After last week’s historic election, I asked my Race and Ethnic Relations class, “Will the presidency of Barack Obama have any impact on racial division in America?” The students discussed the question intensely for over an hour.
Some of my African American students worried that racial tensions could heighten. They suspected some whites might start thinking, The blacks have taken over, and then push back.
Others thought that, while Obama would have a tough time making any significant changes through legislation, he could model and inspire racial togetherness, making it the hip and right thing to do. Perhaps some lasting changes could result.
Still others thought he could make change, but only indirectly. For example, he could move legislation through that expanded opportunities for an affordable college education. This could, in the long run, produce greater equality and reduce tensions.
They are, I think, all correct. Some of each of these will happen. We won’t know the end result for a while, but we can be hopeful today.
Here’s why I’m hopeful. We have an incoming president who can fully identify with being a racial minority, with being biracial, with being poor, with being raised in a single-parent home. He knows the difficulties such life positions present. And he knows that, with the right combination of opportunities and social connections, they need not hold a person down.
The struggle will be a difficult one, for sure. Change is always messy and hard. To be president of the United States pushes you toward the middle, as you attempt to represent millions of people with different views. President Obama will be busy with foreign-policy issues, the economy, health care, and budgets.
But, one must believe, the core of his being will not let those issues be his only issues. He will care about the state of race relations and inequality in the United States. He will want to see change for his daughters, for the urban neighborhoods he used to serve as a community organizer, and for his nation.
The realities of the presidential office may mean he does not address issues of racial division as aggressively as some might hope. But let us be patient. The realities of his life — and of the American condition — will make the issue too important for him to ignore. There is hope.
Editor’s Note: Now let us know what you think? Will an Obama presidency improve race relations in America? Why or why not?