He said what?
On the face of it, President Barack Obama’s use of the ‘N’ word in an interview released Monday seems out of character for a man who has made strenuous efforts to avoid provocative statements on race and to ensure that the color of his own skin does not dominate his presidency.
The White House insists that Obama didn’t set out to shock when he told comedian Marc Maron on his podcast that though race relations had improved over his lifetime, the United States was not “cured” of racism.
“It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public,” Obama said.
Obama’s choice of words was jarring because he has gingerly picked his way through a string of political minefields over the last six-and-a-half years, thrown up by a series of racially charged episodes, from the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and, more recently, Baltimore.
During his time in the White House, it’s sometimes seemed as though Obama talks about race only when he has to, when circumstances or crises force him to weigh in. He’s rarely spoken with the daring candor that marked his speech on race during the 2008 presidential campaign and he’s tried to avoid political firestorms like the one triggered by his comments on the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates during his first term.
Obama has begun to speak more freely about race since he won re-election, including the launch of his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to mentor African American youths.
But Obama’s spokesman Josh Earnest said the President’s use of the typically taboo word was not part of a premeditated strategy to talk about race in a more challenging and overt way.
“There was no decision made on the part of anybody here at the White House that we are going to capitalize on this audio interview … (that) this would be an opportune time for him to get this particular point off his chest,” Earnest said. “I would acknowledge it is understandably notable that the President chose to use this word. But the argument that the President is making is one that is familiar to those who have been listening.”
Obama remains more of a commentator on race issues than an activist, which his why his frank conversation with Maron raised the question of whether he had made a conscious decision to be more forceful on race relations following the brutal murder of nine African Americans in a gun massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
Jabari Asim, who wrote “The N Word: Who Can Say it, Who Shouldn’t, and Why,” said that Obama was “correct in his instincts” in using the word.
“It’s disingenuous to have a discussion about racism and not point to the language of racism,” Asim said, adding that Obama also used the word in his memoir.
Obama has also been the target of the racial epithet — he was barraged with tweets using it when he signed up for Twitter. In May 2014, a member of the police commission in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, used the word to describe Obama and subsequently resigned.
But Asim called on Obama to do more to discuss race issues – and to go beyond voicing the ‘N’ word.
“He still has a ways to go in talking about racism and I had hoped he would be more assertive in his second term,” Asim said. “He needs to address the idea that white people need to have a conversation about race among themselves. It’s the silent majority of white people who benefit from privilege and that needs to be topic one.”
Those disappointed in the way Obama has addressed race in the past welcomed his increasing willingness to talk about the issue.
“Our dear brother President – thank God he is now weighing in. How long has it taken him to talk honestly about how deep racism cuts?” Cornel West, an author and academic who has been deeply critical of Obama on race, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow.
Bakari Sellers, a CNN contributor and former South Carolina state representative, said that Obama had been correct to speak so explicitly and to argue in the WTF interview that societies do not simply erase 200 to 300 years of discrimination overnight.
“I thought the President was right. He didn’t mince terms. We are talking about racism being more than just the passive use of a derogatory term,” Sellers told CNN. “We are talking about institutional and systemic racism. The President hit at the heart of the matter. This is not just about verbiage, this is about action.”
But Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League, told CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” that although he agreed with the president’s broader point on race, he would have preferred Obama to be less explicit.
“I wish he had chosen to say, quote, the ‘N’ word as opposed to saying the word, because I have been long on record that coarse language used in any context in the pubic square is not the best way to talk about these types of issues. The ‘N’ word has never had a positive meaning,” Morial said.
Though Obama’s choice of language was striking, Obama has made similar points in a more formal setting many times throughout his presidency, from his speech marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech to off-the-cuff remarks during White House briefings at times of racial tension.
“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed – that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” Obama said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he honored King in 2013. “But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”