Nikita Richardson
June 22, 2015 7:21 am
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President Obama is the first to admit that the United States is far from solving its deeply-rooted issues around race. In fact, as that conversation has hit a fever pitch with the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the recent massacre of nine black people at a South Carolina church, the president has stepped up to the plate, ready and willing to engage the American people on conversations around tolerance, hatred, and significant change.

Today, comedian, actor, and WTF podcast host Marc Maron released his eye-opening interview with the president, where the commander-in-chief wasted no time in cutting right to the heart of the issues. Here, some highlights from the president’s surprisingly candid discussion on what we mean when we talk about the ever-elusive idea of progress.

On the progress Americans have made since he was a young black man

“I always tell young people, in particular, do not say that nothing has changed when it comes to race in America, unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s or ’60s or ’70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours.”

On the pervasive nature of racism

“Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘n—–‘ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

On the lack of progress when it comes to gun control legislation

“It’s not enough just to feel bad. There are actions that could be taken to make events like this less likely. One of those actions we could take would be to enhance some basic common sense gun safety laws. Unfortunately, the grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong. I don’t foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress and I don’t foresee any real action being taken until the American public feels a sufficient sense of urgency and they say to themselves, ‘This is not normal. This is something that we can change and we’re going to change it.’”

On coming into his own as a black man and a political activist

“After a couple of years in college, I started realizing that there were some things that were important to me, having an impact on social justice issues, having something to say about poverty or race or things like that. My mother was the biggest influence in my life and this wonderful woman, but I am raised without a dad, an African-American, but not grounded in a place with a lot of African-American culture. So, I’m trying to figure out, alright, I’m seen and viewed and understood as a black man in America. What does that mean? I’m absorbing all kinds of stereotypes and ideas from society like Richard Pryor or Shaft, so I’m trying on a whole bunch of outfits. And then at a certain point, right around 20, I’m figuring out that a lot of the ideas that I had taken on about being a rebel or being a tough guy or being cool, were really not me. They were just things that I was trying on because I was insecure or I was a kid. Then you start realizing, well, I actually have to start figuring out what I do believe…and a lot of that revolved around issues of race and being able to say that I don’t have to be one way to be both an African-American but also somebody who affirms the white side of my family. I don’t have to push back from the love and values that my mom instilled in me.”

On the recent massacre in Charleston and gun control

“They have captured the suspect. We’ve got a legal system that’s going to work, I think, the way it’s supposed to, people are paying a lot of attention to it. The point I made in the immediate aftermath of the killing was I’ve done this too often. During the course of my presidency, it feels like a couple of times a year I end up having to speak to the country and to speak to a particular community about a devastating loss. And the grieving that the country feels is real, the sympathy, the prioritizing comforting the families but I think part of the point I wanted to make was that it’s not enough just to feel bad. There are actions that could be taken to make events like this less likely. And one of those actions we could take would be to enhance some basic, common sense gun safety laws that, by the way, the majority of gun owners support. This is unique to our country. There’s no other advanced nation on Earth that tolerates multiple shootings on a regular basis and considers it normal. And to some degree, that’s what’s happened in this country. It’s become something that we’ve come to expect.”

On the closest he’s been to an angry outburst over gun control

“Right after Sandy Hook, Newtown…and Congress literally does nothing, yeah, that’s the closest I came to feeling disgusted. I was pretty disgusted. But that’s the exception rather than the rule in the sense that on most fronts I’ve been able to find ways to make progress even in the face of obstruction, even in the face of resistance, even in the face of gridlock.”

On making peace with the slow pace of progress

“Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements or try to steer the ocean liner 2 degrees north or south so that 10 years from now, suddenly, we’re in a very different place then we were. But at the moment, people may feel like we need a 50 degree turn…you can’t…societies don’t turn 50 degrees. Democracies certainly don’t turn 50 degrees and that’s been true on issues of race, that’s been true on issues of the environment, that’s true on issues of discrimination. As long as they’re turning in the right direction and we’re making progress then government is working sort of the way it’s supposed to.”

Check out the full eye-opening interview here.