An Obama Win Will Improve Race Relations

Racial tensions might have increased in his first term, but history shows that's just temporary.

President Obama at a Virginia Rally (Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images)
President Obama at a Virginia Rally (Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images)

By many accounts, the American electorate has become more polarized during the 2012 presidential contest, with race forming one of the many fault-lines dividing voters. We decided to look at what might happen to race relations in America under a second Obama term, versus a Mitt Romney administration, in a package that is also being published by our sister publication, The Root DC. Below is the Obama scenario. The Romney scenario is here. No matter which candidate wins, the very identity of the next man to step into the Oval Office will affect how Americans — and the world — view our progress toward better race relations.

(The Root) — When Barack Obama was elected president, some people assumed that one man and one election would be enough to help our country heal a racial wound 250 years in the making. In addition to his handling of the economic crisis and the war on terror, his first term was to be judged by some Americans according to one unspoken campaign promise: to permanently fix U.S. race relations.

Despite his critics’ most ambitious attempts to paint his first term as a failure, by a number of measures — among them the killing of Osama bin Laden and the troop drawdown in Iraq — it has not been. But one measure in which it could be deemed a failure is its impact on race relations.

According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, this will be the most polarized election since 1988. Furthermore, a new Associated Press poll has found that anti-black attitudes have actually increased among Americans since the president took office, with a slight majority now holding anti-black feelings. An ABC Nightline special on “the new Klan” called President Obama’s election a great recruiting tool for hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

For these reasons it could be argued that Barack Obama’s first term will be regarded as disastrous for U.S. race relations. This is precisely why a second term could be seen as one of the most important steps forward in this country’s race relations since the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

A Continual Cycle

Since its inception, our country has followed a somewhat reliable pattern when it comes to race: It usually consists of one small step forward, followed by a gigantic step back and eventually a step forward that’s too big to be pulled back again.

The end of slavery represented a step forward for our nation. So did the number of black legislators who took seats in Congress as part of Reconstruction. But that seemingly momentous step forward was followed by a horrifying step back. The same year that slavery was abolished, in 1865, disgruntled former Confederate soldiers founded the Ku Klux Klan. African-American lawmakers began to disappear as newly restrictive voting laws kept many blacks from the polls. Jim Crow segregation policies and the Klan became additional tools for ensuring that black Americans remained second-class citizens. The lesson learned? When some people fear losing the only America they know, they turn to hate.

We would see this pattern repeated time and time again. In the early decades of the 20th century, while the wealthy black boxer Jack Johnson flaunted his interracial marriages and so-called Black Wall Street prospered in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Okla., the number of lynchings reached an all-time high and race riots rocked the nation. It was a race riot that would lead to the destruction of Greenwood, as well as the Florida town of Rosewood (the destruction of which was chronicled in a 1997 film of the same name). Klan membership also skyrocketed, particularly after the release of the D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation in 1915.