As Barack Obama approached the lectern on March 18, 2008, his campaign for president was in jeopardy. Days earlier, racially-charged comments made by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, were broadcast by ABC News, sparking a seemingly endless news cycle in which Wright could be heard saying, “God damn America.”
Obama would respond with a speech at the National Constitution Center, just steps from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Addressing more than two centuries of race relations in America, the speech offered historical context to Wright’s remarks, and helped save Obama’s candidacy.
Describing a nation stuck in “a racial stalemate,” Obama told the audience, “I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.”
The remarks would prove prescient, as over the course of his presidency, Obama was time and again forced to confront events that re-exposed old wounds, and tested the true extent of racial progress in America.
This oral history examines four such moments: the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.; the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012; the death of Michael Brown; and the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C. It’s told by four of the nation’s most well-respected African American journalists and authors, who each spoke with FRONTLINE for the new documentary, Divided States of America. Taken together, their interviews trace how Obama sought to navigate these episodes, the backlash that followed, and the constraints he often faced in addressing moments of racial tension as the nation’s first African American president.
Note: The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
national reporter, The Washington Post
You have Henry Louis Gates [Jr.], one of the most prominent and esteemed black academics and researchers in the nation. He was returning to his home, gets himself locked out, and his cab driver helping him get inside. And a police officer arrives … They’re going back and forth with this question of, you know, should he be there, is this his house, what’s happening? And at one point he ends up getting detained by this officer. This is one of the first things in the Obama administration, one of the first flashpoints of race during the Obama administration … And it presents one of the first opportunities for the president to kind of insert himself in this conversation.
author, The Black Presidency
He didn’t want to necessarily draw attention to police brutality or the racial profiling that had gone on. He mentioned that at the end of a press conference on health care, where he was asked the question, I think by Lynn Sweet of The Chicago Sun-Times, about Skip Gates. Then he held forth with his own honest opinion.
You watched the president attempt to kind of play facilitator in chief. He attempts to kind of deal with this with frank talk — you know, “the police officer was kind of stupid and shouldn’t have done this thing.” The problem was the nation wasn’t prepared to hear that from a president.
staff writer, The New Yorker
It happened really quickly in terms of Obama having to grapple with just the ways in which race could make his presidency more complicated than anyone else prior to him … For Barack Obama to weigh in and say the officers acted excessively — I mean, there is no more blameless figure probably that you could have found than Skip Gates. And even that generated this huge kind of response. There were law enforcement people who were upset about it, and then they had to treat it with the same sort of equivalence … where somehow Skip Gates’ grievances and the police officer’s grievances are equal. And these two people both get invited to the White House, and they sit down and drink beer.
I think President Obama underestimated how inflamed people, white people, would be by hearing the president of the United States say something that perhaps wasn’t a full-throated endorsement of any police action and every police action, this idea that there was some type of nuance to the situation. People weren’t ready to hear it.
national correspondent, The Atlantic
[Obama] was surprised by the intensity and reaction to what seemed pretty obvious. That you would effectively arrest a senior citizen with a cane because you didn’t like how he sassed you, seemed pretty stupid, seemed pretty stupid. And the idea that you can’t state the obvious when it comes to black people, I think that was probably a little surprising.
At one point when he was talking about Skip Gates, he joked about what people would say if he had snuck around the back of the White House, and he was kind of playing on race without talking about [it], saying, “Hey, there’s a black guy trying to break into the White House.” You could kind of make the humorous aside about it. But grappling with the very serious implications of saying that this person who is a distinguished, world-renowned scholar was racially profiled outside his own home, that was something that people were not willing to hear from the first black president, certainly not willing to hear from the person who they voted for hoping that they could be done with race once and for all. And now this person’s actually saying, “Hey, this looks like racism.”
He learned that his own honest opinion wasn’t necessarily good for the nation. He learned that telling the truth as a black man who remembered what it meant to be racially profiled in Cambridge, Mass., was not necessarily the good thing. The lesson he learned? Withdraw, pull back, be implicit. You know, there’s an old basketball term: Take what the defense gives you. He was definitely doing that when it came to the issue of race.
What the beer summit in so many ways further exposed and underscored was that the black president was actually one of the least equipped or positioned person to facilitate this conversation, because his very presence or involvement in one of these issues or one of these flare-ups would only further politicize it. It took it from a place where perhaps we could talk about this soberly and with nuance, to, well, Obama’s involved, so half the country has to hate it, and half the country has to love it.
It was a kind of ominous sign in terms of the strictures and the ways in which it would be difficult for Obama to respond to these things.
Trayvon Martin is in Sanford, Fla., where his father lives, watching the NBA All-Star Game, and he leaves to go to the corner store to pick up snacks. As he’s walking back, George Zimmerman, who is a Hispanic member of that community, sees Trayvon Martin, who in the rain has now put his hood up on his hoodie and is walking home. … And Zimmerman calls the police. There had been a series of break-ins. He’s in many ways a self-appointed neighborhood watchman of this locale. He calls the police and says, “There’s this sketchy guy out here, he’s walking around, he looks like he might be on drugs or something. I’m following him. We’ve had some break-ins. Can you get someone out here?” The police essentially say, “We don’t need you to follow him, but sure, we’ll send someone out.” And George Zimmerman at one point hangs up, gets out of his car with a gun and goes to confront Trayvon Martin. They have some type of interaction. Turns into a fight, and what we know is that George Zimmerman ends up standing above Trayvon Martin’s body, and Trayvon Martin’s been shot and killed.
For literally days, no one arrested him. It’s very hard to imagine where I grew up in West Baltimore that happening and nobody getting arrested. It’s just difficult to imagine that world.
George Zimmerman was not arrested, he was not charged. They essentially said, “We believe you, it must have been self-defense, you can go.” So the drumbeats start, this call for “arrest George Zimmerman.”
There’s a great deal of outrage, a great deal of concern. Trayvon Martin is unarmed. George Zimmerman is armed. The fact that there had been no charges and what seemed at that point to have just been a rudimentary investigation, it heightened the contradiction … These sorts of things happened frequently, but the contradiction of this happening in the midst of a black presidency sharpened the irony and intensified the pain I think people felt around this issue.
I think that really spoke to, in many ways, this feeling of, you know, the black body is a risk. This idea that Trayvon Martin’s only sin was his skin color. And that had he been a white kid in a hoodie trying to walk home that night, no one would have confronted him or bothered him. And I think that that is the why Trayvon Martin becomes such a pivotal tension point on race and justice during the Obama administration.
After the death of Trayvon Martin, finally people were pushing [President Obama], “Say something. Are you going to say anything? You’re a black man, a young black boy has been murdered by a guy who’s a hyped-up neighborhood watchman. Black America is traumatized by this.” … Silence from the White House, nothing, no leadership, no insight.
With mounting public pressure, both on the White House and on the investigators in Florida, the president makes a statement where he says if he had a son, he’d look like Trayvon, which was, I think, important culturally and socially and was calibrated in a way to say that he thought that this was an important issue. He understood the dynamics of it, that he was not someone who was above these situations, that if he had a son, this person would have looked like him, like someone who looked like him could experience these kinds of dynamics.
Finally when he’s pushed, he makes it a personal one. “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” Innocent remark. Anybody listening to that would see it’s the father’s heart looking at what might have been his own son, looking at this boy lying prostrate on the ground until the differences between him and that young boy disappear, and Obama identifies with him so much so that [he says] “He would have been my son.”
I think all of us who have children felt that deep, deep, deep, and that could have been our kid. You know, that’s exactly what could have happened.
It became this huge tension point by the president literally just acknowledging his own skin color, that look, I mean, I have two daughters, but if I would have had a son, he’d probably look like that kid. That’s an objective fact. But it became this huge firestorm.
There’s an immediate reaction that [he] tacitly, sometimes explicitly, takes the side [against] George Zimmerman. In this instance, people are asking a very legitimate question, which is how is it that a person who has a gun can pursue someone who does not have a gun, shoot that person and then declare it to be self-defense? It seems to confound the logic of what we think of as self-defense. But when Barack Obama points that out, all of a sudden it goes into this kind of retrenched place, this racially retrenched place, and people are seeing this as a kind of indicator that he’s not fair or perhaps he favors African Americans, which is also a perception he has to manage throughout his presidency, this kind of fictive notion that he is kind of in the tank for African American causes, which African Americans certainly don’t concur with that perspective. And in the context of Trayvon Martin, this really explodes.
Eventually local prosecutors announced they were going to charge George Zimmerman. This leads to a yearlong process, a yearlong trial where we see the evidence laid bare and where it becomes clear that George Zimmerman is not going to be convicted of this crime. And he’s not convicted of this crime. A jury acquits him of the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Obama initially, after George Zimmerman is found [not] guilty, releases a nearly cryptic press release that says, “You know, we’re a nation of laws. The jury has decided. We must abide by those laws. Yes, there’s pain and grief.” Stop. Are you serious? I mean, this is epic tides of grief washing across the collective soul of black America. The trauma that they are enduring … People were very upset, especially African American people. He then … walked into that press conference room and gave the most remarkable, off-the-cuff speech about race, explaining to white America why black people are upset.
He walks into the press room and begins essentially to riff on what his experience as a black man has been, and why in black America there is such a distrust, or lack of trust, of the system, of the police, of these processes, the feelings of being profiled, the feelings of knowing, “Is this store manager following me around, not because he actually thinks I’m stealing something, but because he’s predisposed to think I’m going to steal something because of the way I look?”
He says, “Forget him being my son. He could have been me.”
It is a very, in this case, literal placement of himself in this person’s shoes, in saying to African Americans that this is an experience that he is familiar with. This is someone who worked and lived on the south side of Chicago for many years, and he understands the dynamics that are at play here.
The president is a black dude. I mean, he’s a black dude from Hawaii, but he’s a black dude, you know. And I think it’s very easy to forget that, you know what I mean? On some level, he has some sort of familiarity with that. He understands the kind of fear that has typically, for centuries, pervaded the notions of black male hood.
That was actually a unique moment for the president, because I think the president has been at his best when he’s spoken from his personal experience, because it’s not him being professor in chief. It’s not him prognosticating, it’s not him diagnosing. Rather, it’s him speaking to his own experience as a black American, something that no one can seize away from him. I think that it brings a humanity both to the presidency as well as to the black experience. And it validates that even Barack Obama, who we now know as this transformative president, has faced these same frustrations, these same prejudices, these same questions, spurred, again, by the color of his skin.
He began to speak for black people for the first time in his administration. It was apparent that we had a friend, we being black people, in the White House, and that he felt free enough to explain our situation and to tell white America why it is that black people were hurt, traumatized and upset.
The partisan backlash to that set of comments was more muted than some of his previous comments. Nothing enraged people more than “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin,” right? But having a kind of less scripted, more genuine interaction, with the president speaking of his own personal experience, I thought was something that even critics of the president felt was more effective than some of his other attempts.
What is also worth noting about Trayvon Martin and his significance to the Obama presidency and really the context of the Obama presidency, which is that the Black Lives Matter movement begins with a Facebook post by a well-known organizer [named] Alicia Garza in Oakland, and she starts writing about what has happened and ends it with “Black Lives Matter.”
Ferguson, Mo., is a suburb of St. Louis. Very often people who haven’t been there foresee it almost as this ghetto, as a hood, right? Ferguson is a suburb with old historic homes and a trickling water fountain next to city hall. It’s the kind of city that once was almost all white, but as you’ve seen more migration out of the city of St. Louis, [it] has become increasingly more black.
The thing to understand about Ferguson is that Ferguson was effectively a kleptocracy. Literally, that was the form of government that was in effect there … What the Justice Department report actually said was that the police department, through policy, was effectively looting the black community. They were enforcing rules and regulations that were trifling things, like walking in the middle of the street and giving people egregious tickets, adding egregious fines to those tickets, treating the citizenry with blatant and abject racism … They were taking these fines and using that to pay for the entire system of government. Black people in Ferguson were being systematically robbed and plundered and pillaged. That’s the context of everything.
Aug. 9, 2014, there is an interaction between a young man by the name of Michael Brown and a police officer by the name of Darren Wilson on Canfield Drive, which is in an African American community in Ferguson, Mo. That was a blazingly hot afternoon, and that interaction, that conflict between the two of them culminates in Officer Wilson fatally shooting Michael Brown.
From here, you have your divergent stories, your divergent narratives, this question of what exactly happened. We have Darren Wilson getting out of his vehicle, Michael Brown at some point stopping and turning back around to face him. Did Michael Brown begin walking back toward Darren Wilson? Did he charge Darren Wilson? Were his hands up? Were they down? Were they in the middle? What we know is that Darren Wilson ended up emptying his clip, killing Michael Brown, saying that the boy had been charging him, that the young man had been charging him.
What’s important is, they don’t trust anything the police say. They don’t trust the police because the way the police function in their community is as plunderers and robbers of the state … That’s why they’re there, to write you tickets, to get you summonses, to tack on court fees, all sorts of things. Put the brutality aside. Put all of that aside. Put the violence aside. That’s your interaction with them, you know. Why would a police department have any credibility or any legitimacy with you all then?
Seventy-some percent of the population is African American, but the political structure and the chief of police and chief of fire and all these positions are white, overwhelmingly so. All this happens, and it’s kind of a perfect storm of racial calamity, you know? And it happens at a point where the president and the attorney general are on vacation, which just in terms of the view, it doesn’t look good and people are wondering if there’s going to be any response to it. There’s a great deal of pressure and people are feeling like the president should come off vacation and respond to this.
The anger that swells in the street is not just about the shooting, although people are very angry. An 18-year-old boy is dead. But they’re angry because an 18-year-old boy is dead in the street, and his body sits there for an hour, for two hours, for three hours, for four hours. It’s four-and-a-half hours before Michael Brown’s body is removed. And all this time, he’s laying there, blood trickling down the street, in the middle of high-rise apartments. Everyone is looking out their window saying: “Is no one going to help him? Are they not going to put him in an ambulance? They’re not going to try to save his life? Are they not going to at least cover him with a sheet?” And as you talk to residents of Ferguson who were there that day, they found that so dehumanizing.
All of these factors combined to ignite a situation that was already very combustible, and you had some violence that took place. There was some rioting, some localized rioting that happened immediately after in those first two days after Michael Brown died, and then after that, growing numbers of people coming to Ferguson from St. Louis, from surrounding townships, and this groundswell that appeared to be on the verge of tipping over into complete bedlam.
Then the police in greater St. Louis responded to these protests with shows of their own force. We are now seeing officers in full riot gear coming out to police protests being held by church groups, you know. And you could see a line of officers in these large MRAP vehicles, these militarized vehicles, looking through sniper scopes, and off to the left what they’re looking at is a bunch of church ladies singing hymns and clapping their hands. The response felt so outsized. That only further pushed more people into the streets and made people feel more angry.
This had become an American crucible within the span of five days. There were international news crews there. There were all the major cable and network news shows, the programs there … All these things that had been culminating, that had been kind of slowly building up over the course of Obama’s presidency, it seemed like they all converged in Ferguson, Mo.
You have residents who are caught in two different directions. You have people who are viscerally upset that the president has not shown up. To this day, President Obama has never been to Ferguson, Mo. In real time, people are saying, “Where is he? We voted for this guy, and now this kid we know is dead in the street. Where is President Obama?” At the same time, you have people who viscerally want him to arrive, to show up … you have a whole ‘nother set of people, especially the young people, the young black and brown 20-somethings, many of whom become the faces of what we eventually see as a protest movement birthed in the Obama years. For them, they would have booed President Obama had he come. They didn’t want him there, because they had learned the limitations of the black presidency.
Until we had a black presidency, we couldn’t possibly conceive of the limitations of one, and we find that out again and again and again. In this case, there’s the demand for a statement about the justice or about the injustice or perceived injustice of what’s happened in Ferguson. And that has to be balanced with the fact that this person has the largest bully pulpit in the world. And if he speaks out on this case, it would be very easy for a defense attorney to say, “We can’t get an untainted jury pool.”
It speaks to the futility of any individual person. I think very often we think that if only we had the right orator, if only we had the right leader, the right person, they’d be able to soothe the racial sores and pains. There’s no better orator than Barack Obama … [but] even with that orator, with that empathy, there’s a limitation.
There’s a kind of labored and lengthy process in which a grand jury evaluates the evidence associated with the shooting, and they opt to not indict in the case of Michael Brown’s death.
That night, the president stepped to the podium and spoke in ways that we’d heard him speak previously. He spoke about the need to respect the system, even when we don’t understand it, even when we don’t feel like it has given us justice. He spoke about the need to honor that system while understanding the pain of communities that don’t quite trust the police. And then he repeated the same pleas of the governor of Missouri, of the mayor, of the prosecutor. He again seemed to prioritize property. He talked about the need to make sure things were peaceful … One side of the screen you’re seeing the nation’s black president begging that a city do not go up in flames. And on the right side of the screen, you’re seeing young black people saying, “We’re done waiting. We’re not putting up with this anymore. They’ve killed one too many people. They’ve gotten away with it one too many times.”
The Department of Justice issued two reports in response to the death of Michael Brown. One was on the specific incident between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, in which the DOJ … held that Darren Wilson had acted properly, that the physical evidence was consistent with his version of the story, that Michael Brown had posed some sort of threat to him and that the shooting was justifiable. At the same time, they released a much more condemnatory report about the Ferguson Police Department in which they referred to it as a collection agency in which people were using tickets as a means of municipal-revenue generating, that they were very often harassing and disrespecting people who were living in these communities that they seemed to have very little concept of absolutely, and that they routinely used excessive force. All those things are going on. So at the same time as they say that this particular incident appears to have been a case of justifiable use of force, the context in which it occurred showed why people had so little faith in the police department and automatically presumed that Michael Brown had been executed.
It showed and validated everything that the Ferguson protesters had been saying. And it came months later, months after they’d been villainized, months after we decided all these people just don’t know what they’re talking about and they’re making it up. I think very often we treat racism like it’s something that’s just made up, you know. “Al Sharpton and some aggrieved person have just shown and have decided that exists,” right? What the Department of Justice report in Ferguson, and later on in Baltimore and Cleveland, in so many other cities, laid so bare was that yes, there are systemic structural issues and systemic structural racisms baked into how we police our cities. And because of that, these grievances are valid. No, people are not just making it up.
By the summer of 2015, everyone’s familiar with the narrative, or even aware that there is a narrative of race and the Obama presidency. You can almost have these stations of the cross where we’re looking at each of these incidents, these flashpoints that have occurred. At the same time, it’s shocking to see what happens in June of 2015, where a young man purportedly entered a church, an African American church, historic church in South Carolina, participated in the prayer service for sometime, the Bible study for sometime, and then drew a weapon and killed nine people.
Dylann Roof was a young man who essentially self-radicalizes himself. He had felt racially aggrieved, had bought into the dark sections of the internet, had spent a lot of time on white supremacist sites, had spent a lot of time researching and trying to understand politics of white racial grievance, and he had adopted this idea and this mindset, essentially, that black men and black people were aggressively corrupting white people and white women. It’s a type of trope that we’ve seen historically employed by people who have politics of white racial grievance.
Dylann Roof went into the church, he said, “You people are taking over.” Who? He’s speaking about Obama. That’s the president of the United States of America … He’s unconsciously to a certain degree, and perhaps consciously, got Obama in the crosshairs. But he can’t shoot Obama, he can’t assassinate him. So vulnerable black people become the proxies for a president.
It was not a leap to understand that this was everything about the context of Obama’s presidency … I don’t think people had quite calculated that there were other African Americans who might lose their lives by proxy almost, as a proxy means of attacking Barack Obama. And that’s what happened.
It just spoke to the sickness that comes from the deep indoctrination in these spaces that have been so angered by the Obama presidency — that if you read everything written, if you believe he’s a Kenyan, anticolonial socialist, if you’re watching the conspiracy movies, if you’re reading the blogs, that you can see how an otherwise reasonable person would be so corrupted and so angered and so convinced that the “other,” that these “other people” have taken away this great country from us.
I don’t know if the president felt responsibility for it, but I certainly suspect that he knew that this was connected in some way to resentment about the position he held in this country. That nine people were killed by someone who felt that whites were under siege and that they were losing their power in American society. In a less volatile way, there were lots of people who agreed with the fundamental point of what Dylann Roof said. One of the more notable things that’s happened in public opinion polling over the course of the Obama presidency is you’ve gradually gotten a plurality, and in some instances a majority of white people who were polled, who will tell you that the group that faces the most racial discrimination in the United States currently are white Americans.
I think there’s no question that that heinous crime, that massacre in South Carolina, let Obama finally know, “I may be a symbolic representative of black America, but black Americans are the proxies for me and the prospect of the progress that I represent.”
The Charleston moment is so vitally important in the Obama presidency because it speaks to one, these two intractable issues of his presidency, mass shootings and race and these racial incidents, but I also think it speaks to Obama finding his stride as to what his role is in these incidents.
There had been some conversation about the president coming [to Charleston], when he was going to come, and then it became known that he would give the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, who was the state senator and pastor of the church where the shooting happened and also one of the shooting victims. And already, before he even announced that he was coming, the governor, Nikki Haley, said that she was going to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds, which in itself generated a backlash.
What you see is the president coming into a black space, into the funeral, the homegoing celebration of Rev. Pinckney, and you see him not attempting to play the politics of the nation, not attempting to be the steady hand assuring everyone that everything is OK and we’ll be OK. But rather, you see him speaking relatively honestly and frankly about the history of the flag still flying above the South Carolina State House, of the assassination of this black lawmaker, of the hate in Dylann Roof’s heart, and then stringing it together in the old theocratic tradition of black civil rights and making the Christian argument that this will get better, and things are getting better, employing this argument of grace abiding and being the thing that will liberate these pained black people from this moment of trauma and grief.
When Barack Obama arrived there and he gave that eulogy, and then he broke into “Amazing Grace,” a song that was written by a former slave trader who found Christianity and recognized the evils of slave trafficking, you had … a symbol that the response to this was going to be one that focused on the spiritual magnitude of forgiveness.
There was a kind of repentance involved in the very sacred moment of healing not only black America, but America at large, and saying clearly for one of the first and most powerful times in his presidency, “This is racist. This is wrong. This is against American values. This will undercut us together. And together, we must remake this nation.” But he spoke brilliantly in behalf of black people. He spoke brilliantly in behalf of black strife and struggle and suffering and pain.
It was among the most relatable moments, I think, because President Obama gave the sermon that your minister would have given. I think at that moment he wasn’t attempting to be all things to all people. He was attempting to be the thing he needed to be to black America that day.
And finally, on this date, when he gave voice to singing and naming the names of the people who had fallen, he was as beautiful and as black as he had ever been, and as American as he had ever been, and there was no contradiction in any of them. His blackness didn’t qualify his American identity. His American identity didn’t qualify his black identity. They were seamlessly brought together in a holistic expression of empathy and grief and determination to move the nation forward.
Dylann Roof is eventually arrested and charged, [goes] on trial. But the Charleston shooting represents yet another moment where the nation is forced to acknowledge that we don’t live in some post-racial society. Here you have a black president of the United States of America traveling to Charleston, S.C., to give a eulogy for a black minister and lawmaker who was assassinated by a white supremacist terrorist, and that lawmaker then had to lay, his body in state, in a state house where the Confederate flag was still flying. I don’t know that there’s been a moment in the Obama presidency that has more encapsulated both how far we have come on race and yet how far we still have to go.