Trevor Noah devoted the entire “Daily Show” on Monday night to an interview with President Obama, which was pre-taped at the White House. The two clearly had a lot to discuss. At the end, Noah asked the president a personal question — how he navigates questions about race.
First, however, Noah asked about Obama’s reaction to the news that the CIA “assessed with high confidence” that the Russians were involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, while trying to sway the election in favor of Donald Trump. Obama reminded Noah that this wasn’t new information.
“None of this should be a big surprise. This was reported on before the election,” Obama said. “I don’t think there was any doubt among anybody in the media or among members of Congress as to who was being advantaged or disadvantaged by the political gossip that was being put out in drip, drip, drip fashion up to the election.”
Obama also noted that Russia’s trying to influence elections goes back to the Soviet Union and that email hacking wasn’t especially fancy espionage. There is a bigger issue, he said. “What is it about the state of our democracy where the leaks of what were frankly not very interesting emails, that didn’t have any explosive information in them, ended up being an obsession? And the fact that the Russians were doing this was not an obsession?”
“The president-elect in some of his political events, specifically said to the Russians, ‘Hack Hillary’s emails so that we can finally find out what’s going on and confirm our conspiracy theories,'” Obama said, adding, “The real question that I think we all have to reflect on is what’s happened to our political system where some emails that were hacked and released ended up being the overwhelming story and the constant source of coverage, breathless coverage that was depicted as somehow damning in all sorts of ways — when the truth of the matter was it was fairly routine stuff.”
And as for President-elect Donald Trump recently stating that he doesn’t need daily intelligence briefings because he’s a “smart person,” Obama replied: “Well, I think the president-elect may say one thing and do another once he’s here, because the truth of the matter is that it’s a big, complicated world. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, you have to have the best information possible to make the best decisions possible.”
Later, Noah wrapped things up with a question he called “a little bit selfish,” pointing out that he and Obama have a lot in common; they both have parents who are black and white. Plus, Obama is from the South Side of Chicago, and Noah is from the South Side of … Africa.
“Similar,” Obama deadpanned.
“When you are a person who has a platform, where you are in a space where you are engaging with people, it is often difficult to navigate and skirt that line between speaking your mind and sharing your true opinions on race — whilst, at the same time, not being seen to alienate some of the people you are talking to,” Noah said. “You know, because if you are a white person who’s speaking about race, then you are just a person who’s interested in race. If you are a person of color who’s speaking about it, it’s like ‘Oh, the black thing…again.’”
“So the question I’ve always wanted to know is how did you navigate that?” Noah continued. “Because we watched you do it, but I always wanted to know how you navigated that through your two terms.”
Here’s Obama’s full response:
My general theory is that if I was clear in my own mind about who I was; comfortable in my own skin; and had clarity about the way in which race continues to be this powerful factor in so many elements of our lives, but that it is not the only factor in so many aspects of our lives; that we have by no means overcome the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and racism, but that the progress we’ve made has been real and extraordinary; if I’m communicating my genuine belief that those who are not subject to racism can sometimes have blind spots or lack appreciation of what it feels to be on the receiving end of that — but that doesn’t mean that they’re not open to learning and caring about equality and justice — and that I can win them over, because there is goodness in the majority of people; I always felt that if I really knew that and I just communicated it as clearly as I could, that I’d be okay.
Another way of saying this is there has not been a time in my public life or my presidency where I feel as if I have had to bite my tongue. There have been times in my public life where I’ve said, “How do I say this diplomatically? How do I say this, as you indicated, in a way that it’s received?”
So there have been very few instances where I’ve said, “Well, that was racist, you are racist.” There have been times where I’ve said, “You know, you might not have taken into account the ongoing legacy of racism in why we have so many black men incarcerated. And since I know that you believe in the Constitution and believe in justice and believe in liberty, how about if we try this?”
Now, some might say, well, you’re not speaking fully truth to power because of that diplomacy. But I don’t think that trying to appeal to the better angels of our nature, as Lincoln put it, is somehow compromised. There may be times where you just have to call things out and name names. But the challenge we face today, when it comes to race, is rarely the overt Klansman-style racism and typically has more to do with the fact that, you know, people got other stuff they want to talk about and it’s sort of uncomfortable.
It’s somebody not getting called back for an interview, although it’s never explicit. Or it’s, you know, who gets the TV acting job, the actress who doesn’t quite look the part, and what does that mean? And in that environment, where you’re not talking necessarily about cut and dried racist behavior, but rather about the complex ways in which society is working these issues through, you know — trying to reach folks in ways that they can hear, I think, is important.
And, I would add, everybody’s got a different role to play. If Chris Rock’s doing stand-up, then there is a benefit to him doing something that is different from the president of the United States doing something. For one thing, you know, he doesn’t have to edit his language quite as carefully because I am still subject to, you know, some restraints — those seven words George Carlin talked about, I can’t use those, as a general proposition because a lot of children are watching. I try to comport myself in a way that my mother would approve of.