President Barack Obama, heading toward the exit, is working to punctuate his record on race.
He told Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show” that the country has “by no means overcome the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and racism.”
Speaking to Ta-Nehisi Coates for an Atlantic magazine cover, Obama said he “never doubted … my ability to get white support” during his two presidential campaigns.
And talking with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, he alleged some of his opponents were “absolutely” feeding off bias.
Preparing to depart office, Obama is undergoing a farewell tour of interviews, many focused on his experience and legacy as the nation’s first African-American president.
It’s a topic he’s grown more comfortable discussing candidly as his term winds to a close. And it’s one that’s only gained more prominence since Donald Trump – who flamed the racially tinged birther theory – was elected President.
Obama hopes to provide a positive summation of his time in office while acknowledging centuries-old racial tension was never going to be resolved by his historic election.
It’s not the only area he’s looking to tie up before he departs in January. He delivered a final assessment of his foreign policy during a visit to the Florida headquarters of US Special Command last week. And officials say a formal farewell speech is likely when Obama returns from his winter vacation in Hawaii next month.
But in his recent interviews – lengthier than his normal sit-downs – Obama has focused more heavily on race, an issue that was always going to feature prominently in his legacy.
On “The Daily Show,” Obama tried to explain how he spoke publicly about the issue, balancing a need to delve honestly into problems without inflaming tensions.
“If I’m communicating my genuine belief that those who are not subject to racism can sometimes have blind spots or lack appreciation of what it feels to be on the receiving end of that … I always felt that if I really knew that and I just communicated it as clearly as I could, that I’d be OK,” he said.
That approach hasn’t always pleased black activists and leaders, some venting frustration Obama wasn’t saying enough to support their point of view. Some prominent African-Americans even accused Obama of being overly harsh in his assessments of why their communities were lagging behind in graduation rates and unemployment.
And he’s been rebuffed, at times, by members of the Black Lives Matter movement that sprung from repeated incidents of police brutality that transpired while he was president.
“That sort of lack of awareness on the part of an activist about the constraints of our political system and the constraints on this office, I think, sometimes would leave me to mutter under my breath. Very rarely did I lose it publicly. Usually I’d just smile,” Obama told Coates, who himself has been critical of some of the President’s approaches on racial issues.
“The reason I say that is because those are the times where sometimes you feel actually a little bit hurt,” Obama said, a rare admission of how personal some of the criticism directed toward him became.
For Obama, issues of race are inherently personal in ways that they weren’t for his predecessors. He entered office confronting outsized expectations for advancing racial progress but also, in the eyes of certain allies, a strain of inherent racial bias against his agenda.
“I think there’s a reason why attitudes about my presidency among whites in Northern states are very different from whites in Southern states,” Obama told Zakaria in a CNN special report. “Are there folks whose primary concern about me has been that I seem foreign, the other? Are those who champion the ‘birther’ movement feeding off of bias? Absolutely.”
In his attempts to push the country toward greater equality, it’s often Obama’s personal message – his story and his success – that’s held the most impact.
At the White House Wednesday, the young man who introduced Obama at a mentorship summit, Malachi Hernandez, said Obama had inspired him after a roundtable meeting last year to reconnect with his own father.
Standing in front of seven participants in his My Brother’s Keeper program, Obama emphasized again that issues of racial disparity were personal for him.
“I see myself in these young people,” Obama said in his remarks. “I grew up without a father. There were times when I made poor choices, times where I was adrift. The only difference between me and a lot of other young men is that I grew up in a forgiving environment.”