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Obama Era Leaves America Race-Critical Despite Neutrality

Now that we are officially under the Trump administration, the sense of hyper-awareness has only grown stronger. It is coupled with a growing lack of sensitivity. The current political climate has created a feeling of divisiveness with racial attitudes being used as a source to polarize in political and social settings. This is not a characteristic of a post-racial society, but a most-racial society where race is used as an agent to divide.

By being our nation’s first African-American president, Barack Obama was a catalyst that forced the nation into discussions about race which suggested that we were in a post-racial society. In his controversial book, “Most-Racial or Post-Racial?: Race and Politics in the Obama Era”, author Michael Tesler asks this important question. When reflecting on the past eight years and what Obama and his administration accomplished—such as the Affordable Care Act, combating climate change, raising the minimum wage and legalizing same-sex marriages to name a few—to say we are post-racial seems like the right answer because of the advancements in civil rights.

On a superficial level, it is easy to make the argument that our society is post-racial. Obama’s presidency is evidence of this, to some extent. While this may be true to a certain degree, it fails to address the central meaning of the question. Tesler’s main argument is that Obama essentially racialized the Presidency and anything that he was associated with, but it was not Obama’s fault. It was due to the racial attitudes held within society prior to and throughout his Presidency. Tesler defines this process of as a ‘racial spillover hypothesis’ in which he argues that Obama’s connection to issues led to voters applying their own racial attitudes about Obama to the issues because of his affiliation with them. This made me rethink my initial response.

Throughout both of his political campaigns and for nearly all of his presidency, Obama avoided relying on race to further his political career as a president. In 2008 he campaigned with the positive message of “Yes We Can” and continued that message in 2012 with “Forward” as the slogan for his last campaign. Neither of these slogans have racial implications—and they should not have any—but they also did not seem to change racial sentiments.

The Obama Era has definitely furthered the likelihood of our conversations about race and diversity. Whether or not we have progressed is more subjective in nature because it depends on who is being questioned. These conversations can be tough to have—depending on the context of the situation of course—but his ethnic background almost grew impossible to talk about especially with the growth of the birther movement and conspiracy theories that questioned the validity of his citizenship, birthplace and religion in order to determine if he was fit to be a president.

As our first African-American President, Obama was not only placed on the most important and respected platform as the President, but it also put him in a position to be heavily criticized regarding the topic of race. Even though he was receiving pressure from a variety of communities to be more direct regarding race relations, remaining neutral on the topic was the best and most ethical move he could make. Yet, that did not always seem satisfying. As the President, Obama had to serve all audiences, regardless if these audiences opposed each other. Race relations and conversations cannot be one-sided if the goal in the end is to make progress.

But what would have happened if Obama fully pushed a race narrative throughout his entire presidency? If he had, he would have received just as much—if not more—criticism for doing so. It would not have been beneficial nor ethical for Obama to use his ethnic background for political gain. As the first African-American President, Obama had a different level of expectations to meet. He had to be more careful than previous presidents which created a sense of hyper-awareness surrounding him, but it was also comforting.

Lastly, the Obama Administration also helped with creating a new normal for society. This makes the transition to Trump seem so extreme. The extremity of this transition goes beyond the ideological war between Democrats and Republicans. It leaves us with the challenge to find our new normal.