Upper Valley Residents Consider Obama’s Impact on Race Relations

West Lebanon — The official estimate put 1.8 million people on the National Mall, in Washington, D.C., for President Obama’s first inauguration. It was the largest gathering the Mall had ever seen.

That was in January of 2009. Two months earlier, the New York Times ran a headline, reading: “Obama Elected President as Racial Barrier Falls.”

It showed two distinct takeaways from the 2008 presidential race: One, a black man had ascended to very top of the American political sphere for the very first time; second, well, a new president had been elected.

The former, at the time, seemed more important.

“There was a galvanizing influence by the presence of this candidate,” said Len Cadwallader, the former executive director of White River Junction-based nonprofit Vital Communities. “That led people to believe that this was to be a turning point.”

Four years after Obama captured the nation’s imagination with his first win, the president will once again take the oath of office. The 2013 ceremonial swearing-in ceremony will be today at 11:30 a.m., sharing its pomp with that of Martin Luther King Day. The concurrence of the ceremony and the federal holiday it falls on begs a question: In the past four years, considering how the 2008 election of Obama was considered a massive jump forward in American race relations, how much has actually changed?

“I think that our attitudes toward race changed glacially,” Cadwallader said. “Any movement of the needle in four years is barely perceptible. There is much work still to be done in this country.”

Still, Cadwallader is an avid Obama supporter who volunteered on the president’s re-election campaign nearly full time. He’ll be at today’s inauguration. “I’m so excited,” he said. “I feel like a kid going to his first rock concert.”

But his view that racial attitudes nationwide didn’t undergo sweeping changes when Obama took office was echoed by several others. The problem, they said, often comes down to perception of what the 2008 election meant.

For instance, said Bruce Duthu, the chairman of the Native American Studies program at Dartmouth College, those who believe Obama’s election signified that America had defeated racial issues entirely are way off.

“I worry that some people have misused that as a marker of ‘our work is done,’ and then responded with a sense of intolerance,” he said, adding that he has two grandchildren of mixed race — Native American and African-American. “I’d like to think that, by the time they are adults, the kind of world they’ll live in has made much more progress.”

Some felt more strongly about the lack of identifiable progress. Al Patterson, of Lebanon, said Obama’s attitude post-election has actually turned racial progress backward.

“The way he’s carried himself, with his hypocrisy, his arrogance, is actually detrimental,” Patterson said. “I look at him now, I look at the president now, and I think I’m embarrassed that I’m a black American because of the way he acts.”

Patterson, a Lebanon School Board member, did not support Obama in either 2008 or 2012. He said that the president compartmentalizes people of different races, rather than looking at everyone as Americans. There are people, for instance, of all races who are poor, Patterson said, and should be helped as a whole.

“If we lived in a world where there was no racism,” Patterson said, “we would not be excited that a black man was elected president.”

It becomes a double-sided issue, according to those interviewed, where Obama’s first election was positive for the country’s ability to cross racial boundaries while, at the same time, fortifying those same boundaries. Obama won the popular and electoral vote for two consecutive elections, but it also caused more hatred to bubble to the surface of public discourse.

“We’ve seen a lot of folks who are biased have come out of the woodwork to show us how much racism still exists in the country,” said Sarwar Kashmeri, of Reading, Vt., an adjunct professor at Norwich University and the author of Nato 2.0: Reboot or Delete? “In my opinion, as we head into his second term, looking back over the last four years, I don’t think that his term has had a significant impact on race relations.”

Kashmeri maintained that Obama might have a larger impact on changing sometimes fraught race relations after he’s left the presidency entirely. Perhaps when removed from the daily grind of the top job, Kashmeri said, he’d become an activist president in the mold of Bill Clinton, focusing on fewer issues with greater verve, and that would be the catalyst for true change.

Regardless of where the country is, though — or will be in 2016 — Obama’s election was a significant moment for the U.S., even if overall changes might only take place over a generational chronology.

“It was an epic historic change,” said Annelise Orleck, a professor of history at Dartmouth. “There’s no question. In another country, it would have been significant. In this country, it was epochal. It was field-changing.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.