The issues of race and racism that have percolated throughout the six years of Barack Obama’s presidency have decidedly come to a head recently with the national unrest over grand jury decisions not to indict the killers of several unarmed black men. While supportive of peaceful protests and various reforms, the President has been walking a fine line between empathizing with the black community and not alienating police. In a recent interview, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama opened up about their own experiences with racism, and the President continued to walk that fine line.
In a preview of the People print edition’s full interview, it was Michelle Obama who opened up most about these experiences, retelling a story she’d previously discussed on Late Night with David Letterman:
“I tell this story – I mean, even as the first lady – during that wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. Because she didn’t see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her. Those kinds of things happen in life. So it isn’t anything new.”
The First Lady also recounted her husband’s pre-presidential bouts with racism, in the form of white people mistaking him for the help:
“I think people forget that we’ve lived in the White House for six years,” the first lady told PEOPLE, laughing wryly, along with her husband, at the assumption that the first family has been largely insulated from coming face-to-face with racism.
“Before that, Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of troubles catching cabs.”
“There’s no black male my age, who’s a professional, who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn’t hand them their car keys,” said the president, adding that, yes, it had happened to him.
Mrs. Obama recalled another incident: “He was wearing a tuxedo at a black-tie dinner, and somebody asked him to get coffee.”
The President went on to downplay the incidents in comparison with the challenges faced by young black men in their interactions with police, tellingPeople “”It’s one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It’s another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse, if he happens to be walking down the street and is dressed the way teenagers dress.”
His interviewer didn’t ask, and the President didn’t say, but it seems unlikely that Barack Obama has no unpleasant experiences with police in his past, but in the full interview (available on newsstands Friday), he again made sure to note that police “have a tough job.” Elsewhere in the interview, though, the President did offer support for LeBron James’ recent protest of Eric Garner’s killing. “I think LeBron did the right thing,” the President said, adding “We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness. I’d like to see more athletes do that-not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.”
The issue of race and law enforcement flared up brilliantly at the start of Obama’s presidency when he correctly criticized the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, and sparked a fierce media backlash that culminated in a now-famous “beer summit.” Since then, the President has still been vocal about race issues when he has needed to be, but almost never where his own race is at issue. Given the blowback from law enforcement, it was a fairly bold move for him to even endorse LeBron James’ actions.