As President Obama's administration draws to a close, observers — and the president himself — are taking stock of his legacy on race in America. In a wide-ranging interview this week with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Obama responded to critics among people of color who say that, despite their overwhelming support at the ballot box, the president hasn't done enough to deliver results for their communities.
"I'm constantly reminding young people, who are full of passion, that I want them to keep their passion," Obama said. "But they've got to gird for the fact that it takes a long time to get stuff done in this democracy."
Over the past two months, Inskeep traveled across the country, speaking with Americans about how their lives have changed over the course of Obama's time in the White House. Many discussed their concerns about race relations, and whether the president was as responsive as he should have been to communities of color.
Black Lives Matter activism "making a difference"
One of those people was Kwame Rose, an African-American activist living in Baltimore. He joined street protests last year after the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who suffered injuries in police custody after an arrest, and died days later. Some of the demonstrations turned violent, leaving businesses damaged, looted or even destroyed. Rose wasn't a part of that destruction, and he became a national voice of peaceful protesters when a video of him challenging what he considered unfair media coverage went viral.
But it wasn't just the media whom Rose saw as stereotyping the demonstrators. He also took issue with President Obama, who joined many commentators in describing some of the protesters as thugs. Rose suggested that it proved Obama didn't understand the underlying forces — including systemic poverty and police brutality — that drove the demonstrators in Baltimore and other social justice protesters around the country.
"I think he never experienced what it was like to be in Baltimore before the uprising," Rose told Inskeep. "I also think he was speaking from the power of privilege." Rose went on to defend not just the peaceful protesters, but also some of those who were implicated in looting, which Rose blamed in part on the desperation borne of generational poverty.
In his conversation with Inskeep, Obama embraced the spirit of many young activists in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere. "I — what I would say is that the Black Lives Matter movement has been hugely important in getting all of America to — to see the challenges in the criminal justice system differently," Obama said. "And I could not be prouder of the activism that has been involved. And it's making a difference."
Still, the president held firm to the idea that outrage over injustice doesn't excuse crime. "What I would also say, though, is that if somebody is looting, they're looting," he said. "And the notion that they're making a political statement is not always the case, because these are businesses oftentimes owned by African-Americans." He continued:
"You have situations in which suddenly — friends of mine in Baltimore, their mothers who are elderly, have to now travel across town to get their medicines because the local drug store got torn up. And making excuses for them I think is a mistake.
"There are ways of bringing about social change that are powerful and that have the ability to pull the country together and maintain the moral high ground, and there are approaches where I may understand the frustrations, but they're counterproductive. And tearing up your own neighborhood and stealing is counterproductive."
Immigration reform stalls, but Obama points to progress
Latinos also are among those Americans of color whose votes helped fuel Obama's election victories. Now, some of them believe he has fallen short of his promises, especially his pledge to bring about comprehensive immigration reform.
That's frustrating to Jose Luis Valdez. He's a restaurant owner in Kansas City, Kan., and a new citizen who is planning to vote for the first time this year. Valdez told Inskeep that he felt Obama could've done much more on immigration during his first term, when he had a Democrat-led Congress. Valdez said the president had used Latino voters.
But President Obama defended his record, and the policy priorities of his first years in office. "I would say to him... his restaurant might not be doing so well if I hadn't focused my first two years on saving the economy. So, it's not as if I didn't have anything else to do."
The president went on to say he had used the tool available to him to grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants when he didn't get congressional support for reform.
"I think it would be pretty hard to argue that I haven't put everything I've had into getting this done. If you were interviewing one of the Dream Act kids, who over the last several years have been able to get a driver's license, a permit to work or going to school, have joined our military, they — they wouldn't say that they have been used," Obama asserted. "They would say 'thank you.' "
Furthermore, the president believes he has set the stage for a resolution on some major immigration issues. He points to Deferred Actions for Parents of Americans, his executive order that would shield millions of undocumented parents of American citizen children. That policy is in limbo after the Supreme Court deadlocked in a 4-to-4 tie over the legality of the order.
Obama's unique perspectives on race
Questions about the conflicting ways Americans view race have dogged Obama from the beginning — and even before the beginning — of his administration. In their interview, Inskeep reminded the president of a speech he'd given in Philadelphia back in 2008. At the time, Obama's relationship with controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright was threatening his candidacy.
In that speech, Obama addressed what many considered Wright's incendiary language about race by saying that it was an honest reflection of the anger many African-Americans felt from enduring years of bias. At the same time, Obama said he could understand why many white Americans — especially those who were struggling economically — bristled at the idea that they enjoy some kind of privilege because of their race.
During his discussion with Inskeep, Obama allowed that this disconnect between black and white Americans hadn't disappeared over his years in office. But the president said it was so deeply rooted in the nation's history, that it could only be conquered with honest dialogue and a concerted effort to resist divisive rhetoric.
"You can go back, and during Jim Crow and segregation, and you've got black sharecroppers who have nothing and, alongside them, poor white farmers who don't have that much more except for the fact that their white," he said. "And the degree to which a lot of politics in the South were specifically designed to make sure that that sharecropper and that white farmer didn't get together to question how the economy was structured and how they both could benefit, that's — that's one of the oldest stories in American politics."
The president said his own family history gave him unique insight into both black and white perspectives about race, and a mission to "try to get people to recognize themselves and each other":
"I was raised by a white mom and white grandparents who, you know, never suffered the kinds of discrimination that their black cohorts might have experienced, but who had their own struggles, who went through a Great Depression, who — a grandmother who had to work her way up without ever a college education, starting in the steno pool or as a secretary and — and experienced her own discrimination because of being a woman. ...
"And so I've seen the degree to which their struggles are not that different from Michelle's parents' struggles, at least in terms of how they think about it, and — and — and the similar values of hoping that their kids are going to do better and that education is the key, and that, you know, everybody's gotta work hard and take responsibility, but that they'd like a government that was more responsive to clear out some of the barriers for their advancement."
After eight years in office, President Obama allowed for the idea that many of his younger supporters had expected more concrete victories than he delivered, especially in policy areas that touched on race. But he expressed the hope that, instead of largely giving up on electoral politics as some young activists have, the new generation will persist in working on all levels to make the nation live up to its promise of equality for all.