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President Barack Obama on Tuesday will resume a role he has played all too often — 'Consoler-in-Chief' — in the wake of the tragic, allegedly racially-motivated murder of five Dallas police officers.
The president's remarks in the city are coming amid a series of controversial police shootings and combative protests, all of which have contributed to a palpable climate of cultural anxiety. Obama has emphatically stated that we are "not as divided as some have suggested," but in recent weeks, pundits and politicians have increasingly claimed that we've "never" been more divided as a nation, especially on matters of race.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey late last year showed perceptions of race relations had reached a 20-year low, down starkly from a lofty 77 percent positive high reached in the immediate aftermath of Obama's first presidential victory in 2008.
Since 2008, there has been plenty of anecdotal and empirical evidence that the U.S. is anything but post-racial, but is that a symptom of the first black president's polarizing tenure in office, a reaction to changing demographics, or a rising awareness and exposure of police brutality and white privilege?
How can anyone make the case that a country whose legacy is inexorably linked to the institution of slavery and the 20th century battle for civil rights has reached a kind of nadir on the issue of race? In just the last 65 years alone, the U.S. has undergone a sea change on the subject which has been anything but smooth.
Here are just five examples of years where our nation was arguably far more at odds on race:
1964 — The year that President Lyndon Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act into law was proceeded by the racially-motivated firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama (which claimed the lives of four innocent black girls) and the murder of activist Medgar Evers in his own driveway. Although the bill was a historic step forward for African-Americans, it was greeted with historic resistance in Congress (segregationist Democrats led an epic filibuster against it), and that year's GOP presidential nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater's opposition to it helped him secure the solid support of the deep South in an otherwise landslide defeat in November.
1968 — The year that brought not just the tragic murders of civil rights advocates Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, but also the violent clashes between protesters and police outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Activists, who were in some cases the victims of what would later be deemed a "police riot," infamously chanted "the whole world is watching" before horrified television audiences around the country. Indeed, many voters would flock that fall to the GOP, which promised (in a still timely refrain) to restore "law and order" in part by mobilizing a so-called "silent majority" to crack down on the very constituencies which were leading the shouting in the streets.
1976 — The racial dynamics of the 1970s were in many ways defined by the fallout of social progress of the prior decade. In one of the most visceral examples of those growing pains was on display during the many protests (sometimes violent) against federal busing programs, which sought to right the wrongs of decades of de facto segregation in the North. The ugly disputes reached a peak with the assault on black attorney Ted Landsmark, pictured in the Pulitzer Prize winning photo below, which exemplified just how intense the resistance still was to racial coexistence.
1992 — The acquittal of the four Los Angeles police officers in charges related to the beating of black motorist Rodney King poured salt on a long festering, wounded relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement. While many white Americans sought to find a way to justify the officers actions (which were caught on tape, foreshadowing future incidents like these), African-Americans across the country were outraged by what they saw as a miscarriage of justice. The riots that followed the verdict may not have been the worst in our country's history, but because they played out live on television for the whole nation to see, they may have had the most lasting impact.
1995 — The last historic low point for race relations, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. This year, following the controversial not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, just 34 percent of Americans had a positive view on the subject. The intensely divided reactions to that case—which spoke harsh truths about race, celebrity and the media—were personified in the wildly disproportionate reactions to the verdict. And although today opinion on Simpson's guilt is far less split, perceptions of whether the justice system is fair, haven't changed dramatically.