As Obama leaves office, hopes of a “post-racial America” a distant dream

By Dave Korzinski, Research Associate

On January 11, just five days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Democratic Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis testified against Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to the role of Attorney General (AG). Lewis’ testimony – like many others against Sessions’ appointment – displayed that racial tensions in the U.S. are hardly resolved.

There has been plenty of controversy surrounding Sessions’ nomination by president-elect Donald Trump, based on what objectors perceive as a questionable history of handling race relations during his time as Alabama AG. Perhaps nothing better exemplified the gap in opinion on Sessions than the testimony of Lewis, whose passionate speech drew both praise and condemnation from either side of the political divide. Lewis, who in the same week said in an interview that Trump is “not a legitimate president” based on revelations of Russian hacking in the election, drew the ire of the president-elect with his comments.

Trump claimed on Twitter that Lewis is “all talk” and “no action” when it comes to improving his community. Many on social media took this as an invitation to share stories and photos of Lewis being beaten during a 1965 march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama.

These high-profile clashes have parallels in American public opinion. As the Angus Reid Institute found in our September profile of the American voter, while there are similarities across the political aisle on a number of issues, there are also massive disagreements on certain policies.

There is indeed, a fundamental divide in the United States on a number of issues dealing with race and diversity. ARI asked more than 2,000 Americans about the cause of – and ultimate responsibility for – the problems that African Americans face. U.S. respondents are split almost evenly over whether the responsibility rests in large part upon people in those communities, themselves (54%), or on the fundamental role that racism plays in the lives of black Americans (46%).

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This area of debate has long divided Americans, and in 2017, the case is seemingly no different. Opinion on the issue splits to a chasm between some of the central demographic points in American society. Among Democrats and Republicans, the divide is enormous. Three-quarters (76%) of those on the right say that the problems faced by the African American community are brought on by themselves, while nearly the inverse number of Democrats, seven-in-ten (69%), say that racism plays a huge role.

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This disparity helps to illuminate why outgoing President Barack Obama said in his farewell address on January 10 that “talk of a post-racial America” after his election, “however well-intended, was never realistic.”

Asking Americans about diversity in their country exemplifies his point. Half of the population simply doesn’t believe that cultural diversity is a value worth pursuing over the ideal of “Americanizing” newcomers. The other half says that diversity and maintaining one’s own culture and language should be encouraged.

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In a nation born out of immigration, where nearly one-in-five current residents is an immigrant, a lack of majority support on these issues to draw upon portends challenges in policy-making.

Common ground is the footing that any U.S. president hopes to stand upon when promoting legislation, or in the case of Senator Sessions, endorsing their cabinet members. And while Sessions may hold views that resonate with a large portion of the population – including a large majority of those who supported Trump in the election – those same views are likely to alienate another substantial portion of the population.

The demographic ground for race-relations in the U.S. remains unstable. Indeed, as a recent study from Pew Research shows, just eight per cent of black Americans say that the changes necessary to realize equality for all races in the U.S. have already been made, compared to four-in-ten white Americans. Close to four-in-ten in each group say equality will eventually be achieved, while far greater numbers of black Americans haven’t much hope:

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Image Credit – Steve Schapiro/Corbis

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