For President Obama, this past week has had a deja vu feeling. Another mass shooting, this time at a black church in Charleston, left nine worshippers dead. Another reminder that gun-control legislation won't happen during his term. Another reminder of the racial problems that still exist in this country.
So he talked.
"The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives—that casts a long shadow. And that's still part of our DNA that's passed on. We're not cured of it," he said in an interview with comedian Marc Maron released Monday. "And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say n----- in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior."
This was perhaps the most candid Obama has been on racism during his time in office. Maybe it was because the interview was taped in a casual setting—Maron's garage—something reporters asked White House press secretary Josh Earnest about Monday. But more likely, the president's frustrations about Charleston and racism, and the dearth of deep conversations about both, simply reached a breaking point.
Dennis Parker, the director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program, said Obama's statement after the Charleston killings was tinged with a "frustration" he hasn't seen before.
"It's clearly something he's been thinking about. It's clearly something he's been worrying about," Parker said. "And I think he's being more straightforward in confronting what he correctly recognizes as a systemic and a large problem in American society."
Obama's use of the n-word specifically was striking. Ever the careful, considered speaker, the president knows the weight of every word he utters. That's why dropping that word had such an impact: It wasn't polite, but he said it anyway.
And that was the point. Parker said Obama was trying to underscore the importance of having a deeper discussion on race—going further than simply whether someone uses the n-word to "a level that takes into account this country's history and the continuing problems of race we have here."
"Why do we worry about that detail," Parker said, "but not worry about the significant issues of race that continue to be a problem in this country?"
While Obama's most explicit remarks focused on enduring racism in America, he also made it clear that racial tensions have gotten much better over the last 50 years, citing his own experience as evidence.
"Do not say that nothing's changed when it comes to race in America unless you lived through being a black man in the 1950s or '60s or '70s," he said in the interview. "It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up and that attitudes have changed."
Earnest acknowledged that Obama's use of the n-word was "notable" and more "provocative" than the way he's made similar arguments in the past.
"The president's use of the word and the reason that he used the word could not be more apparent from the context of his discussion on the podcast," Earnest told reporters. "The president made clear that it's not possible to judge the nation's progress on race issues based solely on an evaluation of our country's manners."
When the president says it, though, that one detail, the word, steals the show. Earnest said that he didn't think Obama had used the word publicly before, though he did write it multiple times in his 1995 autobiography Dreams From My Father, long before he was president.
Earnest was clear that Obama's use of the word wasn't pre-planned, saying that "there was no decision made on the part of anybody here at the White House that we are going to capitalize on this audio interview from somebody's garage in California, that this would be an opportune time for him to get this particular point off his chest."
By using it now, Obama shined a spotlight on race as only he can.
"I see his statement as a cry from the heart—let us as a nation take a look at these issues, finally, in a way that is serious, that is nuanced, that is deep," Parker said. "And not just a superficial way that says, 'If you no longer use the word n----- then you're OK.' "
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