The first black president faced great expectations. What will be Obama’s legacy on race?

What did the election of America’s first black president mean for the United States? And how did President Obama’s policies and rhetoric advance issues important to the black community? Rael Nelson James of the Bridgespan Group, James Peterson of Lehigh University and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund join Judy Woodruff to discuss the impact of the Obama years.

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    Now to our series The Obama Years.

    Tonight, we look back at the legacy of the nation's first black president.


    I, Barack Hussein Obama…


    Decades before he made history as the first African-American president, Barack Obama was a man of uncommon circumstances.

    Born to a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, Obama's childhood was split between Indonesia and Hawaii, where he was raised by his white grandparents. The young Obama was largely shielded from the racial injustices of 1960s America, says Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic magazine.

  • TA-NEHISI COATES, The Atlantic:

    To not go to schools and wonder why your schools are terrible, to not have to deal with the fear, the violence, to not really have to deal with the police. So, he was aware of it, but it wasn't personal.


    Longtime friend and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett says his upbringing made Obama uniquely equipped to navigate what lay ahead.

  • VALERIE JARRETT, Senior Presidential Adviser:

    He was used to living in a family where white people loved him and cared deeply about him. And so he goes into every situation with the assumption that he is going to be respected and treated well.


    After law school, Obama moved to Chicago. He became a civil rights attorney, a community organizer and, eventually, a state senator representing the South Side of Chicago.

    Obama gained national attention in 2004, when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.


    There's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America.



    In 2007, after serving just two years in the Senate, Obama decided to test America's readiness to accept a black man as president. For months, he campaigned on a message of hope and change.

    But it wasn't until the surfacing of racially charged sermons by his former minister that he addressed race head on.


    The anger is real. It is powerful. And to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.


    From the moment he took office, expectations were high.

  • EUGENIA PETE, Obama Supporter:

    I have a little boy. He can — he can do what he wants to do. You know, he don't have to be just a rap star or basketball player, you know? He can do it. The sky is truly the limit now.


    But the president had to strike a balance between being a voice for black Americans and president of the entire country, says Ta-Nehisi Coates of "The Atlantic."


    He was always walking this line, and he had to walk the line. You know what I mean? Like, you're president of the United States. It is true that the majority of people who you serve, who you represent, that's not the South Side of Chicago anymore.


    One of the first tests came just months into Mr. Obama's first term, when a white police officer arrested black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates trying to get into his own home.


    The Cambridge police acted stupidly. What I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.


    After backlash from the law enforcement community, the president said he had overreacted. He invited Gates and the officer who had arrested him to the White House for what would become known as the beer summit.

    The president experienced unusual vitriol from his opponents, including an outburst from South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson that members of both parties called disrespectful.


    You lie!



    For the remainder of his first term, the president rarely used the bully pulpit to talk about race. He focused instead on broader issues, like the economy and reforming the nation's health care system.

    But the president's domestic record in his second term would be largely defined by a series of events that spotlighted racial tensions. In 2012, when neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, the president spoke out in a surprisingly personal way.

    Valerie Jarrett was with him just beforehand.


    And I was in the Oval Office with a couple of other senior staff. And he said to us, in an extraordinarily emotional way: "I want to talk about this because, if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."


    When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.


    Again, Ta-Nehisi Coates:


    The moment he spoke out, it completely politicized the trial. You know what I mean? And Trayvon became a symbol of Obamaism, or something like that. Like, it became racialized in a sort of way.


    In 2014, Michael Brown, another unarmed black teen, was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer. A year later, a black man named Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore.

    And, in Charleston, South Carolina, a white man massacred nine black parishioners during a Bible study.


    Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.



    Jarrett says these events brought to the surface racial unease that already existed.


    Those tensions were there before we had a video camera. We just didn't see them on the news and in the social media the way we are today.

    And I think a lot of that has encouraged particularly young people to come out and peacefully demonstrate, to get involved with their local government, to hold them more accountable than perhaps they were.


    Meanwhile, President Obama's Justice Department aggressively prosecuted civil rights abuses. He highlighted racial disparities within the criminal justice system. And Mr. Obama spearheaded initiatives like My Brother's Keeper, a mentorship program for young men of color.

    But in his farewell speech this month, the president acknowledged there was much left to accomplish.


    Race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say. But we're not where we need to be, and all of us have more work to do.



    Yesterday, I sat down yesterday with three individuals who have given a lot of thought to Mr. Obama's legacy and his impact on black Americans.

    We're joined by James Peterson. He's director of Africana studies at Lehigh University and the host of "Remix." It's a podcast dedicated to race and politics. Rael Nelson James, she oversees diversity work for the Bridgespan Group. It's anyone profit philanthropic advisory firm. And Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

    And we welcome all three of you.

    James Peterson, how do you look back on his presidency overall?

  • JAMES PETERSON, Lehigh University:

    You know, Folks from my parents' generation couldn't imagine there being a black president of the United States.

    And so I think we have to honor that piece of it. But for progressive folks, the substance of the policies sometimes just isn't there. And I think, as we sort of transition into the next administration, we're going to be kind of queued up to be very, very nostalgic about President Obama.

    But we have to understand there were lots of challenge, not just based on obstructionism, but based on sort of the kind of centrist politics that have dominated Democratic Party politics for the last couple of decades that President Obama really represented.


    Sherrilyn Ifill, what about that?

    SHERRILYN IFILL, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund: Well, it's interesting. I actually think we're going to need more time to assess the substantive record as well. I think it's kind of hard to fully assess it at this moment.

    I think, when you think about health care reform, when you think about one of the president's first acts was signing the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act for Women, when you look at the work in the criminal justice space, which was largely executed through the Department of Justice, but through this president's Department of Justice and with his full support and with his interest and strong desire, you look at the Smart on Crime policies, ending solitary confinement for juveniles, you look at his clemency, he's granted clemency to more people than any of the 11 presidents before him combined.

    Now, the federal system, the federal prison system and the federal criminal justice system, is a fraction compared to the system in the states. But the purpose was really to set an example, to show what can be done and what should be done around criminal justice.

    Same for voting rights and the effort to really stand against this effort of voter suppression of African-American voters.


    So, Rael Nelson James, we're talking about his overall legacy and what that meant in many instances for black Americans, whether it was aimed at specifically black Americans or not.

  • RAEL NELSON JAMES, Bridgespan Group:

    It's a tightrope walk to be the first black person to be in a position, particularly the presidency, and to balance what it means to be the president of the entire United States, and what it means to be black community to see the first black person as president.

    And what those expectations were, I felt, weren't always fair in terms of what it truly means to hold that office, and the kind of balance that one has to have, and because, as was said, President Obama's a political moderate.

    And so those who are on the left who are truly progressive, I think, should have expected that he would fall short of their expectations. This sort of desire that he would speak to or evangelize a sort of black community platform above all else, I think, was sort of an unfair expectation, though I think we got at times really strong messages, you know, about being black in America.


    James Peterson, were the expectations unfair?


    Some of the expectations were absolutely unfair, not just from black America, but from white America, and not just from those on the left, but from those on the right.

    He sort of took on the historic moment, in a sense that the expectations for some kind of post-racial, utopian, harmonious society kind of was on his shoulders, especially early on in his first term.

    I think we were disabused of that notion fairly early on. And I think folks came to their senses a little bit. But when we — even if we just take a look at his messaging that has been directed towards African-Americans, too often, President Obama trucked in the kind of discourses that those on the right used, in terms of the behavioral challenges, or lack thereof, that sometimes people want to hang structural responsibility around.

    You know, he's often sort of articulating a narrative of personal responsibility. And there's nothing wrong with personal responsibility, but all of us are also aware of the fact that there are structural challenges in the United States that have — are sort of part of income inequality, part of racial stratification.

    And I think it's legitimate for folks to have expected President Barack Obama to speak more strongly about those things, even in the environment of obstructionism, even in an environment where there's a rise of racialized hate over the last eight years, based on the fact that he is the first black president.


    Sherrilyn Ifill, what about this notion that he, as James Peterson just put it, trucked in the language of those on the right?


    Well, I always wanted more from this president and probably…


    And you had many meetings with him.


    In many meetings with him around criminal justice reform, around judicial nominations, around any number of issues.

    And I always wanted more, and will probably want more of any president. So I'm always pushing a president to do more.

    Do I think he could have done more? I always went very clearly with a question about what was available for the president to do, and within the context of what he could do, was he will willing to go up to the line?

    I think there are some issues in which he was doing as much as he possibly could. The headwinds from the right were unbelievable. And so what we might have wanted, particularly in the space of legislation, just couldn't happen with this Congress.

    Rhetorically, it's a whole 'nother story. People wanted to hear what they wanted to hear. I think, in many ways, the president's rhetoric was precisely what he promised it would be on the campaign trail. I think people just didn't want to hear it, because many of us put all our hopes and dreams and wishes for this first black president into him.

    I think he was remarkably consistent in who he said he was and what he believed. And for that, I was grateful, because I always felt like I knew who I was dealing with.


    President Obama said in an interview just recently that he thinks race relations in this country are somewhat better, far from perfect, but are better after his presidency.

    Rael Nelson James, what do you think?


    I think what we learned from President Obama's time in office is that no one person, no one black person or progressive person in office can change the structural climate of our institutions that really matter to people of color and other marginalized communities enjoying full and equal rights in our country.


    James Peterson?


    We have seen a rise in racialized and racist discourses online, and we have seen a rise of hate groups in response to the first black president.

    And I think there's two ways of looking at that. I think some folks will look at that and say, hey, the excavation of the residue of white supremacy and racism is an important piece. We need for those folks to come out of the shadows, so that people can understand that racism is real, and so folks can appreciate the work still that is left to be done.

    But we also can't blame President Obama because discourses have become more racialized because he's the first black president, right? I mean, that's just a reality of change and progress. And so things are not necessarily worse off in terms of racial discourses.

    But when we look at specific issues, if you look at income inequality, when you look at black wealth and black resources, some of those things have declined over these last eight years. And the challenge for us is not to blame President Obama for that, but to understand that he's kind of a lightning rod for racial issues because he's the first black president.


    Sherrilyn Ifill, racial relations at the end of his term?


    Well, you know, I would take an issue like policing reform. Are our relations better? No. I think it's been contentious. These are tough, hard conversations.

    But this is an issue that has stayed below the surface, has not been in the mainstream, has not been seen, and has not been grappled with in the past in ways that it has been over the past four or five years.


    And, just quickly, does he get credit for bringing those issues out and the fact that there is more conversation around them now?


    Well, if I take something like policing reform, it wasn't the president that really brought it out, but it was how the president responded once it was brought out.

    When Ferguson happened, and he was able to say, you know, we want to make sure that people are not committing crimes, but, at the same time, we want to make sure that police are not using excessive force, when he sent Eric Holder down to Ferguson to meet with people, when he engaged the Department of Justice in doing twice as many pattern and practice investigations of unconstitutional policing as have ever happened before, those are the ways in which he responded to something that was presented.

    And I think, as we approach the new presidency, we might see a very different response. And then we will know that there really was a difference in having President Obama in the White House.


    Well, it's impossible to condense eight years into one conversation, but thank you, all three of you.

    Sherrilyn Ifill, Rael Nelson James, James Peterson, we thank you all.

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