Obama's presidency can't solve everything. Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images
Obama's presidency can't solve everything. Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Annette Gordon-Reed, a law professor at Harvard University and scholar on race, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in history for "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family." In an earlier work, she meticulously researched that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Sally Hemmings's children, long a point of dispute among historians. She has also written a biography of President Andrew Johnson and his post-Civil War failures on racial reconciliation, and assisted Vernon Jordan, the prominent lawyer and former president of the National Urban League, in his memoirs. Last week, I had an e-mail exchange with her about race relations in the U.S. after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Question: Have race relations steadily improved in America over the past few decades or pretty much stood still?

Answer: There have been obvious improvements on a number of fronts, but some setbacks. As the American economic system has sputtered -- with a brief period of expansion during the Bill Clinton years -- the zeal for focusing on injustices to minorities has waned.

The collapse of the Soviet Union changed the dynamic as well. The heyday of the civil-rights movement came in the wake of great prosperity in America and at a time when we were competing with (what we thought were) powerful nations that were offering the world an alternative economic system: the Soviet Union and China. The U.S. could not afford to continue with its own citizens behind a version of the Iron Curtain. Change was as much a foreign policy issue as a domestic issue. With the economic pie shrinking (really, elites taking more of the share of economic prosperity and government embarking on costly overseas adventures and the Soviet/Chinese economic models discredited), I think we are seeing the beginnings of a backlash against efforts to bring blacks into full citizenship.

There is no one out there to play to, really.

Q: There was an expectation that the election of the first black president would elevate the issue and relations. Has that occurred?

A: I think it probably has been wonderful for young children, black and white, to see a black president and his beautiful family in the White House. The fruits of this will likely become more evident as the generations who have grown up in the age of Barack Obama reach adulthood and begin to take over. It has opened possibilities in a major way.

On the other hand, his election has unleashed a frightening (though not unexpected) amount of hostility. For goodness' sake -- a member of Congress yelling out and calling the president a liar during a major public address when the whole world is watching, a governor wagging her finger in the face of president of the United States -- the whole business about Obama's putative illegitimacy as president -- not just that they disagree with him: he is not a legal president. That is just a way to say that black people are not supposed to be president of the United States. I think once the reality that we have a black president set in, it drove many people around the bend.

Q: To the extent that it has not, how much of that is (a) expectations were unrealistic, or (b) the opposition -- some of it bigotry -- has made that impossible?

A: The expectation that things would change overnight, or even over his term, was always unrealistic. When I say "things," I mean race relations. As mentioned above, some things changed by virtue of his occupying a place that many, including myself, never thought I would see a black person occupy. That is not a trivial thing at all. But the resistance to him has been off the charts. He can take something that they propose (his health-care plan is conservatives' blueprint) and they are against it like the plague.

That a Republican leader could say that pretty much their sole agenda was to keep the president from being re-elected and, really, governing, shows the utter decadence of the political process. I do believe that bigotry has blinded many people to what an appalling spectacle this has become for our republic.

Q: Should Obama be doing more to crystallize the issue, the problems?

A: He is in a tough position. I think he has spoken about race enough to know where he stands. More important is what his administration is doing; Eric Holder going to Ferguson. He is the chief law enforcement officer of the federal government. He is extremely important, and we need to focus on the people and the mechanisms for effecting change and/or bringing the hammer if that is what is required. I am not devaluing the importance of speeches, but I think some members of the news media want the president to do things that they know will cause the kind of contention that feeds media stories. That's easy. What Holder has in his arsenal are laws, cases and precedents that might require study and aren't amenable to sound bites. The Justice Department is the key here.

Q: The criminal justice system, police-community relations, the courts and penal system are the touchstone of much acrimony and tension. Are there fixes?

A: Something must be done to fix the dysfunctional relationship between blacks and law enforcement. Studies show that blacks are disproportionately the targets of police action. Even though we are less likely to be carrying contraband, we are searched more frequently. We are the targets of arrest for drugs, even though whites use drugs as much as, if not more, than blacks. I remember walking to work back in the 1980s through what was an open drug market down on Wall Street. Except for one time, no police came to arrest anyone there during my years working in the area. They were all up in black neighborhoods busting people who ended up on the evening news feeding the canard that blacks were propping up the billion dollar drug industry in the U.S.

That was a choice to deploy officers in that fashion, and it helped create the caricature of black criminality and white innocence. That has to stop.

Q: What lessons should be drawn from the continuing tragedy of Ferguson?

A: Diversity matters. Ferguson should not have so small a number of black police officers. And voting matters as well. The citizens of Ferguson should organize, register and vote in people, of whatever color, who have their best interests at heart. I have read that because of an aggressive policy of arresting high schoolers who fight and charging them with felony assault, many lose the right to vote. We have to look at policies that are designed to cut communities off from what is a great power in a republic: the right to vote.

To contact the writer of this article: Al Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Maria LaMagna at mlamagna@bloomberg.net.