CHICAGO — The raucous scene at President Obama’s election night victory party was a full-throated display of exuberant diversity as supporters from across the racial spectrum danced, cheered, and celebrated until well into the morning.
But whether Obama has moved the country toward greater racial harmony — a “post-racial” society in substance as well as in symbol — might not be answered until long after his unprecedented presidency has ended.
Recent surveys by the Associated Press and researchers showed that 51 percent of Americans express explicit antiblack attitudes, compared with 48 percent in 2008. The study also found that 56 percent of Americans harbor implicit antiblack attitudes, compared with 49 percent four years ago.
Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who helped develop the survey, cautioned that the poll’s margin of error of 4 percentage points means that racial attitudes toward black Americans might not be worse. However, the flip side of that analysis is that prejudice does not appear to have dissipated during Obama’s presidency.
“What I can tell you with confidence is that antiblack attitudes have not gone down,” Krosnick said. “I think the important take-home point is that it’s not getting worse.”
Lingering polarization, however, is starkly evident in exit polling from the election. Obama won overwhelming support among black voters, who for decades have favored Democrats by wide but smaller margins. He garnered 93 percent of their ballots, according to Edison Research.
By contrast, 59 percent of white voters backed Mitt Romney.
Obama remains personally popular across much of the country. But the survey indicates that his singular appeal does not automatically translate into greater tolerance toward blacks as a whole.
“An interesting question is whether a single individual can change people’s attitudes toward a group of people,” Krosnick said. “I guess I would have been surprised if that had happened.”
Jelani Cobb, director of the Institute of African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut, said he is not surprised by the survey’s findings.
“It doesn’t mean that what we thought was momentous and significant is invalidated. But what it means is that it follows a fairly typical pattern. With each step toward racial equality in the country” — after the Civil War, for example, and after civil rights gains in the 1960s – “there has been a backlash.”
Hailed as an avatar of change in a country long bedeviled by racial fissures, Obama has been reluctant to use the immense visibility of his office to address race-related issues.
There have been a few exceptions: his White House “beer summit” after the controversial arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009 by police in Cambridge, Mass.; Obama’s statement in March on the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, when the president reflected that if he had a son, the black, unarmed teenager might resemble Martin; and a powerful speech on race delivered during the 2008 campaign.
Some blacks have criticized the president for keeping race on the periphery. But others, including professor Charles Stith of Boston University, argue that his presidency will have a monumental effect on the national conversation about race.
“That we’ve come this far, this fast, is nothing short of miraculous. When we talk about American exceptionalism, this is American exceptionalism,” said Stith, who directs the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at BU.
Only 50 years ago, Stith said, parts of the United States operated under de facto apartheid that strictly segregated blacks from whites.
“I liken it to the biblical exodus. After Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, they still had to wander the wilderness for 40 years until they could truly reach the promised land,” said Stith.
The poll on racial attitudes, conducted online from Aug. 30 to Sept. 11, measured both explicit prejudice against blacks and implicit attitudes that the respondent did not overtly express.
The study found that Republicans, by 79 percent to 32 percent, were more likely than Democrats to express explicit prejudice. In measuring explicit racism, respondents were asked a series of questions and whether words such as “hard-working” and “lazy” better described different races.
The experimental implicit test found a much closer difference. Those findings showed that most Democrats and Republicans harbor negative feelings against blacks — 55 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans — as well as 49 percent of independents.
To gauge implicit racism against blacks, respondents were shown individual photos of black and white males before they were asked to rate their feelings about a neutral Chinese symbol. Research has shown that feelings about the photos will be transferred onto the symbol.
Although Stith sees improvement in racial attitudes, he acknowledges that profound divides remain, particularly in areas with a history of discrimination.
“There’s still an issue in terms of race in America, but the demographics tell us that it’s having less weight as the prior generations start to lose influence and power and become a smaller percentage of the population,” Stith said.
However, he added, “it is impossible to ignore the level of disrespect that this president has been subjected to, and the applause that that disrespect has gotten.”
As an example, Stith cited the shout of “You lie!” by Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, during Obama’s health care address to Congress in 2009.
For Cobb, the University of Connecticut historian, the impact of Obama’s presidency on race relations probably will not be apparent for years.
“This country is not where it was. We’ve seen the election and subsequent reelection of an African-American as president. That mold has been broken,” Cobb said.
But for a broad assessment of its meaning, Cobb added, “we need to wait a while.”Brian MacQuarrie
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