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HAWORTH: Moments In Obama’s Presidency That Fueled Racial Tensions
President Obama addresses community leaders at the Copernicus Community Center in Chicago to discuss executive actions he took on immigration, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There is a contradictory narrative promoted by the American Left that racism is both an integral part of the American psyche and a phenomenon that burst onto the political scene when Donald Trump became president. While there are certainly aspects of Trump’s political history and rhetoric which have exacerbated existing tensions, it is incorrect to place the blame for the breakdown in race relations squarely at the feet of the current president. Indeed, if we follow the Left’s advice and pay attention to the “science,” poll data suggests that race relations collapsed from 2013 onwards. The occupant of the White House at that point was, of course, not Donald Trump but Barack Obama. In 2016, a CNN/ORC poll suggested that the majority of Americans said that “relations between blacks and whites in the US have worsened under President Barack Obama.”

Obama is routinely presented as an almost messianic figure by the political Left, an adoring mainstream media, and American culture at large. Through the flawed lens of intersectionality, Obama’s impact on race relations in the United States is often assumed to be positive based solely on the fact that he was the first African-American president. When presented with data suggesting that race relations deteriorated under Obama, his supporters will often reject any notion that Obama was responsible, instead preferring to claim that Obama’s political ascendency was simply the catalyst for the further awakening of innate “American racism.”

This is a predictably simplistic conclusion. If we can argue that Trump is uniquely responsible for the further decline of race relations, we must at least consider that Barack Obama could also have had an impact. Additionally, when we consider that Obama won the 2008 election with an overwhelmingly dominant 192 electoral vote lead over his opponent John McCain (with almost 10 million more votes than the Arizona Senator), and the 2012 election by 126 electoral votes (with almost 5 million more votes than Mitt Romney), one must ask how Americans could be so inescapably racist that they single-handedly fuel the collapse of nationwide race relations, while simultaneously voting for the United States’ first African American president on two occasions by large margins.

The truth, as always, is more complicated than “Republican bad, Democrat good.” In reality, Obama’s undeniable popularity is not a valid proxy for his role in the explosion of the racial tensions we continue to witness today. Three distinct moments during his presidency demonstrate Obama’s abandonment of his 2008 vision for a “post-racial America” in favor of the ideological profit that can be achieved by fanning the flames of race.

Trayvon Martin

In 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, and on July 13th 2013, he was found not guilty. According to the only eyewitness account who saw the end of the confrontation, Martin was on top of Zimmerman, punching him as Zimmerman screamed for help. According to autopsy reports, Martin was shot at close range, leading to widespread and contentious debates regarding the subjects of self-defense and “stand your ground” laws.

Setting aside the unknown details of the case, eyewitness testimony suggests that Martin was assaulting Zimmerman, and that Zimmerman defended himself, fatally shooting Martin. That doesn’t absolve Zimmerman of responsibility for his part in the lead-up to the confrontation, but it does counter the narrative promoted to this day that Martin was “killed for a packet of Skittles.”

US President Barack Obama speaks about race in the context of the not guilty ruling of George Zimmerman in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012, as he appears at the start of the Daily Press Briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, July 19, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

After Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama had the opportunity to articulate the admittedly difficult but crucially important level of objectivity required to analyze individual cases which touch upon broader and deeper issues of racially motivated violence. Instead, Obama’s response was not only weak, it promoted continued distrust in the justice system, using racial tensions as a surrogate for substantive evidence of bias in this particular case.

Speaking from the White House, Obama proclaimed that “The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.” Obama failed to provide evidence that this was in any way relevant to Zimmerman’s acquittal.

In addition, Obama deliberately used Martin’s death to narcissistically draw a shallow connection between himself and the 17 year-old based on their shared skin color. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Obama’s hypothetical son’s likeliness to Martin is irrelevant when it comes to matters of innocence, guilt, or the alleged details of this case. The intentional dilution down to nothing but race, with the rejection of any notion of responsibility or context, results in the racist conclusion that guilt and innocence can be assigned by skin color alone. Such logic, which only divides by race, can never result in progress.

Michael Brown

After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, there was a hopeful spike in positivity regarding the state of race relations in the United States, with a 44% difference between all adults saying race relations are “generally good” and those saying “generally bad.” That difference dropped to 3% in August of 2014, coinciding with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th.

On August 12th, Obama released a statement, describing Michael Brown’s death as “heartbreaking,” sending “deepest condolences” to Brown’s family and his community. While Obama was always hugely careful with his language, one line provided understated yet significant impact. “I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding.”

Demonstrators celebrate as a business burns after it was set on fire during rioting following the grand jury announcement in the Michael Brown case on November 24, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson has been struggling to return to normal after Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, on August 9. His death has sparked months of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson. A grand jury today declined to indict officer Wilson. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The details which later unfolded showed that the entire narrative of Michael Brown’s shooting was false, with Brown being shot after committing a strong-arm robbery, assaulting a police officer, and attempting to steal his weapon, before finally rushing at Officer Wilson. When questioned in 2015 on his Department of Justice’s decision not to charge the officer, Obama’s tone was recognizable. Careful, non-committal, and evasive, stating “You can’t just charge him anyway because what happened was tragic.” In 2014, following the announcement that a grand jury found “no probable cause” to charge Officer Wilson, Obama stated that “There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed — even angry. It’s an understandable reaction.”

By arguing that anger is justified regardless of the existence of clear evidence that Brown’s shooting was an act of self defense, Obama crossed a dangerous line, demonstrating a dismissive attitude towards the reality that law enforcement officers are often compelled to defend themselves against acts of violence. Obama achieved this by masterfully blurring the reaction to Michael Brown’s death with the reaction to the concerning results of a federal investigation into accusations of racism within the Ferguson police department, stating that “Ferguson residents had valid complaints about the police force.” This same conflation is seen today, with violent riots justified by the mere existence of supposedly “valid concerns.”

This deliberate tactic is highly effective, and continues to cause further societal damage. Protesting valid accusations of racism within a police department is entirely justifiable, but destructive riots fueled by false narratives are not. Obama had the chance to make that principal distinction, and cease the promulgation of the “hands up, don’t shoot” lie. By failing to do so, that same false slogan is chanted at Black Lives Matter protests, and repeated by his contemporaries for political effect, to this day.

Chanting, "Hands up, don't shoot!" more than one thousand demonstrators gather on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery the day after the Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict officer Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown case November 25, 2014 in Washington, DC. A St. Louis County grand jury decided to not indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in August that sparked riots in Ferguson, Missouri, resulting in violence there Monday night. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Dallas Massacre of Police Officers

With racial tensions reaching staggering levels after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in 2016, Micah Johnson “gunned down police officers in downtown Dallas,” having “specifically set out to kill as many white officers as he could.” Five officers were killed, and nine were injured. The attacks occurred days after the police killings of Sterling and Castile.

The country’s largest police union criticized President Obama for his initial response to the shootings, stating “We’d like to see the president make one speech that speaks to everybody instead of one speech that speaks to black people as they grieve and one speech that speaks to police officers as they grieve.”

Perhaps, given this request, it was Obama’s intention to speak to everybody during his 3,600 word speech at the Dallas police memorial service which commemorated the five officers who were murdered by Johnson. Unfortunately, Obama missed the mark, and chose to divide rather than unify by using the memorial as a political platform to call for gun control, to reference the victims of police killings (thereby raising the justification presented by the man who committed the massacre), and to make presumptive (and often statistically unsupported) claims of systemic racial bias in law enforcement.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech during a memorial service for the victims of the Dallas police shooting at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas, USA on July 12, 2016.  (Photo by Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

There is nothing unifying about the dilution of a memorial, and certainly not in a manner which Obama would never attempt in reverse. Would he be applauded for commemorating the lives of specific police officers killed by black men during a memorial for a black person killed by a police officer? Probably not.

The point is not that you shouldn’t be able to mourn for multiple groups of people. We absolutely should be able to unify over shared grief for the loss of members of our communities. The point is that Obama was deliberately selective with the targets of his so-called “unification” strategy, and demonstrated an utter shamelessness while using the memorial service for murdered police officers to subtly criticize the law enforcement community as subconsciously — and therefore irrefutably — bigoted.


Through the damning limitations of binary thought, we are too often driven to conclude that “our president” is a hero while “their president” is a villain. In reality, the truth lies in the deep chasm which separates the two unobtainable titles. Under Donald Trump, race relations have undoubtedly worsened, with Trump and his rhetoric playing a role. However, it’s an act of ignorance or naivety to argue that Obama did not also play a part by laying the foundation of racial divisiveness he twisted for his own gain.

He’s not a hero. He’s not a villain. He’s a politician.

More from Ian Haworth: Biden’s Decline: Why We Must Question Mental Fitness

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