s “go-to man on race.” But by 2015, Sharpton’s defense of Obama was qualified: “I too would have liked to see the Obama years do more,” Sharpton told New York magazine. “I agree with that. But Barack Obama never gave us a bill that hurt us.”

It’s left to the president’s closest and most loyal adviser to point out that the country’s condition can’t be put entirely on his shoulders. At the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, organizer Water Isaacson and his guest, Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, had a remarkable exchange:

ISAACSON: Some of us feel that there was an opportunity throughout this presidency to really deal passionately, vocally, and without putting a muffled hand in front of the face on the issue of race, and the president only did it halfway. He was always holding back on that. He’s got 16 months. Is this going to be the passion of the final stretch?

JARRETT: I think you have to ask yourself: Why is that all on him? Why is that his responsibility? . . . 

Let’s [take] the burden off of him solely and let’s — because it is a collective responsibility. This is not something that the President can certainly — can say suddenly because the country elected him President that suddenly all of our history just evaporates. It doesn’t. This has to happen family by family. It has to happen at the water cooler. That young man [George Zimmerman] did not create that terrible act of violence in a vacuum. He was raised, he was in a community, he was part of a society and I think understanding our inextricable link and obligation to each other is something that America has always been good at and it’s true to our values.

Brace yourself for words that have probably never before been written in National Review: Valerie Jarrett has a point. Ultimately, the president of the United States can only do so much, and some of the problems bedeviling the African-American community cannot be solved by Washington. No federal law can make a teenager stay in school when the temptation to leave gets too great. No bill can make a man stick around to raise his children and treat their mother with respect. No executive order can make a person, living in a dangerous neighborhood and seeing no clear path to a better future, turn down drugs as a form of escape.

#related#Poverty, lack of jobs and opportunities, crime, drugs, failing schools: These problems have persisted for generations in America’s communities, both urban and rural. But until January 20, 2009, the United States had never had an African-American president — and for African Americans, it was impossible not to feel hopeful for the future Obama appeared to herald. But if Jarrett is right that change “has to happen, family by family,” then real improvement in these stubbornly intractable, generational problems is still a long way off. And in this angry summer, the national deliverance that seemed just around the corner eight years ago feels as far away as ever.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.


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