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Obama Answers Critics That He Hasn't Done Enough To Help Black People


We are finishing a unique examination of President Obama's years in office. And we have a preview this morning.


An NPR News team has traveled a good part of the country. This was the assignment - ask voters how their lives have changed these past eight years. Their answers became part of an NPR radio documentary. It will be heard on many NPR stations in the coming weeks.

INSKEEP: People we met, from Denver to Philadelphia, include Kwame Rose. He's an African-American activist in Baltimore. He was upset when President Obama criticized looting during protests last year.

What did he say that bothered you?

KWAME ROSE: He called us thugs and criminals. And you don't know the story behind each one of those individuals. I was one of the people he called a thug and a criminal because I was out there.

INSKEEP: I think the phrasing was - most people are protesting peacefully. And then there's a small number of thugs and criminals who are destroying things.

ROSE: Yeah, but even in a notion to differentiate peaceful - when I was there, firsthand experiences, watching people run in the stores, I didn't interpret it as violence. I interpreted it as a survival skills - as a survival tactic.

INSKEEP: So did you find the president to be supportive?

ROSE: No. I've - I don't think the president has done enough for black people.

INSKEEP: Rose is one of many people, with many points of view, we hear in the documentary. We passed on his remark to President Obama during an interview this week at the White House. And the president replied, he's been working for criminal justice reform.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I would also say, though, is that if somebody is looting, they're looting. And the notion that they're making a political statement is not always the case because these are businesses oftentimes owned by African-Americans. You have situations in which, suddenly, friends of mine in Baltimore - their mothers, who are elderly, have to now travel across town to get their medicines because the local drug store got torn up. And making excuses for them, I think, is a mistake.

There are ways of bringing about social change that are powerful and that have the ability to pull the country together and maintain the moral high ground. And there are approaches where I may understand the frustrations, but they're counterproductive. And tearing up your own neighborhood and stealing is counterproductive.

INSKEEP: If I were to summarize what else this young man said, I might say that he feels that he is trying to overturn what he sees as a racist or corrupt system and that you've become part of it.

OBAMA: Yeah, I - look, Steve, I think that you can always find folks who are going to feel as if change hasn't happened fast enough. That's the nature of these issues. And by virtue of being president of the United States, if there's a problem out there, there's - then I'm the ultimate public official that people know. And if it hasn't gotten fixed in a couple weeks (laughter), then people are going to say - why didn't you fix it? I think it'd be - I think people would be pretty hard-pressed to not see the efforts that we put in around criminal justice reform, where we're supporting it fully.

INSKEEP: As part of this project, we also had a look at your 2008 campaign speech in Philadelphia about race in which you talked, in one passage, about anger in the black community, which you said is sometimes counterproductive. But it's real, and there are reasons for it. There's another passage, which I hadn't even noticed before, in which you say there is a similar anger among some in the white community who don't feel particularly privileged by their race and do feel frustrated that they're losing jobs, losing pensions...

OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Feel like they're losing ground.

OBAMA: Right.

INSKEEP: Looking back, were you describing there the same force that is driving much of our election discussion here in 2016?

OBAMA: Well, not only the election discussion driving 2016 - this has been an ongoing theme in American history. You can go back in - during Jim Crow and segregation. And you've got black sharecroppers who have nothing and, alongside them, poor, white farmers who don't have that much more, except for the fact that they're white and the degree to which a lot of politics in the South were specifically designed to make sure that that sharecropper and that white farmer didn't get together.

To question how the economy was structured and how they both could benefit, that's one of the oldest stories in American politics. So it's not surprising that what I said in 2008 still holds true today. It was true for a long time. The nature of racial bias in this country is unique. And the challenges that African-Americans have faced are incomparable. Native Americans in this country, you know, were burdened by extraordinary bias and cruelty and - as well. And it's probably not useful to sort of catalog every possible group's grievances.

What is true, though, is that, as I travel around the country, what a black, working-class person has in common with a white, working-class person is significant. And what prevents them from voting along the same lines or working together on the same projects have to do with a whole range of cultural and identity issues, which, you know, they obviously feel are important and valid. But what I've tried to do throughout my presidency is get - try to get people to recognize themselves in each other.


INSKEEP: That's part of our conversation with President Obama at the White House this week. We put questions to the president as part of a documentary project, one hour with voters and another hour with the president. Many NPR stations will broadcast those hours in days to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.