Obama Talks About Race Relations In The Wake Of Charleston, Media Concentrates On One Word

President Obama gave an interesting and somewhat unusual interview to a podcaster late last week, but the media is obsessed over a single word.

obama-white-house-seal

President Obama is getting much attention today for comments he made on a podcast regarding race relations in America in the wake of the murders in Charleston:

WASHINGTON — Just days after nine black parishioners were killed in a South Carolina church, President Obama said the legacy of slavery still “casts a long shadow” on American life, and he said that choosing not to say the word “nigger” in public does not eliminate racism from society.

In a wide-ranging conversation about race, including his own upbringing as a man born to a black father and a white woman, Mr. Obama insisted that there was no question that race relations have improved in his lifetime. But he also said that racism was still deeply embedded in the United States.

“The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on,” the president said during an interview for Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast that was released on Monday. “We’re not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.”

He added, “Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened two to 300 years prior.”

Mr. Obama has been more open about the issue of race during his second term, in part because of racially charged episodes in the last several years. The killing of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager in Florida, and the protests that followed several police shootings have prompted the president to be more reflective about his own racial identity and the nation’s.

In the hourlong interview, Mr. Obama talked about being a rebel during his youth and “trying on” different kinds of personas as he struggled to understand what kind of African-American man he wanted to be.

“I’m trying on a whole bunch of outfits,” Mr. Obama said. “Here’s how I should act. “Here’s what it means to be cool. Here’s what it means to be a man.”

He said that a lot of his issues when he was young “revolved around race” but that his attitude changed around the time he turned 20. That is when he began to understand how to honor both sides of his racial identity, the president said.

“I don’t have to be one way to be both an African-American and also someone who affirms the white side of my family,” he said. “I don’t have to push back from the love and values that my mom instilled in me.”

(…)

In addition to discussing race, Mr. Obama and Mr. Maron talked about the issue of gun control, and whether something should be done in the aftermath of shootings like the one at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., last week.

“It’s not enough to just feel bad,” Mr. Obama said. “There are actions that could be taken to make events like this less likely, and one of those actions we could take would be to enhance some basic, common-sense gun safety laws that, by the way, the majority of gun owners support.”

He added: “The question is, just, is there a way of accommodating that legitimate set of traditions with some common-sense stuff that prevents a 21-year-old who is angry about something, or confused about something, or is racist, or is, you know, deranged, from going into a gun store and suddenly is packing and can do enormous harm? And that is not something that we have ever fully come to terms with.”

The one thing that the interview is getting the most attention for this afternoon, which isn’t really referenced in the Times article linked above, is his use of a word that has become close to forbidden in polite society:

President Barack Obama did not mince words in discussing race in a recent interview, going so far as to use the N-word in talking about America’s complex racial history when speaking to Marc Maron on the comedian’s “WTF” podcast in Los Angeles last week.

“The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it,” Obama said in the interview, posted in full on Monday. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n——-‘ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. … Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 2-300 years prior.”

The media being the media, most of the coverage of the interview today is concentrating on the President’s use of that particular word. Excerpts I have seen of that portion of the interview on both MSNBC and CNN have bleeped the word out rather than broadcasting, notwithstanding the fact that it came out of the mouth of the first African-American President in American history. I suppose there is something shocking about his use of the word, but it was obviously done to make a point. The point the President was making, of course, is that it’s improper to say that racism is not longer a problem because we don’t have Jim Crow, because there is widespread enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and the local, state, and federal levels, or because there are outward manifestations of racial harmony to the point where a racial slur that once was quite common is now considered socially unacceptable. That’s certainly an important thing, of course, but it’s arguably only the beginning. Using that word, which he most certainly could not have done if he were being interviewed by Jake Tapper, Chuck Todd, or some other mainstream journalist was obviously meant to drive that point home.

On some level, though, I have to wonder if crossing that bridge won’t end up diluting what the President was trying to say in this interview. As I said, to the extent that this interview is being covered in the broadcast and cable media or the blogosphere the emphasis seems to be concentrating mostly on the fact that he said “N****r.” The media attention on that one thing is, perhaps, understandable given what that word has come to be perceived as. In the end, though, it really is just a word, and concentrating on it while ignoring, for the most part, the rest of what the President is saying misses the point, and likely misses the reason he chose to use the word to begin with.

If the events in Charleston have proven anything, it is that the dark side of racism still exists in even its most virulent forms in the United States, but that really shouldn’t come as a surprise. One need only venture into nearly any comment thread on the Internet to an article dealing with a race-related issue to see what people are willing to say and what they think. Additionally, the fact that there is such a wide difference in the perception of law enforcement between white and blacks, regardless of income level, seems to be a strong indication that there are still underlying issues regarding race in the United States. Are things the same as they were in the 1950s, or even when I was growing up in the 1970s? No, of course they aren’t they’re much better in many respects. That’s probably one reason why this has been such a tough issue for the President to address during his time in office. Americans like to think we’ve improved since the bad old days, and forcing people to confront uncomfortable truths is likely to, well, make people uncomfortable. If the tragedy in Charleston actually causes that to start happening, then maybe something good can come out of a horrible event.

You can listen to the full WTF Podcast at the link.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Politicians, Race and Politics, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Ohhh…. I’m feeling faint…. somebody pass the smelling salts!

  2. Tom M says:

    It’s an excuse to avoid dealing with the issue. Pure and simple.
    It is a distraction and it is really frustrating.

  3. grumpy realist says:

    Well, what do you expect? They’ve all got the brains of a goldfish: Oooh, look! Shiny!

  4. PD Shaw says:

    Personally, I’m glad the N-word was bleeped out this morning, so I wouldn’t have to tell my kids that it’s not OK to use that word even though the President did.

    He might get some attention on the race issue through some shock, but he stepped on his gun message. He wants to prevent a racist from buying a gun, while also making the point that racism isn’t simply a matter of what is said or done; it requires a deeper examination of the heart.

  5. HarvardLaw92 says:

    The media is an entertainment construct. In that light, it exists solely to put viewer butts in viewer seats so as to collect advertiser dollars from advertisers. That’s it. No other raison d’être.

    To conflate that with actual journalism, or to be surprised when it turns out that the emperor has no clothes, is akin to being shocked to learn that there is gambling going on in this establishment.

  6. Tillman says:

    Eh. Given the choice, I’d prefer reporting on one word a dude said versus two or more words.

  7. stonetools says:

    Sigh. When Obama became President, he proclaimed that we could have rational, informed, evidence- based discussion across party lines on the major issues of the day and make policy based on such discussion.
    He must wonder how he could have ever imagined that.
    From No More Mister Nice Blog:

    Fox News contributor Deneen Borelli, who is black, expressed outrage during a discussion on the Fox News show “America’s Newsroom.”

    “He has really dragged in the gutter-speak of rap music,” Borelli said. “So now he’s the first President of rap, of street? I mean, come on, he has lowered the stature of the high office of the President of the United States.”

    “The President-in-chief, the rapper-in-chief now, is further dividing our country,” Borelli continued.

    Yes, one should never, ever, ever use this word — in any context, even in order to condemn it or the people who use it. That’s the rule.

    However, it’s a rule Ms. Borelli did not follow in her own book, Blacklash: How Obama and the Left Are Driving Americans to the Government Plantation.

    So Obama tries to have a rational discussion about race and the media, led by Fox News, responds with jackassery. Story of Obama’s Presidency.

  8. Jack says:

    @stonetools:

    jackassery. Story of Obama’s Presidency.

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  9. C. Clavin says:

    @Jack:
    Except that we have already established beyond all doubt that every single thing you type is wrong.
    Go troll somewhere else where no one will notice how wrong you are all the time.

  10. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin: Don’t you have some Purina to dish out?

  11. C. Clavin says:

    I really don’t think, that after almost 7 years, Obama expects anything even close to an intelligent discussion from the right wing echo chamber. I think he’s just f’ing with them now…to see how stupid he can make them look.

  12. aFloridian says:

    It’s embarrassing to me how poorly most white people deal with race. Without going into the self-delusion, it includes issues around the word n—–. I, as a Southerner, certainly was taught the word was only said by “white trash.”

    But there are still plenty of people saying the word as long as they think they’re among “friends” and can utter their racist stuff freely. And most blacks will tell you’ve they’ve been called it at least once, even young people.

    What really bugs me about white people, and this includes just talking about the instant issue, is how skittish and self-deluding we often are. It’s embarrassing. I don’t know if it’s media depictions or what, but people think they have to act differently to get along with black people. I absolutely recoil, for example, when I hear white women adopt some level of faux-AAVE accent with lots of “girl” “honey” and head-snapping when talking to a black woman. People do it subconsciously, I assume, but it’s absolutely offensive and it really happens. It’s subtle, but it happens. Or, God-forbid, someone who thinks they belong enough to say “n-gga like Tom Hanks’ son. This arises out of some combination of ignorance, insecurity, and racism. The amazing trick, in my experience, is to treat black people no differently than anyone else. I’ve never hidden my accent, but I’ve also never thought in the common prejudiced terms like “pretty for a black girl” “you talk like a white girl” etc. This is one of the strains of racism so prevalent I’ve heard people try to defend those statements, and they are common from millenials on up.

    Some Blacks hold themselves back in this regard too. A black person who doesn’t have a strong AAVE accent is told they are “talking white” and success academically or professionally means “acting white.” I mean, the aforementioned Southern accent leaves many assuming I’m ignorant or a “redneck” but my whiteness is never challenged because of it. Both whites and blacks subject successful or accent-less blacks to this treatment. My response is always to point how racist it is to assume that blacks must have a strong accent/poor English and a continuing experience of poverty and suffering to be black. Because that means success is rewarded with a externally-imposed loss of identity. Failure = black. Success = white. Black women talking to my wife often guess my race just on my profession, because, well, I’m highly-educated so of course…

    Part of the problem with the way whites try to act stems from the lie currently perpetuated by the media that being “white” is uncool or less cool than being black. That was even touched on the other day on an NPR show that contained one of the best discussions of the Rachel Dolezal case I’d heard. The narrator asked if being black was “cooler.” The uncool thing is thinking that one’s “coolness” factor is determined by skin color or certain predetermined actvities.

    I’ve wondered what it would be like to see a person from one of the super-white northern states really interact with a black person for the first time.

  13. DMan says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Personally, I’m glad the N-word was bleeped out this morning, so I wouldn’t have to tell my kids that it’s not OK to use that word even though the President did.

    Oh my gosh! Parenting!

  14. stonetools says:

    @Jack

    So you’re the expert here on JACKassery. Name and nature, I guess.

  15. stonetools says:

    @C. Clavin:

    He is definitely in IDGAF mode. He is not even pretending that he is dealing with rational actors anymore.

  16. Neil Hudelson says:

    “White people are really offended that our black President said “N****r” on a podcast called ‘What the F*ck.'”

    I suddenly understood just how confusing this world must be to the elderly.

  17. CB says:

    Its weeks like this, and articles like these, that are fast killing the political junkie inside me. I just don’t even know anymore.

  18. Lynn Eggers says:

    @PD Shaw: ” not OK to use that word even though the President did.”

    He used it in, as John Lewis put it, an “instructive sense.” It would have been a great conversation to have with your kids.

  19. Lynn Eggers says:

    @Neil Hudelson: “I suddenly understood just how confusing this world must be to the elderly.”

    Not confusing; just stupid and hypocritical.

    Of course, I’m only young elderly, not old elderly.

  20. PD Shaw says:

    @Lynn Eggers: I’m supporting the network decision to bleep out the word, which seemed to strike Doug as strange.

  21. DrDaveT says:

    @Borelli:

    Yes, one should never, ever, ever use this word — in any context, even in order to condemn it or the people who use it. That’s the rule.

    Cue this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, around the 4:30 mark…

  22. Lynn Eggers says:

    @PD Shaw: ” I’m supporting the network decision to bleep out the word, which seemed to strike Doug as strange.”

    Then I hope you talked with your kids about what was bleeped, why it was bleeped, and why the president used it.

  23. Joe says:

    Did nobody else wince at the NY Times phrase that Obama was born to a “black father and a white woman”? If he was a “father,” shouldn’t she be a “mother”? Doesn’t “white woman” have a little code in it?

  24. the Q says:

    I wonder how Fox News contributor Deneen Borelli would have reacted to “Uncle tom” and “house nigga” had Obama used those terms.

    “Not all Republicans may be racist, but most racists tend to be Republican.” (I stole that from Mr. Reynolds btw.)

    Exactly.

  25. Lynn Eggers says:

    @the Q: ” “Uncle tom”

    Tangent alert … in the book, Uncle Tom was an admirable character who stood up for and protected his friends. How and when did he he become a servile creep?

  26. ElizaJane says:

    @Lynn Eggers: Thank you for that tangent! Uncle Tom is not just admirable; he’s a Christ figure, and everything about his death scene comes from descriptions not just of martyrdoms but of the crucifixion. Longing for freedom, he believes that the goodness of individuals can overcome the evils of racism, and the book’s tragedy is that he is wrong; but as an individual he himself is a great man. It’s symptomatic of how messed-up our American narratives about race are that Uncle Tom has become a figure of derision in this culture.

    It is also symptomatic of how messed-up we are that Obama’s use of the n-word in a thoughtful analytic sentence is the dominant story all over the media, not just Fox (where they found a black woman to denounce him as “rapper in chief”) but also CNN, and that hatred of his “race-baiting” and “ghetto language” and “demeaning the office of the presidency” is pouring out on every comment board. I realize that people were just looking for some easier way to blame him for the Charleston shootings, but it’s still very depressing, and the media totally enables it.

  27. Tyrell says:

    “Well this is another fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into”
    ” You done went and do’d it again”

  28. grumpy realist says:

    @ElizaJane: I thought the whole “Uncle Tom” accusation started becoming prevalent in the 1960s. The more radical “Black Power” types felt that reaching equivalency with the white population was happening too slowly and the whole “be a credit to your race” strategy wasn’t good enough. It was that point where “Uncle Tom” started being used as a term of derision, to indicate someone who was content to sit back and suffer rather than fight. Once the radical separatists came on line, “Uncle Tom” became even more of an epithet.

  29. Lynn Eggers says:
  30. Lit3Bolt says:

    @Lynn Eggers:

    @ElizaJane:

    I dunno, maybe some black folks got tired of following Christ’s example repeatedly, over and over again, on the altar of white supremacy, to no avail? Sometimes whether they wanted to or not?

    In any case, context is important. The character became a slur not because of the book, but of the role in early film. Tom became a generic saintly negro, childlike and simple and willing to please. As time progressed, it’s no wonder that most African-Americans rejected this portrayal from white culture and subversively adopted it as a pejorative for perceived racial traitors among them.

  31. michael reynolds says:

    @Lit3Bolt:

    Ever notice the similarity between the original Uncle Tom archetype and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl favored by Hollywood writers who aren’t women?

  32. ElizaJane says:

    Nikki Haley says the confederate flag must go from the SC capital (to considerable racist blow-back from Fox viewers on Twitter). Speaker of the Mississippi House of Reps declares that it should be removed from their state flag. Walmart announces that they will stop selling stars-and-bars-themed items at their stores.

    This marks a new degree of self-awareness in the South, and a willingness to stand up to those who fetishize a racist past. It may be the only good thing that comes of this tragedy, but it’s not nothing.

  33. Mumbles says:

    I get the distinct impression that Obama had it figured out back when he released the vault copy of his birth certificate. Or during the debates when he wiped the dirt of his shoulders. He went onto a podcast and said that racism isn’t simply about not using the word “n*****”, and the press response was to be racist while avoiding the word “n*****”, thus proving him to be correct. This is the president throwing a rock into a kennel. They’re hollering, because they got hit.

    He knows that many of the people he has to deal with are paid to be idiots, that’s exactly why he routinely goes around them and talks to people who have some sense. And thank goodness that we now have alternate outlets, so we can step aside from the Chuck Todds and the Jake Tappers, and have a reasonable conversation.

  34. Lynn Eggers says:

    @Lit3Bolt: “The character became a slur not because of the book, but of the role in early film. Tom became a generic saintly negro, childlike and simple and willing to please. As time progressed, it’s no wonder that most African-Americans rejected this portrayal from white culture and subversively adopted it as a pejorative for perceived racial traitors among them.”

    I thought I vaguely remembered something about that. Guess the racists couldn’t stand the image of Uncle Tom as strong and courageous.

  35. michael reynolds says:

    @Mumbles:

    I suspect the mainstream press is just furious that Maron got this interview and they didn’t. And of course the reason people look for an alternative to the MSM is amply demonstrated by their handling of this story.

  36. Kylopod says:

    @michael reynolds: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has often been compared with the Magical Negro, which is similar in meaning to the original meaning of Uncle Tom.

  37. michael reynolds says:

    @Kylopod: I had not made the connection between the Magical Negro and Uncle Tom. Brain running slooooow….

  38. lb 22 says:

    @PD Shaw: It isn’t a magic word.

    Here is the thing, it is completely unacceptable to use that word to label someone else. It is perfectly reasonable to use it when having a discussion analyzing racism.

    How will your child learn that it is unacceptable to use the word if you are afraid to bring it up and talk about it? They will hear it somewhere, that is for certain, and likely not in a context that teaches them the horrific history of the term.

  39. Bob Munck says:

    As Ib 22 implies, Obama didn’t use the n-word; he quoted it.

    Using it would have been saying something like “You’re an n-word.”

  40. al-Ameda says:

    “The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on,” the president said during an interview for Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast that was released on Monday. “We’re not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.”

    The fact that many deem those remarks to be controversial says more about those “many” than it does about the president. Those are very mild remarks, and, to me, so obvious and apparent that they scarcely need saying. No wonder it’s Ground Hog Day nearly everyday when it comes to the ongoing legacy of slavery and the Civil War.