The Right President Returns

Race relations survived Obama's first term, and his call for unity on Jan. 21 will help them thrive.

Barack Obama giving his inaugural speech. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News)
Barack Obama giving his inaugural speech. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News)

(The Root) — Racial antagonisms tend to increase when powerful and influential spokespeople advance mean-spirited arguments or messages that deflect attention from the actual source of their problems. They do this by highlighting real or perceived privileges that minorities and immigrants receive.

These messages tend to resonate more during hard economic times. Average citizens do not fully understand the complex forces that have increased their economic woes — the slowing of economic growth and the declines in annual real family income, changes in the global economy and the rise in wage dispersion. They are looking for answers as they cope with their own anxieties. 

However, it is remarkable that despite the economic crisis that plagued Obama’s first term in office, and despite some anti-immigrant expressions and a few messages with subtle racial undertones during the Republican primaries, American race and ethnic relations have not notably deteriorated.

According to Pew Research Center surveys, there was a modest decline in anti-immigrant sentiment (pdf) between 2007 and 2012. There was also no change in white views regarding black progress, and only a slight change in their views on whether discrimination against blacks is rare today.

Likewise, overall, American opposition to the use of preferences to improve the position of minorities has hardly changed between 2007 and 2012, although there was a notable decline in such sentiments among white Republicans and independents, and a notable increase among white Democrats. Finally, the racial gap regarding views of interracial dating, which has diminished substantially since 1987 (e.g., the proportion of whites who accept interracial dating has almost doubled since 1987), slightly decreased between 2007 and 2012.

Thus, based on the respected Pew Research polling, one can hardly argue that there has been a noteworthy change in American race relations between 2007, before Obama took office, and 2012, the last year of his first term of office. I think this is quite remarkable given the terrible economic crisis, which could have resulted in a significant deterioration of race relations in this country.