The president will leave office with race relations at their lowest ebb in decades. His politics of division bear much of the responsibility.
By Jason L. Riley
One great irony of the current presidency is that Barack Obama won the support of so many seasoned political journalists—not to mention otherwise-skeptical voters—who thought that a black president would improve racial unity. David Remnick of the New Yorker called him “the bridge.” Time magazine’s Joe Klein assured readers that Mr. Obama, who “transcends the racial divide so effortlessly,” would help America turn the page on race. But six years in, that hasn’t happened.
According to a CBS News/New York Times poll in July, nearly 60% of Americans, including large majorities of both blacks and whites, say race relations “are generally bad.” Almost 40% say they are getting worse. Other surveys back those findings. CNN pollsters reported in March that the share of people who think race relations have improved on Mr. Obama’s watch had fallen to 15% this year from 32% in 2009, while the share who think relations have worsened grew to 39% from 6%. A Gallup survey in January reported that 62% of respondents are “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the state of race relations in the country, versus 40% in 2008.
The press has dutifully reported this racial retrogression but is reluctant to lay any blame on Mr. Obama. The president obviously isn’t responsible for the racially charged incidents that have occurred on his watch, from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore, to Charleston, S.C. Still, he ought to be held accountable for the racial impact of his reactions, his polices and his political bedfellows.
Mr. Obama campaigned as a racial conciliator, someone who believed, as he said in a speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, that “there is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There’s the United States of America.”
But that is not how he has governed. As president, he has repeatedly—and often prematurely—taken sides in local police matters involving black suspects.
He has supported college-admissions policies that favor black applicants over their white and Asian peers. He has dispatched his attorney general to accuse advocates of voter ID laws of trying to disenfranchise blacks and Hispanics. He has pressured wealthy suburbs to change zoning laws and build low-income housing so that he can shoehorn minorities into neighborhoods where they otherwise can’t afford to live. He has leaned on local school districts to discipline students differently based on their race and ethnicity rather than solely on their misbehavior. He has appeared before activists at the NAACP to denounce the criminal-justice system as racially skewed.
Then Mr. Obama first ran for president, he went to such lengths to distance himself from professional agitators such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson that “Saturday Night Live” ran a cartoon parody that featured then-Sen. Obama sending Messrs. Sharpton and Jackson off to places like Botswana and Paraguay so that they couldn’t interfere with the campaign.
These days, Mr. Obama has the reverend on speed dial. Mr. Sharpton is a frequent White House visitor and the president’s point man on civil-rights issues. Given that the president is keeping company with someone who monetizes racial conflict for a living, is it any wonder that so many people believe race relations have regressed?
In the CBS News/Times poll, 77% of respondents said that race relations in their own community were generally good, but only 37% said they were good nationwide. One explanation for the disparity could be that the president’s emphasis on race in general and racial conflict in particular has made things seem worse than they really are.
Presidents—especially the ones who can count on mostly favorable mainstream-media coverage—have the ability to control the narrative. And racial strife, or the perception of it, works to the political advantage of Mr. Obama and the political left.
The Black Lives Matter movement may be built on a falsehood—that cops shooting blacks is somehow a bigger problem than blacks shooting each other—but the falsehood will be indulged by politicians like Mr. Obama because the last thing Democrats want is for black people to stop seeing themselves as helpless victims of systemic racism.
“A central problem—perhaps the central problem—in improving the relationship between white and black Americans is the difference in racial crime rates,” observed the late political scientist James Q. Wilson. “The high black crime rate cannot be wished away by talk of racism, overarresting, excessive punishment, or whites having allegedly drugged or armed blacks.”
Race relations under Mr. Obama haven’t soured by accident, and so long as a wisher-in-chief occupies the Oval Office, there is little chance of improvement. Community organizers specialize in creating social divisions, not bridging them. So do presidents who profit politically from racial anxiety. America has learned these lessons the hard way.
Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).