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Why are race relations worse?

Between Ferguson and Oklahoma’s fraternity bus, race is much in the news. But behind this is a larger story of worsening race relations.

I'M GRAPPLING lately with questions about race.

What's happening? Why are things worse?

Did something trigger subsurface strife? Or is it always there, just lately more manifested?

So much race-related furor: shootings, demonstrations, racism in law enforcement, racist fraternity songs, all 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, after the election (twice) of America's first black president.

Is it related to that? Has race-based resentment swelled since 2008? Is the electoral success of Barack Obama part of the cause?

Or is it the series of questionable shooting deaths of unarmed black men?

Trayvon Martin, 17, in Florida; Michael Brown, 18, in Missouri; Tony Robinson, 19, in Wisconsin; Air Force veteran Anthony Hill, 27, in Georgia.

Fallout from Ferguson? A combination of all of the above?

And controversies continue.

In Ferguson, feds found patterns of constitutional abuse as blacks were targeted with tickets and fines to fund the municipality. The shooting of two white cops since isn't likely to make things better.

At the University of Oklahoma, fraternity members sang about lynching blacks, and the frat's national office is investigating "other incidents" in other chapters.

It's hard to think that these are isolated cases. It's ugly to think that they're representative. But it sure feels as if ugly's winning.

The sad irony is that many saw Obama's election as a path to a postracial America.

In January 2009, the New York Times carried an article strongly suggesting change.

It noted Gallup polls that showed optimism about the future of race relations at levels higher than any point in four prior decades.

It cited a study by Florida State University psychologist E. Ashby Plant, who surveyed 400 white college students in Florida and Wisconsin and found "little evidence of antiblack bias."

This contrasted with her previous studies showing some degree of bias in almost 80 percent of whites.

She told the Times that Obama's election "may have very important implications" for race relations.

I tried to reach Plant, who is white, to see what she thinks now. No luck.

But I did connect with Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt law professor, expert and author on race, an African-American who grew up poor in the rural South.

"Things are worse," she says. "I feel so sorry for black Americans. They love Obama [but] he hasn't helped.

"I'm going to say this bluntly: The president only weighs in on racial instances when they can be manipulated for political purposes."

She says that Obama and his administration speak on "hot button" cases but show unwillingness to address day-to-day problems of many blacks, such as poverty, rates of incarceration and family structure.

"I'm 61 years old," says Swain. "I'm not shocked or surprised by all that's going on. That is the nature of our society. . . . I have two sons in their 40s. I don't fear for them. I fear for my grandchildren."

A new CNN poll says that 39 percent of Americans see race relations as being worse since Obama took office. A Gallup Poll last month shows 62 percent dissatisfied with race relations, a number higher than at any point in recent history.

Much of America remains segregated by income, race and education. Philadelphia makes every Top 10 list of segregated big cities.

Is government the answer? I'm not sure.

Government, since the Civil Rights Act, has spent trillions on poverty, discrimination and education inequities.

Last week, the Justice Department announced $4.75 million in grants to six cities, including Pittsburgh, to build "community trust" with law enforcement.

The announcement said that the initiative complements other department "components" such as the Office of Justice Programs, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Community Relations Service.

Forgive me, but that all pretty much sounds like the same thing.

So, what then?

Oprah Winfrey once suggested that racism ends when "older people" born and bred to bias die. But how does that square with college kids' racist frat songs?

Morgan Freeman once said that the best way to end racism is to "stop talking about it." But journalism's job is to talk about problems.

Obama, as a candidate in '08, said that race in America is something "we've never really worked through." But we don't appear to be any closer in 2015.