In 2015, Race And Tolerance Permeated The National Dialogue When NPR's Steve Inskeep sat down with President Obama for his year end interview, the president said he is optimistic about where the country is heading. We explore the topic further.

In 2015, Race And Tolerance Permeated The National Dialogue

In 2015, Race And Tolerance Permeated The National Dialogue

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When NPR's Steve Inskeep sat down with President Obama for his year end interview, the president said he is optimistic about where the country is heading. We explore the topic further.


Black Lives Matter protesters sent a message yesterday in several places in the United States. They are fed up with what they see as widespread police abuse. One protest at the nation's largest shopping mall just outside Minneapolis resulted in several arrests. This has been a year when race and racism have been at the center of our national dialogue. And when my colleague Steve Inskeep spoke to President Obama for a year-end interview at the White House, the president said he has seen some signs that the country has become more tolerant.


BARACK OBAMA: When I talk to my daughters and their friends, I think they are more tolerant, more welcoming of people who are different than them, more sophisticated about different cultures and what's happening around the world.

GREENE: That was President Obama speaking to my colleague Steve Inskeep in a year-end interview at the White House. And I was listening back to that with Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch team. He covers race, ethnicity and culture. Gene, thanks for coming in.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, David.

GREENE: Gene, just listening to the president there, I wonder how you react to that. I mean, in 2015, are we a more tolerant country?

DEMBY: It sort of depends on what you mean by tolerant.


DEMBY: There's this optimistic view. There's this thing we tend to tell ourselves about younger people, that they'll come in, and they'll replace the views of older people, which may be sort of outdated or outmoded. But a theme we keep coming back to on Code Switch this year was just how much younger people share a lot of the views on race and big racial issues that older generations did.

GREENE: They have some of the same stereotypes, biases all of that?

DEMBY: Same stereotypes and biases, same opinions on things like affirmative action and sort of racial policies. I think one of the reasons we've seen in a lot of polls that younger people have similar views to their parents is that younger people don't actually live in a materially different world than their parents did. It's hard to sort of overstate how much Americans live separately from each other. We don't go to the same schools. We don't live in the same neighborhoods. And so we don't have really good understandings of each other's experiences.

GREENE: I'm thinking of Baltimore when you say that. There's this news this week that the NAACP is demanding that Baltimore build a rail line that goes from the East to the West, which is - the governor has now said he's not going to do. And the argument is that there has to be access to predominantly, you know, lower and middle-class African American neighborhoods to help people move to get to other neighborhoods to sort of have a more integrated society, it sounds like. So those institutional barriers are still in place.

DEMBY: Still in place everywhere. And you will also see the distance between Americans in the way we respond to incidents like, speaking of Baltimore, the Freddie Gray incident, in which...

GREENE: The young man who died in police custody, yeah.

DEMBY: That's right. That's a really polarizing case. Depending on where you live and depending on who you are and - you know, you're much more likely to see this set of events very differently. But you do see - Pew released a poll late this summer that found that a growing number of Americans across racial and ethnic groups do say that the country needs to make - continue making changes to achieve racial equality. A third of respondents said that racism was a big problem in America just five years ago. But 50 percent of the respondents this year in the Pew poll said that America needed to continue to make changes to achieve racial equality. So more people are thinking about the way race informs and constrains American life. And that could be a result of the way we've been paying attention to this drumbeat of stories about race and racial tensions.

GREENE: The reality is it sounds like this might have been a year when a lot of Americans have just confronted that our society remains very segregated. And there are a lot of things to be sort of worked out and talked about.

DEMBY: I think that's exactly right. I mean, all the unrest and protests that we've seen on college campuses this year in a lot of ways could be a sign of progress, right? Our college campuses are increasingly diverse. And for a whole lot of Americans who go to college, their college campuses will be the only multiracial social space that they'll live in. And so the tension and the messiness there of people trying to work out what that means to live in a shared space, right, is what we're seeing on these college campuses. And it - you know, it looks messy. But given our history, how could it really be any other way?

GREENE: As you have followed the conversations this year - and let's say people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, people who have been furious over the treatment of African-Americans by police in some of these incidents - are they, in the end, still arriving at this place, that 2015 might have been a year of progress because at least the conversation's happening?

DEMBY: There are so many conversations that are materially different because Black Lives Matter has been part of them. I mean, it's easy to forget that they didn't even exist a year and a half ago. It's sort of hard to overstate how much they've moved the conversation and how much they've changed the way we talk about so many of these issues. They've put it on the radar. But they've also kept it on the radar, which is really important.

GREENE: And you broaden that out - I mean, I think about same-sex marriage being such a big topic with the Supreme Court case. I think about Donald Trump and making comments about Muslims that have sparked quite a reaction and quite a conversation. You know, you mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement being part of the conversation. I mean, if you look at 2015 and all of that that's happened, sort of how do you reflect on it?

DEMBY: I mean, the story we want to tell ourselves is always one of sort of just unbroken progress that America has this, like, long trajectory towards, you know, a more perfect union. And it's easy to tell ourselves that we're there, right? I mean, you see multiracial families on TV. You see all kinds of brown people in commercials for things. It looks like we're a different country. But we still aren't in some fundamental ways. And so, you know, the story of American progress in any given year is always one with a lot of caveats.

GREENE: That is Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch unit.

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