In the wake of Barack Obama's historic election as president four years ago, commentators and newspaper editorials trumpeted a new optimism that the nation had turned the corner on race relations.
"America," said one editorial, "has moved beyond the bigotry of its past."
Such lofty rhetoric is largely missing these days as Obama prepares for his second inauguration Monday on the federal holiday commemorating the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Results in survey after survey show that racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since Obama moved into the White House. In fact, a poll for The Associated Press released shortly before the November election showed that a majority of Americans had expressed prejudice towards blacks -- and that number was slightly higher than in 2008.
"As much as we'd hope the impact of race would decline over time ... it appears the impact of anti-black sentiment on voting is about the same as it was four years ago," Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who worked on the survey, told The Associated Press.
Scholars who study the African-American plight conclude that Obama's twin elections mark a significant milestone, but don't come close to suggesting a new day in America.
"We had a belief that because an African-American man was elected president that race would disappear," said Shawn Alexander, an African-American studies scholar at the University of Kansas. "Just because a political election brings someone to the forefront does not mean you're going to change everyone's opinions."
In November, Obama failed to carry any age category of white voters against Mitt Romney, although black voters backed him overwhelmingly. He also failed to carry whites in 2008.
Obama himself has questioned the significance of his 2008 election.
"I never bought into the notion," he told Rolling Stone last year, "that by electing me, somehow we were entering into a post-racial period."
Still, the impact of Obama's re-election can't be discounted entirely. Americans of all political persuasions are seeing a black president succeed on several fronts, including the passage of landmark, albeit intensely controversial, health-care reform legislation. Although Obama so far has declined to place race relations at the top of his agenda, he continues to serve as a powerful role model.
"The nation as a whole can view an African American in that position of power," Alexander said. "That's huge."
Kansas City Mayor Sly James said it was "absolutely astounding (and) gratifying" that a majority of voters would twice elect an African-American president.
"Tons of those people were not African-American, and that said something about the progress," James said.
At Kansas State University, American Ethnic Studies professor Cheryl Ragar said Obama's elections have translated into broken barriers in corporate boardrooms and in other places of power where people of color have ascended.
A delicate balance
Throughout his first four years in office, Obama has been challenged by a series of racially tinged issues. The president's reactions were carefully monitored, in another sign of just how sensitive race remains in America.
In July 2009, the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested after he yelled at a white police officer who had questioned whether Gates had broken into his own home. Asked about the incident, Obama said Gates was a friend and the officer had acted "stupidly." Following a public outcry, Obama acknowledged that he could have "calibrated those words differently."
The next year, after Arizona passed a tough new immigration law, Obama visited the state only to have the governor, who backed the law, wag a finger in the president's face as she discussed the law.
Some were taken aback by what they saw as a sign of disrespect to a black president.
In 2011, some black leaders complained about the president's refusal to tackle the issue of soaring black unemployment.
Then in February 2012 came the Trayvon Martin case where the unarmed black teen was shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is from Peru. When authorities initially declined to charge Zimmerman with a crime, a racially tinged uproar ensued.
"If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon," Obama said at the time.
Throughout his term, the president occasionally talked about race in speeches. But he set a course that never made race a central theme of his presidency.
"He couldn't," said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist. "A lot of people would have been scared off."
That's a typical problem for persons of color in positions of power, she said, "because they'll be accused of favoring their people over others."
Don't expect Obama to change his approach in a second term, said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.
"Barack Obama will not wear a dashiki to a state dinner," Cleaver said. "That is not going to happen.
"Yes, there will be folks who are going to be disappointed because when black people saw President Obama running they created ... these insulated expectations. When they did not see the president address those issues that they saw as important, they became disillusioned."
It took the rise of the tea party and that group's harsh criticism of the president to compel black voters to rush to Obama's defense at the polls, Cleaver said.
Divisions by race still permeate society, said Ragar, the K-State scholar. Housing segregation continues. Many churches remain segregated. The wealth gap between white and black Americans endures.
Ragar said the issue is a deeply embedded "structural" racism that will endure "as long as we continue to have those structural things in place."
Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the enduring quality of racism. "I think he would not be surprised to see that it's taken this long," Ragar said.
Race relations haven't worsened, "they have been exposed," Cleaver said. While race relations have steadily improved over the last two decades, the congressman said the country has hit a bump in the road.
"Racial troglodytes are much more active and vocal in ways they would never have dared 20 years ago," he said.
He cited one example: A conservative group named today as "Gun Appreciation Day" just two days before King Day.
"I just don't think that would've happened in 1993," Cleaver said. "In 2013, there is a lot more comfort in that. They are much more vocal and active."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.