“That Was a Damn Lie”: Jelani Cobb on What Obama Got Wrong About Race in America
On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Jelani Cobb, a staff writer at the New Yorker. (The conversation was part of a live Slate event this month.)
Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss whether the media has “normalized” white nationalism, what Obama did and didn’t get right about our era, and why Trumpism is almost certain to outlast the man himself.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: When you look at America racially over the 10 months of this administration, does anything surprise you?
Jelani Cobb: One thing that surprises me is the kind of never-ending reservoir of good faith that people have about Donald Trump. First, there were the “pivots”—there’s always a pivot. He’s going to pivot. NBA forwards don’t pivot that much. And then there are these kinds of things—even Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker has come out and been critical of him. The route that he took to that criticism where he said, “Oh, he’s not really evolving and learning. He’s not growing into the role.” But Trump, to his credit, never gave them any reason to think that he was going to evolve. He was who he said he was. If they’ve been familiar or familiarized themselves with his track record, they would have said, “This is not a character that’s going to become something other than what he is.”
So while it’s good to see that there are people who are beginning to break from the pack and say, “We have a real problem here,” that problem was apparent from the opening, from the moment he began his campaign referring to Mexicans as rapists.
And what about where the country is after having this guy as president for 10 months in terms of racial issues and racial dynamics?
I think it’s kind of obvious. The parameters of the conversation have expanded such that white nationalism is actually part of the dialogue now. We actually have to countenance what these people who would traditionally have been thought of as friends what they think and what their beliefs are and what their political agenda is.
How do you think the press should deal with that normalization?
There’s a responsible and an irresponsible way of doing it. I think that what we’ve seen is, for a large part, the more irresponsible side of that. When Brian Stelter had Kellyanne Conway on, and he announced that she was going to be a guest, Twitter lost its mind—raising a question of: Why do you give a forum to someone who is going to give essentially disinformation to the public? I think when you look at how the media engaged with Joseph McCarthy, who I think is the closest political analogue to Donald Trump, a great deal of it early on was irresponsible. Just kind of printing what he said or realizing that even people who knew that he was a serial liar would nonetheless recognize that they were selling papers that they put him on the cover of their issues. They put a quote from him; people would come out and buy it.
You can also say that televising the Army-McCarthy hearings was part of what brought McCarthy down, that the media played a role in exposing him for exactly what he was. That kind of media coverage is crucial and important. We haven’t seen enough of it. Even the Columbia Journalism Review did an interesting piece not long ago about whether you should call Trump a liar or whether you should call him racist. Press should say that. I think that there has to be a high bar for those things.
I think there was a sense when Obama was elected that demographics were going in the Democrats’ favor, that the country was changing, that we’d sort of passed out of this time, which obviously turned out to be wrong. When you think about Obama’s election now and what it meant for the country, how do you look at it differently?
One, I think it’s a lot easier to be forgiving of Obama because you recognize what came after him. I’m not sure if it’s a greater honor to be elected president than it is a disrespect to be succeeded by the man who forced you to show your birth certificate to prove you were a citizen. Obama is somebody who’s kind of a congenital optimist about race, I think largely because he grew up in Hawaii with white grandparents. But for African Americans at large who are probably more skeptical to pessimistic about this, it really is painful to see that optimism foiled in a particular way and to say this person who actually gave us this hope and faith that things could actually radically be different.
I’m not abandoning that. I’m not saying that it was all for naught. But for us to recognize that we’re talking about net progress, not absolute progress. There’ll be hope that after whenever this debacle is over, that there will be some element of what Obama represented that still gives us a net positive.
When we hear Obama speak today, it comes packaged the way his words always come packaged: They’re optimistic; they’re classy. When I read them sometimes, it doesn’t feel quite right, and I don’t know exactly why that is. It somehow feels too optimistic to me or just not the right tone. Do you ever feel that way?
I felt that way during his presidency. Bear in mind, I would say, I’m mixed race. I was raised by an Alabama Negro and a Georgia Negro. But what they taught me about the South was the very hard-edged realism of race, the reason both of them had fled the South. They were ugly, biographical stories that connected to the ugly historical narratives that we know. That was what I grew up with. I would hear Obama and say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’re entirely cognizant of what these people will do to stop you.” I felt about that because it’s kind of pessimistic or at least skeptical. But as time went on, you started saying, “These are the things that happened as a result of this.”
As a result of when black people stake a claim for equality in America, there’s always a counterclaim, always. We were maybe naïve to think that there wouldn’t be a kind of equal and opposite push.
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As Slate’s resident interrogator, Isaac Chotiner has tangled with Newt Gingrich and gotten personal with novelist Jonathan Franzen. Now he’s bringing his pointed, incisive interview style to a weekly podcast in which he talks one-on-one with newsmakers, celebrities, and cultural icons.
You said that you think Obama’s thinking on this in some sense comes from his background, growing up in Hawaii, white grandparents. Do you think that the kind of take he had on these issues was determined by that, or do you think that it was also the way that he felt that what he had to say to succeed politically that he had to adopt?
It was part of it. I think he actually believed that. When you talk about his rationale for running, he said that he wanted it to be established for young people of color that they could do anything that they wanted in life. When he stood up and said in 2004, “There is not a black America and a white America … there’s the United States of America,” that was a lie. That was a damn lie. There was a black America. There was a white America. There was a Latino America. There was a gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender America. There was a poor America. There was an overly incarcerated America. And then there was an America that was represented by excessive access to all resources, and those realities you can’t paper over: They’re actually part of the political terrain that we’re operating in. But people in the United States also have a kind of aspirational ideal of ourselves that we want to think of ourselves as better than our history, and he tapped into that powerfully and effectively.
At the end of the day, maybe that renegade hope that he offered us, maybe that kind of faith, impermeable faith and the possibility of a better tomorrow, maybe that’s what we fall back upon to sustain ourselves in the midst of what we’re in now.
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