Former President Barack Obama spoke about race relations in America during the second episode of his new podcast with Bruce Springsteen, arguing that at its heart, racism is an “assertion of status over the other.”
“I may be poor. I may be ignorant. I may be mean. I may be ugly. I may not like myself. I may be unhappy. But you know what I’m not? I’m not you,” Obama said, describing the impetus behind one person calling another a racial epithet.
In the second episode of Renegades: Born in the USA, the 44th president said this psychology was institutionalised over time to justify dehumanising others and taking advantage of them. Racism is also due to an inner fear that “I’m insignificant and not important. And this thing is the thing that’s going to give me some importance,” Obama added.
To demonstrate his point, he brought up an instance from his school days in Hawaii, when he came to blows with a friend who called him a “coon.”
“It’s one of those things that where he might not even know what a coon was – what he knew was, ‘I can hurt you by saying this,’” Obama recalled. “And I remember I popped him in the face and broke his nose and we were in the locker room. … And he said, ‘Why’d you do that?’ And I explained to him, ‘Don’t you ever call me something like that.’”
Obama and Springsteen also discussed the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across America in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in 2020, agreeing that the late John Lewis – who Obama said “embodied [a] very particular brand of courage” – had influenced an entire generation with his history of protesting for racial equality.
Finally, the pair touched upon reparations, which Obama said were justified in his mind due to the fact that “the wealth of this country, the power of this country … not exclusively, maybe not even the majority of it … but a large portion of it, was built on the backs of slaves.”
Getting a wide swath of Americans to agree on any sort of viable reparations programme is another matter, the former president stressed, acknowledging that it was “perfectly understandable why working-class white folks, middle-class white folks, folks who are having trouble paying the bills or dealing with student loans … wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea of a massive program that is designed to deal with the past but isn’t speaking to their future.”
“We can’t even get this country to provide decent schooling for inner-city kids,” Obama said. “And what I saw during my presidency was the politics of white resistance and resentment. The talk of ‘welfare queens’ and the talk of the ‘undeserving’ poor. And the backlash against affirmative action. All that made the prospect of actually proposing any kind of coherent, meaningful reparations program … not only a non-starter but potentially counterproductive.”