Examining Obama's Legacy On Race Relations, And What To Expect From Trump

Jan 22, 2017
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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

On Friday, the nation's first black president ended his time in office. And a new president, Donald Trump, who has a complicated relationship to issues of race, took over. So we thought it would be a good moment to take a closer look at where we're at when we talk about race in America.

We're joined by three African-American writers who have been thinking about this transition. Here with me in our Washington studio is Debra Dickerson. She's a freelance journalist and the author of "The End of Blackness." On the line, we have Damon Young. He's the editor-in-chief of the black culture website Very Smart Brothas and a columnist at GQ. Also on the line is Jason Riley. He's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a Wall Street Journal columnist.

Thanks for being here everyone.

JASON RILEY: Good to be here.

DEBRA DICKERSON: Glad to be here.

DAMON YOUNG: Thank you for having us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So a lot of people believed that the fact of Barack Obama's presidency, the first black president, signified a measure of racial progress. In a few words from each of you, what is Obama's legacy on this issue? Let's start with Debra.

DICKERSON: Obviously impossible to encapsulate in a few words - but Barack Obama had to happen. There had to be a first black. And he had to be the safest possible choice. And there was no safer choice than Barack Obama. He's everybody's starter negro.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Damon?

YOUNG: I think that this election proves, or proved, that America ultimately wasn't ready. I kind of equate it to a bank accidentally putting a whole bunch of money into your account and then realizing they made the mistake and then taking all the money out and your money, too. It feels like that we've regressed from where we were before.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we'll talk about why in a minute. But Jason, I want to hear your thoughts on President Obama's legacy.

RILEY: Well, I do think we've regressed. I agree with that. And the polls, I think, bear that out. And I think that has partly to do with the high expectations that Obama came into office with and partly to do with how he's governed. So there are some things within his control that have affected that and some things, I think, outside of his control that have affected that.

For instance, crime overall is down, at least from where it was back in the early 1990s. But it spiked in many major cities like Baltimore and Chicago and Los Angeles. And I think given the high rates of black crime, that's going to impact race relations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Debra, I read a piece by Carvell Wallace in The New Yorker just in the past few days. In his last line he writes, what President Obama left me with is power. He felt empowered by the simple fact of a black presidency. You don't feel that, though.

DICKERSON: Well, I don't think it can be gainsaid that having had a black president changes things. Even if his tenure had been disastrous, America survived eight years of having a black president. And that changes things. And I think that for a lot of black people, the fact that we had a black first family that conducted itself so well - sadly, respectability politics is still real. So I think it's the kind of shot in the arm, sadly, that black people need because we're still in a place where when something bad happens, black people text each other and go - oh, God, please tell me they weren't black. You know?

So I think that will be emboldening of a lot of black people to push harder for progress in the face of some really virulent pushback.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jason, I want to move on from President Obama and talk a little bit about President Trump. He alienated a lot of people during the campaign using racially charged language. What do you make of this moment, transitioning from President Obama to a President Trump with such a complicated history?

RILEY: Well, I think it's hard to discuss Trump without discussing Obama because I think Trump is Obama's legacy. You know, Obama entered the national stage talking about no red America, no blue America, no white America, no black America, then he gets elected and allies himself with people like Al Sharpton, one of the most racially divisive figures in America over the past 30 years. People were taken aback by that.

Obama embraced the Black Lives Matter movement, a very controversial protest group - appoints one of their leaders to his presidential task force on policing. And then, subsequently, we get this alt-right nonsense rising, which I think is the flip side of the Black Lives Matter protest movement. And then, you know, we have them feeding into Trump. I don't think that that's why Trump got elected necessarily. I think he got elected because he flipped a lot of Obama voters. But clearly, he tapped into something there that I think is part of Obama's legacy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm assuming, Damon, that you disagree with what Jason just said?

YOUNG: Yeah, I...

DICKERSON: As does Debra.

YOUNG: ...Disagree with a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: I'm hearing right now...

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: ...I don't know if I have time (laughter)...

DICKERSON: Yeah.

YOUNG: ...To go into each of it. You know, I guess I'll start with the last - well, one of the last things that Jason said about the alt-right movement being the equivalent of Black Lives Matter. I just find that to be absurd, maybe even a little ridiculous just because the Black Lives Matter movement, I mean, literally is just saying black lives matter. And that in itself was a pushback to - I don't know - an idea that black lives had been devalued and, you know, just not treated with the same preciousness and the same regard as other lives. And to equate that with the alt-right movement, which is a movement which is saying black lives don't matter, ultimately, I can't - and I think that even, like, a statement like that, a thought like that just goes to just this normalization of ideas that belong on a fringe. And it's, like - it's almost enraging.

RILEY: Well, can I respond to that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, this is a conversation.

RILEY: They're similar in that they're both forms of identity politics. I think it's bad for our country to indulge in this sort of thing. And I'm saying President Obama played this game. He made explicit racial appeals to people. He went on black radio and said, I will be personally offended if you do not vote for me, black people - or vote for Hillary Clinton, black people. And he took it even further than that in many of the policies he pushed, you know, equating support for voter ID laws to black disenfranchisement.

DICKERSON: There's a direct relationship between those two things that is readily historically provable. But you introduced the notion of identity politics. Well, identity politics is what started this entire problem. You know - who are the people who can be enslaved? Who are the people who have to sit in the back of the bus? It was on the basis of a particular identity. And when, you know, people start to embrace that identity and push back, you can't then have a problem with identity politics.

And when you hear Trump voters enunciating some of their reasons for embracing Mr. Trump, it's very, very clear that they see what I would call rising equality as a loss for them. They used to be at the top. They used code words, but these kind of jobs used to go to white people. We used to be able to live in this kind of neighborhood, and now we cant.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're saying that white people feel threatened?

DICKERSON: Well - and that whiteness is currency - that there are very specific privileges that attach to it that they feel are being taken from them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Damon, while some accuse President Obama of using identity politics, certainly many people accuse President Trump of using identity politics to get elected. What tangible steps do you think this administration could take on matters of race?

YOUNG: I just don't see anything that Trump or his administration can do that can heal or even stem any type of racial divide. Like, I think that it's completely out of his hands. He'll just - only thing he could do is just make things worse and exacerbate whatever issues. So it's up to the people who are feeling down (laughter) this week and feeling angry and feeling depressed to do something.

DICKERSON: This is a moment for white people. I really believe this is like the Missouri-Kansas border wars, you know, that led to the Civil War. I think this is a war - we're being torn apart in this country. Are we going to be...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You feel this is a civil war?

DICKERSON: Yes. Are we going to be turning each other in? You know, ooh, I saw this one secretly wearing a hijab, you know. You know, I think this one's secretly illegal. And you read these kinds of things going on being collected on the internet.

This is a moment that needs to be led by white people, I really believe. And I read about, like, book clubs forming all over the country with white people learning about privilege and learning the history that has been, quite consciously, kept out of the curriculums. White people need to wake up. They need to get woke and stay woke. I think if you actually look at this country and say - I don't like the way things are. Let me see what my role in it is. And then afterwards, if you tried to educate yourself, if you still feel everything's fine - fine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So your prescription is education. Jason, where do you think President Trump needs to go to end this discussion?

RILEY: Well, I spent some time a few days after the election in Harlem speaking to black residents and getting their reaction. And a lot of the blacks I spoke to - you know, these were shop owners. These were retirees and business owners and ministers - and they want what everyone else wants. They want safe neighborhoods. They want good schools.

And I think if Trump can deliver on that - they want good jobs - he'll be fine. The country will begin to heal. So I think it's going to be whether he can get this economy going. Job growth will be very important. He wants to do something with education reform. He's a fan of school choice, so are a lot of black people, particularly poorer black people. And so I think he does have an opportunity here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Debra Dickerson, freelance journalist and author; Damon Young, editor-in-chief of Very Smart Brothas and Jason Riley, Wall Street Journal columnist, thank you so much for talking with me today.

DICKERSON: It was fun.

YOUNG: Thank you.

RILEY: Thank you.

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