DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All this week, President Obama has been talking about racial inequality in this country's criminal justice system. Yesterday, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. On Tuesday, President Obama spoke passionately before the NAACP's annual convention about the need for reform. The president's rhetoric on race has changed since his first years in office. For some insights on this, we turned to political science professor Lester Spence of Johns Hopkins University. Our conversation began with an incident six months after Obama's inauguration. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who's black, was arrested by a white policeman while trying to enter his home. Spence reminded us how the president responded.
LESTER SPENCE: He ends up reconciling the whole event with a beer summit. He brings Henry Louis Gates and the officer to the White House for beer. And that's - one way to read that is that's his politics. It's the politics of consensus building, right? It's the idea that the primary problem black people face with the police is a problem of understanding.
GREENE: Now, after the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, Obama's remarks were very different.
SPENCE: When he says, oh, wow, this could have been my son, and this is the type of thing that a number of black kids have to deal with, right? So there's movement. And this is when Obama's speaking not just as the president, but now he is speaking as a parent to say, wow, you know. He doesn't have sons, but if he had sons, Trayvon could've been him.
GREENE: And so in the NAACP speech that we saw this week, I mean, do you see a president who is where you want him to be in confronting these issues?
SPENCE: He's a lot closer. I mean, there was nothing in that speech that suggested that black people were at fault, right? So there's nothing in that speech that suggested, for example, that black people having their pants sagging is the reason they're all in jail. There's nothing in that speech that suggested, for example, because a lot of black kids grew up without fathers, that's the reason they're in jail. It was solely about the effects of incarceration and how problematic it was. That's the person that a number of us wanted to hear from in year one rather than year six.
GREENE: And of course, there was this moment.
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BARACK OBAMA: (Singing) Amazing grace...
GREENE: In his eulogy for the nine people murdered in a black church in Charleston, S.C., President Obama led mourners in this spiritual, "Amazing Grace."
SPENCE: That moment was powerful. It was an example of the president really speaking to the wounds of the American community, but also, more specifically, to African-Americans. He spoke to them in a way that really, really - that really soothed them. But with that said, the other read is that this is just another example of the president kind of using his cultural affinities with black people to kind of - to dodge the really hard conversations about racism and how it functions and how it corrupts.
GREENE: You're saying using his cultural affinity with black people. Is that what some saw as what some would describe as code-switching, you know, sort of speaking in a style that speaks to the black community, which some saw in that eulogy?
SPENCE: Yes, yes, yes. And so the first example of that in his presidency is when he's at Ben's Chili Bowl. And this is the...
GREENE: This is the restaurant in - on U Street in Washington, D.C...
SPENCE: Yeah. Yeah, a lot of...
GREENE: In an African-American neighborhood in the city.
SPENCE: Yeah, African-American neighborhood, and he's giving his money to the black person who's taking his money. And the guy wants to give him his change. He's like, no, we all - all right, we straight. No, we straight. And when I said - even me saying that now, I'm like, oh, my God, he said we straight. That's how I talk. Oh, my God, that's the president, who looks like me and acts like me, et cetera, et cetera. And that's a wonderful thing. But what happens is too often, that cultural political move ends up taking the place of real politics.
GREENE: I mean, he has some time left. And, you know - you know, as you say, you think it's too little, too late. I mean, is the trajectory in the right direction? Do you see a speech like he gave at the NAACP as moving in the right direction? And is it possible that you're going to look and say, you know, he waited too long for me, but, you know, he decided in his final two years to do what you wanted him to do?
SPENCE: Well, so when I'm asked to speak about this, I try to be as critical as I can. I will most likely say, well, you know what? He was really constrained, and by the end of his presidency, he finally got his footing. At the same time, though, I'm living in Baltimore. We're still struggling with the death of Freddie Gray. And I know that if the president would've taken certain steps four years ago, if he'd have taken certain steps six years ago, odds are that - that we could've created the political context in places like Baltimore, where Freddie Gray would still be alive.
GREENE: I wonder, you and I have spoken before, and you've said the balance that Barack Obama has to sort of find is in part because he is black. And it's one that you can sort of relate to as a scholar on the campus of a university.
GREENE: You said you carry your race with you.
GREENE: Is there somehow that you can sort of connect with the evolution that he is going through in a way that I might not be able to - understanding it in a different way?
SPENCE: Yes, but there's a danger in that. If black people like me do too much of that - if we say, you know what? Yeah, he's constrained. He had to make hard choices, like the same type of choices I have to make every day at my job, you know? What we do is we reduce our ability to hold him accountable. He's not our friend. He's not our co-worker. He's the president of the United States. We voted for him. He's supposed to reflect our public policy preferences.
GREENE: The last question, professor, whatever disappointment you have, whatever feeling you have that, you know, it's too little too late when it comes to policy as you said, do you see a man who is embracing being the nation's first black president today in a way that he didn't five, six years ago?
SPENCE: Yes. Yes. And unfortunately, it's really - it's unfortunate that what had to happen for him to do that in part was a lot of black kids had to die.
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GREENE: That's professor Lester Spencer, who specializes in the study of black, racial and urban politics at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the book "Stare In The Darkness: The Limits Of Hip-Hop In Black Politics."
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