Chad Dion Lassiter is a professor of race at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work Inc. He spoke with Metro on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, about the polarized state of race relations in the United States as the first black president leaves office and Donald Trump gets sworn in.
Here are excerpts from the conversation, which have been edited and condensed.
Looking back after eight years, what did Barack Obama’s presidency do for race relations in America?
The election of Barack Obama brought the color line closer together. I don’t think we were post-racial. Post-racial is still a mirage. It was crafted by the elites to say systemic institutional racism and all the things that are a threat to our democracy no longer exist, that we’ve transformed the color line with the ascension of Barack Obama. When he got in there though, a lot of power elite awakened to the real realization that here is a black man at the highest office in the land. So the obstruction politics were similar to what Congressman John Lewis said, that never in the history of the democracy have you had a standing president give a State of the Union Address and someone belts out, “You lie!”
Philosophically not just politically, Barack Obama and Donald Trump seem to be complete opposites. How do you explain the American people going from one to the other?
When we look at where we are now, this is not all on Donald Trump’s shoulder. A lot of this was planted with the Tea Party. The rhetoric from the right as it relates to xenophobia, as it relates to Islamophobia. As it relates to, “Let’s build that wall.” So Donald Trump comes in and he’s able to say what a lot of people are thinking but don’t have the audacity to say.
Has the state of race relations improved in the last eight years, and where do you see it heading under President Trump?
I think where we’re at in the country as it relates to race relations is the same place we were at when Obama was the president. America has always been racially polarizing. A lot of things have been swept under the rug. On this King Day, we still should be looking at the same thing that King looked at when he articulated the triple evils: Militarism, Poverty and Racism. And so, those weren’t created by Donald Trump or Barack Obama. Those were created by the democracy.
What would you want to see Obama do after leaving office to improve race relations in the United States?
I always said that once President Obama got out of the Oval Office, we were going to see a world leader who has the ability and god given gift to unite the globe. Obama has the ability to write books and we can hear how he really feels without the confines of empire. I think he has the opportunity to give workshops and trainings about the racial divide. He has the ability to deal with value clarifications to navigate the color line where we can all look at each other and see the humanity for who we are.