President Barack Obama’s legacy will include accomplishments both foreign and domestic but history cannot ignore the role race played on the presidency.
In an interview broadcast on Dec. 7, 2016, with Fareed Zakaria for the CNN Special Report “The Legacy of Barack Obama,” the president said, “I think there’s a reason why attitudes about my presidency among whites in Northern states are very different from whites in Southern states. 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.”
“It’s indisputable that there was a ferocity to the opposition and a lack of respect to him that was a function of race,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser, on CNN.com.
The issue of race came well before Obama was elected the first black president in U.S. history. During his 2008 run for the White House, he delivered one of his more memorable campaign speeches “A More Perfect Union” at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pa. The speech came after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor in Chicago, appeared to make racially inflammatory remarks. Obama repudiated the remarks and addressed Wright, race, religion, and politics during the 40-minute speech.
“Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he said. “We would be making the same mistake that Rev. Wright made in his offending sermons about America—to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
“I have asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people—that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.”
Later in the speech, Obama said, “This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation—the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.”
Black Lives Matter
The issues addressed in the City of Brotherly Love were a precursor to others that would course throughout his presidency.
In July 2009, seven months into Obama’s presidency, he alleged during a press conference that police acted “stupidly” after a white police officer arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates on the front porch of Gates’s house for disorderly conduct—a comment that raised the ire of conservatives.
In 2012, when unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was killed and sparked discord between police departments and African-Americans, Obama said that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon.”
In later years, as tensions erupted in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., over the police treatment of black men, the president had to walk a middle ground. Some urged him to speak more in support of the emerging Black Lives Matter movement, while others accused him of siding with the mostly black protesters at the expense of law enforcement.
“He never ran to be the first black president. He ran to be the president of the United States, and he happens to be black,” said Axelrod on CNN.com. “He needed to become a force for healing, and finding the right way to do that was something he wrestled with.”
The president appeared to have some success navigating both worlds when in June 2015 he traveled to Charleston, S.C., to mourn the nine victims gunned down during Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
His eulogy went beyond grief for the victims and delved into a national conversation about race in which he played a central role. He declared the Confederate flag a symbol of racial oppression and praised the renewed urgency for removing it from the South Carolina State Capitol.
In other actions, President Obama took steps to reverse the high rates of incarceration among African-American men, including granting clemency to hundreds of people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. And he instituted the My Brother’s Keeper mentorship program for young black men, a mission he says he’ll continue when he leaves office.
More Work to Do
During a July 2016 news conference in Warsaw, Poland, President Obama talked about his racial legacy.
“More than anything, what I hope is that my voice has tried to get all of us as Americans to understand the difficult legacy of race; to encourage people to listen to each other,” he said.
“The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and discrimination didn’t suddenly vanish with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act, or the election of Barack Obama. Things have gotten better—substantially better—but we’ve still got a lot more work to do.
“If my voice has been true and positive, then my hope would be that it may not fix everything right away,” President Obama continued. “That’s OK. We plant seeds, and somebody else maybe sits under the shade of the tree that we planted. And I’d like to think that, as best as I could, I have been true in speaking about these issues.”