Culture Magazine

First Time Out, Obama Never Doubted He Could Get White Support

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

Coates: Did you have doubts?

Coates: You did have doubts?

Obama: Look, I think Valerie remembers us sitting around our kitchen table-a group of friends of mine, some political advisors, Michelle-and I think our basic assessment was maybe we had a 20, 25 percent chance of winning.

Obama: The presidency, yeah. Because I did think given the problems President Bush had had, that whoever won the Democratic nomination would win the presidency. And so, the issue really was could I get the nomination, particularly with a formidable candidate like Hilary Clinton already preparing to run. And my view was not that this was a sure thing, but what I never doubted was my ability to get white support.

Coates: You never doubted that?

Obama: No. And I think that in addition to the proof of my Senate race, if you want to go a little deeper, there is no doubt that as a mixed child, as the child of an African and a white woman, who was very close to white grandparents who came from Kansas, that I think the working assumption of discrimination, the working assumption that white people would not treat me right or give me an opportunity, or judge me on the basis of merit-that kind of working assumption is less embedded in my psyche than it is, say, with Michelle. There is a little bit of a biographical element to this. I had as a child seen at least a small cross section of white people, but the people who were closest to me, loved me more than anything. And so, even as an adult, even by the time I'm 40, 45, 50, that set of memories meant that, if I walked into a room and it's a bunch of white farmers, trade-unionists, middle age-I'm not walking in thinking, 'Man, I've got to show them that I'm normal.' I walk in there I think with a set of assumptions like, these people look just like my grandparents. And I see the same the same Jello mold that my grandmother served, and they've got the same you know, little stuff on their mantle pieces. And so, I am maybe disarming them by just assuming that we're okay. And if anything, my concern had more to do with 'I'm really young.' I mean when I look back at the pictures of me running in '08, I look like a kid. And so my insecurities going into the race had more to do with the fact I had only been in the senate two years. Three, four years earlier I had been a state legislator, and I was now running for the highest office in the land. [...]

Coates: One of the things that I think also is here is not just your ability to envision the presidency, just the optimism for the country you have in general. I think, in this kind of young age you really saw-if I may say so-the best of white America in a very sort of direct way...

Coates: Which I think is very different than most African Americans. I didn't really grow up around white people, but even the abstract construction was as a malignant force in my life, which I had to make my way out of, much, much later in life, in my twenties, when I had intimate contact. And I wonder how much of that general optimism you think emanates from your biography. The exposure too, the cosmopolitan nature of all you've seen.

Obama: Yeah. I mean look, I think all of the above. I think I was deeply loved by my mom and my grandparents. I felt that, and I carried that with me. I spent time outside of the United States which gives you a perspective on how people of all kinds of different races, and ethnicities, and religions, an backgrounds can figure out ways to divide themselves and try to be superior to others. So that I ended up looking at race in America as one example of a broader human problem, rather than something that was something that was unique and I was trapped in. Right? But I also, I think, benefitted from the very particular era that I was growing up in, because in some ways, the last 55 years-the years I've been on this Earth-have a very particular trajectory of progress that is incomplete, is partial, that middle class African Americans enjoy in ways that really impoverished African Americans do not yet feel. But, that trend would feed my optimism as well.

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