Post-Election, Conversations About Race 'Sparked A New Sense Of Urgency' : Code Switch Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery talks about race in the Obama presidency and under President-elect Trump. Lowery was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team for reporting about police shootings.
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Post-Election, Conversations About Race 'Sparked A New Sense Of Urgency'

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Post-Election, Conversations About Race 'Sparked A New Sense Of Urgency'

Post-Election, Conversations About Race 'Sparked A New Sense Of Urgency'

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There was a time when some people thought President Obama's election ushered in a post-racial America. Nobody is saying that now. Obama's administration was marked by protests against police shootings, among other events. Donald Trump questioned Obama's birth certificate for years and now, after a profoundly divisive campaign, is preparing to replace Obama in the White House.

Wesley Lowery has witnessed a lot of this. He is a Washington Post reporter who covered unrest after a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and also the death of a man who had been arrested in Baltimore. He has a new book out called, "They Can't Kill Us All," and he sat down to talk about it with our colleague, Steve Inskeep.


How do you think conversations about race are different, if at all, than they were a week ago?

WESLEY LOWERY: I think that the conversations we're having today about race and will continue to be having about race have sparked a new sense of urgency. I think that, you know, one thing that was remarkable about the election of President Obama was that he did so on a - with a rhetoric and with a ideal that we were not a divided America. It's fundamental to his ideology of American exceptionalism.

What's been remarkable is that Donald Trump ran on an ideology and a platform that we are, in fact, a divided America, that there is an us versus them, that we need to take something back from people who have seized it from us. It speaks, in many ways, to the Newtonian every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

INSKEEP: I want to mention that every rhetoric has equal and opposite rhetoric in this case because when we have interviewed Trump voters, conservative voters, white voters - put them in whatever group you want - you will often hear someone say Obama was the divisive one, Obama was the guy who was playing to different racial groups, and here I am a poor white person; I'm being left out. This is the way that people would phrase it on that side.

LOWERY: Of course, and that is not unlike the conversation we've had about race for the entirety of our history, right? When you - when you go back - I've done a lot of reading on lynchings in the Jim Crow era. When you read the interviews of the - the white residents who lived in town that had just lynched a black man the day before, it was the media that didn't understand them.

This wasn't really about race. Why is no one upset about the crime that guy committed? Why is everyone upset that we strung him up in the town square, right? These have been the contours of our conversation for the entirety of our existence because, you know, as the president himself says very often, our American existence is very largely premised on an original sin of slavery.

We have baked in these ideas to the fundamental structures of our society. President Obama himself was never going to be someone to usher in some type of post-racial reality. That wasn't something that was ever going to happen. And I think that part of our fallacy of understanding and thinking was expecting that in the first place.

INSKEEP: So Trump has won an election using racially-tinged rhetoric. It's widely accepted that some racists support him. It's also said not all Trump supporters are racists; that's not fair. It doesn't sound like, from some of the things you've written, that you accept that.

LOWERY: No, I don't accept that premise. I mean, I think, to begin with, what we know is that all human beings harbor prejudice.

INSKEEP: Including you...

LOWERY: Of course.

INSKEEP: ... A mixed-race reporter. All right.

LOWERY: Yes, certainly. And I think one of the fundamental battle lines in this conversation is, do you believe that racism requires intent, or do you believe that racism is about the outcome, the effect? That if a policy has the effect of racism, of creating a racial disparity, is that accurately described as racist, or does it require someone actively desiring to oppress a certain group of people? And I think that is part of this battle line we've seen.

We see a lot of white Americans and certainly Trump supporters who would argue that, no, I don't have hate in my heart for people who aren't like me. And you see the left and largely the Black Lives Matter protest movement and many of the forces that have been driving this conversation for eight years under Obama who would argue that, no, racism and prejudice are what occurs when, whether intentional or not, a structure or system is put in place that leaves one group of people behind.

INSKEEP: How many protests after how many police shootings do you think you've covered the last couple of years?

LOWERY: Likely well over a hundred. I mean, I think I spent probably about three months in Ferguson, Mo. I spent some time in Baltimore and Milwaukee and Charlotte - at least two or three dozen cities. And what's remarkable is how, you know, when you think of Ferguson and when the story first started - a lot of what I try to do in the book is walk through the lessons we learned through the media and how we covered these things and where we focused and maybe where we should not have focused now. At the beginning, we had such a conversation about the hyper-specifics of a shooting - that this place must be terrible, it must be - Ferguson must be an anomaly.

This couldn't happen in - where I live, in my backyard, in our city. Oh, it must be because this department is so terrible or so different than - than where we live. But what became clear is that the story of Ferguson is the story of America, that what we saw in Ferguson, that happened in Baltimore, that happened in Charlotte, that happened in Charleston, that happened in Milwaukee, that happened in Madison, Wis., in Cleveland, Detroit. This is the story of America. And I think that the sooner we understand that, the sooner we can begin actually having a conversation about how we quell this.

INSKEEP: So you interviewed a lot of protesters, of course...

LOWERY: Certainly.

INSKEEP: ...In the course of your work and for this book. And you ask one of them about registering people to vote - when are you going to register people to vote and try to change the system? And the protester responds, why vote? Having a black president didn't keep the police from killing Mike Brown.

LOWERY: I voted twice for Barack Obama, and Trayvon Martin is still dead. I voted twice for Barack Obama. I canvassed for Barack Obama, and the Charleston nine are still dead. Dylann Roof still shot up that church. These are the types of things we heard from these activists and these demons.

INSKEEP: Do you think are some of these activists who didn't bother to vote in 2016?

LOWERY: There are certainly activists who didn't vote in 2016 because I think that there's a grapple between how do you effect change, and what does political power look like? One of the things I think is remarkable is this idea that the black presidency showed us the limitations of a black presidency. Of course a black presidency he couldn't usher us into a post-racial world, we now deeply understand.

But we didn't - we couldn't comprehend that limitation up front. What was remarkable for so many of these young activists were so many of them were introduced to politics through Barack Obama. They canvassed for him. They voted for him. It was the first vote they had ever cast. You're talking about people who are 25, 26, 27, 30, right? And then they saw that the world around them, that their black skin was still seemingly a hazard. They watched the Trayvon Martin case, and they watched George Zimmerman be acquitted of the crime.

And they - and to them, it felt like such an injustice that they had built and pushed so much of their hope into the president himself, to his proximity to power and his realized power. And when that political dynamic broke, there was a large abandonment of electoral politics. People who are taking to the streets do so, in part, because they believe not taking to the streets - politically engaging otherwise - voting, calling the representative - has been ineffective.

INSKEEP: Wesley Lowry's new book is called "They Can't Kill Us All." Thanks very much.

LOWERY: Thanks for having me.

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