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“It’s Not Just a Matter of It Not Being Polite to Say 'Nigger'”: Obama Speaks Out on Racism

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President Obama spoke openly about racism in the United States during a podcast with comedian Marc Maron. In the interview, recorded two days after the Charleston massacre, Obama said, “Racism, we are not cured of, clearly. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.” We get a response from the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking on this day after the Republican governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, reversed her position and said that the Confederate battle flag must come down off the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol, but she’s putting it to the Legislature first. I want to go back to President Obama’s interview with Marc Maron on his podcast, WTF.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA, that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.

MARC MARON: Racism.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Racism, we are not cured of, clearly. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say “nigger” in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. We have—societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.

AMY GOODMAN: This clip is being played across the country, I dare say in many parts of the world, President Obama using the N-word. And I wanted to get first a response from Reverend Dr. William Barber, head of the state chapter of the NAACP in North Carolina, speaking to us from Raleigh. Your response?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: Well, first of all, the context of what President Obama is saying is exactly right. He’s saying that to talk about race, we have to move away from just thinking it’s the extreme—i.e. just a flag, or i.e. just saying the N-word. We have to recognize, as I said earlier, what Lee Atwater explained about the Southern strategy, that Kevin Phillips designed in 1968. He said, “I know how to win the South, but we have to move away from talking about race openly. We can’t do like George Wallace or Goldwater. We have to find a way to talk about race without sounding like it.” And he listed a number of things—tax cuts, forced busing, states’ rights—as code language for talking about race. Ronald Reagan used it when he started his campaign. He did not—he went—he started his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. And he never said the N-word, but he used all of the code words. And by being in Philadelphia, where Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were killed, it was clear.

And so, today, what the president is saying, you’ve got to look at structural, systemic racism. That’s what that young man meant when he said, “Somebody’s trying to take over and destroy my country.” He had heard politicians and others saying the president is ruining the country; he’s a socialist; he’s a communist; Medicaid, healthcare reform, is destroying the country; if we raise the wages, it’s destroying the country. Only the willfully deaf, said one author that wrote a book called Racism Without Racists, cannot hear the racialized implications of that kind of rhetoric, in that kind of policy, which is why I agree with the president that we have to talk about race in terms of systemic racism and institutional racism. For instance, why is it that of the 24 states that are denying Medicaid expansion, six out of 10 African Americans live in those states? Why is it that we talk about entitlements in a way that suggests that it’s about them? The very programs that lifted up white Americans in the '40s and ’50s, after the ’60s, became an anathema in certain arenas. Why is it that we don't talk about the fact that our schools are resegregating faster now than they were in the 1970s?

We have to talk about wage disparity, both generally for all Americans, but then the disparate impact upon black people and brown people. And we’ve got to get black and brown and poor white people to understand that, in many ways, we are being played by an oligarchy that knows how to use these racialized code words to create wedge issues rather than to create the kind of moral transformative fusion of blacks, whites and browns that need to happen in this country, particularly in the South, to move us forward.

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