A Week in Race - With Obama & Stephanopoulos
Last Sunday, Barack Obama appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos for a lengthy interview that was taped in Iowa. A significant part of the interview focused on race and Obama’s perceptions of his chances of being elected the first black president. Below, we provide some excerpts of the interview, along with our analysis of what Obama is up to with his responses.
The first questions addressed Obama’s support for affirmative action. Stephanopoulos raised the point that many middle-class white Americans raise: Shouldn’t any affirmative action program be centered on class, rather than race or gender? Obama gave an answer that would be palatable to those citizens.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Your candidacy brings the issue of race right to the top...
STEPHANOPOULOS: ... of the national conversation. You've been a strong supporter of affirmative action...
STEPHANOPOULOS: ... and you're a constitutional law professor, so let's go back in the classroom. I'm your student, I say, "Professor, you and your wife went to Harvard Law School. You've got plenty of money. You're running for president. Why should your daughters, when they go to college, get affirmative action?"
OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged, and I think that there's nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities.
I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed.
So I don't think those concepts are mutually exclusive. I think what we can say is that in our society, race and class still intersect, that there are a lot of African-American kids who are still struggling, that even those who are in the middle class may be first generation as opposed to fifth or sixth generation college attendees, and that we all have an interest in bringing as many people together to help build this country.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that in 25 years,
affirmative action may no longer be necessary. Is she right?
OBAMA: I would like to think that if we make good decisions and we invest in early childhood education, improve K-12, if we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids who are qualified to go to college can afford it, that affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society.
This is a tough position for Obama. It goes beyond his economic privilege. He has been hounded by questions of being “really black” because his ancestors were not American slaves. Since affirmative action programs are designed to offset a history of systemic discrimination, Obama would have to convince middle-class white and black voters alike that his support, if applied to his own family, was justified.
He could do that. While his answer is accurate and understandable, it is also true that he and his children are every bit as susceptible to unconscious bias as a sixth-generation African American. It is the politically wise position, however, to argue that while he is in favor of affirmative action programs for disadvantaged folks (including whites), he does not include his family among that group. Voters may disagree with his position on affirmative action, but they will also likely not attribute his support to the fact that his family would benefit from such a program. It takes his “agenda” out of the equation and makes him appear to be more altruistic.
Stephanopoulos then asked a very curious question with racially insensitive undercurrents:
STEPHANOPOULOS: You have a very cool style when you're doing those town meetings, when you're out on the campaign trail. And I wonder, how much of that is tied to your race?
OBAMA: That's interesting.
We LOVE the response. “It’s interesting,” which means, “what the hell is THAT supposed to mean?! All black people are ‘cool?’”
STEPHANOPOULOS: One of your friends told the New Yorker Magazine that "the mainstream is just not ready for a fire-breathing black man." Did you turn down the temperature on purpose?
Again, what the hell, George?! Is “fire-breathing” an inherent adjective to “black man as “Catholic” is to “Pope?” Why equate black men with fictitious, aggressive, irrational creatures? We don’t understand the question. Obama clearly doesn’t get it either, but he responds well nonetheless, ignoring the inherent racist assumptions in the question.
OBAMA: You know, I don't think it has to do with race. I think it has to do with when I'm campaigning, I'm in a conversation. And what I don't do when I'm campaigning is to try to press a lot of hot buttons and use a lot of cheap applause lines, because I want people to get a sense of how I think about this process.
A few minutes later, after playing a clip of Obama’s now legendary speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Obama had this to say about his perceived and self-professed role as a uniter.
OBAMA: But keep in mind, I'm not interested in bringing people together just for the sake of bringing people together. I'm not naïve enough to think that if we all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" that somehow health care gets solved or, you know, education gets solved. Right now, what we need to make significant progress on these problems is to be able to build enough bridges to get things done.
So, I'm furious about the young men that I see standing on corners on the South Side of Chicago without hope, without opportunity, without prospects for the future. I am furious about the mothers I meet here in Iowa who are giving me hugs and telling me about their son who died in a war and asking, did their son die for a mistake?
It breaks my heart. But what I know is that the only way we're going to solve the problem is not to assign blame. It's to say, "Here's a vision for the future that we can do something about."
This position is direct, but rhetorically savvy. His anger is most likely directed at the system that has served to disadvantage those young men on the corners on the South Side of Chicago, but he doesn’t directly say that, which leaves open to interpretation by those who would point the finger of blame for their seemingly hopeless position directly at those youngsters that Obama is angry with THEM, rather than the system. This will satisfy those who are looking for a leader who will emphasize personal responsibility and a Horatio Alger mindset rather than address the more deeply-rooted problems that Obama clearly understands are precursors to the behavior and mentality to which he refers.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You've had to ask for Secret Service protection awful early in this campaign. Were you reluctant?
OBAMA: I'm not an entourage guy. You know, up until recently, I was still, you know, taking my wife Michelle's grocery list and going to the grocery store once in awhile. And so obviously it's constrained, but I'm obviously appreciative of their efforts. They're extraordinarily professional.
Not satisfied that Obama didn’t mention race in his answer, Stephanopoulos pushes the issue further.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Durbin, your friend, who talked to the review board, said a lot of the threats that were coming in are racially motivated. How serious are they? How much are you told? How much do you worry about it?
OBAMA: You know, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it or considering the details of this. But just to broaden the issue, are there people who would be troubled with an African-American president? Yes. Are there folks who might not vote for me because
I'm African-American? No doubt.
What I'm confident about, though, as I travel around the country, is that people are decent at their core in America. The vast majority of folks want to do the right thing.
If I don't win, it's not going to be because of my race. It's going to be because I didn't project a vision of leadership that gave people confidence. It's going to be because of something I didn't do as opposed to because I'm African-American.
Here’s the translation: “Look, George, if you couldn’t figure it out by now, I don’t want to talk about this. People see that I’m black. They will either be troubled by this or not, but making my candidacy about my blackness (or alleged lack thereof) is not going to help me to win. I am a multi-faceted candidate who is black and is both thoughtful about that and has been shaped by that experience, and your persistence in trying to make me talk about race all the time is annoying and not at all helpful to what I’m trying to do. So back off, pretty boy!”
Unfortunately for Obama, he won’t be able to say this to Stephanopoulos or anyone else anytime soon. He is going to continually be asked to filter every issue through his race (which he certainly does, but doesn’t wish to reveal to a white public who does not have a sophisticated understanding of how race matters in America), and he will time and time again do a nifty dance around the question to get out what he wants people to know about this. And just like that, Obama is in the same position of every other politician: answer what you want, not what they ask.