Black lawmakers lament flaring of racial tensions under Obama

When President Obama follows in Martin Luther King Jr.’s footsteps on Wednesday with an address at the Lincoln Memorial, he will face a nation where race remains the great divide.

Black lawmakers say the election of the nation’s first African-America president has not been a salve for racial tensions, a view that the public has also voiced in recent polling.

While Democratic lawmakers place the lion’s share of the blame on Republicans for the state of affairs, they betray disappointment that more progress has not been made since the civil rights movement won its biggest victories.
   

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Asked whether the overall trajectory of race relations has been positive or negative in recent years, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) paused for a moment.

“Right after the election of the president, I would have thought it was going in a positive direction, but I am not so sure anymore,” she said.

“I think we have lost ground as it relates to our tolerance of people who are different or people who we believe have not worked hard enough. You hear the language all the time on talk radio — the buzzwords, often primarily directed at low-income people and communities of color.”

Fudge’s party colleague and fellow CBC member Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.) suggested that the presence of the first black president has sparked more open conversation about racial issues. This, she suggested, could be seen as a positive development overall, yet one that has also led to bruised feelings.

In the past, “so much was swept under the rug,” Lee said. “The country, for whatever reason, has not confronted race in the way that it should. With stop-and-frisk and all the issues around income inequality, you really have to wonder [how much things have improved.] But I think a lot of it is to do with the idea that race has been an issue that we can talk about.”

Large swathes of the general public also hold a nuanced view of the country’s progress, according to a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center.

While 45 percent of Americans said they think the United States has made a lot of progress toward realizing King’s dream of racial equality, 36 percent were more circumspect, saying only “some” progress has been made. Fifteen percent said that the advancements had either been small or nonexistent.

Forty-nine percent of Americans believe there is a long way to go before something akin to a color-blind society can be realized.

Pew was also the latest of numerous surveys to underline how economic disparities have tracked along racial lines during Obama’s presidency, just as they did before.

The survey noted that the gap between the median income of a three-person black household compared to a three-person white household has increased during the past five decades.

In today’s dollars, the differential in the late 1960s between whites and blacks was around $19,000. Today, it is around $27,000 — and the gap has not narrowed appreciably since 2009.

The most recent unemployment figures, covering the month of July, showed the black unemployment rate at 12.6 percent, a mere one-tenth of a percentage point lower than when Obama took office in January 2009. Statistics on home ownership and per capita income also show blacks faring worse than whites during the Obama years.

Put those economic factors together with the high-voltage legal cases on the killing of Trayvon Martin and the curtailment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and it is easy to see why black politicians, and liberals in general, are ambivalent over where things stand.

Many Democrats insist that the ferocious opposition to Obama has a racial component.

“How do you overcome it?” Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a founding member of the CBC said, referring to racial inequalities. “We certainly haven’t done it with an African-American president.

“I saw the people who scream and shout about ObamaCare. I saw the hatred that was in people’s eyes. People are not being honest with themselves if they don’t realize that the roots of racism go deep, that we still have not been able to cut that cancer out of the side of America.”

“I think electing President Obama was a big, big, big positive. Now, the reactions to that election have not always been positive,” said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the number three Democrat in the House. “It was a positive for people who look like me. It was a negative for a lot of people, and they reacted negatively.”

Still, Clyburn, Rangel and many other members of the CBC remember just how bad things were in an earlier era. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington has also prompted them to recall the first kindling of bigger hopes.

“I could not believe that everyone was saying they were going to Washington — they didn’t know anybody, how were they going to get there?” Rangel recalled. “But for most of the people, you just had to tell them where the buses were at 7 o’clock in the morning. I put people on buses, these broken-down school buses people were renting.”

About 750 miles south of Rangel’s New York home, Clyburn, then a young public school teacher, was seeing buses off from Charleston, S.C. At the time, teachers were prohibited from attending political rallies, he recalled.

“I said goodbye to one of the buses that left going up to the march. Though my body remained in Charleston, my heart and soul were in Washington,” he said.

Lee was in high school in California at the time. She wanted to be a cheerleader, but there had never been a black girl in that role. There wasn’t an explicit rule that said “no blacks,” she recalled, but the regulations governing membership of the squad “wouldn’t allow a dark-skinned person with my kind of hair.”

The rules changed the same year as King’s speech, and she became the first black cheerleader at the school.

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) is the first black woman to hold a congressional seat in her native state. Part of a younger generation of black lawmakers, she was born 16 months after the March on Washington took place.

“My dad grew up in Selma, but our experiences are as different as night and day,” she said. “I can’t imagine my dad drinking from colored-only water fountains. But it happened.”

Sewell emphasizes the economic inequalities, racial and otherwise, that continue to bedevil the nation. But she insisted that Obama’s tenure has pushed the United States at least somewhat closer to King’s dream.

“I think his very presence has made a big difference,” she said. “My little nephew wants to be a CEO or the president — and there is Barack Obama running the United States of America. That changes the psyche, and the willingness of other generations to see beyond race.”

This is the first in a series of three articles to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. On Tuesday, black conservatives will reflect on Dr. King’s legacy. On Wednesday, The Hill will carry an extensive interview with Martin Luther King III.