How Obama’s unique background shaped his outlook on race

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President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on his first day in office 1/21/09.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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JUDY WOODRUFF: As President Obama winds down his time in the White House, we will be looking back at the legacy of his presidency in the coming weeks. Tonight, as part of our partnership with “The Atlantic” magazine, my conversation with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about his cover story, “My President was Black.”

TA-NEHISI COATES, The Atlantic: I think so many African-Americans got so much joy out of the image of Barack and Michelle and Malia and Sasha, the first family, and that was going away, and there was a kind of sadness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can you put into words how much his election meant in the first place?

TA-NEHISI COATES: The notion of an African-American president for black people was perceived as being so impossible that most of the great sort of representations of it are in comedy. It’s just a moment that seemed so impossible and so far off that actually it came to be, it actually happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You spent a lot of time with him over his eight years in the White House, and you spent a lot of time, a lot more time thinking about him, and what comes across is really a better understanding of why he was able to get elected in the first place, his own upbringing, being raised in a white family in essence.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Well, it was a unique situation. I mean, it’s not — a lot of attention, rightfully so, gets focused on the fact the president is biracial, a black biracial man. But it wasn’t — African-Americans actually have quite a few biracial black people throughout our history, for instance, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Bob Marley, you know? So, that’s not an unfamiliar thing.

What’s unique about the president is that he was born into the house of a white woman and her parents in Hawaii, which was far, far from the fulcrum of Jim Crow at a time when marriage between his mother and father was illegal in broad swaths of the country. The very conception of him himself was taboo, and yet in this family and in this place, Hawaii, there was great, great security, and there was great love, and not a kind of love or security that required a denial of himself as a black man.

In fact, it was actually confirmed, and there was no contradiction between this white family loving him deeply, and him being black. That is incredibly, incredibly unique. I don’t — I’ve never come across that in my life actually.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that made him somebody really unusual —

TA-NEHISI COATES: Different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: — different in the course of the American political history.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes. When it came time to campaign to a broader audience beyond the African-American community, it wasn’t like particularly difficult for him to extend himself in that particular way he saw his family, you know? I mean, literally actually his family, you know, when he went to campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You write about the unique nature of his background and who he was and how he accepted and believed in and trusted the American people, you wrote, made it possible for a majority of Americans to support him.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I really became convinced of the kind of optimism he showed about the country, and frankly the kind of optimism that he showed about, you know, white Americans, which is very, very hard for African-Americans, you know, to muster in the way that he did was, in fact, genuine, and was real. He wasn’t faking it, and I think people felt that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He comes into office with his own high expectations of himself and his ability to get a lot done.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He immediately runs into opposition.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.

REP. JOE WILSON (R-S.C.): You lie!

JUDY WOODRUFF: That doesn’t go away, and that it inevitably shapes his legacy, what — the way he connects with the American people.

TA-NEHISI COATES: He showed a kind of optimism about the country that maybe a lot of African-Americans could not show, and that actually enabled him to win. But, in fact, once he got there, he didn’t deploy the skepticism. The optimism actually hurt him. But that the skepticism most African-Americans would have held, like they would not have been surprised by many of the things that he was actually surprised by.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whenever he would bring up an issue or a subject connected to race in the early years of his presidency, he got a significant amount of blowback.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know, one of the things I really try to appreciate is he was always walking this line, and he had to walk the line. You know what I mean? You’re president of the United States, it is true that the majority of people who you serve, who you represent, that’s not the south side of Chicago anymore. That’s not what you’re — you’re representing a much, much broader country.

And at the same time, I think deep in his heart he didn’t want to necessarily want to lie either. In other words, you know, like he didn’t want to flatter egos. He didn’t want to flatten out history.

So, I think he was always wrestling with that tension, how am I honest about this country’s history, and at the same time speak to the goodness that I actually see in the broader country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How has embraced being black?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does he see that as part of who he is?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes, I think he did that relatively early on, and I think like this is again the uniqueness of his background. There was no incentive or pressure in his house to not be black. That didn’t really exist.

I mean, he jokingly said to me while I was interviewing him, but I think he was being truthful, that his mother thought black people were cool, right? You can say that’s naive, that’s whatever, but it’s a lot better than thinking they’re horrible. He talked about how he had — he said listen, when I was coming up, I had people like Marvin Gaye, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. J. I mean, these are the people I looked up to.

So, I think from a very, very early age he had a kind of — I mean, people — to be clear, I mean, the black community in Hawaii is considerably smaller, but there is a black community. It is there, and it was there for him. So, I think he had it early on that he was black. I mean, he just — that was just how he saw himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He wasn’t dealing with the same pressure, daily pressure.

TA-NEHISI COATES: No, no, no.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That so many African-Americans do.

TA-NEHISI COATES: No, not at all. I had to ultimately see it as a tremendous privilege and a tremendous gift actually to be away from the kind of grinding poverty, even if it’s not in your house, that is actually around you. To not go to schools and wonder why your schools are terrible, to not have to deal with the fear of the violence and not really have to deal with the police.

So, he was aware of it, but it wasn’t personal. It wasn’t within him, and literally it wasn’t within his family.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, did that steel him against the strain of opposition, insults and so forth that happened?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes, I just think he was un-traumatized. So, it didn’t bring any past memories of it, in that he, you know, took his share of racist insults, you know, during the time when he was president, but it doesn’t — emotionally, it doesn’t call anything back to him. He’s not remembering this like what they said when I was seven years old or what — it — the trauma is not there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And did that make him stronger when he faced what he faced as president?

TA-NEHISI COATES: I think so, although going back to what we were talking about before, it may not have given him the requisite skepticism. You know, it’s like two sides. It’s two sides. Yes, it did make him stronger. It did mean that when someone stands up and you’re giving an address and yells “you lie”, you just thought, what’s wrong with that guy? You don’t go back, and you don’t storm, and you don’t have like memories that it conjures up. It doesn’t quite do that to you.

But at the same time, you know, someone else might have expected someone to stand up and yell “you lie”.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It also, you write, contributed to his not seeing the potential appeal of a Donald Trump.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes. That is where the real tragedy for me comes in, in the sense that I saw the president in the spring, and he said of Trump, he said he can’t win. He said he couldn’t perceive Donald Trump as actually winning. And so, as he was hearing this wave of insults that were coming in I think over — you know, throughout the campaign, in his America that wouldn’t play.

What he said to me, just to give the most scientific I guess analysis of this is that it’s very hard to win an election in America by appealing to people’s darkest instincts, and it didn’t quite go that way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the things you write is that — it has to do with the election of Donald Trump being the price that has to be paid for having Barack Obama as president. What did you mean by that?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I meant that if having an African-American president was a revolutionary as we claim it was, that there’d probably be some sort of backlash or some sort of counter. That’s generally been true. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is a great deal of Barack Obama’s power is symbolic and is in the symbolism in what it communicates to African-Americans. And, you know, the thing that has become so poignant for this is the picture in the Oval Office where the president is bending down and that young boy is touching his hair, and that basically said, “Your hair looks like mine,” and that communicated great symbolism to African-Americans and great power to African-Americans.

But that also communicates things to other people also, who may not necessarily be so happy about that kind of progress, you know, who have all sorts of feelings wrapped up in that, and so I think a lot of that culminated in the election of president-elect. I think that those two things work together. You know, it doesn’t mean that all white people or even necessarily most white people looked at that picture and said, “I don’t like that.” It just meant that we have a significant not insubstantial minority of people in this country who being white actually means something. It gives them something.

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