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'We Are Not Cured': Obama Discusses Racism In America With Marc Maron

President Obama talks about his own life, America's race relations and the trouble with politics during the much-anticipated new episode of the WTF with Marc Maron podcast, in an interview that is making headlines for its candid discussion of race.

Like other episodes of Maron's popular podcast, the conversation between the commander-in-chief and a comedian took place in Maron's Los Angeles garage. Recorded Friday, the topics ranged from the shootings in Charleston, S.C., to the character of the American people.

As Maron told member station KPCC, in the wake of last week's violence, "I didn't know if he was going to come, which would have been completely understandable."

Maron also said that Obama had remarked on how they had simply dived into the conversation.

"He was concerned about my experience. I think maybe he thought it would be more fun," Maron said.

We've highlighted some portions below. If you want to listen to the full podcast, we'll tell you that President Obama enters Maron's garage/studio around the 4:20 mark. He first discusses the Charleston attack around 15:00 — and then discusses racism and America in comments that start around 45:00.

Language advisory: Quotes in this story contain potentially offensive language.

Maron asked Obama to discuss race in America in the wake of last week's killing of nine black church members in Charleston and after several recent instances of police officers killing unarmed black men.

Where are we, Maron asked, when it comes to race relations?

Obama: I always tell young people in particular: 'Do not say that nothing's 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, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact.

What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that's still part of our DNA that's passed on. We're not cured of it.

Maron: Racism.

Obama: Racism. We are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' 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 200-300 years prior.

So what I tried to describe in the Selma speech that I gave, commemorating the march there, was, again, a notion that progress is real, and we have to take hope from that progress. But what is also real is that the march isn't over, and the work is not yet completed. And then our job is to try in very concrete ways to figure out, what more can we do?"

Obama went on to discuss the challenges faced by police, and the need to improve relationships between communities and law enforcement. He also stressed the importance of early education in closing the poverty gap.

The president said:

"What is required is a sense on the part of all of us that what happens to those kids matters to me — even if I never meet them. Because my society is going to be better off. I'm going to feel better about the America I live in. And over time, I'm confident that my children and my grandchildren are going to live a better life if those kids also have opportunity.

"That's where we have to feel hopeful, rather than just say that nothing's changed — we have to say, 'Wow, we've actually made significant progress over the last 50 years.'

"If we made as much progress over the next 10 years as we have over the last 50, things would be better. And that's within our grasp, it's available to us. And this is where, again, you want to get to those decent, well-meaning Americans who would agree with that — but when it gets translated into politics, it gets all confused."

The hourlong interview also includes Obama discussing how he views the person he was when he was 20 — a subject that arose early in their talk, because Obama went to Occidental College in Pasadena, Calif., not far from Maron's house.

Obama: "I love conversations like this, because if I thought to myself that — when I was in college — that I'd be in a garage a couple miles away from where I was living, doing an interview --"

Maron: " — as president."

Obama: "As president — with a comedian. I think that's a pretty hard scenario to ...

Maron: "You couldn't imagine it."

Obama: "It is not possible to imagine. Nobody could imagine it."

As Maron tells NPR's Fresh Air, talking to the president brought many new logistical concerns. There was the sniper on the roof nearby, for instance. Also, his cats weren't happy.

Maron tells Terry Gross that after it was all over, "A crew of people came and they started disassembling the tents that were on my driveway and then all the Secret Service got their stuff and they just were gone, it was all gone. I let my cats out of the bedroom ... and they were like, 'Can we have our house back, please?' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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