Obama and America's racial divide

U.S. President Barack Obama has largely avoided addressing racial issues during his presidency, according to legal scholar and author Randall Kennedy. (Photo: Associated Press)

First aired on The Sunday Edition (20/04/12)

The shooting death of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin in late February sparked an international debate about the state of race relations in the United States. Race relations have also been a running theme throughout the entirety of U.S. President Barack Obama's time in the White House. He's currently campaigning for re-election this November, and it's unlikely the issue will go away any time soon.

When Obama became the first black U.S. president in 2008, some political analysts wondered whether the country had progressed into a post-racial society. Harvard legal scholar Randall Kennedy believes that kind of thinking to be "erroneous"; according to Kennedy, if the Obama presidency and Martin's death have suggested anything, it's that race is still a deep and uncomfortable issue in American life.

"It's true that on the night that president was elected...there was a glow, and for good reason," Kennedy, author of The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency, said on The Sunday Edition recently. "It's remarkable given the racial history of the United States that a black American is the president of the United States."

color-line-125.jpg"Obama's ascendency to the White House shows and ratifies and encourages racial change in a positive direction in America, but it's also true that the racial divide is still very much with us...[and] part of what has promoted the strong reaction against the Obama administration."

Kennedy says that Obama has had to navigate the racial divide extremely carefully from the get go. He identified himself as a black American but had to present himself in a way that would "assuage the anxieties of white voters."

"He could not present himself as a political who was, frankly, too black, in conduct, in speech, in ideology. He had to present himself in a way that would gain the allegiance of black America but not repel white America."

He's also steered clear of siding with any particular community and has avoided commentary on racial issues for the most part. When Martin was killed and emotions on many sides were high, Obama commented that if he had a son, he would look like the slain teenager, and that America needed to do some "soul searching."

Some media pundits, mostly from the conservative side, felt the president was making it about race by discussing what Martin looked like. Former Republican leadership nominee Newt Gingrich called the president's remarks "disgraceful." But Kennedy believes Obama's statement was the kind of ambiguous "Obama-like" comment he's come to expect from the president when it comes to highly charged racial issues.

"It wasn't an expressively racial comment...He wants to, as much as he can, avoid the race question," Kennedy said, noting that thousands of people from all different ethnicities have marched in support of Martin with signs reading "I am Trayvon Martin."

 "It's not good for him in terms of electoral politics, and that I think it underscores the centrality of race in America, the volatile nature of race in America."

And why is race still such an explosive issue in the U.S.? Kennedy describes the race question as an onion with many layers to it, but believes the biggest hurdle is that America has yet to properly deal with the consequences of its history of racism, slavery, segregation and open oppression.

"I mean, things that happened 50 years ago, not that long ago, have consequences today. There's a reason why African Americans in general have far less wealth than white Americans in general. So frankly, if right now we could wave a magic wand and there was no more prejudice in the United States, you would still have a race question because you 'd still have to grapple with what do we do with the vestiges of past discrimination."