President Obama’s appearance on Comedy Central Monday night became anything but a laughing matter when the discussion turned to the issue of racism in America. In response to a question on race by host Trevor Noah, the president told The Daily Show audience that America has “by no means overcome the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and racism.” Despite being hampered by this racist legacy, however, Obama noted that America has made some “real and extraordinary” progress.
Noah led into the discussion by asking Obama how he handled talking about race in public. In his suggestive question, Noah implied that Obama was likely not being fully honest about his “true opinions on race” in public, asking the president how he manages to “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.”
Obama responded by saying that he has never avoided the complex issue, and while acknowledging that America has made significant progress on race, underscoring that it is still plagued by the racism of the past.
“You know, 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,” Obama said. “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 of 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.”
Obama emphasized that he has always been honest about his opinion on race, insisting there he has never been a time during his presidency that he felt like he had to “bite [his] tongue”; instead, he said, he has simply made sure to be “diplomatic” in how he expressed his opinion.
“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,” he told Noah. “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?'”
The president said that when he discusses race, he has tried to take the higher road and “appeal to the better angels of our nature.” This, he stressed, is not failing to speak truth to power but, rather, the best way to break down barriers.
“Now, some might say, well, you’re not speaking fully truth to power because of that diplomacy,” he said. “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.”