Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, an MSNBC political analyst, and most recently, the author of The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America.
Dyson first met Obama on a black history panel in the early 1990s, and would later attend the same church as Obama in Chicago's South Side. Dyson was once a vocal Obama supporter, but says he grew disillusioned with what he's described as the president's "timid" response to racial politics.
As Dyson explains in the below interview, "There's no question that President Obama missed a boatload of opportunities to deal with the issue of race, A, because he didn't want to, B, because he felt that his poll numbers would sink that moment he began to weigh in on this."
Dyson says he would "never blame Barack Obama for what we now see in Donald Trump," but he notes, "if you leave a vacuum, other people come along to offer their viewpoints, whether xenophobic, or nativist or racist and they give perspectives that are extremely challenging."
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on May 3, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Well, I first met Barack Obama when we ... served on a black history panel at Hamburger University, which is McDonald's educational extension, out in the suburbs of Chicago in the early '90s--'91, maybe '92 at the latest. We joked later that we were on the panel with the actor Sheryl Lee Ralph and said we didn't pay much attention to each other; we paid more attention to Ms. Ralph.
But very affable, genial man. As he is now, he was then: self-deprecating, very humble about his achievements. I think he had just garnered national recognition, the first flush of it, for having been named the editor of the Harvard Law Review, and then graduating. I was a young professor of ethics and philosophy at Chicago Theological Seminary and just coming into the city in the late '80s, '89 to be exact. So we met at an interesting time, and he was quite an impressive young man.
We eventually joined the same church, Trinity United Church of Christ, and we were church members, pew dwellers, together. I would see him from time to time, and we would talk and chat. We were friendly. Always a man of political ambition, but not out-of-control ambition. As a community organizer and then as a political participant, he struck you as somebody who was down-to-earth, having the good motivation to serve the people and to translate the high ideals and the noble ambitions of his previous calling as an organizer into the gritty and often grimy politics of electoral politics. ...
... I have no reason to doubt that he perceives it that way and he feels it that way, and that he's been able to leverage the kind of knowledge that is derived from being in both cultures, straddling the fence, so to speak.
But when you look at genotype and phenotype, when you look at what the man looks like, he had no chance at all of being taken for a white man, right? He was always going to be a black man. He was going to be interpreted as a black man. He was going to be seen as a black man and perceived as a black man, and understood himself as a black man. When he filled out census forms, he didn't put "other"; he didn't put "multiracial" or "biracial"; he put "African American"; he put "black."
The reality is that Barack Obama has functioned in America as a black man. Now, the biracial identity has given him some internal access, some understanding of the implicit and intuitive values of whiteness, how white people think, operate, fear, loathe, embrace, celebrate. To that degree, he has been a balancing act in action, so to speak. He is constantly and consistently looking for what thing can bring us together. What are the things that instead of dividing us can unite us, because there is something about that biracial identity that pushes him toward a stance of a healer, a unifier. And in that sense, I think he's absolutely right in terms of his own personal motivation. Now, whether or not that has political consequence is highly doubtful. When he memorably stood in Boston, and I sat in the audience there at the convention in 2004, and said, "There's not a white America or black America. There's the United States of America," what a grand ideal. What a noble aspiration and illusion, but it certainly wasn't the basis for any real politics on the ground that existed in America.
Sure, there was no question that inside knowledge is important. ... He's trading inside knowledge about what it means to be white with a black man's skin. That's the ideal person, right? That's from central casting. You look black; you're partly white. You know white brothers and sisters; you know what turns them on, what turns them off. You know what attracts them and what repels them, and you're perceived as an African American. What a great ideal. What a heck of a combination.
So yes, he believed it. And it did allow him both to present himself as transparent as possible as a man of many parts, so to speak. But it also allowed him a political advantage. And that is to say that white brothers and sisters, knowing that they were pulling the lever or dimpling the chad for a man who was partly them, of course, that appeals to white America beyond its political utility. There's a kind of existential identification of whiteness with him. Many white people see that he has a white mother. He paraded them out during the first run for the presidency when he talked about his grandparents and his mother. And their pictures appeared everywhere--not so much the African family, not so much the father's side of the family, but the family that was white, the family that was Kansas, the family that was ultra-American.
In that sense, there was a kind of political manipulation of the symbolism and imagery of the whiteness from which he had derived his identity, both literally in terms of biology, but also in terms of his cosmopolitan outlook, in terms of his wish to renounce worshipping at the alter of racial purity, but coming together and bringing that kind of amalgamation. That's what biracialism is. It brings together two independent identities and in fusing them creates a tertium quid, a third thing. And that third thing is a human being, breathing and living, who has to adjust to being perceived as a black person but inheriting the ideals and aspirations of white society.
So look, he had a huge advantage and a leg up over many other African American people. He wasn't perceived as being angry, wasn't perceived as having the same baggage that a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton or any other black politician would bring. There's no doubt that it gave him a leg up and an advantage.
Well, look, it's clear that Obama, for most of his adult life, is trying to figure out where he fits in. Those stories he tells in Dreams from My Father where he's playing basketball with a guy and he says, "Hey, have you read Malcolm X?" "I don't need to read Malcolm X to know who I am." And then he said, "Well, from then on, I kept my own counsel, so to speak." He was trying to suggest to us that the search was a real one, and that it was an intellectual one as much as an emotional one. You have to read, think, reflect; grasp hold of [James] Baldwin, look at Taylor Branch, look at Martin Luther King, Jr., grapple with the history of the civil rights movement and slavery and the struggle for black identity, because that's not something that he inherited, even though his mother was quite conscious of the fact that he must know all of these kind of things. But it was something that he came to on his own. And that quest for a suitable, useful racial identity marked him not only as a private citizen and a young college student to a sense of who he is, but it also characterized, I think, his ongoing effort to figure out the right kind of blackness at the right kind of time in the right kind of public spaces.
Joining Trinity United Church of Christ, running for office in the way he did, challenging Bobby Rush, a well-known former Black Panther and a tremendous congressman in Chicago, all of that is the attempt to figure out how do I best relate to the masses, my understanding of who I am as a black person? That is ongoing, by the way, his reading, his engagement, even when he's running for president the first time, when he says, ... "I can't sound like Martin, and I can't sound like Jesse; I've got to sound like myself," literally finding his voice, but also metaphorically trying to find out how he voices those ideas and opinions that he has that he wants to communicate to the broader world.
Sure. Well, he certainly told me in the Oval Office that he believed that his responsibility was not so much to talk about race explicitly and engage it relentlessly, but to create opportunities and to find ways that he could speak about it in an intelligent fashion at a forum, perhaps, that allowed young schoolchildren to come together and then he could expatiate about a particular idea, or that he's able to commandeer the resources of his own office when a particular crisis occurred, but to do so with dispassion, to do so with a kind of balance that wouldn't give in to the old arguments that would get refought time and time again.
He was quite conscious about and strategic about his own approach to race and thinking that as the first black president, he was much calmer and cooler about the idea of holding forth on the issue of race. He was not inclined to believe, especially in the first term, that this was something that he necessarily should do, that it would have a good consequence, and that the president of the United States of America who's black weighing in on those issues would not necessarily be a good thing, especially after the so-called beer summit and the conflagration with Skip Gates at Harvard University being arrested in his own home.
Well, I think the president, quite frankly, learned some bad lessons from the Skip Gates situation. He learned that white America is intolerant, in toto, of a lot of the nuances of the conversation on race, number one; number two, that anything that looked like special pleading or special interests was off the table; and number three, that it's better to remain implicit rather than explicit.
For instance, in looking at the Skip Gates situation, he didn't want to necessarily draw attention to police brutality or the racial profiling that had gone on. He mentioned that at the end of a press conference on health care where he was then asked the question, I think by Lynn Sweet of the Chicago newspaper Chicago Sun-Times, asking the question about Skip Gates. Then he held forth with his own honest opinion. He learned that his own honest opinion wasn't necessarily good for the nation. He learned that telling the truth as a black man who remembered what it meant to be racially profiled in Cambridge, Mass., was not necessarily the good thing. The lesson he learned? Withdraw, pull back, be implicit.
You know, there's an old basketball term: Take what the defense gives you. He was definitely doing that when it came to the issue of race.
There's no question that President Obama missed a boatload of opportunities to deal with the issue of race, a, because he didn't want to; b, because he felt that his poll numbers would sink the moment he began to weigh in on this. And this was, as the nineteenth-century novelist said, "That way lies tears." He didn't want to go that route. He wanted to avoid it. He figured that his very presence would evoke enough consciousness about race, number one, and number two, that the issues when they force themselves upon him, and they had to be addressed, then he could use the bully pulpit sparingly, husbanding that racial capital, to dispense it at will to try to help America come to grips with something.
But other than that, he didn't really want to lead on that. If his foreign policy credo, according to his critics, has been to lead from behind, his domestic policy on race is pretty much the same thing, leading from behind after a police incident, after a racial crisis, after a murder of people in a church, after people who have been murdered who were unarmed. So when the accumulation of that crisis, when the sheer velocity of trauma came at black people with such devastating accuracy, the president had but little choice to speak to that.
But not getting ahead of the curve left a vacuum. And dare I say, I would never blame Barack Obama for what we now see in Donald Trump, but I will say this: When there is a vacuum and a void, race will be addressed; race will be interpreted. The question is, will you be the person as a political figure mounting the bully pulpit to help interpret that race? Or if you leave a vacuum, other people come along to offer their viewpoints, whether xenophobic or nativist or racist, and they give perspectives that are extremely challenging.
I think the Tea Party stepped into that gulf and gap. I think Donald Trump stepped into that gulf, and I think the birthers stepped into that gulf. ...
At the beginning of the Tea Party, we spoke very directly about that. ... President Obama ignored, as a kind of strategy, all of the glaring and blaring incidents that would suggest this ain't Kansas and you ain't Dorothy. There are problems here, there are huge problems here. There are people who don't like you because you're black. OK, that's clear. There are people who don't like the fact that America has a black president. There are people who disbelieve in your essential American identity.
...Barak Obama was symbolic of black America, and black America became a proxy for Barak Obama. ... Black people are Obama's, in that sense, the figures who were available readily to receive the animus when the young man, Dylann Roof went into the church, he said, "You people are taking over." Who? He's speaking about Obama. That's the President of the United States of America. Black people ain't running much else. They're not head of Fortune 500 companies, they're not running universities.
What they are overrepresented in is prison. So when this young man perceived the takeover of black power, of black ambition, of black desire, metastasizing across the political landscape, he's unconsciously to a certain degree, and perhaps consciously, got Obama in the crosshairs. But he can't shoot Obama, he can't assassinate him. So vulnerable black people become the proxies for a president whose very success symbolizes their struggle to become recognized and yet his reticence, his racial procrastination, putting off for tomorrow what he should do that day lead, I think, to some rather tragic consequences in the American soul.
Well, it's interesting. In that speech, Barack Obama said that this is an opening; this is a vista that allows us to think critically about the issue of race, and it should be the first of many to come. Of course, in truth, in reality, it was a summation; it was a stopgap; it was a way to address it. Perhaps [because of] the very success of that speech, which, a, won him the presidency, in essence, and b, let him know that by giving that speech, the epic tides of grief and trauma that were condensed into his beautiful retelling of the struggle of black people to be free and to be citizens and of white people's response to it, because he was able to in a breathtaking fashion condense such large swaths of history, he's like, "Hey, I did a whole bunch of stuff with that speech, and therefore it may not be necessary to have the very conversations that the speech called for."
The speech itself suggested that we should, as Americans, come to grips with this most salient and most fundamental issue of race in America. And yet, judging by the president's behavior, after he was successful with that speech, which won him the presidency, he wanted nothing of it. He kept it at a distance. The White House themselves didn't want to necessarily speak about race. They discouraged that kind of thinking, not only in people who had been their surrogates, but in people who would make criticisms of the White House at that particular point. They were very conscious in crafting a strategy of what I call strategic inadvertence: You know, they don't necessarily focus on race, the things that happen as a result of their policies; adopting a universal approach, a rising tide will lift all boats, so that African American and Latino and other poor people will be helped, but we won't aim at that. That's strategically inadvertent. But the problem with that, of course, is that there were specific problems that needed to be targeted and addressed that the White House continually refused to do so.
Right. Well, he didn't want to get it. ... He was nearly allergic to engaging that issue of race. And his discomfort with it personally--because he didn't want to be ghettoized; he didn't want to be blackened like catfish--he didn't want to be seen as the black president, which is why he kept telling black people, "I am not the president of black America." Now, first of all, that's an insult, as if those people who voted thought they were voting for the head of the NAACP, as opposed to the president of the United States of America. But secondly, you may not be the president of black America, but you are the president of black Americans. These, after all, are citizens who deserve every right and privilege that anybody else gets. But here's the paradox: Black people were loathe to criticize Obama at all because he was the first black president; they loved him greatly. He knew it. He told me sitting in the White House that, "If I go into most black communities, I'm at 90 some percent. And if I take Michelle with me, it's nearly ironclad." He knew this. No brag, just fact, as [Walter] Brennan would say in "The Guns of Will Sonnett."
... So, the reality is nothing that he could possibly do could make black people not love him and support him. And as a result of that, he took those kind of liberties and refused explicitly to deal with race, knowing, believing, that black people would understand why he was being silent.
Well, the reason was that he understood that he had tremendous black loyalty. He didn't want to rock the white boat, so to speak. He knew he could get value from lecturing black people about their moral shortcomings in white America. When he was running for president in Chicago 2008, when he made the famous speech in the black church on Father's Day that led to Jesse Jackson wanting to offer him a severance package, though he was not his employer, so the reality is that Obama, Jesse Jackson said, was talking down to black people.
Now, Jesse Jackson got the analysis right but not, of course, what the action would be. And as a result of that, Obama found tremendous succor and tremendous support by knowing that white America said: "Man, he's really tough; he's really brave. Look at the tough love he's giving to black people. 'Stop feeding your kids cold chicken. Pull your pants up.'" This politics of respectability appealed greatly not only to vast numbers of black people, but also to white America that was hungry for that.
But there was never the possibility that Obama could ever say anything like that to white America at all. The one time he tried was at a tony fundraiser in San Francisco when he was running for president the first time when, as you know, he talked about Pennsylvania, and he says, "You know, those people cling to guns and their religion, and so on." White America let him know in no uncertain terms that is not something you can get away with, and he never tried it again.
I was stunned. You know, for a sitting president to be in a joint meeting of the House of Representatives and the Senate and the United States Congress, to be called a liar to his face, proved then early on that this, indeed, is the Jackie Robinson of presidents. This man just takes it. Jackie Robinson was chosen not only because he was an extraordinary ball player, which he was, but he wasn't the best, right? He wasn't the best, but he was the best for the situation at hand, because Branch Rickey needed somebody who could take it, who, when offended, even unjustly, would stand there and internalize it to a certain degree and move on.
Obama was that man. He was not going to call Congressman Joe Wilson out from South Carolina, ironically enough. When Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, stood on a tarmac and pointed her finger in his face, bullying him and reprimanding him as if he were her son and child; when a reporter from, what is it, the Conservative Daily stood on the lawn of the White House and interrupted Obama before he could even finish his speech--when you think about this time and time again and again, the kinds of things that have occurred to him, the slights, the offenses, he has been seen as heroic in black America because people know that he can't address every slight; he can't address every offense; that were he to make that the main line of the news, so to speak, he would have his agenda derailed and distracted by people who ultimately meant little to his ultimate agenda.
So in that sense, he was heroic, but the problem is that he also began to ignore slights to African Americans beyond the White House, not just him. To a building up of tensions and hostilities between the police and African American citizens, seeing the overcrowding of jails and prisons that went on far before he got into office, ... he ignored them or decided not to address them immediately because, again, that would put him in an uncomfortable position of having to address race explicitly, of having to make white Americans conscious of the fact that they were white. I think in that sense, Obama wanted to avoid that at all costs.
Well, Shirley Sherrod was pilloried. I knew from personal experience and knowledge that the White House wanting to keep at arm's length any discussion of race--even from people who loved and defended the president--meant that that story would be too juicy and irresistible for them. Now, to be sure and to be fair, the NAACP under the leadership of Ben Jealous and others jumped right in. But again, so desirous of not being perceived as racially unfair in favor of African American people, they were willing to jump on Shirley Sherrod--"Oh, my God, this black bigot must go"--and willing to hear a story of a person like Andrew Breitbart, who we know later on, we found out [sliced] those recordings together and made Shirley Sherrod say the exact opposite of what she was indeed saying. She was being sympathetic toward a white farmer as opposed to being racist against that white farmer.
But the careful redaction and editing of those tapes led one to believe that she was wrong. She didn't get called in and talked to. They fired her summarily, dismissed her, thinking they were doing the rightful thing. Now, they couldn't act nearly as quickly on issues that offended black people. They couldn't act nearly as quickly on issues that would disadvantage African American people. But on an issue where an African American appeared as if she were somehow offending flagrantly and violating a covenant, racially speaking, with white America, Obama pounced on that. ...
Yeah. I mean, look, Obama's biracialism served him well in many ways: his intuition, his understanding, his giving his speech. The reason he gave that speech in 2008, the famous race speech, he knew white folk were quaking in their boots, and he knew if he didn't clarify the terms of his own involvement with the church, Trinity, the United Church of Christ, and to a degree that was, I think, in retrospect more heroic than people gave him credit for, defending a Jeremiah Wright, but also criticizing him in a very severe fashion. He did all of this because he knew intuitively what white America was afraid of.
He borrowed the sociological lens of W. E. B. Du Bois and peered into the souls of white folk, and he did so because he knew what made them afraid. He knew by growing up with his own grandmother what made her afraid, what made her scared of black men, what made her afraid of the encroaching black threat.
He used that to his extraordinary advantage. The disadvantage, of course, is that he didn't understand that as president, you can take a side that is right that happens to land in some ethnic or racial or demographic community. For instance, when it comes to gay/lesbian/transgender/bisexual/queer people and transgender people, that's not all of America; that's a small percentage of America. But the president eventually, he said because of his girls, his children, opened his mind, though David Axelrod said, "Well, he was there all along; he just couldn't do it politically," embracing same-sex marriage and not just as a civil right, but as a right of covenant between two agreeable adults.
So when he embraces that, that's not all of America; that's a particular slice of America, but their particular conundrum, their particular paradox, their particular moral problem, reflects on the broader American society. He could see it with gender; he could see it with sexual orientation; he could see it with the environment. He couldn't see it with race. ...
Unfortunately, not until recently has Obama been able to see that even as a black president, you are still a president, and as a president, you must address the issues of race, which also have something to do with black people. And you must do so as president, not because you're a homeboy, not because you are the person who most identifies with these African American people, but because historically, the office of the president has been used as a bully pulpit to lead the nation in trying to do the right thing about race. He missed so much of that, avoided so much of that. And as a result, the nation had huge gulfs that have been filled by nefarious characters who don't have his intelligence, his wit, his understanding of the need to bring people together and have exploited, rather, the tensions that exist.
Look, just in the same sense that Barack Obama had an intuitive grasp because of his biracial identity of the fears and aspirations of white America, and of course, the history of black struggle, Donald Trump has a particular peculiar kind of native political genius as well. ... Donald Trump is challenging not only the birth of Obama as a legitimate citizen, but his intellectual capacity. There's a kind of eugenics involved here in Donald Trump's perturbations and his vicious machinations where he's trying to present Obama as a fraud on the intellectual front and as a fraud in terms of his birth. He's trying to unbirth him; he's trying to eradicate him; he's trying to erase him. He's trying to say that this man is so fundamentally disingenuous and dishonest that he doesn't deserve what he has gotten. That is a substitute argument, by the way, for anti-black, anti-African American sentiment, and Donald Trump began to funnel and fuel them. Whether it was his intent as an individual racist to do so, he was nonetheless a most effective and efficient machine to distribute those ideas.
The beauty and brilliance in a perverted sense of white supremacy is that it doesn't demand individual assent. It is a machine that has been in order for a couple of three centuries now, and as a result of that, of those people who tap into it, tap into a well-oiled machinery whose meanings overwhelm and obscure what their individual intentions are. So Donald Trump has plausible deniability. "I've got a lot of black friends; I don't mean anything bad by it; I don't hate black people." But the reality is the machinery of his public persona, the machinery of his assaults on Obama, suggest that he comports well with white supremacy and the denial of legitimacy to black identity.
And he was able to in one fell swoop to deny Obama his legitimacy, at least in terms of those who believe him as an American citizen and as a smart guy. Is there a relationship between all that and the fact that the leading figure in the 2016 race for the presidency on the Republican side is that same guy? I don't think so. After all, Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster.
So the culture produced Donald Trump. This culture of this underbelly of racist association with Obama, this underbelly of racial animus against him, this anti-black sentiment that has been galvanized and unleashed under Obama, found its most vocal expression in Donald Trump. And that is why to this day, Donald Trump is the most successful candidate for the presidency among Republicans, because he has crystallized and concretized what was only implicit and inchoate when he attacked Obama as a birther.
You know, the Trayvon Martin situation underscores how difficult it is for Obama to be a neutral arbiter of the issue of race. ... People were pushing him. "Say something." "What?" "Are you going to say anything? You're a black man, a young black boy has been murdered by a guy who's a hyped up neighborhood watchman. Black America is traumatized by this." ... Silence from the White House, nothing, no leadership, no insight.
Finally, when he's pushed, he makes it a personal one. "You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon Martin." Innocent remark. Anybody listening to that would see it's the father's heart looking at what might have been his own son, looking at this boy lying prostrate on the ground until the differences between him and that young boy disappear, and Obama identifies with him so much so that "He would have been my son."
Later on he says, "Forget him being my son; he could have been me." But when he says that, the right wing goes bananas, right? "Oh, my God, how dare you identify with these young thugs and all of the reproduction of the pathological stereotypes of young black man"--unfounded, untrue stereotypes being poured on this poor boy's dead body. And the right wing was upset, and "How dare you identify with him," and "Obama's playing the race card again," just this horrible stuff.
So, of course, he went back into his racial cocoon. He didn't say much until, again, the verdict came in.
... Obama initially, after George Zimmerman is found guilty, releases a nearly cryptic press release that says, "You know, we're a nation of laws. The jury has decided. We must abide by those laws. Yes, there's pain and grief." Stop. Are you serious? I mean, this is epic tides of grief washing across the collective soul of black America, the trauma that they are enduring, his own family saying we're talking about it at school. So now Obama is forced, again, into his bully pulpit with the unsatisfying attempt again, understandably but lamentably, trying to get away with merely releasing a press release, not speaking it, but having written it and then for it to be read. And people were very upset, especially African American people. He then had to take to that bully pulpit and then walked into that press conference room and gave the most remarkable, off-the-cuff speech about race, explaining to white America why black people are upset.
"Yes, this is a nation of laws. I still stand by that. The jury has decided. But let me explain to you why black people might have a problem." For the first time, as Eric Holder told me in my book, in my interview with him, he began to defend black people; he began to speak for black people for the first time in his administration. It was apparent that we had a friend, we being black people, in the White House, and that he felt free enough to explain our situation and to tell white America why it is that black people were hurt, traumatized and upset.
You know, many black people said: "Hey, watch out. When Obama comes into that second term, it's a different game, so work with him on the first time." I even spoke to some people in my role as a surrogate saying: "Look, the president has been hamstrung and unfairly hemmed in when it comes to issues of race. I think he'll be a bit freer in the second term." Now, mostly that was a fantasy. ... Obama is still Obama. That coolness that we see is as much a product of Hawaii and circumstance and the nature of his character as much as it is his strategic attempt to try to come to grips with the issue of race.
The reason he's president in the first place is because he ain't that, is because he doesn't fly off the handle; is because he doesn't get excited about the issue of race; is because he doesn't get torn up and dramatic about what might occur. White America found that immensely soothing and healing, that a man with his finger on the racial nuclear button would not push it.
That's why Obama had the trust of his compatriots, his white citizens. But black people were feeling a bit on edge, so his re-election allowed him to be a bit freer. For Obama, that freedom meant that he could take the risk, take the chance, that white America would understand that as he spoke about the issue of race in the Trayvon Martin situation, and he explained the hurt, the pain, the trauma, the heartbreak, the grief of not only the Trayvon Martin family but the collective family of black America, that many white Americans would understand.
Oh, big time.
Right. You know, when Ferguson hit, Obama, already having reminded the Congressional Black Caucus to stop complaining--one of the most remarkable speeches. I was there that night at the Congressional Black Caucus annual gala, and Obama said: "Look, take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching boots. Stop complaining," literally said that to people who when he was knee-high to a tadpole were getting their skulls cracked--John Lewis, John Conyers fighting in the trenches, Maxine Waters making enormous declarations on behalf of black people.
Obama was really insulting the black leadership that night and telling them, "Don't talk about the things I'm not doing; also focus on helping me win the peace," so to speak, racially speaking, "and help me govern as well as I can so that the situation in this nation will become better."
The problem, of course, is that by doing that, Obama was able to achieve a couple of things. First of all, he could signal to white America he was capable of keeping black people under foot, under control, that he was free enough to criticize them and free enough to take them to task in public. When he gave the commencement speech at Morehouse College, when he told young black men, "Nobody wants to hear your story about racism. And look, this is a global economy now. You are not going to get anything you didn't earn," remarkable, to a graduating class of extraordinary young black men. When he went to Barnard College, mostly white women, did he give the same speech? "Nobody wants to hear about you young women kvetching about sexism." No, he didn't. ...
Now, people will say immediately: "Well, of course that's true. With your own group, you're seen as somehow biased if you speak too overwhelmingly in their behalf. But with others, you're free to associate with them." That's fine; that's perfect, except Obama has exploited his inside-group status with black people to say things about them that no one else could get away with. I mean, you can say something about your own group. Gay people can say something about gay people that straight people can't do. But Obama wasn't willing to take the second half of that equation. That is to say, the same people who are able to say things about their own group that others can't say are also the ones who defend them, are also the ones who speak up for them.
And Obama relentlessly failed. He failed to speak up in behalf of African American people and instead excoriated them at every point for a particular period of his history for about two or three years where he gave speeches that were dispiriting, that were devastating to the sense of black solidarity with him. Not that black people lacked a sense of solidarity with him, but he attacked by using and exploiting that black solidarity the very black people that he also should have represented. It was a very remarkable period for him.
He absolutely did. ... Not only did he fail to speak up for African American people; he undercut the ability to address these issues straightforwardly. And by doing so, left a huge gulf that was filled by the Tea Partiers, the birthers, Donald Trump and an assortment of bigots in American society.
It was crucial--that powerful eulogy that the president gave in behalf of the Rev. Hon. Clementa Pinckney and the other eight souls, nine of them all together, who died, who perished under the bigoted imperative of a young racist, Dylann Roof, who felt that their death was the necessary sacrifice for the preservation of a pure white America and a just America, ironically enough.
And when Obama stepped into that gap, he did an amazing thing. He went there as the president, but he was also the first preacher, so to speak. He was the nation's healer. I mean, Ronald Reagan did that in extraordinary fashion after the death of those people who died, men and women, who died going to space, those astronauts. He was an amazing healing presence.
Obama now was trying to soothe the wounds and bind the wounds and injuries of this nation together, and he did so brilliantly.
... He stood in that pulpit, and he had to do some kind of mea culpa himself. After all, he had gone after these black people, said harsh things about them, and there was a kind of repentance involved in the very sacred moment of healing not only black America, but America at large, and saying clearly for one of the first and most powerful times in his presidency: "This is racist. This is wrong. This is against American values. This will undercut us together. And together, we must remake this nation." But he spoke brilliantly in behalf of black people. He spoke brilliantly in behalf of black strife and struggle and suffering and pain.
And then he gave voice to a vision that would transcend the partisan lines and transcend the racial lines and bring us together as Americans, and in so doing, singing a song, a song that was penned by a slaver, a white slaver. ...
... Like a latter-day Lincoln holding forth with his speech to appeal to the better angels of our nature, a kind of moral Gettysburg where have fallen the great veterans of the war against white supremacy and racial injustice. And now Obama says, "This is what we must do in order to move forward." Lincoln said, "People will scarcely remember what we have done that day." I think Obama understood, with the right pitch and melody and right song, that America will remember this day. It will be a memorial for us to point to when we finally came to grips for this particular moment across party lines, across state lines, as a nation with the infamy of racial hostility and inequality. And finally, on this date, when he gave voice to singing and naming the names of the people who had fallen, he was as beautiful and as black as he had ever been, and as American as he had ever been--and there was no contradiction in any of them. His blackness didn't qualify his American identity; his American identity didn't qualify his black identity. They were seamlessly brought together in a holistic expression of empathy and grief and determination to move the nation forward.
I think there's no question that that heinous crime, that massacre in South Carolina, let Obama finally know, "I may be a symbolic representative of black America, but black Americans are the proxies for me and the prospect of the progress that I represent." And it occurred to him that these crimes, the rash of them--Jordan Davis being killed, Trayvon Martin being killed, and the rash of police killings by mostly white cops of unarmed black people--were of a piece, a fortunate torn transcript of racial bigotry, one given to the state and one given to private citizens, but nonetheless effective in their unison of belief that blackness was a problem.
And it hit him like a sledgehammer. ... I think that he was aware of the fact that he had to address this. He could no longer avoid this; that this was something that we as a nation must grapple with. I can't vouch for how long that lasted, but it certainly was a significant moment in his evolution and his consciousness and his understanding that we've got to address this issue of race and address it in a way that people find morally compelling, and in a way that can no longer be avoided.
The Black Lives Matter movement had arisen, and other moments in American racial history had made themselves known, and Obama could no longer claim a kind of strategic inadvertence. He had to come full force with the bully pulpit and tell the truth about race as much as he could.
We can be biblical literalists and hold Obama to account. There's no white America or black America. Or we can be more liberal in our interpretation and say it was a metaphor. He was trying to say: "Hey, let's not get caught up in our differences. Let's not get cubby-holed or cul-de-saced into a kind of belief that America has to be black or white or red or brown or yellow, or that America is left or right or America is blue or red. No, let's see that we're Americans and we can celebrate that."
In one sense it wasn't necessarily a forensic analysis of race in America, or politics. It was a hopeful vision. It was an articulation of an ideal state, like Dr. King said, "I have a dream." Some people try to say, "Well, Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream was 'One day my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,'" as if he said that's what it is. No, that was a dream. And in that sense, what Obama said was a dream. It was a hopeful vision. It was an illusion to some, a delusion to others, but at best it was the projection of a collective enterprise of hopefulness that this is where we can arrive at. But there's no question that he got disabused of that pretty clearly and that he knew that there was the persistence of racial animus and that racial hostility had to be clearly and specifically addressed.
For Donald Trump to be awarded the presidential nomination of the Republican Party is the clearest sign yet that we live in a nation that has not resolved its ugly racial past and would rather hold arthritically and recalcitrantly to a bigoted vision of America than be released from the harmful past that we have made. ...
You know, the first inauguration of Obama was magical realism. Was Toni Morrison, was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was beautiful, tears turned into flames.
... It's hard to overstate not only American pride, which was extraordinary, but black pride. That unapologetically looked upon this man and this figure as the fulfillment of so many dreams and aspirations. Not the ultimate fulfillment, one along the way, but a major one as the beautiful symbiosis between that figure and black America. ...
You know, Obama is such a cool customer that even when it comes to the issue of race, he doesn't show the whole cards completely. When I spoke to him, he was quite frank, however, in saying, "What other president has been denied his legitimate citizenship?" I mean, Obama's anger is a very interesting thing, and it comes very subtly. His ire and his sense of being put upon, being legitimately victimized, is not something that will holler and scream. It will whisper instead. And yet in that whisper will be contained a ferocious intensity of irony with which he looks at the world at times.
So he said: "What other president has been subjected to this? What other president has had to meet this?" Now, he wasn't crying in his beer, and he didn't want to appear as if he were crying in his beer. But there's no question that he understood that this was something that was monumental in terms of racial landmarks, and I think he was a bit taken aback by the ferocity of what he saw, because he honestly believed that his presidency would be the mark of a postpartisan America. Now, if your presidency is the mark of a postpartisan America, it certainly has to entail the overcoming of racial boundaries and barriers that had historically prevailed.
I think there's no question that Barack Obama was a bit surprised by what he saw in the Tea Party, and its rise that was not predicted with his presidency, but could have been in one sense projected.
Yeah, I think Obama was ambushed by the willingness of the Republican establishment to court what were ancillary, initially, and fringe movements within right-wing ideology that, of course, came later on to redefine the Republican Party and bite it in its colossal behind. In one sense, Obama sees later on, of course, in retrospect, just how vicious a consequence they bore, but there's no question that he was politically disappointed in the Republicans' inability to work with him on crafting policy, knowing that he was a centrist Democrat, knowing that he had many conservative ideas and values that would comport seamlessly with what the Republicans would put forward if they weren't bewitched and in one sense distracted by the issue of race in his presidency unconsciously.
It was extremely frustrating to him in that sense, and he held on. Look how long Obama held to the belief that I can get something done, that I can become postpartisan, that I can challenge on a bipartisan level the things that are happening in America that are not right. Look how long he held to that idea before finally, he saw that there was nothing going and nothing doing with them. But by then, the Tea Party had boiled its bitter brew, and people were drinking with alarming frequency, and the nation itself had been hopped up, as one president talked about it, on the caffeine of bigotry.
So Obama saw the monster initially but didn't look it in its eye. And ultimately, it began to consume so much of the American landscape.
... When Ferguson blew, it blew up as well and exploded his inability to grapple straightforwardly with the issue of race. As brilliant as he had been with Trayvon Martin, he was contorted and tragically twisted when it came to Ferguson. Only afterward, when Freddie Gray occurred and he made statements and other instances of police brutality occurred, did Obama find his voice, began to speak out about the issue of police brutality and was forced into that bully pulpit again to tell as much truth as the American public could abide about how police forces seemed to be arrayed against black people. ...
When we think about eight years ago at Obama's inauguration to where we are now, it's a different universe. When Obama came into office, there was a hopefulness. Whether it lived up to its true billing or not is nearly irrelevant. Because many people believed that Obama brought a new day, that there was a new possibility in the land, new hopefulness was awash throughout the country.
... Donald Trump is the representation of the anti-Obama. They are living in parallel universes of political discourse, and the one threatens all of the advantages and the advances of the other. To embrace Donald Trump is a direct repudiation of the universe that Barack Obama set in order, and those who support Barack Obama ultimately feel that Donald Trump represents the very antithesis of everything they stand for. And by extension, those who support Donald Trump believe that the last eight years have been a universe of infamy, a universe of horror, a universe of detriment to this nation that we have gotten severely off course and that Donald Trump now will right the universe again. Make America great again before the last eight years, before the black man got in charge.
The irony is that as much success and progress that Barack Obama's presidency betokened, his very real presidency revealed to us just how much further we have to go before what his presidency pointed to can become a reality in this nation.
The president has expressed twice in recent months that his big regret is not delivering on the promise that we talked about, and you described earlier, about uniting the country. If you were to try to pinpoint what that regret really is, what it feels like, what is that regret?
Now, that's oversimplifying, but it is to suggest that Bill Clinton loved the sausage making and Barack Obama didn't. Barack Obama loved the powerful ability of politics to conjure the best ideals and notions upon which this nation rests. But he didn't like the nasty process of getting there. You could make that criticism, and it would stick, and it would be legitimate.
... Barack Obama did not create the bigotries that sacked his hopes that he could work with white Americans of a certain ilk and certain ideology. Barack Obama didn't create the Tea Party. Barack Obama didn't create the birthers. The vicious resistance to the notion of difference did. The calculated dismissal of the multicultural, multiracial democracy that Barack Obama conjured, that is to blame for what we see now.
I think, ironically enough, the things I want Obama to take responsibility for like refusing to speak about race, of being a racial procrastinator, of being hesitant and that racial hesitancy leading to some lethal consequences and to some fateful decisions, that ultimately crated a gulf into which Donald Trump stepped, yes. Own up to that. But to be regretful that he couldn't willy-nilly will this nation into a kind of unity that it lacked I think is to exaggerate his ability and influence and also to underestimate just how persistent the racial animus was in this country.
So I think that the president has in many ways been an exemplary and remarkable figure in trying to be self critical and to owning up to his faults. But methinks he takes too much credit, or too much blame in this instance, for the kinds of things that America revealed under his presidency.