In an interview on CNN Wednesday, President Barack Obama reflected on racism he “absolutely” faced during his presidency.
“I think there’s a reason attitudes about my presidency among whites in northern states are very different from whites in southern states,” the president said to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria during “The Legacy of Barack Obama,” a documentary highlighting some of the most notable moments of his presidency.
“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,” Obama said.
In the 2012 election, Obama only won 39 percent of the white vote nationally and this number is even lower in numerous southern states. In Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida and Virginia, he received less than the national average in terms of support in Mississippi and Alabama he received just 10 and 15 percent, respectively, of the white vote. In contrast, President-elect Donald Trump, who served as a large proponent of the birther movement, garnered 58 percent of the white vote nationally.
Obama and his family including his two young daughters, Sasha and Malia have all faced racism during his two terms in the White House, sometimes even from other politicians. And while Obama does not see racism as a factor in mainstream opposition to him, David Axelrod, his former senior advisor, said otherwise.
“It’s indisputable that there was a ferocity to the opposition and a lack of respect to him that was a function of race,” Axelrod said.
During the interview, Zakaria pointed out that Obama will always be remembered as the first Black president perhaps even more so than he will be remembered for his policies.
“The first line of your biography will almost certainly be not something you did but who you are the first African American president,” he said.
But Obama, as Zakaria pointed out, is in fact half white and was raised by three white people his mother and his grandparents.
“Are you comfortable with this characterization of you” Zakaria asked.
“I am, actually,” the president responded. “And the concept of race in America is not just genetic, otherwise the one-drop rule wouldn’t have made sense. It’s cultural, it’s this notion of a people who look different than the mainstream, suffering terrible oppression, but somehow being able to make out of that a music, a language and a faith, and a patriotism.”
Obama on Race During His Presidency
Obama did not make race a large part of his presidency. But when certain events shook the nation, including the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the massacre of nine Black parishioners at a church in South Carolina by a white supremacist, he spoke more openly on race relations.
Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch man, in 2012. After the shooting, Obama, in an unprecedented move, addressed his personal feelings on the shooting.
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”
In 2013 Zimmerman was acquitted, causing outrage and upset across the nation, notably among the Black community. In another rare move, Obama once again made personal remarks at this time.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” he said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
“There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store,” the president continued. “That includes me.”
In June 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine Black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina during Bible study. Roof said he wanted to start a “race war.” The president traveled there to deliver a eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered during the massacre.
During the eulogy he spoke of the rich history of the church.
“When there were laws banning all-black church gatherers, services happened here anyway in defiance of unjust laws,” he said. “When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps. A sacred place, this church, not just for blacks, not just for Christians but for every American who cares about the steady expansion of human rights and human dignity in this country, a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all.”
The president ended the eulogy by singing “Amazing Grace” and saying that each of the victims of the massacre “found that grace.”