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Inside The Five-Day Stretch When Obama Found His Voice On Race

The number of Americans “greatly worried” about race relations hit an all-time low, 13 percent, the year after President Obama took office. Last month, Gallup recorded the opposite, an all-time high of 35 percent.

As Obama prepares to leave office, the conversation about his legacy will no doubt include his role in how Americans see race. In the latest in FiveThirtyEight’s podcast documentary series on key election moments, we go back to the first time in Obama’s presidential career that he addressed the country’s debate over race in a big way.


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In March of 2008, ABC News aired video of Obama’s longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, making incendiary remarks about the United States and its treatment of blacks in sermons. The video included his saying, “God damn America” and characterizing the Sept. 11 attacks as “America’s chickens … coming home to roost.”

Coming in the middle of a contentious Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton, it sparked a media firestorm.

Five days later, Obama delivered his “A More Perfect Union” speech, in which he couched Wright’s remarks in the historical context of race relations in America.

We present this in two main sections. The first is a bit of an experiment for us — an unnarrated piece, composed of first-person accounts and news clips, covering the span from ABC’s first reports to Obama’s speech. In the second half of the podcast we explore the media’s response, Obama’s evolving remarks on race and race relations today.

Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Be sure to also watch the short documentary about the controversy:

You can also read our discussion of it.

Below, we’ve included a list of voices you’ll hear from in the documentary, and an excerpt of the conversation between Farai Chideya, a senior writer at FiveThirtyEight, and Kai Wright, a writer and editor for The Nation.


Who you’ll hear from in the podcast

Obama’s Team

  • David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist at the time
  • Jon Favreau, Obama’s speechwriter at the time
  • Valerie Jarrett, longtime adviser to the president
  • Marty Nesbitt, one of Obama’s closest friends

Media Members

  • Brian Ross of ABC News, whose reporting set off the firestorm
  • Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson
  • Clips of Joe Scarborough, Diane Sawyer, Chris Cuomo, Chris Matthews, Katie Couric, Sean Hannity and Karl Rove

Analysts

  • FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten
  • The Nation’s Kai Wright

Partial Transcript: Obama And The End Of Post-Racialism

Farai Chideya: The recession and the loss of manufacturing jobs were hard on white Americans, as well as everyone else, of course. It proved fertile ground for racial resentment.

Kai Wright: A lot of folks were at the end of their ropes and scared. And a politician that can point to something to be scared of is always ready to step into that gap. And I think … no matter what campaign [Obama] ran, or no matter how he governed, we were going to have this kind of racialized vitriol aimed at him that we’ve seen.

Chideya: Starting with the Rev. Wright controversy, Obama has been forced to confront racial tensions publicly. But his tone has shifted over time. We see this in his remarks after the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the murders at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Wright: There’s [also] the beer summit with (Harvard professor) Henry Louis Gates and the officer who arrested him on his doorstep. And the president’s response was, ”Hey, let’s have a beer together. Let’s be more generous to each other.” And he got dinged for that, anyway. So you could argue that he learned a lesson: Well, maybe everyone’s not ready to be generous. Then he gets to Trayvon Martin and he’s willing to say:

President Obama (CLIP): “When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”

Wright: That’s almost the first time he says, “I’m black. I’m a part of this debate.” And again he gets dinged there. So by the time he gets to Mother Emanuel, he is prepared to give the kind of speech … that you would receive inside of a black church, where he goes all the way to the point where he’s singing “Amazing Grace.”

You can see that the ministers on stage for him do not expect this. And you literally go to church all of a sudden. So there’s a way in which that you can argue that a lot of his presidency is about him owning his blackness. Publicly.

President Obama (CLIP): “Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career. Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.”

Wright: Ironically, his presidency ends up proving that we are far from post-racial. And, actually, in many ways the end of his presidency and the subsequent rise of the Republican primary of 2016 suggests the end of the idea of post-racialism as even a goal.


The Obama/Wright podcast was produced by Galen Druke and Asthaa Chaturvedi, with editing help from Emma Jacobs and Micah Cohen. It was hosted and edited by Jody Avirgan and Farai Chideya. The documentary was engineered by Steven Jackson. Special thanks to filmmaker Eric Drath and ESPN Films’s Deirdre Fenton for assistance.

Subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast on iTunes, and find all of FiveThirtyEight’s podcasts here.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Galen Druke is FiveThirtyEight’s podcast producer and reporter.

Asthaa Chaturvedi is a freelance radio and television producer.

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