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Obama On Racial Issues During His Presidency Through Lens Of His New Memoir

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Our colleague Michel Martin talked in person with President Obama. The occasion was the release of his post-White House memoir, "A Promised Land." It's coming in at 768 pages, so there was lots to talk about. Michel made sure to ask Obama to reflect on what did and did not occur as a result of the U.S. electing the country's first African American president.

BARACK OBAMA: Here's one thing I never believed - right? - was the fever of racism being broken by my election. That I was pretty clear about. I never subscribed to the, we live in a post-racial era. But I think that what did happen during my presidency was, yes, a backlash among some people who felt that somehow, I symbolized the possibility that they or their group were losing status not because of anything I did but just by virtue of the fact that I didn't look like all the other presidents previously.

But you know what? You also had a majority of the American people who seemed to say either, it's a good thing that we've broken this barrier, or, I'm just going to judge this guy by whether or not my life is getting better. And you had a whole generation of kids who grew up not thinking it was weird or exceptional that the person who occupied the highest office in the land was Black.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: It is remarkable, though. And you say in the book that the one event that caused the biggest single drop in your support among white voters, bigger than would come from any single event during the eight years of your presidency, was when you commented upon the arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. As he was trying to get into his own home in Cambridge, he got into it with a Cambridge police officer who was called by a neighbor to check on the situation. He apparently cussed out the police officer. The police officer wound up arresting him. After an hourlong press conference on health care policy, you commented on this.

OBAMA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And this is the single biggest event...

OBAMA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That caused a drop in white support...

OBAMA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...In your eight years.

OBAMA: No, I - look.

MARTIN: What do you - what does that say?

OBAMA: Well, I - as I write, particularly when you start looking at police issues - and that's why I think what happened this summer with George Floyd was so important, where you saw at least some shift in the general population in recognizing that there is real racial bias in how our criminal laws are applied and how policing operates in this country. What I realized was that nothing touches a nerve more in terms of the relationship between the races in this country than the issue of policing.

MARTIN: And why is that?

OBAMA: Well, because I think the police are given a task in our society of keeping a lid on communities that are suffering from broader injustices. And we don't like talking about those broader systemic injustices. We don't like talking about the fact that if you grow up in a certain ZIP code, you're much less likely to be able to get a good education. You're much less likely to be able to be part of the networks that allow you ultimately to get a good job. You're much less likely to get good social services in those areas. And that's the responsibility - that's not the police's fault. That's society's fault.

MARTIN: But you say in the book...

OBAMA: But we like to distance ourselves from those responsibilities, lay it on the police to say, just keep it away from us. And when you start seeing, as a consequence of that failure to address deeper inequalities, the inevitable tensions, conflicts that pop up, then we're confronted with stuff that we don't like discussing and talking about.

MARTIN: You know, you don't acknowledge being disheartened by that. And you write about these things with a lot of equanimity, which I think people would associate with your no-drama Obama sort of character. But a lot of people are deeply discouraged in this country. A lot of people are very disheartened by what they see. And I wonder if you see that, and I wonder what you would say to them.

OBAMA: Absolutely, there are times where I am sad, where I'm angry, where I'm hurt, where I feel obliged to buck up my wife or my daughters when we see not just the kinds of shocking injustices as we saw with George Floyd but also when you see elected officials not simply ignore or dismiss these things but actually seem to suggest that it's OK. Yeah, I think it is completely understandable to feel discouraged and hurt and upset.

I think the reason that I don't plunge into despair probably has to do with the fact that I tend to take a long view on things. And generally speaking, our kids' generation - you talk to them, and their attitudes instinctively are more open, not just on racial issues but on gender issues, on sexual orientation issues. And that is why I tend not to despair.

But I still take it seriously because what I do know is that history doesn't move in a straight line. Attitudes can go backwards as well as forward, and all of us have to be vigilant in working as hard as we can to summon the better angels of our nature and put to rest some of the things that have been so destructive in American culture.

MARTIN: So a second volume is coming.

OBAMA: Yes.

MARTIN: This volume ends with the raid on the bin Laden compound...

OBAMA: Right.

MARTIN: ...Where you, after a long effort by the U.S. military and, at your direction...

OBAMA: Right.

MARTIN: ...Found Osama bin Laden. And he was killed in that raid. Why did you end there?

OBAMA: You know, I thought it was a good place to end the first volume because it describes a choice that I think we have as a country. And that is, can we take the incredible dedication, cooperation, patriotism, focus that we applied in the bin Laden raid - can we take that and apply that to reducing poverty among children? Can we take that focus and sense of common effort around dealing with climate change? Can we take that to make sure that our economy works for everybody and not just a few? Can we apply that kind of seriousness to our common public life?

Or are we going to continue to be pulled into this kind of reality TV phony controversies and seeing these big issues as just a matter of sport? And we've got one team and the other team, and they hate each other, and we're just going to go at it. And it becomes a spectacle. And I think that I place faith in this upcoming generation to make the right choice, but it is a choice that we're going to have to make.

MARTIN: Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us.

OBAMA: It was great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: Former President Barack Obama speaking with NPR's Michel Martin about his new memoir, "A Promised Land."

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVV'S "LIGHTHOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.