The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Broderick Johnson

Obama adviser

Broderick Johnson is a longtime aide to Barack Obama who in 2014 was named chair of My Brother's Keeper, a presidential task force designed to address opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.

Johnson first met Obama in 2004 while working for John Kerry's presidential campaign. He went on to become an informal adviser to Obama's presidential campaign in 2008, and would ultimately take the position of Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary.

Johnson watched Obama up close as he was forced to confront high-profile racial incidents, including the death of Trayvon Martin, protests in Ferguson, Mo., and the mass-shooting in 2015 at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C.

In the following interview, Johnson recounts Obama's response to these events, and discusses his struggle to understand critics who say Obama didn't do enough to improve the lives of African Americans. "I don't think anybody can rightly deny that this president isn't making a great impact," says Johnson, "and it is to be sustained beyond his presidency as well."

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on June 14, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start with the 2004 speech in Boston, the aspirational, biographical, honest-to-God belief in "We're not left; we're not red; we're not blue; we're the United States." Tell me where you were and what you thought of that speech?

I was there in Boston. I was working on the Kerry campaign, and I was one of the congressional affairs folks, liaisons for his campaign. I had met then-State Sen. Barack Obama a few months earlier. We needed someone to handle him, in a sense, as he came into the building so he could go someplace quiet to prepare for his speech, so I ushered him into all that.

Then when it was time for him to go to the Boston Garden floor to give the speech, it was my job to help get him down there. He was quite a star already, so the excitement was really building.

I had never heard him give a speech before other than at a smaller event. I was just sitting there mesmerized as I listened to him talk about the country and knowing that he was tapping into what so many people were looking for in this country, a leader who could bring people together. I was really inspired myself. Did I think he'd become president of the United States in short order? Yes.

You did?

No, I was hopeful that he would win his Senate race and then go on to be a great leader.

When he was running in 2008, one of the things a lot of people kept talking about was when is he going to address the black thing, the African American thing? And when the Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright dustup started, the candidate Obama gives a speech. A lot of people say they hoped it would be the beginning of the conversation. We've talked to lots of leaders in the African American community who said they called them and said, "Begin the conversation." Tell me about that speech. Tell me about the goal of that speech and what you think it meant to the president to deliver it.

Well, first, I'd say from my experience, this wasn't the first time the president had addressed issues around race. He had done that throughout his career as a community organizer, I'm sure. But then also when he was a student at Harvard Law School, for example, he gave some speeches about diversity and race. So this was not as though he had suddenly decided he would speak about these things. It was just in the context of that time and the need for him to clarify again for the country how he felt about issues involving inclusion of people in this country. That was another example; it's just in the context of the campaign. It appeared to some people that this was the first time he was talking about race.

Some of the community leaders we've talked to say it was not what they hoped for. It was not a beginning of a conversation. It was almost like: "OK, now I've said it. Now you've all heard it. I want to move on and be--" They said: "You know, he's in a bind anyway. He can't really talk about it all the time, so he's going to talk about it once. He's going to get it over with, and he's going to move on."

I don't know what they were looking at. I don't know what their perspective is. Fundamentally I have a different view of things leading up to that and to that speech and to the idea of starting a conversation about race. Let's face it: The conversation about race needs to happen in churches and schools and neighborhoods and homes across this country. I do think as a result of Barack Obama as a candidate for president, signifying race just by who he is, that people were starting to have a conversation about race. Could they, in fact, support an African American to be president? That was happening in African American communities and white communities and the rest.

So the conversation had started, and yet the president was certainly not the one person to begin and end that conversation. For people who see it that way, that's unfortunate.

At the inauguration, it's an amazing historic moment in American history.

Yeah, it sure was.

How was it for you?

I was there with my mother and my mother-in-law and my wife and our children. My wife was actually covering it, but our kids were there. It was, as you recall, biting cold, so people were overdressed. Our kids were dressed in clothes that had them falling over. My daughter, who was 12 at the time, really wanted to leave the warm building we were in and actually get as close as we could to the actual stage for the inauguration right there at the foot of the Capitol. We were in a hurry, and I remember she fell over because she had so many clothes on.

But we get there, and we're standing there, and we're watching. The thing I remember most about that day was an older white man turning to me and my daughter, and him saying to her: "Young lady, you could be up there one day. You could be president of the United States." What struck me about that--and of course a broad smile across her face--was how real that could be, and that what he was saying was something that our daughter could aspire to. I will never, ever forget that moment.

There's so many things I want to ask you, but the clock is ticking. We get to the summer in 2009, and Skip Gates gets arrested by a police officer in Cambridge, a white police officer in Cambridge. The president says, uses the word stupidly or something like that, and it lights up the airwaves, and lots of people say, "I told you so." ... Editorials start up; talk radio starts rolling, saying: "Wait a minute. What do you mean? How dare you call the police stupid?" And everybody says it's got a racial element, a component to it.

It's interesting. The way I saw that--and it is again reflective of President Obama as I've known him throughout the last 13, 14 years--to me was an indication that we've seen play out over and over again not in terms of what terminology people may have found disquieting, but his willingness to try to bring people together to talk about very difficult issues involving race and police. I like to think then of what we've been able to achieve over the last years, especially with regard to these issues around trust and the police officers in communities being more trusted by the people that they serve, and vice versa.

That's where I think that was symbolic of the president trying to bring the police officer together with the citizen to try to get them to talk to each other about things that they might otherwise be avoiding, or stereotypes they may have against each other. I would see that actually as a beginning of an effort to try to bring people together from those two communities, which we've been able to make substantial progress with over the last couple years.

... August of 2009 [we see] all those town meetings happening out there in Tea Party America, and we begin to see pictures of the president in jungle dress, dressed like Hitler. We've talked to people who say he looked at them and said: "Wait a minute. This is about me. This is about me and Obamacare, but it's really about me. I can't believe that it would actually be about me." Could you imagine him saying that and what he means by that?

I have a hard time hearing the president say that. I think that he has had an astounding ability to put aside what those of us with much thinner skins couldn't put aside, and that is things that are deeply hurtful and insulting. I think what he's been able to demonstrate time and time again is an ability to look past those very personal attacks and to see what is important to get achieved for the American people as a leader. I think he's just done a remarkable job of being able to put those personal insults aside and to not see them as things that should distract him from getting things done on behalf of the American people, and believing in the goodness of the American people as well, and understanding that the vast majority of American people just don't engage in dialogue that is like that.

When [Rep.] Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) stands up and says, "You lie," what did that mean to you? How did that feel to you?

So much of my career in Washington, I've worked on the House floor through some very contentious debates and the like, been to State of the Union addresses, so I'd never seen anything quite like that happen before in any context, even in a legislative debate about a bill. So I was pretty outraged, certainly, as so many Americans were, to see and hear that happen. There just was no place for it.

Why were you outraged?

At decorum, well, lack of decorum, lack of respect for the president of the United States. Whatever his party or whatever other issues that lawmaker had about the president, I'd never seen anything like that happen before. I think that there's a level of protocol that is due all people, and there's a level of protocol that certainly is due to the leader of this country, and that was breached in that instance quite dramatically.

You watch his reaction. It's pretty amazing how he lets it ride.

Well, you don't expect as the president of the United States to get catcalls from the gallery--not from the gallery, but from the members, and the gallery as well.

Did you feel like the Tea Party summer thing, the August thing, was racially driven? I can't decide what that's about. Is it about Obamacare, is it about policy, or is it also about race, or is it all of those things?

There's no question that when you look at some of the signs, some of the language used, some of the insults that were directed at members of Congress, including African American members, Congressional Black Caucus members, that for some of the people protesting, clearly there was a racial or racist element behind this, right? But I think there were many other people who had strong policy differences around health care, and their concerns got caught up in whatever else was going on in the minds of some people who had a different agenda.

I know that for a while, at least we've talked to some who say that some of the religious leaders, African American religious leaders, who say they were starting to say maybe he needs to address this again; maybe he needs to talk about this when they saw what was happening there when "You lie" happened. Was there talk about doing anything rhetorical about it, like stepping up and giving another speech or starting a conversation?

There were other things that the president, as he has done consistently throughout his presidency, he's been focused on getting things done, achieving things, keeping the promises that he made to the American people about improving our economy, providing health care to Americans and the like. But I will say this in terms of these leaders, and really all of us in this country who have positions of leadership, [it is] incumbent upon us to address those issues. It's not that the president of the United States needs to go on and talk about how someone should react to an insult directed at the president at a State of the Union address.

... When Trayvon Martin is killed, it's a funny thing when you go back and look at it the way we have. He's shot, and everybody is--just sort of universally you look at the polling; you look at responses; you look at editorials in the newspapers. Everybody is just kind of neutral about it. ... But then you watch a statement [President Obama] says, "He could have been my son," and suddenly it's polarized. Suddenly, George Zimmerman is a guy who a lot of people line up behind, and suddenly talk radio, Rush Limbaugh is on Zimmerman's side. It all kind of happens like that. We've listened to the tapes; we've looked at the stuff. What do you say about that?

... I don't think there was some transformation that happened in the minds of some people when the president talked about what was so heartfelt and so many people understood, no matter what their race, and that is that this was a young African American man who had been killed, and it could have been, for many of us African American males, it could have been us, it could have been our own sons.

I think a lot of people in this country understand that, though, without regard to race, and were sympathetic to that. I think that the country's reaction to it, in many places, was sympathy and empathy for what it was and understanding what it was that the president meant.

I've heard many people talk about it that way across the country ever since then, that empathy and the ability of this president to empathize with what had happened and to express to the country his own personal views about that. But he was reflecting that of so many people.

We've talked to people who say he dialed it back. There was his initial reaction which was not a public reaction. Then he kind of dialed it back, and he understood that, wait a minute, there's going to be a trial, there's going to be all these things. I've got to handle it; I've got to be cool about this right now for all kinds of legal reasons.

Well, certainly as a lawyer himself and the leader of this country, the president understands the impact of his statements on the legal process, and he is, therefore, always correctly cautious about those situations. But he also knows, though, that there's a level of discourse that he can help lead that addresses the emotions that people have to tragedies like what happened in the case of Trayvon Martin, and trying to get people who might otherwise not feel empathy for what happens with young black men, for example, to really reach into their hearts and understand that as members of families.

I know there was pressure on him, a lot of pressure on him, to come forward and say more. ... Everybody's worried about re-election time. The Tea Party's coming to town. There's a lot of stuff happening that he's in the midst of that's quite independent of whatever's happening with Trayvon Martin. And then the Trayvon Martin verdict comes down, and he does make a statement. He's been pushed to make a statement. Do you remember what he said after the verdict?

Well, I know the president, as happened in Baltimore with the Freddie Gray murder, I know that the president felt the important need to address the nation, to urge calm, to remind people that we have a justice system in this country that we have to respect. ... I think that's the important message the president wanted to convey.

I don't think--in fact, I'm pretty confident the president didn't feel like he was pressed or pushed to say something in that instance. I think it clearly came from his sense of leadership and compassion and the need to talk to the country. That's where that came from.

... Let's talk about Ferguson now. ... From the White House's perspective, in those early days of Ferguson and what was going on in Missouri, what's going on? What do you all think is the next step here that's happening?

I think one of the first things is trying to assess what the community and the family in Ferguson and around Ferguson would need in terms of support, and to try to calm the situation and allow the family and the community to mourn and to grieve the loss of a young man who died much too soon, whatever the circumstances. It was a terrible tragedy. I think that and helping to make sure that the community did not erupt in violence and to appeal to folks' better sense and to urge calm and then to very soon be able to bring in resources of the federal government through the Justice Department and other agencies to help Ferguson deal with the aftermath of what was happening there. So you saw Attorney General [Eric] Holder and you saw the establishment of this community policing task force that brought together young people from the Ferguson area. It was really a talk about solutions so that events like what happened in Ferguson don't happen there again and in other places.

Long process, but to begin that process, that was a lot of what was happening here after getting through the help that we could give in the grieving and mourning stages of the initial days.

Does it seem to you by [the time of] Ferguson like this is happening like a regular kind of drumbeat, and is that just because we have a black president and everybody's sitting around waiting for some shoe to drop somewhere, or is it sort of the cost of doing business anyway in our society?

Unfortunately, these kind of incidents have happened across the United States for decades. I think because of cameras, because of greater attention to these issues, because of the media and the focus on issues, we're more aware of those issues. But I think that's what's given us an opportunity as well, though, to address the causes of these issues and to work toward trying to make them far less frequent, to really kind of, if we can, eliminate them, to expose issues around trust in communities with police officers and the folks that they serve and vice versa.

So these incidents, unfortunately, had been happening already. But now through Ferguson and other instances, or incidents since then and the lens that's been focused on these issues, we're more aware of those issues, and then, though, more aware of the potential for solutions to these issues.

So when Black Lives Matter begins--I mean, this is around Ferguson, but they've been around a while--what are they pushing for, and what can the president of the United States actually do about these problems?

At their best, Black Lives Matter is able to bring attention to the need for changes in communities so that people are aware of the issues that are affecting the lives of young people in those communities, especially African Americans, of course. As the president said, it's so important, nevertheless, that Black Lives Matter and other activists go beyond rhetoric and go beyond perhaps yelling at people and focusing on solutions. And we've seen an awful lot of great leadership from the Black Lives Matter movement in doing things to try to effect change.

In Baltimore, for example, a leader of the Black Lives movement there decided to run for mayor as a way to try to help be a leader in that community, and he ran in this past primary. That's the most important thing that an organization or efforts like Black Lives Matter can bring to this, is beyond the attention is focusing on how to help change things through getting involved in communities.

Talk about your group, what you're trying to do, what you've been charged to do.

... Not long after the Trayvon Martin incident, I can't remember if it was after his death or it was after the verdict, the president really made a very deliberate decision that he wanted to do something major using his force and power as president, his ability to convene people, and where the nation was, the need to try to bring people together to address these issues affecting the lives, especially of boys and young men of color, to do something here from the White House to lead that effort.

It was in February of 2014 that from the East Room of the White House, an incredibly symbolic place where the power and authority of the president is certainly conveyed, that he established the My Brother's Keeper task force with a group of young men of color standing behind him as he signed a proclamation to establish it. There are three major components to it. One is we have lots of federal programs directed at trying to improve the lives of all children, boys and young men of color, girls and young women of color, but all children. The president's view is we could do better if we take a very hard look at what works.

We've been working throughout the federal agencies at just that, and we've come up with dozens of new programs to address areas where the greatest disparities exist.

Second is the private sector. Whether it be businesses or foundations, there are a lot of folks who have been investing in these issues and trying to, whether it be about suspensions and expulsions in school or re-entry programs, who have been spending a lot of time and money on these efforts, but could we help bring them together to invest more smartly and even more. So that's a second part.

And the third part is to get communities themselves, cities, counties, tribal nations, to approach things with a somewhat different approach that is more based in evidence and that's rigorous and that has specific timelines for how they're going to get things done. So for two years, a little over two years, that's what My Brother's Keeper really has been largely about, and we've been pretty successful at being able to address those three ways of doing things.

It's been quite tremendous in that people all across this country are responding to the president's call to action, and the lives of young people are being affected. I see it and hear it all the time when I travel across the country.

When you think about the president's obligation over these years, ... there's been some successes, obviously, legislatively, but it's been a tough uphill road. The race issue, as we've been discussing, we talked to lots of people who say: "Gee, he could have done so much more. Gee, he should have done so much more." What you're doing is absolutely admirable, but what is he really doing? Have things really changed? What about the promise that an African American man as president of the United States could bring to this country? But he has to do something about it. What could it have been? What should he have done?

He has done so much, and people lose sight of that. That's unfortunate, because the record speaks for itself. When you look at [it], with respect specifically to the African American community, for example, around economic issues, the unemployment rate among African Americans is roughly half of what it was when he came into office. And when we came into office, when the president took office, of course this country's economy for everyone was pretty dismal. As the economy has improved, that has significantly affected the fortunes of African Americans, as the unemployment rate has dropped and as people have gone out to look for jobs who had perhaps given up.

When you look at health care and you look at the fact that there were millions of African Americans who were not getting health care, I like to think about the young African American child who, let's say, with sickle-cell anemia. Before the ACA [Affordable Care Act] passed, that child's family could not get health care for that child if a pre-existing condition prohibition was in the way of health care coverage through health insurance companies.

There are thousands of children, African American children, with sickle-cell anemia, who now have health insurance and whose lives are being improved. Education: You look at the graduation rates for children of color, those have increased. We've seen tremendous progress generally that has had an impact, of course, where the disparities in this country have been the greatest.

Then when you look at My Brother's Keeper and the concentrated effort that's gone on there, I don't think anybody can rightly deny that this president isn't making a great impact, and it is to be sustained beyond his presidency as well.

Great. So, we'll do Charleston now. ... Dylann Roof says he couldn't kill the president, so he killed black people. He was so mad at what was happening to him and his friends and his cohort, he wanted to kill Obama, but he couldn't kill him, so he killed black people. What do you think about that?

I don't understand that kind of evil. I don't understand that kind of hatred. I don't understand where it comes from. I know it exists; I don't understand it. What I do understand, and I was able to be there that day in Charleston, was to be reminded of the forgiving spirit of African Americans in this country in the face of great tragedy, and also to be able to be there as the president and first lady were there to symbolize on behalf of the nation the empathy for the families in Charleston and the belief this country is much better than the twisted views of a person like that.

It was a deeply, deeply emotional moment, of course, but one that made me feel so thankful to have this president and this first lady in office, and the good people of Charleston.

Yeah, it really felt like, to all of us, there's that guy. When we looked at Obama, we thought there's that guy. There's that guy in 2004; there's that guy in the Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright speech; there's that guy in the inauguration; there's that guy.

Let me talk about that guy a little bit more in the context of the work that I get to do around My Brother's Keeper, because so much of it goes to the president's passion for these issues and how he sees them personally. Frequently, for example, when we were in New Orleans for the Katrina anniversary, the president wanted to make sure he had an opportunity to meet with some young men who were part of the My Brother's Keeper efforts in New Orleans, so we had lunch with a group of young men. This was an opportunity for the president just to give the four young men who were there, who all had siblings who were either in prison or who had been in prison, to talk about their lives and their aspirations, and to hear the president talk about you will make mistakes in life; I made mistakes in my own life, but if you work hard and you take advantage of opportunities in front of you and this nation invests in you, then you can have a life that is fulfilling.

You hear this and see this all the time. And that's, to me, a constant reminder of the character of this president, of this man, and how he's able and willing to convey this to even young men in disparate cities across the country. And it really sinks in. I think he's changing so many lives. I know he is.

When he sings "Amazing Grace," what's up with that? How powerful was that? Why did he do that?

The moment--it was just in that moment an opportunity for the president to sing a song that is, of course, quite meaningful for him and in that context meant so much as well. It was quite spontaneous.

Critics have told us that they have a complaint that the president was late to see a revived siege of race hate that has been sweeping the country, and they complain, some [of them], that they wanted Obama to see the first black American president comes about, and there's this unbelievable race hatred that we haven't seen in a while. Or at least in their eyes, they see this. Just how do you respond to that, that they feel that Obama didn't respond quick enough to it and didn't understand it?

... I can't really speak to that perspective. Does our country still face racism? Absolutely. Are there people in this country who are holding onto deeply racist views and perhaps when they have an opportunity to act, they do? But maybe I'm just an optimist and believe in the incredible goodness of the American people. I think by virtue of the fact this president was elected with tremendous support, including support of conservative Republican white folks, and that he was re-elected and he enjoys historically high approval ratings speaks to the fact that this president, in fact, is admired for the job that he was doing. I think he'll be judged even after this for having moved the entire country while at the same time being able to affect the lives of African Americans and Hispanic Americans and other people who have been left behind in great strides.

To go back to the Gates moment, and a lot of these moments, some people tell us that the president is very cognizant of the fact that when he says something that it might be interpreted differently than if, say, a white president said the cop acted stupidly. Is that something you see? Is the president thinking about the fact that he's the first black president, that his comments may be interpreted in a different way, that he has to be careful, perhaps, in a way that another politician or president would?

I don't know that the president analyzes how to say things because he's the first black president in a way to avoid problems. ... I think the president, though, certainly is keenly aware of the fact that as the first African American president, and because of who he is, he has an ability in a positive way to speak to people in ways, to reach audiences, to use language that a lot of young folks, especially, can understand. I don't see it as something that the president is cautious about as much as the president using it as an opportunity to speak about things and in language that appeals to a broader group of people than might otherwise be the case.

Do you know the president's personal reaction when he heard about Charleston or what he was like in the time afterward of flying down? Can you help us at all with what that must be like to deal with as president?

I remember the president met with the widow and the two daughters and other family members of the pastor of the church before the ceremony started. I was already in the hall there and saw the president come out after that meeting, and I just remember a look on the president's face that was something I'll never forget. It was just a combination of emotions and perhaps most of all, there was a resoluteness about the president that I saw in his face that day.

What do you think the resoluteness--about what?

I think it's the thing that he's been so resolute about and yet, of course, so difficult to do, and that has to do with violence and guns in this country, and the president having so many memorial services to attend, but after each instance, wanting to be able to move the country further on this. I think that's what I saw in his face that day. But that's just my own reflection of what I saw, as well as empathy and the great emotion that he felt having met with that family.