As the year rounds out and the nation gets closer and closer to November, the idea of living in a country where Barack Obama is not president is becoming more of a reality. For a large portion of young people, his rise to the highest office in the nation in 2008 coincided with their journeys into adulthood and signaled the start of a new era in how America dealt with issues regarding race.
Sadly, what people thought would be a time of peace and tranquility among people of different race, color and creed turned out to be just the opposite. Instead of the nation coming together as one, names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and countless others became common among American households as we dealt with the grim realities of problems between police and minorities, particularly black people.
As the death toll of black men, women and children climbed, the president seemed to only be able to sit back and watch helplessly as racial tensions flared in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore and the nation began to divide itself, often along racial lines. To add to that, issues like the highest rate of incarceration in the world (which disproportionately affects black men) and the wealth divide between white and minority households began to fall into his lap to fix.
During his presidency, the country also saw the rise of the largest civil rights movement in years and the the ascension of far-right candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to the top of the Republican Party.
Last month, The Washington Post started a series of stories examining Obama’s legacy, particularly on race. Their first one focused on how the president had ultimately failed to meet his expectation to bring the country into a racial harmony. But is any of this actually Obama’s fault? More importantly, has the country gotten better or worse at dealing with its problems with racism under him?
I still remember the night Obama was announced as the president elect. I heard my little sister scream with delight from downstairs and my dad clapping as the TV networks began to declare Obama as the winner of seemingly the most important election in history.
Watching Obama’s now famous victory speech in Chicago that night, my heart swelled with pride as I sat with my family and took in what this all meant. Finally, someone who could relate to the struggles minorities face every single day in this country was set to take up residence in the White House.
Pundits soon began to speak of his victory as the beginning of a “post-racial” America, where the centuries of strife would be forgotten overnight.
The next day, school was full of kids sending text messages joking about Obama’s race. Somewhere along the line, we had all missed the memo that racism was supposed to be dead.
Since that fateful night, Obama has been tasked with more than any other president in terms of having to repair the damage of America’s racial divisions. It seems to be backwards thinking for it to be the responsibility of a minority to fix the very systems that had damaged his people, but that’s what became accepted and expected.
The failure of this expectation truly became apparent to me last summer when I was covering a story on the death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year old black woman who died after being arrested in Waller County, Texas. Her death set off a wave of protests over the way police handled her during her arrest and her death under mysterious circumstances while in the county jail.
Not long after she passed away, a group of protestors gathered in downtown Dallas to speak out against what they saw as an injustice. What started out as a relatively tranquil march soon turned aggressive, as the protestors began to get into it with the police who were tasked with making sure the demonstrations didn’t get out of hand.
That night, I saw scared, angry people confront cops in ways I didn’t think were possible. There were several times I was sure someone would either hit an officer or the police would begin arresting protesters indiscriminately. After seeing everything that had happened in Ferguson just a few months earlier, all I could think about was what would happen if someone on either side did something that would rile someone past their breaking point.
After nearly two hours, the protest came to a stop in front of the Dallas Police Department’s headquarters, where the march was met by more cops than I had ever seen in my life. Streaks of blue and red light painted the faces of the protesters who attempted to get through DPD’s blockade to march to the front of the building. Rumors began to spread through the crowd that police would begin arresting everyone on sight. All I could think about was what to do if I had to either run from the cops or spend a night in the Dallas County Jail.
Thankfully, the night ended without further incident. As I drove home, the only thing running through my mind was how much distrust and disillusionment the crowd, which was mostly black, had with the people who were supposed to be protecting them. It made me sad to think that they had to remind people that black lives matter even though there was a black commander-in-chief.
That night, I learned a disturbing truth: the issues of race, policing and mistrust of the government are more complicated than we like to think. A million different problems led to the emotional outbursts I saw that night and it was nothing that a single person, even Obama, could fix.
While it’s undeniable that there has been more and more racial incidents making waves in the news, it feels like it’s too easy to say everything is getting worse. What seems to be more likely is that Obama’s presidency has in fact made people feel like they should stand up for themselves as minorities. From Black Lives Matter to Latino organizers protesting the harsh treatment of immigrants, we’re seeing more and more people taking a stand against the injustices that have so often plagued this country.
The night of the Sandra Bland protest, I wondered if we were better or worse than we were as a country before Obama and I’m still trying to find the answer. But during his time, we’ve seen people begin to ask the hard questions we used to simply sweep under the rug. An unarmed kid being shot in the streets by a cop is now actually examined critically rather than being accepted as part of the status quo. If the first part of fixing a problem is recognizing that there is a problem, the country seems to be heading in the right direction.
To think that we can ever end racism seems to be a naive ideal. Racism has been ingrained in the very fabric of this nation since its colonial days. That being said, when people look back on Obama’s legacy, it shouldn’t be of a president who failed to solve the country’s race problem. It should be of someone who helped to spark the discussion of what it really means to combat racism. Although rhetoric from people like Trump calling for the deportation of millions may seem like a step backwards, the fact that the majority of the country recognizes it as a problem is a huge step forward. America may have not gotten better under Obama, but at least it knows it needs help.