PHILADELPHIA — Ask Americans how race relations have changed under their first black president and they are ready with answers.
Ashley Ray, a white woman, hears more people debating racial issues. "I know a lot of people who really thought we were OK as a nation, a culture, and now they understand that we're not," she says.
Karl Douglass, a black man, sees stereotypes easing. "White people deal with me and my family differently," he says.
Jose Lozano, who is Hispanic by way of Puerto Rico, believes prejudice is emerging from the shadows. "Now the racism is coming out," he says.
In the afterglow of Barack Obama's historic victory, most people in the United States believed that race relations would improve. Nearly four years later, has that dream come true? Americans have no shortage of thoughtful opinions, and no consensus.
As the nation moves toward the multiracial future heralded by this son of an African father and white mother, the events of Obama's first term, and what people make of them, help trace the racial arc of his presidency.
Shortly before the 2008 election, 56 percent of Americans surveyed by the Gallup organization said that race relations would improve if Obama were elected. One day after his victory, 70 percent said race relations would improve and only 10 percent predicted they would get worse.
Just weeks after taking office, Obama said, "There was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination."
Then he joked, "But that lasted about a day."
An October 2009 Gallup poll showed a large drop in racial optimism since the election, with 41 percent of respondents saying that race relations had improved under Obama. Thirty-five percent said there was no change and 22 percent said race relations were worse.
The president has discussed race in occasional speeches to groups such as the National Urban League or the National Council of La Raza, and in interviews with Hispanic and African-American media outlets. But he usually walks a careful line, allowing the nation to get used to the idea of a black president without doing things to make race seem a central aspect of his governance.
"There is a totally different psychological frame of reference that this country has never had," says William Smith, executive director of the National Center for Race Amity at Wheelock College.
He cites evidence of progress from the mindset of children in his programs to new history curriculums in Deep South schools.
"To me, that's a quantum leap," Smith says.
Douglass, a real estate agent from Columbus, Ga., says white people seem less surprised to see him with his wife and daughter in places such as an art museum or a foreign language school.
"I think white people deal with me and my family differently since an African-American man is leader of the free world and a nuclear black family lives in the White House," he says.
This April, in a poll by the National Journal and the University of Phoenix, 33 percent felt race relations were getting better, 23 percent said they were getting worse, and 42 percent said they were staying about the same.
So where are we now?
Four years after Obama smashed the nation's highest racial barrier, and less than four months before America will decide whether he deserves a second term, the nation is uncertain about the meaning of a black president.
Recently, Obama was asked in a Rolling Stone magazine interview if race relations were any different than when he took office.
"I never bought into the notion," Obama said, "that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a postracial period."
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