Barack Obama’s legacy as the first black president of the United States will always intrinsically be tied to race. But during his eight years in office, Obama was often met with criticism when it came to race ― particularly what some critics claimed was his tendency to give “middle-of-the-road statements” in an effort to placate both sides of the issue. When the president criticized some of the people who looted during the Ferguson protests, stating that they were simply “destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities,” some black people saw this as an instance when Obama seemed to be out of touch and unable to address the underlying systemic issues that motivated some protestors. For many people of color, Obama was always too measured and too diplomatic when it came to talking about race in public. Some people empathized with this, suggesting that as a black president in a government long-dominated by white people, his was a delicate and precarious situation to be in. Key and Peele’s popular “Obama Anger Translator” skit was a perfect satirization of Obama’s predicament ― he toed the line of being too black, or not black enough. But POTUS has had moments of candor when it comes to race relations in America, not only during his two terms as presidency but long before as a presidential candidate and a senator. Undoubtedly, the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman was a huge turning point ― a moment when the president acknowledged that Martin could have been him 35 years ago. Below are 11 poignant and illuminating moments when Barack Obama explicitly talked about race: “American culture at this point.. is black culture.” (1995) YouTube Here, a young Barack Obama (promoting his first book “Dreams From My Father” in 1995) speaks about the influence of black culture on white America:
“African-Americans already partake of a hybrid culture. We’re a part of a hybrid culture. We can’t deny that. In some ways,the more obvious biracial identity that I have to affirm, African-Americans also have to affirm. And white Americans have to affirm, because they partake in a hybrid culture. The truth of the matter is, American culture at this point, what is truly American, is black culture.” “..My white grandmother: a woman who helped raise me, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.” (March 2008) In March 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama delivered his historic speech, “A More Perfect Union,” and addressed the controversy surrounding his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and racial tensions in America as a whole. At one point in the speech, Obama candidly shares: “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.” “Because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues.” (July 2009) After Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested for trying to get into his own Cambridge home, Obama made a statement about the incident that initially tried to toe the line of who was actually to blame. He ultimately ends by stating:
“The fact that [this] has garnered so much attention is a testimony to the fact that these are issues that are still very sensitive in America. Be mindful of the fact that because of our history, because of the difficulties of the past, African-Americans are sensitive to these issues.” “We’ve got no time for excuses — not because the legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished; they have not.” (May 2013) In a commencement speech to Morehouse grads, President Obama urged them towards ambition while acknowledging the realities of racism. He said:
“We’ve got no time for excuses — not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there.” “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” (July 2013) President Obama sparked a media frenzy when he commented on George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin murder trial.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” Obama told reporters. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” “Racism, we are not cured of it.” (June 2015) Many people were inexplicably offended when Obama used the word “n***r,” in context, during a conversation about racism. But the president’s full statement was far more compelling than the media storm over his use of the word:
“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say n****r in public,” Obama said in an interview for Marc Maron’s ‘WTF Podcast.’
“That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.” “[Black churches] are places were children are… taught that they matter.” (June 2015) President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney (one of the nine people slain by white supremacist Dylan Roof) is iconic for his soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” But throughout the eulogy, Obama made several poignant observations about black life and black resilience:
“Over the course of centuries, black churches served as ‘hush harbors’ where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah — rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart — and taught that they matter.” “This is something that is deeply-rooted in our society.” (December 2014) In the wake of protests in Ferguson, Obama sat down for an interview with BET where he said: “This isn’t going to be solved over night. This is something that is deeply-rooted in our society, it’s deeply-rooted in our history.” “The concept of race in America is not just genetic…it’s cultural.” (December 2016) In an interview with CNN, POTUS candidly discussed his mixed-race identity and the nature of race in America.
“The concept of race in America is not just genetic,” Obama explained. “Otherwise the one-drop rule wouldn’t have made sense. It’s cultural. It’s this notion of a people who look different than the mainstream suffering terrible oppression but somehow being able to make out of that a music and a language and a faith.” “The challenge we face today, when it comes to race, is rarely the overt Klansman-style racism.” (December 2016) Trevor Noah had an intimate conversation with Obama for “The Daily Show,” where the exiting president talked about how he navigated talking about race amidst scrutiny from both the left and right-wing.
“The challenge we face today, when it comes to race, is rarely the overt Klansman-style racism… It’s somebody not getting called back for an interview, although it’s never explicit. Or it’s who gets the TV acting job, the actress who doesn’t quite look the part, and what does that mean? And in that environment, where you’re not talking necessarily about cut and dry racist behavior, but rather about the complex ways in which society is working these issues through, you know — trying to reach folks in ways that they can hear, I think, is important.” “I never doubted my ability to get white support.” (December 2016) The Atlantic In conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Obama shared his own personal view on race in America as a biracial black man raised by a white mother and grandparents. His thoughts offered an illuminating glimpse into his campaign and presidency.
“There is no doubt that as a mixed child, as the child of an African and a white woman, who was very close to white grandparents who came from Kansas, that I think the working assumption of discrimination, the working assumption that white people would not treat me right or give me an opportunity, or judge me on the basis of merit—that kind of working assumption is less embedded in my psyche than it is, say, with Michelle.
There is a little bit of a biographical element to this. I had as a child seen at least a small cross section of white people, but the people who were closest to me loved me more than anything.”xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx