What does America's first black president think about race in this country? In a recent interview with NPR, President Obama made the answer to that question unusually clear.
Sure, there have been plenty of recent opportunities to read the tea leaves on Obama's views on race. From his comments about Trayvon Martin's death and his remarks on unrest in Ferguson, to the diversity of his cabinet and creation of initiatives like My Brother's Keeper, his actions and reactions provide lots of fodder for analysis. But rarely since his 2008 "A More Perfect Union" speech, which he delivered before he was elected president, has he made explicit comments about his take on the relative status of white and black people, and how racism colors the American experience.
Talking to NPR's Steve Inskeep on December 29, Obama weighed in on a whole range of topics, from health care, to his recent executive actions on Cuba and immigration, to democracy in the Middle East.
Easy to miss in that conversation were three revealing statements about his racial worldview. Here's what he said.
1) So what if polls say race relations are getting worse? That doesn't mean it's true.
When Inskeep asked him, "Is the United States more racially divided than it was when you took office six years ago," Obama said no. And his response included this:
It's understandable the polls might say, you know, that race relations have gotten worse — because when it's in the news and you see something like Ferguson or the Garner case in New York, then it attracts attention. But I assure you, from the perspective of African-Americans or Latinos in poor communities who have been dealing with this all their lives, they wouldn't suggest somehow that it's worse now than it was 10, 15, or 20 years ago.
In other words, he thinks he has a better handle on racial progress than do Americans as a whole, and he doesn't think national results reflect the experiences of the most vulnerable groups — which is probably fair.
2) Racial divisions aren't becoming deeper — it's just that we're paying more attention
Here's another part of his answer to the question about how whether the country is more "racially divided":
I actually think that it's probably in its day-to-day interactions less racially divided. But I actually think that the issue has surfaced in a way that probably is healthy. … In some cases, something as simple as the fact that everybody has cellphones now so that you can record some of these events, you know, it's gotten a lot of attention; I think that's good. I think it then points to our ability to solve these problems.
What's revealed here is that he knows there's been a lot of attention to racial divisions and mistrust, but he doesn't take that to mean racial divisions and mistrust are getting worse. Rather, he's apparently pleased that these issues are being aired out — thanks in part to recent news events, and thanks in part to technology. Interestingly, he doesn't take any credit for bringing racial issues to the fore.
3) Whites aren't racist — they just can't see certain things
Inskeep noted that the majority of white people polled thought the grand jury was right not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown, while the majority of African-Americans found the grand jury was wrong. He asked Obama, "How do you lead the country when people see the basic facts so profoundly differently?"
Obama didn't exactly answer that question, but he revealed a sympathetic read of the poll results: he believes they're reflective of differences in experience, versus differences in actual sentiments about racial justice:
You know, when I was in the state legislature in Illinois, I passed a racial-profiling bill. From the perspective of African-Americans, yeah, there was a common, you know, phenomenon called "driving while black" — that you were more likely to be stopped, particularly in certain jurisdictions.
If you'd asked whites in those jurisdictions, "Do you think traffic stops were done fairly?" the majority of whites probably would say yes because it's not something they experience. It's not because of racism; it's just that it's not something that they see.
He went on to talk about how people of all races benefit from improved policing, saying he'd met a lot of people who were "interested in solving a problem as opposed to simply stewing in the hopelessness of race relations in this country."
Translation: He's not particularly hopeful that white people are capable of perceiving racial injustice the way black people who have personally experienced it can (which is probably something many activists of all races who've protested against racial policing disparities in recent months might take issue with), but he thinks there are ways to work around that.
Read the full interview transcript at NPR.