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The Role Race Played In The Obama Presidency


Today, of course, is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And it's also the start of the final week of Barack Obama's presidency, and a good moment to talk about how race has shaped the tenure of the nation's first black president. NPR's Code Switch team has been talking about this, and Shereen Marisol Meraji joins us now to talk about it. Hi, Shereen.


MCEVERS: So it's probably safe to say that this is a presidency that's both affected and been affected by chronic issues about race in America, yeah?

MERAJI: Yes, like we say on Code Switch every episode of our podcast, it's totally complicated. There's a generation who has only known a black president. Your daughter, for example, President Barack Hussein Obama is the person that your daughter associates with the most powerful position in this country.


MERAJI: We don't know how that's going to impact the way her generation will view race relations when they grow up, but that's a really big deal. But then you've got this segment of white America that feels left behind, forgotten. They're economically insecure, and they feel like their concerns were sidelined over the last eight years under an Obama presidency. Some of that, not all of it, but some of it has manifested itself in racial resentment, and we saw that play out in this latest run up for president. And we've got people of color who are generally supportive of President Obama, but who still feel like he didn't do enough to attack the racial inequities that exist in this country. Kelly, we're talking about the racial wealth gap, the racial achievement gap in education, mass incarceration.

And on the Code Switch podcast, we're doing a three-part series on Obama's racial legacy, and our guests give voice to some of these frustrations. You know, we heard from a Native American writer, an activist, who was disappointed in how the president handled the Dakota Access Pipeline issue. So I think his presidency was both evidence of the racial progress we've made, and the reason we now understand how stubborn our race problems continue to be.

MCEVERS: You talked about mass incarceration and education policy, and obviously there's some mixed results there. Are there any Obama administration policies that demonstrably improved the lives of people of color?

MERAJI: Well, the percentage of uninsured African-Americans and Latinos has dropped due to President Obama's Affordable Care Act. That's one policy that gets shouted out over and over again. There's the Department of Justice investigations into police misconduct in places like Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore and other cities. The next one's not a headline grabber, but it's still relevant, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It's not something we talk about a lot, but it provided safeguards from discriminatory lenders that prey on working class Latinos and African-Americans disproportionately. And you can't forget, Kelly, President Obama appointed the first Latino to the Supreme Court - Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And we had Janet Murguia on the podcast, she's president of the National Council of La Raza, talking about just that.

JANET MURGUIA: She is going to be a testament to so many Latinos who have high aspirations and giving us a sense that we can achieve all things, and finally have that representation on the highest court in the land.

MCEVERS: Janet Murguia, now that's the same Janet Murguia who called President Obama, quote, "deporter in chief" in 2014, am I right?

MERAJI: It's the same Janet.


MERAJI: And, look, she told us the president has a mixed record on immigration, and that complicates his relationship with Latinos. He deported more people than any other president, a majority of whom are Latino, but he also provided some relief for a portion of undocumented immigrants through administrative actions. And Janet told us she thought the president wasted way too much time trying to get recalcitrant Republicans to the table by showing he was tough on illegal immigration. You know, she thinks he should have taken executive action sooner.

MCEVERS: And we can hear Janet Murguia on part two of your series on Obama's racial legacy. What's coming in part three?

MERAJI: On this week's episode, our last one, we're going to discuss what it meant to have a black president who's also white and then some, he's Kansas, Kenya, Hawaii, Jakarta and Chicago South Side. And we're going to explore the idea of, no, not a post-racial America, but a multi-racial America. And we ask if in the future we'll be at a place where we can embrace President Obama's multiple identities.

MCEVERS: That's Shereen Marisol Meraji, co-host of the Code Switch podcast. Thank you very much.

MERAJI: You're welcome.


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