President Barack Obama on Monday night said racism today is “rarely the overt Klansman-style racism and typically has more to do” with discrimination based on race, including unconscious biases.
In an exit interview of sorts with The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, Obama was asked a personal question about how he has managed to navigate questions about race, both as an individual of a mixed racial background and as the president.
“In and around race, when you are a person who has a platform, when you are in a space where you are engaging with people, it is often difficult to navigate and skirt that line between speaking your mind and sharing your true opinions on race, whilst at the same time not being seen to alienate some of the people you are talking to — because if you are a white person who’s speaking about race, then you are just a person who is interested in race. If you are a person of color who’s speaking about it, then it’s like, ‘Oh, the Black thing’s starting again,'” Noah said in the prelude to his question, to which Obama chuckled in agreement. “How did you navigate that through your two terms?”
“My general theory is that, if I was clear in my own mind about who I was, comfortable in my own skin, and had clarity about the way in which race continues to be this powerful factor in so many elements of our lives, but that it is not the only factor in so many aspects of our lives, that we have by no means overcome the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and racism, but that the progress we’ve made has been real and extraordinary,” Obama said.
“If I’m communicating my genuine belief that those who are not subject to racism can sometimes have blind spots or lack appreciation of what it feels to be on the receiving end of that — but that doesn’t mean that they’re not open to learning and caring about equality and justice — and that I can win them over, because there’s goodness in the majority of people. I always felt that if I really knew that and I just communicated it as clearly as I could, that I’d be okay.”
He added: “Another way of saying this is, there’s not been a time in my public life or my presidency where I feel as if I have had to bite my tongue. There have been times in my public life where I’ve said, ‘How do I say this diplomatically, how do I say this … in a way that it’s received.’ So there have been very few instances where I’ve said, ‘Well, that was racist. You are racist.’ There’ve been times where I’ve said, ‘You know, you might not of taken into account the ongoing legacy of racism in why we have so many Black men incarcerated. And since I know that you believe in the Constitution and believe in justice and believe in liberty, how about if we try this?’
“Now, some might say, ‘Well, you’re not speaking fully truth to power because of that diplomacy,’ but I don’t think that trying to appeal to the better angels of our nature, as Lincoln put it, is somehow compromised. There may be times where you just have to call things out and name names. But the challenge we face today when it comes to race is rarely the overt Klansman-style racism and typically has more to do with the fact that, you know, people got other stuff they want to talk about and it’s sort of uncomfortable. 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-dried racist behavior, but rather about the complex ways in which society is working these issues through, trying to reach folks in ways that they can hear I think is important.
“And, I would add, everybody’s got a different role to play. If Chris Rock’s doing stand-up, then there is a benefit to him doing something that is different from the president of the United States doing something. For one thing, you know, he doesn’t have to edit his language quite as carefully because I am still subject to, you know, some restraints,” Obama joked.
The president added that while he looks forward to spending some quality time with his wife after he leaves the White House next month, he intends to remain engaged and “paying attention” to what transpires during the next administration and will speak up if he feels people’s rights are being violated.
“I don’t anticipate that I suddenly just vanish, but I think it’s important to give the incoming administration the space,” he said, adding, “If I think core values of ours are being threatened, if I thought that a Muslim registry was being set up that violates the Constitution and violates who we are … I might have to say something about that. If I saw Dream Act kids, young people who were brought here as children who are for all intents and purposes Americans, suddenly being rounded up contrary to who we are as a nation of laws and a nation if immigrants, I may have to say something about that.”