Although few people realistically expected the election of Barack Obama to heal America’s long-festering racial wounds, it is striking how much more race seems to matter today than it did when the first black president took office. Or, more accurately, how much race still seems to matter to white people. Racism has always been real to those who experience its effects, but for much of white America, the story of racial progress has been a reassuring balm.
The inequalities didn’t go away on day one of the Obama presidency, of course—as is made so painfully evident by troubled urban schools, neighborhood segregation, and a prison system so heavily populated by black inmates that an observer might confuse our nation for apartheid South Africa. And there is the explicit racism, too, even if it is increasingly hidden and coded, leaving voter ID laws, welfare reform, and mass deportation open to at least some interpretation as to their intention. It’s not about race, the proponents of such measures say. This is still said, even after Eric Garner’s 2014 death was captured on video, the victim protesting his inability to breathe as he was being pressed to the ground by police while other officers looked on. Black Lives Matter has not made race an issue in American politics. Race has always been an issue in American politics. Black Lives Matter has simply helped white people recognize that this remains the case. Racial progress is real, but the story is far from over.