Obama Gave One of His Most Important Talks on Race Last Night—but Nobody Noticed

The president spoke at length about race and policing in America.
President Barack Obama on 'The Late Show With David Letterman.' (Screenshot/The Late Show)
May 5, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jamilah King is a TakePart staff writer covering the intersection of race/ethnicity, poverty, gender, and sexuality.

If you read today’s headlines about President Obama’s appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman last night, you’ll see a lot about dominoes. The president wants to play them after he leaves the White House in less than two years. That's all very cute. He even said he planned to take a month off after he leaves office. But what you probably won’t see is this: President Obama delivered what are arguably some of his most important, expansive comments on persistent racism and policing in America, possibly since his famous 2008 race speech in Philadelphia. In Monday night's interview, the president addressed police violence, systemic racism, parenting—it’s all there. Watch. If you can’t, here are some key excerpts:

We don’t have all the facts yet, and that’s gonna be presented in a court of law. I think it’s also really important to remember that the overwhelming majority of police officers are doing an outstanding job. We’re in New York today where a young officer lost his life doing his job and families of officers across the country are wondering everyday, “Is my loved one gonna come home?” So they’ve got a really tough job.

What we also know though is that for far too long, for decades, you have a situation in which too many communities don’t have a relationship of trust with the police. If you just have a handful of police who are not doing the right thing, that makes the job tougher for all the other police officers out there. It creates an environment in the community where they feel as if rather than being protected and served, they’re the targets of arbitrary arrests or stops. And so our job has to be to rebuild trust, and we put forward a task force made up of police officers, but also young activists who had been protesting in Ferguson or here in New York. They came up with some terrific recommendations about collecting data on what happens when there’s a shooting involving police, what are we doing in terms of things like body cameras. And so there are some very practical, concrete things we can do to make the system work better.

But…this is not just a policing problem. What you have are pockets of poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of education all across this country. Too often we ignore those pockets until something happens. Then we act surprised and the TV cameras come in. Essentially, we put the police officers in a really tough spot where we say to them, “Just contain the problem.” If young African-American men are being shot but it’s not effecting us, we’ll just kinda paper that over. Part of the message that I’m trying do deliver is, look, you’ve got a crisis in these communities that’s been going on for years where too many young people don’t have hope, they don’t see opportunity, there aren’t enough jobs. We’ve created an approach to drugs that leads to mass incarcerations. So then you have no father figures in these communities. When those folks get out of prison, they can’t get a job because they’ve got a felony record.

Today, part of what I did in New York was announce some additional initiatives around what we’re calling My Brother’s Keeper. How can we send a message to young people of color and minorities, particularly young men, saying your lives do matter, we do care about you, but we’re gonna invest in you before you have problems with the police, before there’s the kind of crisis we see in Baltimore. We’re gonna make sure you’ve got early childhood education, we’re gonna make sure you’ve got an opportunity to graduate and go to college and you’ve got mentors and apprenticeships. That kind of sustained effort I think is what we have to see in this country. Not just the episodic spasms of interest when something tragic happens.

Letterman asked: ...Is racism a factor? The factor? A residual factor?

A residual factor, but also a buildup of our history. We can’t ignore that. Look, if you have slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination that built up over time, even if our society has made extraordinary strides—and I’m a testament to that, and my kids and your kids are growing up in an America where the attitudes of the next generation make you hopeful because I think they genuinely try to judge people on the basis of character. But it’s built up over time. If you have 100 years in which certain communities can only live in certain places, or the men in those communities can only get menial labor, or they can’t start a particular trade because it’s closed to them. Or they try to buy a house or a car and it’s more expensive. Over time that builds up. That results in communities where the kids who are born there are not going to have as good of a shot. We don’t have to accuse everybody of racism today to acknowledge that that’s part of our past and if we want to get past this, then we’ve gotta make a little bit of extra effort.

Obama was in New York City in part to announce a new group that will target private resources toward helping young men of color. We're less than a week removed from widespread unrest in Baltimore after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, and public perceptions of race relations have grown substantially more negative, according to a recent poll.

Earlier in his presidency, Obama seemed reluctant to talk candidly in public about race. But things changed after the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by a white neighborhood patrolman. Obama said: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

Monday night's comments are very different. Not only did Obama talk directly about race but he also offered crucial historical context—slavery, Jim Crow, restrictive housing covenants. Whether or not this talk will translate into action remains to be seen, but at least with My Brother's Keeper, the initiative he expanded on Monday, it's a start.