Has Obama's Presidency Lifted Race Relations?

Host Liane Hansen speaks to NPR News Analyst Juan Williams about the effect that President Barack Obama is having on race relations and the black community in the United States.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In the weeks leading up to Barack Obama's inauguration, we asked NPR News analyst Juan Williams to reflect on the civil rights milestones that led to the election of the nation's first African-American president. Six months have passed, so we've asked Juan to come back to discuss the effect so far of the Obama presidency on race relations in general and the black community in particular. Nice to see you, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good to be with you, Liane.

HANSEN: Since we left off at the inauguration, let's start with a remark about the historic significance of his election that President Obama made at a press conference in March.

President BARACK OBAMA: And, you know, obviously, at the inauguration, I think that there was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination in this country. But that lasted about a day.

HANSEN: Juan, did that collective sense of pride really last about a day?

WILLIAMS: Well, no. I think the pride lasted in the black community especially. But, you know, I would say across racial lines people are very proud, in many cases, to say that we now for the first time have a non-white male as president of the United States. But, Liane, there's a rough and tumble to politics and you have critics and friends who can be very demanding about a highly polarizing issue like race in American society.

So people might want to hear from President Obama on affirmative action. They might want to hear from him on reparations. They might want to hear from him on Michael Jackson. And I think Barack Obama's position on this is pretty much to downplay race and to respond to questions about race with almost dismissive remarks, I would say, or to couch the issue of race, let's say, in a bigger picture.

For example, here's a clip from a June 23rd press conference where the president responds to an Ebony magazine reporter's question about the severity of the economic downturn as it affects black America.

Pres. OBAMA: The best thing that I can do for the African-American community or the Latino community or the Asian community, whatever community, is to get the economy as a whole moving.

WILLIAMS: So what you see here, Liane, is he doesn't talk about race. He doesn't want to be boxed in as the black president, but the president of the United States. He doesn't want to be diminished on the international stage and the national stage, even though he stands as an icon, the first black president. He wants to be careful to make sure that people see him as president, not black president, not interracial or mixed-race president, but president.

HANSEN: Sounds like he's walking on eggshells. How has that approach been received in the African-American community?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think there are people who are a little bit uncomfortable. Many people - not just African-Americans - believe there still needs to be forthright, honest conversations about race, obviously. In Black History Month's speech that the attorney general, Eric Holder, gave, Eric Holder said, in things racial we always have been and continue to be in too many ways - here I'm quoting, "essentially a nation of cowards."

Now, that sparked a large debate, because how can you be a nation of cowards when you just elected the first black president? But when The New York Times asked President Obama about this in an interview, here's what he said, and here I'm quoting, "I'm not somebody who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions," end quote.

So some people thought, you know, President Obama should've denounced the Supreme Court decision last week in the Ricci case, the New Haven firefighter case, because it's an affirmative action case, it's highly controversial. A conservative majority of the court ruled in favor for the white firefighters.

But a lot of people have argued that President Obama's election is enough. That it proves that affirmative action is no longer necessary. And yet, you don't see President Obama making any clear definitive remarks about this.

HANSEN: So, six months in, are race relations in America better, worse, the same?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's hard to quantify it. But I would tell you that The New York Times, for example, had an article in which several people of different races talked about there being less anxiety in social situations when race comes up as a topic because everybody can talk about Barack Obama and people can feel good about the idea that the country has made progress.

Now, you also think, though, back to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and all of the kinds of controversy, in fact, President Obama's speech about race during the campaign came after Reverend Wright had made some controversial statements. Well, recently he made some more controversial statements, anti-Semitic statements, but this time it didn't gain traction. This time the press didn't go into a tizzy about it.

And I think that the reason may be that we feel like we're past Reverend Wright when it comes to discussing Barack Obama, and that may be an indication of some progress being made in terms of American race relations.

HANSEN: NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Juan, thank you very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Liane.

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