LOS ANGELES — A podcaster said Monday he’s “a little sad” that the media focused on President Barack Obama’s use of the “N-word” word during an interview done in the comedian’s Highland Park garage recording studio.
During Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast — released Monday but recorded Friday when the president was in town for a series of fundraisers — Obama said “the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination” exists in institutions and casts “a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”
“We’re not cured of it,” Obama added. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say [the N-word] in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.”
The White House insisted that Obama didn’t set out to shock by using the N-word.
Obama’s choice of words was jarring because he has gingerly picked his way through a string of political minefields over the last six-and-a-half years, thrown up by a series of racially charged episodes, from the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and, more recently, Baltimore.
During his time in the White House, it’s sometimes seemed as though Obama talks about race only when he has to, when circumstances or crises force him to weigh in. He’s rarely spoken with the daring candor that marked his speech on race during the 2008 presidential campaign and he’s tried to avoid political firestorms like the one triggered by his comments on the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates during his first term.
Obama has begun to speak more freely about race since he won re-election, including the launch of his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative to mentor African American youths.
But Obama’s spokesman Josh Earnest said the president’s use of the typically taboo word was not part of a premeditated strategy to talk about race in a more challenging and overt way.
“There was no decision made on the part of anybody here at the White House that we are going to capitalize on this audio interview … [that] this would be an opportune time for him to get this particular point off his chest,” Earnest said. “I would acknowledge it is understandably notable that the president chose to use this word. But the argument that the president is making is one that is familiar to those who have been listening.”
Obama remains more of a commentator on race issues than an activist, which his why his frank conversation with Maron raised the question of whether he had made a conscious decision to be more forceful on race relations following the brutal murder of nine African Americans in a gun massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, told CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” that although he agreed with the president’s broader point on race, he would have preferred Obama to be less explicit.
“I wish he had chosen to say, quote, the ‘N’ word as opposed to saying the word, because I have been long on record that coarse language used in any context in the pubic square is not the best way to talk about these types of issues. The ‘N’ word has never had a positive meaning,” Morial said.
Though Obama’s choice of language was striking, Obama has made similar points in a more formal setting many times throughout his presidency, from his speech marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to off-the-cuff remarks during White House briefings at times of racial tension.
“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed — that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” Obama said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when he honored King in 2013. “But we would dishonor those heroes as well to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”
During the interview with Maron, the president weighed in on the national debate on race relations and gun control that has been reignited after the Charleston shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Obama said that progress on race relations has been made, citing his own experience as a young man who was born to a white mother and an African father.
“I always tell young people, in particular, do not say that nothing has changed when it comes to race in America, unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s or ’60s or ’70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours,” Obama said.
Obama echoed comments he made Thursday and said that he’s had to make speeches about a “devastating loss” too often.
“It’s not enough just to feel bad. There are actions that could be taken to make events like this less likely. One of those actions we could take would be to enhance some basic common sense gun safety laws,” Obama said.
Obama lamented Congress’s lack of action on gun control and said “Unfortunately, the grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong. I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress.”
Obama also weighed in on a critical case that is currently before the Supreme Court, where opponents of the Affordable Care Act are asking whether the law authorizes tax subsidies for 6.4 million Americans who have already received help to afford health coverage.
Maron told ABC7 that he’s “a little sad that the media has just isolated the use of the n-word as the lead story and taken it out of context, which was really a powerful statement about the state of racism in our country. But that’s what you guys do, right?”
Maron told Vanity Fair that he got the interview, which lasted about an hour and was in the planning stages for months, because a member of Obama’s staff is a WTF fan.