Race Relations, Examined

Robert Brooks Contributor
Race Relations, Examined
Read Time: approx. 2:59

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Race Relations: “Americans’ already tepid review of relations between White and Black Americans has soured since 2018 and is now the most negative of any year since 2001,” Gallup writes. “The majority of U.S. adults say relations between White and Black Americans are very (24%) or somewhat bad (31%), while less than half call them very (7%) or somewhat (37%) good. Most Americans were upbeat about White-Black relations from 2001 through 2013. The sharp decline in positive perceptions to 47% in 2015 followed numerous high-profile incidents in the prior year of unarmed Black citizens being killed by White police officers. After improving slightly in 2016 and 2018, ratings of race relations have fallen to a new low in a Gallup telephone poll conducted June 8-July 24, 2020.” Have race relations soured more under President Donald Trump or former President Barack Obama? Here’s what both sides are saying:

Obama Made Them WorseWriting for the National Interest in December 2016, Pratik Chougule says, “The election of America’s ‘first black president’ was celebrated as a sign that the country was overcoming its race problem.” However, “Eight years later, precisely the opposite has happened.” Chougule pointed to a July 2016 poll, in which “nearly 70 percent of Americans agreed that race relations [were] generally bad – a level unseen since the 1992 Rodney King riots.” Chougule says “these sentiments are symptomatic of how little the Obama administration [did] for African-Americans. It’s true that Obama appointed African-Americans to prominent positions, but in this, he was hardly different from his predecessors, Republican and Democrat alike. On a more fundamental level, economic indicators actually suggest that things worsened under Obama, among them: the largest wealth gap between blacks and whites since 1989record levels of black child poverty, and widening racial gaps in college attainment. Perhaps none other than Tavis Smiley summed it up best: black America got “caught up in the symbolism of the Obama presidency,” but “in the era of Obama, have lost ground in every major economic category.” The Heritage Foundation says “Eight years of Obama’s leadership left America demonstrably weaker and more divided” and that “It began when his Justice Department dropped an open-and-shut voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party. It was essentially a declaration that his administration would use the Voting Rights Act to protect only certain races. There followed a steady stream of false claims that America was an inherently racist society with a biased judicial and law enforcement system. Obama rekindled a racial divide that had been steadily disappearing in American society. In fostering group identity politics for political advantage, the Obama administration only divided the American people.”

Trump Made Them Worse: In April of 2019, Jesse J Holland of the Associated Press outlined a Pew Research Center poll which said that “More than half of Americans say President Donald Trump has made race relations worse during his time in the White House, and more than two-thirds believe it has become more common for people to say racist things since he won the White House.” According to that survey, “3 out of 5 Americans, or 58%, say race relations in the U.S. are generally bad, and 56% of those in the Pew Research Center’s “Race in America 2019″ survey said Trump has made race relations worse.” In that same survey “Only one-fourth, or 25%, said former President Barack Obama, a Democrat and the country’s first black president, made race relations worse.” At that time, Trump had “been dogged by racial turmoil during his time in office, including the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a protest against a Confederate statue and the administration’s reaction to illegal immigration at the United States-Mexico border,” Holland writes. Obviously the world has changed dramatically over the past year. More recently, this past June, Domenico Montanaro pointed to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll which said that “A majority of Americans feels that President Trump has made race relations worse since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.” According to the poll, “about 9 in 10 Democrats and African Americans think [Trump] increased racial tension, as do almost three-quarters of independents and 63% of whites. Forty-one percent of Republicans say he’s decreased tensions [which is] significant given how much Republicans have lined up in lockstep with Trump [and] that almost 6 in 10 of them believe that he’s either increased tensions or that they’re not sure if he has.”

Flag This: What happened in 2014 and 2015? Why were those two years such a turning point for race relations? According to the Pew Research Center a combination of events led to a sharp downturn after over a decade of progress. First there was “a spate of high-profile deaths of black Americans during encounters with police and protests by the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups.” After the death of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015 in Baltimore race relations hit rock bottom. These events coincided with increased adoption of smartphones and the rise of social media. “More than two-thirds of Americans owned a smartphone by 2015, six times the ownership levels at the dawn of Obama’s tenure. When Apple released the iPad halfway through Obama’s first term, a mere 3% of Americans owned tablets; nearly half had tablets by the end of 2015. Although social media use was a signature aspect of Obama’s 2008 campaign, only one-third of Americans used social media that year. With the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other apps, social media use climbed to about three-quarters of online adults by 2015. Obama also helped usher in the rise of digital video in politics, sharing his weekly address through the White House YouTube channel,” Pew notes. By the end of his second term, YouTube had become a media behemoth with over a billion users.” Of course, President Trump has made social media and digital video a core component of his Presidency and has been criticized for tweets and retweets. Just in June President Donald Trump retweeted a video that included footage of a white man driving a golf cart adorned with Trump campaign posters and flags shouting “white power,” before deleting the tweet roughly four hours later. If, for argument’s sake, we can agree that both Presidents share the blame then what has made race relations seem so amplified over the past five years? Mainstream and social media are likely the culprits. Tobias Rose-Stockwell of Quartz summed it up best when he outlined how social media companies algorithm’s “sell our fear and outrage for profit.” Rose-Stockwell says, “Every time you open your phone or your computer, your brain is walking onto a battleground. The aggressors are the architects of your digital world, and their weapons are the apps, news feeds, and notifications in your field of view every time you look at a screen. They are all attempting to capture your most scarce resource — your attention — and take it hostage for money. Your captive attention is worth billions to them in advertising and subscription revenue.” For example, “During the 2016 election cycle, CNN made over a billion dollars in gross profit above the previous year driven primarily by advertising attached to news about the most outrageous candidate: Donald Trump.” In conclusion, do outlets like CNN like when Trump retweets something that stirs race relations? Publicly they don’t, but privately it might be a different story. At the same time, this then creates a story for Fox News who now gets to argue that CNN is always overreacting and unfairly labeling the President a racist. It’s a broken cycle that isn’t helping a country that is very much on edge.