The first music in Chicago’s Grant Park after the news broke that Barack Obama had been elected the 44th President of the United States was Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Of all the soundtrack choices the Obama campaign made in a primary season that featured music from Sheryl Crow to U2, that Motown classic symbolized the relationship Obama had developed with a nation so bone-tired of government it could no longer trust it to work in its best interest – a country weary of the trip-wire of race and ethnicity.
In the park that night one year ago, a multigenerational, multiracial crowd of 250,000 people celebrated the change they could believe in: a nation finally living out the true meaning of its creed of equality and opportunity.
What a difference a year makes – and doesn’t.
Two polls in the last few months illustrate how the United States, after a potentially transformative election, remains conflicted in assessing the progress made on matters of race. And disquieting real-world examples of increasingly virulent racist extremism, as well as personal attacks on President Obama – often from members of the so-called loyal opposition -suggest a need for concern amid the celebration.
A CNN/Essence Magazine/Opinion Research Corp. poll found a majority of black U.S. residents don’t think President Obama has improved race relations. Ninety-six percent of African-Americans approve of how he’s conducting his presidency, according to the poll, conducted in May and released in July.
The poll found that 55 percent of the 505 African-Americans contacted for the survey felt racial bias is still a serious problem in the United States.
Contrast that with the results of a USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted and released in late October. “While some of the soaring optimism of Election Day has tempered, more than six in 10 Americans predict … that Barack Obama’s presidency will improve race relations in the United States in the years ahead. Four in 10 say it already has,” USA Today reported.
This poll’s generally upbeat findings are a counter to concerns about more sobering realities: the effects of a persistent recession (one whose official “end” hasn’t trickled down to the everyday economy), unease about growing casualties of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and gnawing concerns over home values, the environment, and the prospect of new terrorism.
USA Today’s survey, coming on the eve of the first anniversary of Obama’s election, found that a “solid majority” of black and white Americans think race relations will improve as a direct result of that election.
America reflects a justifiable optimism; the first step to things improving is to believe they can improve. But in the year since Obama was elected, the nation has seen an escalation of actions and rhetoric from extremists bent on viewing the accomplishments of the first African-American president solely through a lens both political and racial. It’s made for a year of sad revelations, from the mildly comic to the truly disturbing.
In the year since Obama’s election, we’ve seen and heard numerous character assassinations of the president, from tirades by talk-radio pit bull Rush Limbaugh (calling the president a “halfrican American” and shouting “I hope he fails!”) to the grassroots birther movement (alleging Obama is of foreign birth), from South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s unprecedented outburst during Obama’s recent Joint Session of Congress (“You lie!”) to stunning displays of Photoshopped bigotry, including the recent racist photo and caption of President Obama on a Facebook page sponsored by the Republican National Committee.
There are other causes for concern. In late October, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has monitored racial and ethnic extremism in America since 1971, released a report that finds the militia movement is “resurgent” and aggressively racialized.
”[T]he antigovernment militia movement is surging across the country as fears of a black man in the White House, changing demographics and conspiracy theories spread by mainstream figures have helped revive a movement that has been dormant for almost a decade,” says the report.
The SPLC, quoting one law enforcement agency, reported that 50 new militia groups had been discovered, “including one composed by current and former police officers.”
While reasons to be hopeful have increased, so have reasons to be concerned. The multiracial breakthrough of a quarter-million people in Grant Park in Chicago one year ago is necessarily tempered by the racial-business-as-usual event of three weeks ago, elsewhere in Obama’s hometown, at Mother’s nightclub, where a group of black college students were barred admission for wearing baggy jeans while a white patron was admitted wearing exactly the same thing.
The fact that so many respondents in the CNN poll found that there’d been no change in race relations since Obama’s election – almost equally 60 percent between blacks and whites – may be the most hopeful sign for race relations. It means that any real progress can’t be hurriedly measured in the context of an event, but organically, over time (and certainly more time than a year since election, and just ten-odd months after inauguration).
The election results of Nov. 4, 2008, were the first evidence of a contract Obama had with the American people – signed, sealed and delivered at the ballot box. Despite the power of the event of last November, the real value of Obama’s election is as proof of a process, the ongoing process of a nation fulfilling a contract, keeping a centuries-old promise to itself.