As in American life, matters of race in “A Promised Land” are omnipresent. They pop up and then leave us to deal with the aftermath. One minute you’re reading about, say, the mortgage crisis in Chapter 12 and then enter a moment-of-race (page 275) that the former president integrates into his masterful storytelling — because to leave it out would be to ignore a major factor in the opposition to what he was trying to do.
But what I found especially refreshing was Obama’s unsparing observations and honest assessments of race in America and on his administration. While in the White House, he did this with excruciating care, if he addressed the issue at all, especially after a fateful news conference six months into his first term.
Obama summed up the collective exasperation of Black Americans when he wrote that he “was frustrated with the constant need to soften for white folks’ benefit the blunt truths about race in this country.” This was part of his recollection about the political hand grenade that was a 2007 Rolling Stone article on his candidacy which featured a fiery sermon by his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
What happens when those blunt truths about race aren’t softened for White folks played out with maddening perfection almost immediately after a news conference on health care two years later. The final query was about Obama’s thoughts on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Someone called the cops on the renowned African American scholar and historian who was trying to force open the door to his own home.
Q: Thank you, Mr. President. Recently Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?The President: … Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.
To me and other African Americans, what the president said was so true and unassailable that neither he nor we thought anything of it. That is, until the backlash hit. The outrage and tender feelings revealed in the ensuing days were a sight to behold. As was the reaction of fellow Black Americans who wanted him to give more of a full-throated defense of the truth he spoke. Understanding the political peril, Obama tried to play racial diplomat, right down to hosting the famous “beer summit” at the White House. But it didn’t help, especially with White Americans. “The Gates affair caused a huge drop in my support among white voters, bigger than would come from any single event during the eight years of my presidency,” Obama writes in his book. “It was support that I’d never completely get back.”
Freed of the presidency, an unplugged Obama seems to unburden himself of more than a decade’s worth of frustration and irritation over the incident. Complaining about the coverage and its impact on nervous Democrats who worried about the health-care bill, Obama writes, “You would have thought that in the press conference I had donned a dashiki and cussed out the police myself.”
Obama accurately depicts why the Gates affair clawed at America’s deepest psychic wound. “For a big swath of white America, Gates’s arrest was entirely deserved, a simple case of someone not showing the proper respect for a routine law enforcement procedure,” he writes. “For Blacks, it was just one more example of the humiliations and inequities, large and small, suffered at the hands of the police specifically and white authority in general.” The former president, who “found the episode depressing,” called the controversy “a vivid reminder that not even the highest level of Black achievement and the most accommodating of white settings could escape the cloud of our racial history.”
Then, in a series of paragraphs that give voice to the painful lament of generations of Black Americans, Obama unloaded.
For just about every Black man in the country, and every woman who loved a Black man, and every parent of a Black boy, it was not a matter of paranoia or “playing the race card” or disrespecting law enforcement to conclude that whatever else had happened that day in Cambridge, this much was almost certainly true: A wealthy, famous, five-foot-six, 140-pound, fifty-eight-year-old white Harvard professor who walked with a cane because of a childhood leg injury would not have been handcuffed and taken down to the station merely for being rude to a cop who’d forced him to produce some form of identification while standing on his own damn property.
And after the beer summit, he recollects sitting in the Oval Office reflecting on what had happened.
Michelle, friends like Valerie [Jarrett] and Marty [Nesbitt], Black senior officials like Attorney General Eric Holder, ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, and U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk — we were all accustomed to running the obstacle course necessary to be effective inside predominantly white institutions. We’d grown skilled at suppressing our reactions to minor slights, ever ready to give white colleagues the benefit of the doubt, remaining mindful that all but the most careful discussions of race risked triggering in them a mild panic. …It seemed to tap into some of the deepest undercurrents of our nation’s psyche, touching on the rawest of nerves, perhaps because it reminded all of us, Black and white alike, that the basis of our nation’s social order had never been simply about consent; that it was also about centuries of state-sponsored violence by whites against Black and brown people, and that who controlled legally sanctioned violence, how it was wielded and against whom, still mattered in the recesses of our tribal minds much more than we cared to admit.
Some will come away thinking “Where was THIS Obama in the White House?” Several times in “A Promised Land,” he acknowledges how slow he was to recognize or appreciate the dynamics around him. But as those paragraphs show, Obama has long understood the demands of navigating whiteness while Black in America. Think of it as walking a tightrope in rolling fog between two skyscrapers without a net at night. And that doesn’t even take into account the countervailing tensions Black Americans, particularly Black professionals, face within our own community from a “Blacker-than-thou” crowd policing our every move without care or concern for nuance, context or political reality. But that’s another subject for another day.
Obama had additional thoughts when I asked him about the Gates affair during an MSNBC special last week. He zeroed in on the work we still have to do, but he also homed in on what he sees as the hope for the future in a reawakened America after the killing of George Floyd in May and the nationwide protests that followed.
“The issue that I think we still haven’t always resolved is our ability to just communicate honestly. There’s such a filter of expectations, biases, assumptions,” he said during our conversation on the stage of the Lincoln Theatre here in D.C. “One of the dangers in our current climate is making a lot of assumptions about people just based on the surface and not taking the time to listen to people’s stories.”
Don’t think that Obama is not mindful of the limitations of this approach when it comes to criminal justice reform. “At the end of the day though, when it comes to the criminal justice system, all the understanding in the world is not going to solve the problem if, when a police officer does something wrong, he’s not held accountable,” he told me. “It’s not going to solve the problem if you have a situation where the police union rules had set things up such that … if it’s a controversy, the benefit of the doubt is always going to go to the police officer, even when there’s film showing something happened. So, we’re still going to have to change law, change rules.”
Changes in society are already underway. Racial attitudes that have stunted our national emotional growth are giving way to the new attitudes and understandings of the upcoming generation that includes Obama’s own daughters.
“One of the things that I have been proud to see in Malia, in Sasha, in her White friends, her Hispanic friends, this generation that’s coming up, is they are much more open in discussing these issues,” Obama said. “I think that the White kids that are their peers are much more attuned to these issues, which is why you saw them march alongside Black and brown kids this summer.” He went on to say that he thinks part of the reason is cultural, from listening to hip-hop to seeing Black sports heroes and, yes, a Black first family. “They’ve grown up with a different set of assumptions and attitudes, and I think that is promising.”
“A Promised Land” is just the first volume of his look-back at his two terms in office. It ends with the raid that took out Osama bin Laden in 2011. That means the killing of Trayvon Martin, the murder of the nine Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement should figure prominently in Obama’s second volume. No doubt his thoughts on those consequential moments will be powerful, raw and what the nation needs to hear.
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