The FRONTLINE Interviews: Divided States of America

Jelani Cobb

The New Yorker

Jelani Cobb is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress. Cobb, who is an expert on the history of the post-Civil War African American experience, says that although Obama's election was initially met with euphoria, the inauguration of the nation's first black president was destined to stir a "backlash." As he explains in this interview, "When there are these moments of great racial advance, they are almost always accompanied by a kind of countermovement as well."

That backlash was epitomized by the so-called "birther" movement, says Cobb, which "made it easy for people who had ideas that someone like him didn't belong in the White House to make the kind of short leap over to the idea that this person wasn't even an American." Cobb says that when the president was moved to release his long-form birth certificate in 2011, "It felt that all of black America had just been racially profiled and people were saying if this can happen to him, the most powerful person in the world, what exactly can happen to us?"

This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on June 7, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start with Barack Obama's 2004 speech in Boston, red, blue, United States of America: the meaning of that to you when you heard it and thought about it?

The 2004 Democratic National Convention speech was kind of a master stroke of political rhetoric, and that shouldn't be mistaken with the idea of it being true. He was speaking aspirationally. ... When he said to that audience, "This is not a white America or a black America; there's the United States of America," he was speaking very much to an ideal that people aspire toward, or a way in which people would prefer to see themselves.

But in no way was that reflective of the actual realities, that in 2004 there were very sharp fractures in the country demographically, and we were all aware of them. I think Obama was appealing to this kind of ecumenical sense of American identity that he hoped to represent on some level politically and which he did four years later bring together the kind of coalition that no one previously thought could exist.

But that was not mutually exclusive to the idea of there being really serious fragmentation in the country on the level that I don't think even he or his advisers were grappling with at that point.

In 2004, we had one segment of the population that was vastly more likely to be unemployed, with black unemployment being roughly double the white rate; one segment of the population disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, in substandard housing, dealing with employment discrimination; that we had serious problems with poverty, persistent poverty that is kind of beyond the racial boundaries of that question.

We had all sorts of things and a very deeply entrenched partisan divide that was becoming more prominent over time. All those dynamics were going on, but it was political gold to say to this audience ... that these things exist, but on the things that matter most, we actually see ourselves as fundamentally Americans and as part of the same society and the same project. People lost it when he said that, and that really cemented, I think, his political future.

Yeah. How much of any of it, if any of it, is a sort of cynical political ploy?

It's hard to say how much of this was political posturing and how much of this was a sincerely held belief for Barack Obama in giving that speech in 2004. For one thing, in 2007, nobody thought that the country was prepared to elect a black president. When he began in earnest putting together a campaign, there were four people in this country who thought that the country could elect a black president, and they all lived at the same address in the South Side of Chicago.

That idea that he articulated certainly reflected a certain reality, a particular reality that you could put together a multiracial coalition of forward-thinking, left-of-center progressive people who were interested in seeing someone who represented Obama's ideas elected, and that race wouldn't be a barrier to their support. In some instances, race would actually be a boost. That uncanny principle turned out to actually have some accuracy.

On the other hand, if you're someone who is even passingly familiar, as Barack Obama was, with the intransigent nature of race and racism in this country, you have to also know that this concern would not be that easily defeated; that you had to be selling it a little bit in that speech, but people do in convention speeches. But there's probably a 50/50 mix of each.

When he's running in '08, change, hope and change, is he implying a sort of postracial America by his election?

Well, here's where it becomes tricky. On a number of instances, most notably in what people have called the "More Perfect Union" speech, Obama himself says that you cannot transcend the kind of boundaries of race and the fixation with race that this country has in one presidential election, that that won't happen. At the same time, a candidate who sees that he has an emotional pull with the electorate is not really doing himself any favors by dissuading people of that idea.

If people have attached to him the idea of racial progress, and that's going to motivate people to come out to the polls, certainly you want people to continue to think that way. So there was a kind of kaleidoscope effect with him in 2007, 2008, where people could look at him and refract him through a whole wide array of experiences. They could see him in the way in which progressives saw him as a progressive. Centrists saw him as a centrist. Liberals saw him as a liberal. Politically, that's a great position to be in.

It also sets you up for some rather difficult times if you actually are elected, because all those people want different things.

The Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright speech, some people we've talked to say he was not saying, "Now for the first chapter of a conversation about race that we're going to have for the next eight years if I'm elected." Rather, he was saying: "Now let's put the stopper in the bottle on race. I'll tell you what I think. I knew I was going to have to do it. Here's the time; here it is." Which was it?

Here's what happened with the "More Perfect Union" speech. One of the things that we should think about first off is presidential campaigns have been derailed for far, far less. They have been fatally wounded for Howard Dean, the off-key scream, and he was done. ...

Barack Obama, the first African American presidential candidate who has a legitimate chance at being elected, has to deal with an African American pastor who's saying things that, quite frankly, shock and scare white people. In deciding to face this head-on, he's really doing triage, and I think nobody knows whether or not this is going to work.

But I think the other thing that made this politically a kind of genius maneuver was that he spoke to the country as if we were adults, as if we were reasonable adults and that we could understand the perspective and the context in which Jeremiah Wright existed and where Barack Obama and Michelle Obama took difference, took issue with his perspective as well.

In that regard, it was brilliant. But one of the other things they did was tell us a lot about who Barack Obama is and how he approaches what we think of as intransigent problems. He approached it very much the way a good professor would with a complicated, nuanced understanding of one perspective and an equally complicated, nuanced understanding of the opposing perspective, and then offering a kind of meta-analysis of where we can go as opposed to simply being mired in disagreement, offering a somewhat idealistic way in which you can synthesize both of these dueling factions into something new and possibly viable.

And that's the way that he intended, I think, to approach these kinds of divisions. That was what made him stand out in Harvard Law School. It was a kind of keen grasp of differing ideas and seemingly irreconcilable principles, and then at the same time being able to move beyond them. I think that was what he was trying to do with the "More Perfect Union" speech. And it saved his political career, certainly. Had he not given that speech, I think we wouldn't have been talking about him as a viable presidential candidate.

How was it received in the African American community?

Right. There are a lot of different perspectives, but one thing that was worth noting about that speech that in some ways was foreshadowing of how race would operate throughout his presidency, ... one thing about that speech is that he created a kind of false equivalence in talking about the legacy of racism and Jim Crow and its impact in contemporary America and the way in which it has contextualized and created so many of the racial dynamics that we see in society right now, and then offered a kind of perspective of white resentment of African Americans, or the idea that African Americans had been given too much. And those are not equivalent concerns. But I think that people were less likely to penalize him for it because they understood the way in which he was playing a particular game.

And certainly, I mean, Obama had such a grasp of race and the dynamics that it brings to bear that he was able to almost riff on this, kind of doing symbolic things, or at one notable point during the convention in 2008 in Denver where he specifically has his uncle, who was a World War II veteran, stand up. This elderly white man, who would not be out of place in any VFW hall in the country, stands up and waves to the crowd, and I think particularly African Americans roared with laughter when they saw this because it was playing this. Now, the overwhelming majority of black people in this country have white ancestry. ... All of us have a theoretical, at least, white uncle somewhere. But Obama was able to bring this to the fore in a way that he was also assuaging white voters who were trying to maybe get over the hurdle of voting for someone who didn't share their racial background.

... So as you watch the inauguration, were you there by any chance, in Washington?

I was there, yeah. I was out there on the mall, frozen nearly solid with those gusts of wind. I think it was maybe 12 degrees outside and we were out there for hours waiting for this to happen.

So as you're there and you look around and the sea of people, many of them black people, ... it feels like a real sea change. Was it a source of optimism for you? What were you worried about on his behalf and on your behalf having the first black president walk into office?

... I have to tell you, the primary concern that people had that I talked to when we were out there was for his safety. That was an overarching concern. In August of 2008 at the convention, he comes out and he gives this speech. At the end of the speech, they have a confetti canon. A confetti canon goes off, and everybody jumped, because implicitly, we hadn't said it out loud, but implicitly we had all been so worried about his safety, even to the point on Inauguration Day where people are worried. They don't want him to get out of the car and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue the way presidents traditionally have. And [there was] this big question about whether or not he'll do that, and he does, which I thought was important. I think probably he had to do that.

But it was still something that generated a great deal of nervousness for people who had any kind of sensibility of history and the way in which these notable black figures have lost their lives due to violence.

You're smart enough and experienced enough to know that there will be issues that inevitably are going to present themselves to him where he's going to be forced to decide where on the continuum he's going to land as president, where on that continuum he's going to land as a black man, where he's going to land as a liberal and a Democrat and whatever he is. You talked about the kaleidoscope. In anticipation of him going into office, what are you worried about in that regard?

There are lots of things going on in the country at that point in time. We're mired in abysmal recession; there is the conflict going on in Iraq; there's a conflict going on in Afghanistan. There are all these references to FDR that are being bandied about because it looks like he has the same sort of monumental task on his plate that Roosevelt had.

There are the concerns about the durability of his coalition, about how much this person will be able to get done, whether or not race will become a more salient issue as time goes on, because there's a song Nina Simone recorded called "Backlash Blues." At that point, she was talking about the backlash to the civil rights movement wherein people saw ... a movement toward relative equality of African Americans as them being deprived of something, and it generated a particular kind of anger and backlash.

Conversations I had with scholars, with historians, with people who work in politics, this was something that was on our minds, even if people didn't want to say it out loud, because there was this euphoria that something we never anticipated happening had just occurred, and something without precedent in this country's history. Taking the long view, we also know that when there are these moments of great racial advance, they are almost always accompanied by a kind of countermovement as well, or, as Nina Simone was calling it, backlash.

... Let's talk about Skip Gates being arrested by that white police officer in Cambridge when he's trying to break into his own house.

Right, his own home, right.

Tell me that story.

You know, 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. With Skip Gates, there's this idea among African Americans that you have to live a blameless life in order to be exempt from racism. It's not necessarily an idea that holds up, but nonetheless it still has some resonance when you see someone of the magnitude of Skip Gates' achievements, and even he is not exempt from the unfair prerogatives of law enforcement--you know, Skip Gates, as a Harvard professor, distinguished Harvard professor, someone who has great regard in many different arenas, and even he gets arrested inside his own home and is treated as a common criminal. So 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. And then there were law enforcement people who were upset about it, and then they had to treat it with the same sort of equivalence that we talked about in the "More Perfect Union" speech, 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.

It was kind of a bad sign. I think 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.

Now also, I have to say that one of the things that's happened is that Obama has maintained fairly high ratings of approval among African Americans throughout his presidency. That should not be mistaken for the idea [that] large numbers of African Americans did not disagree with some of the stances he took or the positions he took. But what I think that also means is that people were acutely aware of the strictures and the parameters placed around him by race.

So whenever someone said Obama hasn't done enough for African Americans, the easy counter would always wind up being, well, you know, this is the same president who had to show his birth certificate to prove he was a citizen. This is the same person who was called a liar in the middle of his State of the Union address, who's been treated with such casual disregard and disrespect that it almost makes you question whether people have just decided to ignore the protocols of the presidency because the person occupying that office is black. In that context, it became very difficult to criticize him, because it was not simply a question of what he has done, but a question of what he actually could do.

I can imagine if I'm president of the United States, and I say it seems like a stupid thing for the cop to do in that way, the word stupid, which he utters at the very end of a press conference as he's walking out the room, and these guys know how to sandbag for a sound bite. Bang, they hit him. He says it kind of off the cuff, and bam. I mean, the whole world goes crazy, right?

Yeah. And 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."

Because people could sit out there and say: "Oh, my God, is he going to do that every single time? Am I going to have to listen to this? I thought this was over."

Right. But here's the thing that was most notable about this. Even in that moment where there's this euphoria about electing a black president and "getting past race," there were three unarmed African Americans who were shot by police that same month in January, the same month that Obama was inaugurated. The most notable of them was Oscar Grant in Oakland, whose life later became the subject of a film, Fruitvale Station. But those things were happening at the same time, and also during the campaign, in the spring of 2008, where a jury acquitted the officers that were involved in the shooting of Sean Bell, who was an unarmed African American killed on the eve of his wedding and by New York police, NYPD officer.

Obama gave a very tepid statement about that, saying ... we have to respect the rule of law, even if it's an unpopular verdict, and so on. But people were saying that, look, this is a man who was minding his business celebrating before he got married, and now he's dead, and if this is the best that we can hope for in terms of a statement about it, then maybe this black presidency thing is not what it's cracked up to be.

Exactly. It could be, as you say, backlash in lots of ways. The president himself, from what I can tell, steps back and says: "Let that be a lesson. My bad. I'm not going to talk about this." The next time something happens, which I think is Shirley Sherrod, right, whacked by Bill O'Reilly, then Sean Hannity on Fox and then loses her job, and he just stays in the background a little bit. He doesn't really get involved, at least formally and publicly?

No, you don't really see him.

So tell me the story. What happens to Shirley?

Shirley Sherrod gave a speech in which she talked very eloquently about the resentments that she'd developed growing up in the South and having a cross burned on her property as a child and being a firsthand witness to white supremacy in the South, and how she had to grapple with that in order to get past it and help people, regardless of their background; get past her suspicions and skepticism of white people in order to take a more humanistic approach to the world and to help people regardless of what their background is and so on. A really inspirational kind of speech.

But it was edited in a dishonest way and placed on the Breitbart website such that it seemed to be a fire-breathing, anti-white denunciation. And the Obama Administration reacted immediately, demanding her resignation. She was driving along, and they told her to pull over to the side of the road and email a letter of resignation before finding out that what she'd been accused of was essentially false; that these documents, this video had been doctored.

And in some ways, it was kind of the worst flinch. It seemed that they had overcorrected coming out of the ... Skip Gates situation, they had overcorrected, and as a consequence, this person who had a really stellar legacy of interracial work in the South was isolated and pushed out of the administration. I think a lot of people just kind of fretted and shook their heads when that happened.

How did you feel?

I was very disappointed when I saw that, the way that the Shirley Sherrod situation happened. I was kind of hoping that the administration would have had more fortitude in terms of how it would have dealt with those types of concerns, those types of accusations. If you remember around that same time, Glenn Beck accused Barack Obama of hating white people, even though his mother is white, but hating white people and the "white culture."

That could almost have been anticipated. But it seemed like the administration was a little bit reticent and almost against the ropes when it came to those things, and the flinch reaction to tell Shirley Sherrod to resign before even investigating to find out what had actually happened seemed, at least for me, I really hoped that that was not a harbinger of the way that things were going to be for the remainder of the administration.

Could you imagine, could you put yourself in Obama's head a little bit around that moment? What is he probably worrying about?

Well, I think that for the ambitious legislative agenda that the administration came to Washington with, they were justifiably wary of anything that could cost them political support, anything that could cost them any of the mandate or the momentum that they came into office with. They had a large number of things they wanted to do in a relatively small window. ... so they're playing this very conservatively in terms of being able to advance their agenda. But even within that, at some point you have to worry about the people who voted for you, the people who elected you and what they were expecting, what they were hoping to get out of the administration.

That was the mild way, I think, of phrasing it, was an overcorrection. But there were probably worse terms that you could use for [it], at least in that moment.

Like?

An embarrassment, a flinch, and possibly on some level a betrayal.

In the summer of '09, we call it the Tea Party summer, health care is stuck; everybody's going home for recess. The thing that used to be the easiest thing in the world for a politician to do, go to the county fair, go to the town meeting, is now filled with Tea Party people. A lot of posters out front, Obama with Hitler's mustache on him, Obama like he's coming right out of the jungle, a lot of this is personal to him. How much of this is viewed by him, by you, by others as just racism?

I don't know how prepared the Obama administration was. They seem to have been caught flat-footed when the Tea Party emerged and with the vitriol that they brought with them. And that was really most visible in that summer of 2009. He's been in office for barely six months, and things have just ratcheted up to a very frightening degree. I think that there are lots of people who were worried about his safety at that point. The rhetoric around the health care legislation had reached almost Red Scare levels of paranoia where people thought that this was a cloaked attempt at bringing socialism into the American economy. There were people who on Fox News were referring to this as some sort of veiled attempt to give reparations to African Americans.

It was the point at which the fringe conspiratorial thinking had become shockingly mainstream, and seeing congressional representatives being spat upon, being intimidated, being threatened, and all of this has kind of landed at his doorstep barely six months into his administration. Then on the other hand, there were people on the left who were saying that the health care legislation doesn't go far enough, that unless there's a single-payer option, then they've essentially betrayed the mandate that he's been given.

It's really a kind of terrible bind, and it really set the tone for everything that came after it. I think we can kind of look at the passage of the health care bill as what animates the increasingly right-wing conspiratorial frustrations that are colonizing the GOP when we see in 2010 the midterms' direct result of this motivated electorate that is thinking that there's a socialist move afoot. ...

After the Tea Party summer, there's the Joe Wilson "You lie" moment, which some people want to paint in a more generous way and say, "Well, it just really shows a lack of decorum." It surely shows that, but it probably shows a lot more than that. What do you figure it shows when Wilson stands up?

There had been a lot of frustration with the presidency coming out of eight years of George W. Bush. He left with historically low approval ratings. People were very concerned about the way in which the presidency had become a kind of imperial office during his term. This is where the conversation is.

For people who have defended the Joe Wilson comment, they've seen it as in the context of the presidency itself being diminished, people taking potshots at the office. The old nostalgic era in which there was a certain level of decorum with which you interacted with the president, I don't think that necessarily ever existed in the way that we think that it did, but people wanted to hark back to this idea that the presidency itself warranted a certain degree of respect.

You could make that argument. You could also make the argument that despite the intensity and fervor of political disagreement, no one had called the president a liar, shouted out the person's a liar in the midst of the State of the Union address and gotten away with it. This hadn't happened until there was a black president. And some of the ways in which Obama had been caricatured in that summer of 2009 where there is the kind of menacing Joker face that has Obama's face transposed onto that of the comic book villain the Joker, they have pictures of Obama made out to be kind of apelike or like some sort of hybrid of human and ape, all those things, the context in which that happened, made it very difficult to simply dismiss this as political rancor or commonplace disagreement in the Capitol.

How do you rate how he responded to this moment?

One of the things that Obama did very well, and has done very well with, I think, generally, is maintaining his composure in the face of things that are, quite frankly, incendiary and disrespectful, and so he said in a very even tone--he was called a liar, said, "You lie," and he said, "Not true," and continued on. I think a lot of people would have lost their composure or they would have been tempted to lash out or respond. But I think he played that moment perfectly, or as perfectly as it could be played, simply refuting what the person said and continuing on with his speech.

... So heading into the 2010 midterm elections, where does Obama stand? Where does the man who made that speech in Boston and handled the election process, where is he now?

Part of what happens in 2010 is that the party that wins the White House very often loses seats during the midterm. We know that's a recognized dynamic. But what's less easily quantified is the extent to which that electorate was ginned up by the real sense that they were under siege. By that I mean a conservative electorate and Tea Party electorate, of people believing that there was a person in the White House who posed an existential threat to the future of the United States, certainly the future of the United States as they understood the country.

That's part of how this narrative plays out. It's also kind of a failure to mobilize progressive voters, the same electorate that had brought Obama to office, which was kind of shocking given that the sophistication of the ground operation and the gathering of names and the database they created in 2008, you kind of thought that this would be a more effective machinery, the Obama for America, which then turned into Organizing for America. Then in 2010 you thought that the same sort of machinery would be operative, and it really wasn't. On both sides, you saw these dynamics that led to I think what he called the shellacking in the midterms.

Exactly. So 87 Tea Party congresspeople come. Now they're going to fight over the debt ceiling. They use that as a gun they're going to hold and load and point at him. And in the midst of all of that, along comes this guy named Donald Trump who sees this group out there forming, says: "I kind of like the idea. I'm a celebrity. I need to eat. I need something to be part of. I like the idea of tipping my toe in the water politically. I like this birther idea. It's pretty outrageous." Take me there for Trump, birther and the existential meaning of that in terms of Obama and the presidency.

... From the outset, people had kind of euphemistically referred to Barack Obama as a different kind of candidate. What that was really getting at was that although he was black, he was not black in the way that people might have been accustomed to in that he had one white parent from Kansas and a black parent from Kenya, that his ancestry in this country, at least on the African side, was only one generation. So there was not this multi-century legacy of race and racism and the complexities of that to grapple with.

At the same time, he was born in Hawaii and raised in Indonesia partly, and he had this very atypical biography for an American political candidate of any racial background. I think that made it easy to paint him as foreign or exotic in a particular kind of way.

It also made it easy for people who had ideas that someone like him didn't belong in the White House to make the kind of short leap over to the idea that this person wasn't even an American. And so people may have said he's not an American figuratively, and all of a sudden people are saying he's not an American literally. And so the idea of birtherism was spawned. There are these really increasingly outlandish concepts that should have gotten no airing in any kind of reasonable arena of American politics.

But all of a sudden, there are kind of mainstream voices saying this. And this is the way that I knew that this birther thing was going to be a real problem, which is that I was on a plane. I was randomly on a flight, and I wind up siting next to a congressman from Georgia, and he and I got into a conversation about politics. He's a Republican; I'm not. We're just talking about some of the dynamics going on in American politics, and he confesses that he does not believe that Barack Obama is a citizen. This is someone who up to this point had sounded very reasonable. We kind of talked about things; we disagreed about things that we agreed about. And then he just kind of announces he doesn't think that this person is a citizen.

I said: "You know, if this person wasn't a citizen, don't you think that during the primaries, this would have come up, that someone would have said, 'Oh, well, you know, this person is not actually a citizen here?,' or that someone in Hawaii would have said, 'You know, we have this birth announcement, and it doesn't seem to be valid,' or any of these possible scenarios?" But he had this intransigent idea that the person who was occupying the White House was not even eligible to have voted in that election, much less won the election.

From there, it kind of gives an avenue ... that context allows outlandish figures to gain audience in respectable settings. And out of that, Donald Trump emerged. If you recall, during the zenith of the birther movement, Trump claimed that he had a squad of investigators in Hawaii finding all sorts of damning things, and of course none of this ever materialized. And then there were comments that there was one theory that Obama's father was not a Kenyan student, was actually an African American Communist. There was one part of the conspiratorial right wing that was promulgating the idea that Malcolm X was actually Barack Obama's father and a kind of soap opera twist.

But all these things are increasingly thought of as reasonable perspectives, at least within a certain segment of American politics. And Donald Trump's salesmanship has fanned the flames of this, saying that maybe this guy actually isn't an American citizen. Maybe he is the thing that you really fear him to be. I think the most demoralizing moment certainly of the first term of his presidency is when Barack Obama actually comes forward and presents the long form of his birth certificate to prove that he was, in fact, born in Hawaii and that he is an American citizen.

In some ways, it felt that all of black America had just been racially profiled and people were saying: "If this can happen to him, the most powerful person in the world, what exactly can happen to us? What are the boundaries of what can happen to us?"

Talk about delegitimizing someone.

Right. Certainly for his presidency, one of the things that Obama seemed to be interesting in doing, and advertised himself as doing, was being someone who was above the fray and someone who was above pettiness. He said this again and again and again, that he wanted to change the tone in Washington and that he wanted to take a kind of adult approach to American politics.

It seemed that the opposite was what was happening, that people were dragging him further and further into the muck and mire of American politics to the extent that he actually had to countenance the perspectives of lunatics and establish his own citizenship. It's hard to look at that as anything beyond humiliation.

He handles it in a way that people tell me is quintessentially Obama. The White House Correspondents' Dinner, he just sarcastically makes fun of Donald Trump and the situation.

Right. There was this moment at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2011 where President Obama turns his attention to Donald Trump, and one of the things that people knew early on was that this was someone who had great comic timing. You saw this again and again on the campaign trail. Then he engaged in what African Americans would have called a game of the dozens, a kind of ritual insult that people go, except this is all one-sided. And you can see the humiliation being returned and Trump looking increasingly uncomfortable. I believe he actually leaves shortly after that.

Then [he] caps that moment with the next day it being reported that the United States has killed Osama bin Laden. He almost seemed to have offered a master class and a point at which people were thinking about how great his comic timing was. He was in the most intensely pressure-filled moment of his presidency to that point, and no one knew it. I think that was one of the things that people also were attracted to in Obama, is that he seemed to be a pre-eminently cool operator, someone who functioned under pressure without fracturing or betraying their composure.

That was the great moment of that. But I also think that was the moment in which Donald Trump's presidential campaign was born.

Wow. Because?

I think that the themes of resentment and recrimination, indignation and the belief that there's somehow a usurper who has led the country astray, all those things have been very prominent in Donald Trump's presidential campaign, [and] were all shockingly similar to these sentiments that were kind of going through his head at that moment in the White House Correspondents' Dinner. And [it was] very much a kind of personal almost vendetta to say that the office that Obama has achieved is not something that he couldn't do, not something that's beyond Donald Trump's capacity.

The next challenge for him is Trayvon Martin's murder. Take me there at the very beginning. How does he react?

So 2012, a young man, 17-year-old young man, Trayvon Martin, is killed in Sanford, Fla., by a community-watch person named George Zimmerman, and there are no charges brought. 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. You know, I wrote something about that, which is that 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.

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.

There's also another narrative here, which is that this happens in Florida in the midst of a presidential election, a tightly contested presidential election and a state in which there is a large bounty of electoral votes. If this had happened in ... Idaho or Maryland, I think, or New York, there would have been a different set of dynamics, or certainly calculations. But this happened in Florida, which is the most hotly contested so-called swing state in a very tightly contested race. So all of those things were kind of swirling around as this happens, and I think Obama's statement was calibrated both in terms of what a jury pool would look like in the future--you don't want the president weighing in and then someone saying that any potential jury pool is tainted, and you also don't want to say something that is so inflammatory that you wind up paying political consequences for it. I think he kind of split a hair in making the statement that he made.

... So the argument was that in the beginning, it was just a "Stand Your Ground" story, and nobody gave a crap, and a lot of Americans, white Americans, said this is too bad, right? But the second he says it, boom, right? Here we go; he's in the middle of it. I mean, it's a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" moment, right?

Right. Well, I think that what happened with Trayvon Martin and the Trayvon Martin case was just indicative of the high-wire act that he was performing as the first black president and the ways in which the slightest wind could blow him off or set off this kind of political maelstrom.

When Obama says that if he had a son, he'd look like Trayvon, there's an immediate reaction that [he] tacitly--sometimes explicitly--takes the side of 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.

In the context of Trayvon Martin, this really explodes. But here's 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."

This becomes the basis for the social media campaign that becomes an organization that really primarily articulates this claim of black activism and the concern of African Americans in the second half of Obama's presidency. ... At the same time, there's a young man, a disillusioned young man, in South Carolina who looks at what happens with Trayvon Martin and interprets it in a radically different way and sees this as a validation of his fears that black people actually pose some sort of threat to white people, especially in the context of Barack Obama's presidency.

And his name is?

His name is Dylann Roof.

... OK. Time goes by, and Zimmerman is acquitted. And the president goes a little further in what he feels he needs to say. What is the imperative now to Barack Obama as he hears about the acquittal?

To a disturbing degree, Barack Obama has been called upon to assuage people's grief in the time in his presidency, most notably after mass shootings. This has happened with a kind of sickening regularity during his presidency, and he's had to articulate again and again a claim of sympathy and empathy or a call to a kind of moral change in the country in terms of how we deal with violence.

But one of the more notable instances in which that also happens outside of the context of mass shootings is after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and he's speaking in very specific terms to an experience that is very familiar to many African Americans in this country, which is the lack of consequence, the loss of life and the lack of consequence in our communities.

And in saying [that], he kind of subtlety tweaks what he said originally. He said, at first, if I had a son he'd look like Trayvon Martin. He then changes it to say that Trayvon Martin could have been me, or I could have been him. And 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. ...

... Which direction is he headed in with that statement after the verdict?

... He doesn't have to worry about another potential election. He's already kind of been stymied in his political agenda by intransigent Republicans. At this point, speaking his mind is not going to make that any worse.

And I also think there's a real sense that this is right, it's what the president should do in this circumstance. And so I think that's where that speech comes from, or where that address comes from.

Next, he's on vacation I think with [Eric] Holder, and Ferguson happens. Give me the facts of the case.

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 there, there are varying interpretations of what actually happened between them. There's one set of people, largely in law enforcement at that point in time, who say this was a justifiable shooting, that the young man reached for his weapon and had threatened him, threatened the officer, and the officer shot in self-defense. There are a number of witnesses who say that the officer began shooting as Michael Brown was running away, and he had shot him at a point in which he posed no threat to him.

Then there's the gulf between those two perspectives, and the context of a police department in Ferguson, Mo., that had a very fraught and very difficult relationship with the community that it was charged with policing, and also a political context in which the majority of the town, the majority of Ferguson, is African American. 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, or the attorney general should come off vacation and respond to this.

Initially this almost seems like it's going to fit the template of these other kind of racial concerns we've seen during the presidency. But it becomes much, much bigger than anything that we've seen. For one, there's also the matter of not simply the shooting, but the fact that Michael Brown's body lay in the street on the hot August day for almost four hours. Regardless of what motivated the shooting, people felt that even in death, his body had been treated with a kind of casual disdain.

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.

I arrived there the Wednesday after he was killed. I think it was over a weekend, a Saturday or a Sunday, and I arrived on Wednesday after that. That was the first night that the police began teargassing protesters and demonstrators who were out there. 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. There were protesters even at that point beginning to come in from other parts of the country.

For 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.

And as you watch and talk to others about the president and Holder's response, what is the expectation? What is the hope of how they'll respond to this moment as it's in real time?

One of the things that was interesting is that in Ferguson, I saw people making more demands about Eric Holder than about Barack Obama. When Eric Holder arrived, it carried with it a great deal of expectation, and even there was a change in the climate there, because people expected Holder to vigorously investigate and if necessary prosecute in this case. ...

So the president and his close personal friend and attorney general are expected to do something, make it look like they're responding in some way, if nothing else to calm everybody down. Did it work?

I think whether or not that worked is almost dependent upon what your expectations were. 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. Now, in and of itself, it's a rarity for grand juries to not indict. They very often indict, and the joke among the lawyers is a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich.

But the exception is in cases of police shootings, in which very often grand juries are very reluctant to indict officers. This is kind of consistent with what I think probably legal experts would have expected. It was also consistent with what many residents of Ferguson and St. Louis expected. They did not think that a grand jury, particularly not one convened by [St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney] Bob McCullouch, was going to indict Officer Darren Wilson.

That didn't happen, and violence emerged very quickly after that was announced. As a matter of fact, I was there that night in front of the courthouse, and you saw a very, very heavy police presence in Ferguson, Mo. But only on the kind of main strips, the commercial strips and largely white neighborhoods. The rioting that did happen, that was not in any way impeded, happened across town in the black community not far from where Michael Brown died.

It was there that you saw buildings set on fire, that you saw windows being shot out, and at one point there was so much gunfire that you could have credibly believed that you were in a war zone. This was just kind of going on. There was very little police or fire presence on that side of town.

The idea that Obama is sitting on vacation watching this happen, and he says: "Look, who knows what the facts of this case are? Who knows whether we can call it a hate crime? Who knows any of these things? But I really have to be careful as a president?"

Right. And so one of the other things is that, as I've said to students, is that 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." And that's something that he has to be mindful of in this.

And so Eric Holder's investigation of the police department in Ferguson was kind of splitting the difference. It was the perfect way in which the administration could be involved but also not taint the process that was going on in St. Louis, in municipal court in St. Louis.

... That's really splitting the baby, the Solomon moment always applied by the professor trying to be as unemotional as possible.

Well, what was interesting about Ferguson was the way that the official responses wound up splitting the difference in other ways. 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, which I think this report got very little discussion, but 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 accountability 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 by a police officer in Ferguson.

We're headed to Charleston, obviously, but let's summarize where he is now, starting with the "beer summit," [at which President Obama brought together Skip Gates and Cambridge Officer James Crowley to the White House following Gates's arrest]. We don't have to stop at each station of the cross now, but beer summit to Trayvon to Ferguson. Late in his presidency, where do you figure he is attitudinally about all of this?

So for one thing, people have talked about Obama's reticence about race and his reluctance to talk about race. And that's true. But he also taught a course on race and the law at the University of Chicago. He's not someone who couldn't talk about these things. I think he was making a calculation that it was disadvantageous to do so from the office of the presidency, at least early on, and that you could ultimately do things that would benefit low-income communities and people of color, but it was much more difficult to do those things if you actually talked about them, if you actually articulated them up front. I think that this was something that animated the early Obama presidency.

But I think all presidents enter office with a certain set of ideals that get tested by the actual circumstances in which they preside. And in Obama's case, it became increasingly difficult, going from the Skip Gates situation through the Shirley Sherrod and the Joe Wilson calling him a liar and showing his birth certificate, and then Trayvon Martin. Each of these things kind of makes it clear that race is going to be something that he has to confront head on, that it can't simply be a tacit context in which he operates. He has to explicitly articulate his perspective on these things.

Even though anything he says is going to have a certain kind of inflammatory potential, but not saying anything has an equal or worse kind of inflammatory potential at the same time.

And there's a tremendous pressure on him from many civil rights leaders by now. By this point phones are ringing constantly: "Give a speech. Get out here; do this. For God's sake, we don't have anything to lose. You've got to take leadership right now." Certainly the Black Lives Matter people were saying, "Come on, let's go!"

Yeah, as a kind of counterpoint, the interesting thing here is that the typical narrative of African Americans and the civil rights movement [goes from] being in the streets and in protest, and then through the '70s and '80s and '90s those protests transitioning to political electoral power and representation, which culminate in 2008 with the election of the first black president. Then in the midst of that black presidency, you see the wheel turn [almost] entirely, which then spawns a whole other generation of people taking to the streets and going right back to the model of protesting against political power, because they've become very clear on the limitations of the presidency or the ways in which the presidency is confounded by race and hemmed in by race.

So both of those things are happening, like Black Lives Matter is exerting pressure because the presumption of people on the right was that this black president was going to be a kind of radical leftist in pursuit of an African American agenda. But for many African American activists, they felt that there had to be something like Black Lives Matter in order to push the president to operate more aggressively on issues of race, or at least talk more forthrightly about those issues.

And how effective were they?

I think that Black Lives Matter has something to do with the president's changing tone on these things, certainly the pressure that they exert and the public forum that they're able to create for themselves. When he creates the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, he invites some notable people who are associated with Black Lives Matter to participate in it. That just wasn't simply for theater; it's because these are people who were pushing him from the outside, and the old political wisdom is that people who are pushing you from the outside, you can bring them on the inside. It's much more effective to have them on the inside than it is to have them outside. ...

Let's go to Charleston now, Mr. Roof. Bring him back for me, will you, if you can.

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, a young man who was motivated by the idea that the Trayvon Martin case indicated that white people were under siege in this country. What happened in South Carolina winds up being a direct product, it's like a lineage that you see between the massacre in the Emanuel A.M.E. [American Methodist Episcopal] Church in South Carolina and the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman.

Wow.

Kind of a ripple effect in the worst possible way.

Somebody told us Roof figured that he couldn't shoot Obama, he couldn't get to him, but he could shoot black people, and it was as good as shooting Obama.

Here's the thing. When that massacre took place, it was not a leap to understand that this was everything about the context of Obama's presidency, that this was the concerns that attended his election, and that everyone was concerned for his safety and people feared for his well-being. 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.

At the same time, there were these echoes of history there: a church founded by an African American, co-founded by an African American abolitionist who wanted to end slavery; the church sits on Calhoun Street, named after John C. Calhoun, who was the progenitor of secession and one the most ardent white supremacists in South Carolina history. And it happens in the context of this ongoing concern about the Confederate flag and it flying over the South Carolina Capitol.

All these things are going on, and all of them speak to these ways in which history is present in our contemporary lives. The very same kind of backlash that people feared and thought would jeopardize, potentially jeopardize President Obama's safety had turned out to jeopardize the safety of other African Americans who ostensibly had nothing to do with the presidency.

This is maybe a nutty thing to say, but do you think he felt any responsibility for that?

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.

So this sense of victimhood, this sense of jeopardy, this bunker mentality. circling the wagons around the issue of race has everything to do with Obama's election, and it has everything to do with the motives that Dylann Roof took allegedly in ending the lives of nine people in the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in June 2015.

What do you know about Obama's response? How did he react?

There had been some conversation about the president coming, 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. People were saying that the Confederate flag was not a symbol of hatred, was rather a symbol of pride--an argument that was completely untenable, didn't square with the history of South Carolina or the history of that flag.

So Obama coming down and giving the eulogy, it was a very complicated moment for a number of reasons. One, the families, some of the family members of the victims had publicly forgiven Dylann Roof for what he did, which seemed to be a kind of unbelievably magnanimous gesture given the monstrous deeds that he was accused of at the time. But it also, I think, created a particular kind of political rhetoric in which people almost exhaled and said, "Well, Dylann Roof has been forgiven, so we're now just dealing with the legal prosecution, but the social, moral, spiritual implications of this, we can kind of move on from that."

There were other people, myself included, who felt that forgiveness as a spiritual principle is laudable, but in the political and social arena, that means something very different, and the removal of the Confederate flag seemed to be an insufficient tribute to the lives of nine people, to say that the Confederate flag was ... worth the equivalent of those peoples' lives.

So 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 also some historical resonances. But it was also a symbol that the response to this was going to be one that focused on the spiritual magnitude of forgiveness, and I think that that should not have been the entirety of that response. At that point in time, having seen the abomination that happened there, I was one of the people who thought it was important to call upon people to make actual concrete steps. What were the legislative acts that Sen. Pinckney was championing for poor people in his district? What was the state's commitment to equalizing educational resources there?

There had to be something beyond a spiritual approach to this, or else people would say--I was there at the funeral service, and I remember looking, saying that there were lots of white people there, lots of white South Carolinians who said that they felt a responsibility to denounce what had happened as fellow citizens. Very often people sit as fellow Christians, and there was this interracial gathering that convened in that church for the message that Obama was going to deliver, and I thought that that was notable.

But I also thought it was equally notable that those people were going to leave that funeral service and return to vastly different communities with vastly different sets of resources and vastly different sets of opportunities and possibilities, and that maybe a more stringent demand from the White House was in order.

Why didn't he do it?

That's a good question; I don't know. I don't know the answer to that. But I think it was a missed opportunity. Maybe people thought that it would have been gauche to talk about matters of policy or what people could do to properly pay tribute to the deceased at that particular point in time; that it might have been turned into a kind of political football, or it might have gone the same way as the Trayvon Martin situation. Those were the calculations.

But yeah, I thought that speech was insufficient. I was in the minority. I think a lot of people were moved by it, and I remember being in that audience and thinking, I think there has to be something a little bit more than that.

... My last question. So we started with 2004, where he talks about no red blue America and blue America and no black America and white America, and by the end of his term, he admits to a failure to bridge at least the--

The Springfield speech, yeah.

--at least the partisan divide, but certainly also what we talked about on the racial divide. You've talked a little bit about your view of his legacy, but how do you think he views his legacy at that moment or as he's leaving office?

I think the most charitable assessment of Obama when it comes to bridging the partisan divide was that he had miscalculated just how intractable these matters were. I think a harsher analysis would say that he underestimated the viability of racism in this country, and the first half of his story is that he had a barometer for race that nobody else in the country had. I think very few people would have thought that it was possible for an African American to actually have a viable presidential campaign. He saw the board in a way that nobody else did and was able to show that this was possible. That's the story of his campaign.

The story of his election, I think, is the opposite, and his administration is the opposite, of people understanding the intractability and the investment in maintaining a particular racial status quo that I think his administration was consistently confounded by and probably slow to recognize the extent to which this would really be a definitive element in everything that he did, from the day he took the oath of office until the day that the next president was inaugurated. ...