Khalil Gibran Muhammad – a scholar, professor and great-grandson of late Nation Of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad – said former President Barack Obama believes racism in its ugliest forms is mostly a thing of the past in the U.S.
“One of the things that becomes clear very quickly is that what Obama calls race or what he describes as our racial past, and what we might call as racism, is for him a thing of the past,” Muhammad said. “He has a clear-eyed understanding of the realness of racism that is situated in our past but he does not call it the same thing in our present.”
Muhammad made the comments during an Oct. 14 episode of “Some Of My Best Friends Are” – a podcast he hosts with his best friend Ben Austen, who is white. On the show, Muhammad and Austen do a deep dive into Barack and Michelle Obama’s respective memoirs, “A Promised Land: Volume 1” and “Becoming.”
Muhammad plays a clip of Obama expressing his stance on a post-racial America.
“Here’s one thing I never believed, right … was the fever of racism being broken by my election. I never subscribed to the ‘We live in a post-racial era;’ but I think what did happen during my presidency was, yes, a backlash among some people who felt that somehow I symbolized the possibility that they or their group were losing status just by virtue of the fact that I didn’t look like all the other presidents previously,” Obama said.
To this Muhammad responded, “It is almost as if in the present, what we might recognize as racism are grievances, resentments, slights and things that are in people’s head.”
While both Muhammad and Austen offered feedback on each book, Muhammad spoke more about “A Promised Land” while Austen spoke more about “Becoming.”
Obama’s memoir highlighted his commitment to American exceptionalism – the idea that America is the blueprint other nations should follow by virtue of its superior morals, values and policies, Muhammad said. Muhammad subscribes to the opposite school of thought, which believes American exceptionalism is a myth.
“He (Obama) basically talks about two Americas. There is essentially the America of the confederacy – the America of slaveowners, of people committed to segregation and Jim Crow; an America where they’re all real racist bigots and people who don’t believe in democracy, and then there’s this other America,” Muhammad said. “The America that he believes in (is) the America that elected him twice, the America that is the one that made promises that will be the beacon of light to guide us to the future.”
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The podcast episode runs for a little over 40 minutes. Austen, who is a journalist, agrees with Muhammad’s take on President Obama and says Michelle is a tad more willing to speak directly about racism in her memoir. He recounts a childhood story Michelle tells about her father’s car being keyed while they are visiting a white suburb.
“It’s about race, they’re in a white neighborhood,” Austen says. Muhammad replies, “It’s about racism, let’s be clear.” Austen then echoes and says, “It’s about racism.” Muhammad says the example Austen uses demonstrates why Michelle may be more forthright on the subject.
“The narrative arc of that kind of origin story for Michelle – when she sees a racist act that Obama might call a racial slight because he doesn’t really talk about such things – in a kind of forceful way, she bears direct witness to the vulnerability and innocence of her own family; and yet they could be subject to this degrading assault on just their basic dignity,” Muhammad responded.
While the duo gives Michelle more credit than her husband, she is not without critique. Austen says there was a “great omission” by Michelle not diving as deeply as she could have into the racism of the present age. “You can’t reckon the past without thinking about what’s gonna come next. … But that’s the difficult storytelling you also have to do,” Austen said.
During the last five minutes of the podcast, Muhammad made what he called “full-circle” comments.
“I think the frustration overall is understanding for the first time that Obama’s going to stick to his guns. I mean that in every way. He truly believes in American exceptionalism. His commitment to this notion of a promised land, I don’t believe it in the way that he does and that’s OK,” Muhammad said. “He wrote a book that basically said, ‘No matter what’s happened in our past, and no matter what happened during my presidency, and no matter what’s happened since, including with the election of Donald Trump, that he’s going to double-down on it.”
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