NPR logo

Obama Warms To Speaking Personally About Race

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Obama Warms To Speaking Personally About Race

Obama Warms To Speaking Personally About Race

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


On issues of race, President Barack Obama often says he is not the President of black America, but of the United States of America. He rarely speaks about racial tension and when he does it's often because events in the news force the issue. NPR's Ari Shapiro looks at whether that is starting to change.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama's first campaign and first term included only a handful of high profile events on race, from a major speech during the 2008 campaign.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Race is an issue I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.

SHAPIRO: To a so-called beer summit at the White House between black Harvard law professor and a white police officer who had arrested him. Obama didn't avoid the subject of race, but he didn't seek it out either. Sherrilyn Ifill says that's pretty typical of African-Americans who have to lead racially diverse groups. Ifill is president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

SHERRILYN IFILL: It's not as though many of us relish wading into issues of race. We often feel we must or we feel compelled to but very few of us are eager to do it. And certainly I think the President was not eager to do it.

SHAPIRO: This week, Ifill and other civil rights leaders met with the president on the Voting Rights Act. It's one sign that President Obama is engaging on racial issues more often lately. In his recent travels through Africa, Obama talked repeatedly and explicitly about the significance of his skin color. Here he was at the slave port off Senegal's Goree Island.

OBAMA: Obviously, for an African-American, African-American president, you know, to be able to visit this site, I think, gives me even greater motivation in terms of the defense of human rights around the world.

SHAPIRO: Obama also spoke personally about race after the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, and again when a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

OBAMA: Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.

SHAPIRO: This is not new territory for the President, but lately the remarks seem more personal, more candid and more common. For example, in economic speeches, President Obama often talks about ladders of opportunity, or leveling the playing field. People of color may read those phrases as allusions to racial inequality, but in an interview with the New York Times last week, he left no ambiguity.

OBAMA: Racial tensions won't get better, they may get worse because people will feel as if they've got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pie.

SHAPIRO: There are both personal and circumstantial reasons for this change. For starters, just look at the calendar. Robert Raben is a Democratic strategist who works closely with the White House and civil rights groups.

ROBERT RABEN: It is the 50th anniversary of seismic, arguably vesuvial events in American history. 1963 was an exceptionally difficult year.

SHAPIRO: It was the summer of the March on Washington and the summer when young black woman helped integrate the University of Alabama. Today, her brother-in-law, Eric Holder, is the attorney general of the United States. It must also be said that President Obama is done with campaigning for office, and Sherrilyn Ifill says that's liberating.

IFILL: I think he does feel greater latitude and a great ability to speak at length and to speak with clarity and to speak really from his personal conviction about these issues in his second term.

SHAPIRO: Some of the people closest to the President have yet another theory.

JOSHUA DUBOIS: I think the President senses that, you know, we can actually do something now and so he's putting his shoulder into the wheel.

SHAPIRO: Joshua Dubois ran the White House's faith-based initiatives and has been an informal spiritual advisor to President Obama. He says this is a rare moment in America where moral outrage may coincide with an ability to accomplish something.

DUBOIS: Whether that's changing the national dialogue over race or changing specific policies like the Stand Your Ground laws, or advancing the programs that support black men and boys.

SHAPIRO: He says President Obama never wanted to talk about race for the sake of talking. If he turns to it now, Dubois says, it's to accomplish specific objectives. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News.


Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.