Obamas speak out on 'racist experiences.' Why now?

In an interview with People magazine, the Obamas appeared to be edging into the national conversation about race sparked by the events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama standing onstage with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia (2nd l.) and Sasha (2nd r.), participates in the taping of the 'Christmas in Washington' television special to benefit Children's National Medical Center in Washington December 14, 2014.

The Obamas say they’ve experienced the everyday casual racism that blots US life for African-Americans.

Not (for the most part) as president and first lady, of course. Since 2008, they’ve been protected by the symbols of the presidency and by the Secret Service from that sort of thing, they told People magazine in an interview released Wednesday.

“Before that, Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of troubles catching cabs,” said first lady Michelle Obama to People.

Mrs. Obama said her husband, in his pre-White House days, was also mistaken for a waiter at a black-tie gala and asked to get coffee. President Obama himself said a white person once assumed he was a parking valet.

“There’s no black male my age, who’s a professional, who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn’t hand them their car keys,” he said.

In discussing these indignities, the first couple appeared to be edging into the national conversation about race sparked by the police shooting of teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the death of Eric Garner after an apparent police chokehold in Staten Island, N.Y.

Up until now, Mr. Obama has been impersonal and somewhat restrained in his remarks in the wake of these tragedies. With his People magazine comments, he seems to be making two points. The first is that small racist experiences happen to every black person in the United States. That goes a long way toward explaining why blacks as a whole have much more suspicion about police action and racial progress than do whites, as measured by polls.

“Since the late 1990s, blacks’ optimism that there will be a solution to the country’s racial problems has consistently trailed whites’ by about 12 percentage points,” write Gallup poll editors in a recent roundup of racial attitudes.

Obama’s second point seems to be that there’s been progress on these issues despite the fact that he's suffered racial slights.

“The small irritations or indignities that we experience are nothing compared to what a previous generation experienced,” he told the magazine.

He might also be trying to address his own polls in a small way. Since August, his rating on how he’s handling race relations has dropped eight points, according to Pew Research.

Overall, the public disapproves of Obama’s actions in this area by 50 percent to 40 percent, according to Pew. Within those numbers is a big racial split: Blacks approve of Obama’s job on race relations by 57 to 33 percent. Whites approve by (coincidentally) the same numbers, but reversed: 33 percent approve and 57 percent disapprove.

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