Roundtable with African American Journalists En Route to Selma

Photo: Valerie Jarrett

Photo: Valerie Jarrett


Office of the Press Secretary

THE PRESIDENT: So I won’t give a big windup. Obviously this is a powerful day for me, being able to take my family and particularly my children down to Selma. But I think it’s also a powerful day for the country. In some ways, the timing is good — the week that the report on Ferguson came out around the same time that the task force that I put together in the aftermath of Ferguson presented its findings and recommendations too.

I think we have a great opportunity to not duplicate the spirit of 50 years ago, but at least draw inspiration from it and try to apply it in concrete ways that can restore trust between community and law enforcement around the country; that can refocus our efforts around criminal justice reform; that can spark a conversation around the continuing legacies in Jim Crow that led to impoverished and isolated communities; and that can provide some impetus for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.

Those are all things that I’ll talk about in my remarks today. But the thing that makes it most important for me is not what I have to say, but rather giving Malia and Sasha a chance to soak in some of the history that has given them opportunities that 50 years ago never could have been imagined, and that like all young people that may tend to sometimes take for granted.

And with that, I will just open it up. And I will start with you, April, and we’ll just go around the table.

Q Okay, Mr. President, as we look at issues of race, this has been a very historic window these last couple of weeks. Reflecting on these last couple of weeks and then moving forward, there are markers in history. We have one marker that could be Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation. We have LBJ with civil rights and voting rights. And then people say another marker is you. They talk about post-racial America. Is this post-racial, or would you say post-Obama? Because you have created — effectuated a lot of change in your administration with criminal justice reform and civil rights issues. Would you say that — would you embrace the idea of a post-Obama or post-racial society?

THE PRESIDENT: I’m not sure exactly what you mean by the post-racial versus post-Obama, but here’s what I —

Q You being a marker.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, here’s what I’ll say. I think that there’s no doubt that my election was a significant moment in the country’s racial history. I say that with all humility. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been somebody else. But a barrier was broken.

I think that legacy will continue in the minds of children who are growing up never having known to this point a President who wasn’t black. And I think that shapes attitudes among young African American children, but also among all children. And I’d like to think that that will have a useful, lasting effect in terms of people’s attitudes about who can do what, and changes people’s images of what’s possible for any child in America.

I wouldn’t equate my election with seminal moments like the Emancipation Proclamation or the passage of the Civil Rights Act of ’64 or the Voting Rights Act of ’65. Those were massive changes in legal status that represented fundamental breaks with America’s tragic history, and were the pillars — the 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment, 15th Amendment — of Civil Rights Acts of the ‘60s. Those were the — those represented the dismantling of formal discrimination in this country. There’s nothing that’s going to compare to that.

Moving forward, our work is to build on that work to fine-tune that work where we see formal discrimination or state-sponsored discrimination still occurring. But increasingly, our work has to do with dealing with the ongoing legacy of a divided society — closing the opportunity gaps, closing the achievements gaps, closing the wealth gaps — that inevitably have been passed on from generation to generation because the gaps were so wide.

And that involves no one piece of legislation, but it requires a host of different efforts. It means investing in early childhood education. It means us making sure everybody is got health insurance. It means the kind of public-private work that we’re doing through My Brother’s Keeper. It means getting more African Americans in STEM education, in math and science and engineering.

And so there’s not going to be one silver bullet, but rather it’s going to be a sustained effort on a variety of fronts that will take us on the next leg of this journey towards a more just society.

Q So I wanted to ask about the Department of Justice report, because you recently said that Selma is now, because of what’s going on in Ferguson and also in New York City. So what are the ways in which we can actually reconcile a lot of these tensions and issues between communities of color and law enforcement that go beyond simply retraining officers? Like, how do we reach a meeting of the minds in a different way?

THE PRESIDENT: I would ask that people take a look at the task force report, because I think they did a really good job. We had police officers, police chiefs, academics, experts of criminal justice, but we also had activists — in particular, two of the young people who were directly involved in mobilizing protests both in Ferguson and in New York.

And what was striking was the way they were able to arrive at a consensus in a fairly short period of time. And training of police departments was important, but they also talked about hiring, and diversifying police forces so that they reflect the community — reinvigorating the concept of community policing so that police officers aren’t just interacting with the community in moments of tension and conflict, but are in the schools helping kids, or working hand-in-hand with the community on a community project.

There were specific sets of issues around accountability and transparency — making sure that police departments are disclosing data, particularly around fatal shootings; making sure that investigations and prosecutions are independent. There was discussions around technology and how those could be used properly. And there was, I think, throughout, an emphasis on police departments acknowledging when mistakes are made or problems happen, rather than getting into a defensive crouch.

Now, I think the challenge for the task for is going to be there are 18,000 law enforcement jurisdictions — police departments, sheriffs departments — spread out all across the country. The question then is, how do we push down these recommendations into the local level. Because the vast majority of law enforcement is not done at the federal level.

They had some specific recommendations for federal law enforcement, but many of those have already been implemented. For example, they talked about the need to demilitarize law enforcement responses to protests. That’s something that I had already signed an executive order to start looking at.

And so I think our next task now is not only to engage police chiefs and sheriffs departments and others across the country around why this is good for them as well as good for the community, but where there may be resistance to change — figuring out are there ways that we can get some leverage. And at some point, some of that’s going to require I think leadership from governors and mayors, as well as police departments. I think states are going to have to care about this and not just the feds.

Q Mr. President, so since you were — since I was in college, which is when you were elected, I’ve watched everything you’ve had to go through — jumping through hoops, going over hurdles, everything. And there’s been a common notion amongst my peers — peers who were very interested in getting into politics, being politicians, even that — this idea of if Barack Obama can’t say or do what we think he wants to say or do as President, then could any of us ever do that if we get into politics, be it about Ferguson, about gay rights — any of these things where we feel we know what he wants to say, but he can’t really do it at that moment.

Is that a sentiment that you are commonly aware of? And does it at all inform kind of how you want to wrap up your presidency? And I guess if you were trying to advise someone in this climate that wanted to make some change or have an immediate impact, would you advise them into getting into politics?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I mean, let me say a couple things about that. First of all, one of the things I’m very proud about, from the time that I ran for the U.S. Senate to me running for President to being President is I’ve said what I meant. I haven’t engaged in a lot of editing. Now, I don’t always say it the way I might say it if I’m sitting over at the dinner table with Michelle. I might not say it the way I say it if I’m on the basketball court with some of my buddies. But the trajectory of what I’ve said, what I care about around policy, I haven’t had to bite my tongue. I think that’s a mistake.

A lot of times where this comes up in the African American community has been the notion of, well, he hasn’t just said this is racist, or he hasn’t just called out what somebody did, or he hasn’t specifically talked about why the African American community as opposed to poor folks or middle-class folks generally need help, and hasn’t targeted enough the racial problems in this country. And I’ve answered that publicly as well, which is I am the President of all people, and if I pass legislation that is boosting their income tax credit for low-income workers, I know by definition that African Americans will be disproportionately helped by that.

The notion that I would describe that as a bill targeting African Americans not only does not get — help it get passed, but it also then ignores all the white folks who are also struggling, and all the Hispanic folks who are also struggling. And my job is to build coalitions of like-minded people who care about the same issues I care about.

When it comes to issues of racial justice around — that are very specific around criminal justice, whether it’s Trayvon or Ferguson or other circumstances, I have been very forward-leaning, with the exception that I have not commented on active investigations or potential prosecutions. The reason for that is not because I’m self-editing, the reason is the formal role I have. Eric Holder is my boss — or I am Eric Holder’s boss. The prosecutors who are investigating the cases report to Eric Holder, and if it looks like I’m putting thumbs on the scale, that can have an adverse impact on the resolution of these cases.

Now, to go to young people generally, and how they might think about public service, I don’t think that politics is the only way to serve. You can write a great book. You start a wonderful business. You start a non-profit. You’re a principal or a teacher inside a school that’s doing a great job. Those are all meaningful ways of advancing the cause.

But we can’t ignore politics. That’s how we make determinations about our institutional arrangements in this society. That’s how resources get allocated. That’s how we decide whether a school gets money or a young person gets a student loan, or a young private gets sent to war and how he or she is treated when they come back, or whether we’re going to protect our seniors from economic insecurity when they retire. Those are all political issues, and to avoid them makes no sense.

And the notion that there are going to be times where you have to compromise in politics suggests that you don’t have to compromise at grantland, or you don’t have to compromise as a business person. That’s more a reflection of young people, thinking you can do whatever you want. The truth of the matter is, is that we live in a society where you got to work with others and not everybody is going to agree with you all the time. And the more your influence expands, the more a diverse set of people you’re going to have to deal with. That’s a skillset you’re going to need no matter what.

Q Mr. President, in 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his first speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and he said to the nation, give us the vote, and we will help — black voters will help change the nation for the better. We got the vote in 1965, a lot of changes have occurred. Are you concerned that the ruling in Shelby, the Shelby case, threatens the reversal of many of those changes from occurring?

THE PRESIDENT: I’ll address this in my speech today. I don’t think we should underestimate or downplay the risks that enforcing voting rights becomes more difficult in the absence of some of the tools that were provided in the Voting Rights Act and that were stripped out by the Shelby ruling.

Part of the challenge of voting rights has always been how do you catch up to all these local jurisdictions everywhere that may be engaging in illegal practices. And part of what preclearance allowed the Justice Department to do was to say, we’re not going to go chasing you around, playing whack-a-mole all across the country; if you want to make some significant changes, you got to come to us. And so it was a way of expanding enforcement coverage in an efficient way.

That’s why I think reauthorization that addresses some of those lingering gaps is very important. I think it’s also important to understand that there are jurisdictions that are instituting changes in voting rights with the specific purpose of making it harder to vote, and for the specific purpose of making it harder for certain groups of people to vote. And we have to push back against those laws.

But two things I do want to also emphasize. The first is that our rights to vote are preserved through the 14th Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause. They’re not dependent on the Voting Rights Act. And I think people should understand that there’s no prospect of wholesale reversal of the gains that have been made. This is an issue of how do we make sure our enforcement is effective, that it’s not a gutting of voting rights.

And the second point is if you eliminated every restrictive voting law, every photo ID law on the books; if you reverse the Shelby rule tomorrow, we still have, at best, half our folks voting on a regular basis. The other half made their own decision not to vote. They disenfranchised themselves. This last midterm we had about a third of the eligible population voting.

So it’s useful for us to remind ourselves that as important and serious as these restrictive efforts are, as hard as we have to push back against them, with those changes in place, we could still be voting at a 90 percent rate or a 95 percent rate. That would transform our politics immediately. And that’s part of what I think a day like today should lead us to reflect on: How much change was brought, how much power was generated by folks who had so much less than us and were up against such greater odds than us.

If we summoned a fraction of the courage and determination and perseverance that they brought to bear, imagine what we’d do now.

Q So in 2007 you spoke in Selma. You talked about the Moses generation, which is the civil rights generation, and the Joshua generation. And there were some acknowledgements of struggles and gaps that you talked about already — empathy gap, vote gap, education gap, economic gap. I would even add to that now, racial gap, as polls now show that people at least believe that the relationship between races is getting worse, not better, under your administration. And you also talked about — you were kind of critical — you talked about — were just speaking about lack of kind of voter participation, fatherhood, internalized oppression. Eight years on, how do you register the change, if any, in the Joshua generation and how they are progressing or not? And what do you view your role in that is or is not? And what do you think your legacy will be for that?

THE PRESIDENT: That was a big question. So this — we’ll wrap up since we’re landing.

First of all, let me say that I am skeptical that race relations have worsened over the last six years. And I say that because we’ve got very short memories. What is true is over the last several years, there have been some significant episodes that have been highlighted and discussed in the media that have led, I think, people to think about this more.

But the notion that Trayvon Martin or the Garner case or Ferguson wasn’t happening in all the years before that –- that is not how it was experienced by me in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. I recall something called the Rodney King riots that was a pretty big deal. And so part of how these surveys get generated is what’s been in the news at a particular point in time. I would actually argue –- and people express skepticism, and they’re free to do so –- that we continue to make steady progress, because I see in each successive generation people more open to talking about these issues, people talking about them with more clarity. I think that’s true within the white community, I think it’s true within the African American community.

I think the fact that our society is becoming more diverse so it’s not just black, white, but now it’s Hispanic and Asian and even within the African American community, there’s West Indian and African as well as African American — all of that in the mix makes our kids more sophisticated, more willing to talk about these things in a serious way, but also I think more willing to listen to how other people see the world and view the world, and that permeates our culture as well.

As problematic as Ferguson was, as painful as the Garner case was, there was no violence of great significance. And there was no backlash that permeated the white community. And people actually had a fairly civil conversation, and we ended up creating a task force and now we’ve got recommendations. And the police department is, for the most part, talking very constructively with us about how to move forward with it.

It doesn’t mean that the problems aren’t there. It doesn’t mean that they’re all going to get solved. It doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be a resistance when the rubber hits the road. But I compare how the debate has evolved over the last year and a half compared to how it might have evolved 10 years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago, and I’d say we’ve progressed.

Now, more broadly, when you talk about the Joshua generation and its role, I think that we see at a grassroots level, at a community level, all kinds of folks who are picking up at the top. The work we’re doing with My Brother’s Keeper, you see mayors and you see philanthropists and you see churches, and you see school leadership excited and engaged and investing, and seeing what works. I think at a policy level, we have continued to push and refine those things that we know will make a difference in the lives of our children — things like early childhood education or intervening with kids so that they’re reading at grade level by the time they’re in third grade, or looking more carefully at zero-tolerance policies and suspensions and the disparities there. And now, having a really serious conversation around criminal justice issues and sentencing -– a conversation that is bipartisan and wouldn’t have even been considered 10 years ago.

But having said all that, we can’t separate the challenges facing the African American community from the broader trend lines that we’ve seen in our society. And I am very proud of the fact that we saved an economy that could have gone into a Great Depression. We are now in an extraordinary recovery. Things have stabilized. Jobs are being created. Wages are starting to tick up. But where I have not been successful –- in part because we had to do so much early work just averting disaster -– is reversing some of these longer-term trends in terms of inequality, wage stagnation, the greater difficulty of blue-collar men, in particular, to attach to the labor market.

And as a consequence, I don’t think we’ve made the kind of progress we need to make when it comes to the link between social justice and civil rights, and economic justice. And that is not a problem unique to the African American community; that is a broader problem. And if it’s true that that is going to increasingly be the principal challenge that we face, then we’re going to have to shape a political message and a political coalition that allows us to aggressively address those issues. And right now, we don’t have that.

And so I guess if you ask me, in terms of my personal role, how this has played out, I think our policies have been sound, I think our vision has been right. I think we have made enormous progress, and I can show demonstrably how the lives not only of African Americans but working and middle-class people across the board are improved as the results of my presidency. But I have not -– we have not fully addressed this core problem of increasing inequality and the squeezing of the middle class and the eroding ladders into the middle class.

And I also think that the coalition that I was able to construct twice as a presidential candidate has not yet translated into the kind of coalition that can capture the Congress and state legislatures and state houses where a lot of that economic work is going to have to be done.

So going forward, I’ve got the Congress I’ve got, and I think my job is to try to frame these issues as effectively as I can so that they’re at the center of the debate in 2016, to help mobilize people as much as possible to get them engaged in that set of elections -– not just the President, but Congress, state and local races — and at the same time, do as much as I can, wherever I can, whether through executive actions or our convening power or occasionally passing bills through this Congress that can make a difference.

Thanks, guys.

END 1:21 P.M. EST

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