A Promise Built on Hope
Our nation’s first Black president remembers the sacrifice of our civil rights veterans and sees a bright future in a new generation of activists
President Barack Obama, in his new book, A Promised Land, takes us through his journey from childhood to being the nation’s first African American president. Obama provides a unique behind-the-scenes look into the operation of our federal government at the highest level. We learn of the values that guide him, the strong partisan resistance to his agenda, and the strength of family and community that propel and inspire him. The 44th president surveys the current political landscape and warns that “our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis — a crisis rooted in a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what America is and what it should be." According to Obama, this crisis "has left the body politic divided, angry, and mistrustful, and has allowed for an ongoing breach of institutional norms, procedural safeguards, and the adherence to basic facts that both Republicans and Democrats once took for granted.”
It will indeed be a tough road ahead for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who made history this fall as the first Black, first woman and first person of Asian descent to be elected vice president. Nevertheless, Obama remains optimistic about America's future. He took time away from a busy book tour to answer questions submitted by The Crisis magazine. In this Q&A, Obama sees the hope and change he talked about more than a decade ago in a new generation of activists, honors the legacy of civil rights veterans whose sacrifice helped build a better nation, and her recognizes the power of Black women, who are too often “unsung,” in bringing “America closer to a true democracy.”
The Crisis: This year was marked by a pandemic, social unrest and a historic election. How would you describe 2020?
President Obama: There’s a word I learned from my staff when we were in the White House that could be used to describe it, but you probably can’t print it in your magazine.
What I will say is that it’s been a hard year for everybody. That’s especially true for families who’ve lost loved ones, medical professionals and first responders who’ve risked their lives and worked themselves to exhaustion, and workers who’ve always been essential to our economy, even if they’ve only just been given the title.
I do hope it’s a year that caused us all to re-evaluate and cherish the things that are meaningful and truly matter; to be grateful for what we have and to be alive to the pain of people who are less fortunate. At the same time, I’ve also found a lot of inspiration in everyone who found new ways to help people, and in the protesters of every race and age who saw injustice in their streets and their institutions and demanded that America become better.
The Crisis: A new movement for Black lives erupted this summer after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. There were worldwide protests for social justice. Why do you think so many people were marching and demonstrating? How were these protests different from the ones that happened during your administration — following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and others?
President Obama: Well, the protests represented a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States. But they also represented this young generation’s conviction that everyone should be treated fairly, and their response to those ideals being breached.
I think what made this time different, though, was that we saw at least some shift in the general population in recognizing that there really is an ongoing problem of unequal justice in America. The protests were led by young people, but you saw people of all ages show up. The protests were led by Black Americans, but you saw people of all races join in. The demographics of the marches weren’t always what you’d expect. You’d see a Black Lives Matter march in some small, predominantly white town. I believe that these young people were helping to change people’s minds, fostering a growing recognition that there’s a genuine problem with racial discrimination in our justice system.
That’s a huge shift from just five, 10 years ago. If you had asked me the same question after Ferguson, for example, I think it’s clearer now that the broader population is more clear-eyed in recognizing there is a problem. That, I think, is promising and hopeful.
Now, as always, the issue becomes: What do we do with that?
Protests can be exciting and inspiring. But eventually they disperse, and there can be a bit of a letdown. I remember having some of the Black Lives Matter activists come to the Oval Office, back when it was still a relatively new movement, still making the jump from a hashtag into the national consciousness, and we had a long conversation about how challenging it can be to translate impulses into action. To change more than hearts and minds; to actually change laws, institutions, and practices. And that requires concrete policies, and it requires electing not just a president, but also district attorneys and state’s attorneys, and sheriffs, too, and it requires recruiting allies and inviting people in to help. But it can take time.
All of that can be frustrating when there’s a clear problem that needs to be addressed right away. That’s just human nature, and it is the nature of putting together political coalitions, which is the essence of democracy, right? You can feel righteous about your own position, but if you’re actually going to get something done, how do you get enough votes?
But I do take inspiration from this young generation of marchers. If the Civil Rights Movement was the Moses generation, you looked out there this summer and saw a whole generation of Joshuas. They’ve taken up the baton. They’re going to take it a little further. And when they do, the generation that comes after them will be starting from a better place.
The Crisis: This year, we also saw some of our most beloved civil rights veterans pass away — the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Rev. C. T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis. What impact did they have on democracy and American society?
President Obama: Well, I’ve always said that I’m only here because of that civil rights generation. I stand on their shoulders. They inspired me to get involved in public life. But they also made it possible in the first place. On the battlefield of justice, they liberated us all in ways that many Americans came to take for granted.
They changed America in enormous ways. Let me amend that— they and their contemporaries in the Civil Rights Movement, as much as anybody, built America as we know it. They brought this country closer to a true democracy. Like I said in my eulogy for John, their lives vindicated the most American of ideas—the idea that ordinary people without rank, or wealth, or title, or fame, can challenge the status quo and remake this country for the better. And when we do finish that long journey toward freedom, however long it takes, they’ll be founding fathers of that fuller, fairer, better America.
The Crisis: Rep. Lewis was your hero and mentor. What did he teach you about life?
President Obama: Well, the thing is, even though John’s life was exceptional, at the same time, he never thought that what he did was more than what any citizen of this country might do. He believed that each one of us has the capacity for great courage and a longing to do what’s right. The last time I spoke with him privately, I made sure to tell him that new generations of protesters out there, those of every race, religion, background, gender and sexual orientation — they are his children. They learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it. He taught them what American citizenship requires.
The Crisis: Last month, we elected the first Black female and South Asian vice president. What does that say about America? Is it progress?
President Obama: Of course. It took far too long, but I think we’re getting to the point where women, Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, people of all backgrounds can aspire to and become president or vice president. That doesn’t mean there won’t be additional burdens to overcome for any candidate who doesn’t look like almost all of our other presidents. Women are unfairly looked at through a different lens, or deemed “too emotional,” even though we just had a president who threw daily tantrums on Twitter. And part of that is just human nature. Change takes time. I mean, people forget what a big deal it was for JFK to be elected our first Catholic president. We just elected our second, and it wasn’t even an issue. But regardless, Sen. Harris will be a fine vice president. She’s one more step to the point where all our candidates are judged not on race, gender, religion, or ethnicity, but on how well they can do the job.
The Crisis: This year we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and women getting the right to vote. Talk about the power of Black women and their role in advancing democracy.
President Obama: You asked earlier about some of the civil rights leaders we lost this year, but we should always be elevating the women who were, in Coretta Scott King’s words, the backbone of the movement — women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Ella Baker, and so many others. Throughout our history, it has been Black women, as much as if not more than anybody else, mostly unrecognized and unsung, who’ve brought America closer to a true democracy; who’ve reliably shown up, and marched, and voted, even in moments of great pain for the community, even when society’s mechanisms to keep people in their place hit them twice as hard for being Black and for being women. But society is making progress. And as we break down more barriers and expect our daughters to get the same opportunities as our sons, and hire and elect more women in positions of power, the Black woman’s role in advancing democracy is only going to take off and take us to a better place.
The Crisis: What surprised you the most during your eight years as president?
President Obama: The work didn’t surprise me. Basically, problems wouldn’t reach my desk unless nobody else could solve them. If they could be solved, somebody else would have solved them already. And so you were always dealing with problems that didn’t lend themselves to a simple solution, and you were working with probabilities and you’d have to make your best judgment knowing that not everything was going to work out exactly as you wanted. That didn’t surprise me much either.
The thing that did strike me is how much America and the American government underwrite the world order. I think we underestimate this. Things don’t happen internationally if we don’t put our shoulder behind it. If you go to an economic summit or a climate summit, if there’s a disaster or disease outbreak, no other country has the combination of bandwidth, experience, and ideas to mobilize the world around the problem. If America’s not doing anything, it’s not happening. You see that with the pandemic response. With Ebola, we rallied other countries and we successfully kept an outbreak from becoming a global pandemic. Now, with the absence of American leadership the past four years, you’ve seen other countries filling the void, even if they can’t do it at the scale we can. Sometimes that’s O.K. But we don’t want other countries setting the rules without us, or moving forward without us. That’s how much America’s government and America’s democracy hold things together. Sometimes we take that for granted. We can’t afford to anymore.
The Crisis: What role did the NAACP play in your election as president and what role does the NAACP play in today’s democracy? Why are we needed today?
President Obama: Well, when you consider the 111-year journey of the NAACP, you’ve got to consider where that journey started. And that takes us back to a time before any of us were born, before the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board. It takes us back to a time just a generation past slavery, when Jim Crow was everyday life and lynchings were all too common.
But because someone like W.E.B. Du Bois and his fierce passion for justice could unite people into an association dedicated to promoting equality and eradicating prejudice, a different story for America suddenly became possible. Over time, men and women, mostly young but of every age, race, and faith, would embark on Freedom Rides, sit at lunch counters, and register voters in rural Mississippi, knowing that they would be harassed, attacked, and might never return.
Because they took those journeys — because the NAACP took its journey — America is unquestionably a better place. Knowing and celebrating that doesn’t diminish all the very real work that remains toward progress. I mean, I called my book A Promised Land knowing that I’m gray enough that I won’t see it either. But I wrote it for young people. One of the themes of this book is this contest of ideas between two visions: a vision that says that, for all our differences, we share a common humanity, and it is possible for us, in a multiracial, multiethnic country to see each other, understand each other, respect each other, and work toward progress together.
There’s also an older, contrasting vision that says we’re just a collection of tribes, inevitably at war, and it’s a zero-sum game with winners and losers in hierarchies of power and subjugation. That vision has been the default of humanity for most of human history. It was the default for much of our history. The newer vision, to truly treat everybody’s voice as equal — that’s still a work in progress.