Barack Obama has walked a very fine line on the matter of race throughout his presidency—often earning censure from some quarters who expected more from the nation’s first African-American president.

In a recent interview with CNN, however, the president was candid about his experience with racism during his White House tenure.

President Barack Obama speaks about racism during his presidency in a CNN interview. (Screengrab from news video)

President Barack Obama speaks about racism during his presidency in a CNN interview. (Screengrab from news video)

“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,” he said during an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that aired the night of Dec. 10.

The president said he didn’t believe racism was a key factor fueling mainstream Republicans’ ferocious opposition to his policies, saying it mostly existed among fringe elements of the GOP.

“I think there’s a reason why attitudes about my presidency among Whites in Northern states are very different from Whites in Southern states,” he said.

Some among the president’s inner circle were not so gracious, however, saying they saw definite undercurrents of bigotry behind GOP obstructionism.

“It’s indisputable that there was a ferocity to the opposition and a lack of respect to him that was a function of race,” David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser and now a CNN senior political commentator, told the network.

President Obama’s acknowledgement of the prejudice against him reflects his understanding of the racial dynamics of the nation but also the role he played in bridging those divisions, something he has wrestled with publicly even while campaigning for the presidency back in 2008.

For example, on March 18, 2008, during a speech on race at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the then-Democratic candidate said: “Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, Black and White, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.”

The speech came after provocative statements from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, then-pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Obama’s church in Chicago, were publicized in a bid to taint Obama’s candidacy.

Similarly, the president has waded into troubled racial waters throughout his presidency, addressing Trayvon Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer, saying Martin “could have been me;” nationwide protests over police killings of unarmed African Americans and the rise of Black Lives Matter; and also offering the eulogy when nine African-American churchgoers were killed last year by a self-avowed White supremacist in Charleston, S.C.

“Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. And we don’t need more talk,” he said among other remarks, including repudiating the Confederate flag.  He added, “To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change—that’s how we lose our way again.”  

Similarly, Obama has tried to offer solutions to foster better policing and relations between authorities and their communities—while also fielding criticism that he was not supporting the men and women in blue; launching My Brother’s Keeper to address malignancies in Black communities among other fixes.

“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; to recognize that 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; that things have gotten better—substantially better—but that we’ve still got a lot more work to do,” the president said of his legacy on race relations during a July press conference after the NATO summit in Poland.

“If my voice has been true and positive,” he added, while creating a just and united society would not happen right away, it would happen eventually. “That’s OK. We plant seeds, and somebody else maybe sits under the shade of the tree that we planted.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO