President Obama in Jamaica


For people following President Barack Obama, it sometimes seems like the last thing he wants to discuss is racism. But perhaps to the surprise of many, he has spoken about the subject on more than one occasion.

Last week would feature some of his biggest remarks on race relations to date though. What started with mourning turned into a call towards improving the lives of Black Americans. The shooting in Charleston, S.C., that left nine members of the Emanuel AME church in the city dead largely hung over the week. It would get somewhat lost in a side debate over the N-Word when Obama dropped it during a podcast with a comedian, Marc Maron. Amid a week of historic Supreme Court rulings, Obama still had to steer the conversation on racism when he visited Charleston for the funeral of the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was gunned down in the attack on Emanuel AME church during bible study. There he would give perhaps his greatest speech on race in America, and arguably the best one of his presidency.

But these were not the only moments he shared thoughts about race relations in the U.S. While President Obama would mostly shy away from the subject for his first term, he did give subtle cues to acknowledge or almost wink at his Black constituency. But after being re-elected, he started to speak more openly about the subject.

These are a few of the more notable times he gave an honest take on race.

Obama in 2013: The Trayvon Martin Verdict

In 2012, Obama made the remark that Travyon Martin could have been his son, but this comment would become fodder for a GOP party looking to win the 2012 election. He then largely avoided discussing race through his re-election, and it seemed like it would remain that way into his second term. When the verdict for the Martin case came down, he at first issued a press statement on the subject. As the trial aftermath and protests began to dominate the news cycle, it became clear that the subject was not going away.

About a week after the verdict, Obama made an unscheduled appearance in the White House Press Briefing Room, shocking the few reporters who actually showed up for the routine presser. While this was probably a strategic move on his part, it appears his decision to speak was a spontaneous one promoted by feelings and thoughts he had rarely shared while in office. Not since his A More Perfect Union speech in 2008 had he spent so much time talking about racism and how it affects the Black American community.

Obama in 2014: Discussing Police Brutality With BET

In a rather surprising move, shortly after the grand jury decision not to indict NYPD office Daniel Pantaleo for the chokehold death of Eric Garner, Obama decided to give an exclusive interview to BET about race relations. A few years before he did an interview with Black Enterprise and said he was the president of every group in the U.S. But perhaps since he was no longer worried about getting a second term, he jumps deeper into the topic here and explains the tensions between Black communities and police officers.

Obama in 2014: The PEOPLE Magazine Interview On Racism And Stereotypes

It was also a bit surprising he addressed racism at length in an interview with PEOPLE magazine. Here he was joined by First Lady Michelle Obama as they both spoke about dealing with discrimination. They describe being mistaken for waiters at times and how they had issues hailing cabs before becoming politicians. He also praised LeBron James and athletes who wore ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirts, saying they followed in the steps of sports figures like Muhammad Ali.

Obama in 2015: Selma And The Interview On Air Force One

For the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, President Obama would give one of his biggest speeches on race to date. What some may not know about is the interview he gave beforehand. As he traveled to Alabama on Air Force One, five Black journalists joined him on the flight and were each given a chance to ask him a question. The journalists, writing for publications such as the New York Times, ESSENCE and Grantland, published their stories after the anniversary. Separately each answer is interesting, but together they all reveal something about the leader of the United States.

Obama in 2015: Talking Baltimore With Dave Letterman

This was a rather unusual moment for him to discuss race. Usually his trips to late night shows are about promoting something, or to escape Washington and connect with the American people. Sometimes it is both. In this case he was bidding farewell to Dave Letterman before the late host retired. Perhaps it was unavoidable given the tensions in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, but the President gave a nuanced answer about the situation. Unlike some of his previous remarks on Baltimore, his commentary on Letterman was not focused on reprimanding activists and the frustration with police brutality. Here he was more or less explaining to the rest of America why the situation flared up.


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