Transcript: BET's Exclusive Interview With President Obama

Jeff Johnson talks to POTUS about race, racism and how America has far to go.

     Q    Mr. President, thank you for joining us.

     THE PRESIDENT:  Great to see you, Jeff.

     Q    AS the country knows, we are in a great deal of turmoil.  When you think about the names of Mike Brown, of Tamir Rice, of Eric Gardner, and even now of this young man in Phoenix, the country is concerned about can we trust police, are we safe with police.  My first question for you is, in the midst of this and all that's going on -- you didn’t start this.  This problem didn’t begin under your watch.  This is incredibly persistent and pervasive.  But how much of it does your administration feel you're responsible for making an impact on?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I think an enormous amount.  Not just because, as President, you're always responsible for what happens in this country and you’ve got to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, but because of my particular experiences that I bring to this office. 

I had a group of young people come before we met, a wider group of civil rights leaders and law enforcement.  Most of them were somewhere between 18 and 25.  A couple of them were from Ferguson.  And when they described their own personal experiences of having been stopped for no reason, or having generated suspicion because they were in a community that supposedly they didn’t belong, my mind went back to what it was like for me when I was 17, 18, 20.  And as I told them, not only do I hear the pain and frustration of being subjected to that kind of constant suspicion, but part of the reason I got into politics was to figure out how can I bridge some of those gaps and understanding so that the larger country understands this is not just a black problem or a brown problem, this is an American problem.

So we take this very seriously.  Eric Holder obviously takes it seriously.  He’s got a similar set of stories and experiences he can share.  And in some ways, we've made progress over the last six years on a wide range of criminal justice issues, making sure that we looked at how are drug laws being enforced; making sure that we're shifting how at least federal prosecutors think about the charges they bring against low-level drug offenders.  And we've had some success.

I mean, that's part of the reason why we've seen, last year, for the first time in 40 years, the incarceration rate in federal prisons actually went down 10 percent at the same time that crime was still going down by 10 percent.  And that showed we can have good policing and good law enforcement and be fair and be smart.

But the fact is that what we've seen now on videotape -- because it used to be folks would say, well, maybe blacks are exaggerating, maybe some of these situations aren't what they describe.  But we've now seen on television, for everybody to see.  It gives us an opportunity I think to finally have the kind of conversation that's been a long time coming.

Q    And with that conversation, I think JFK said that those who stand in the way of peaceful revolution make for violent revolution inevitably.  He wasn’t talking about the states, but it's relevant now.  And so how necessary are the protests that we're seeing all over the country?  Peaceful protests.  There’s young protestors, angry, frustrated protestors.  How necessary are they to the process of moving the ball, the policy ball, the legislative ball?

THE PRESIDENT:  I think as long as they’re peaceful, I think they’re necessary.  When they turn violent, then they’re counterproductive.  But --

Q    But we can admit that the vast majority of these --

THE PRESIDENT:  Absolutely.

Q    -- are nonviolent.

THE PRESIDENT:  Absolutely.  And that's why I had them in the Oval Office, some of these folks who’ve been organizing these protests.  Because the old adage, power concedes nothing without a fight -- I think that's true.  But what’s also true is that a country’s conscience sometimes has to be triggered by some inconvenience, because I think a lot of people who saw the Eric Garner video are troubled, even if they haven't had that same experience themselves.  Even if they’re not African American or Latino. 

I think there are a lot of good, well-meaning people -- I think there are probably a lot of police officers who might have looked at that and said, that is a tragedy what happened, and we’ve got to figure out how to bring an end to these kinds of tragedies.  But then attention spans move on.  There’s the next thing.  There’s some international crisis.  There’s something that happens here, and change doesn’t really occur.

And the value of peaceful protests, activism, organizing is it reminds the society this is not yet done.  And part of what I said when we convened a meeting on Monday here at the White House was not only that I was announcing a task force that has to report in 90 days with specific, concrete steps around training, around how we are equipping police, how we’re holding police officers more accountable, not only were we going to put more funding into some of the training and technology that can prevent these things from happening, but I’m going to stay on this.  And not only am I going to stay on it; by virtue of this staying in the news because of some of these protests, hopefully the entire society says let’s finally try to make some real progress on this.

Q    And progress means different things to different people.  So there are those that want body cameras.  There are those who want civilian review boards.  And much of this is not a federal mandate.

THE PRESIDENT:  Most of it is not federal, but the federal government can have an influence.  We fund a lot of jurisdictions all across the country.  And if we can identify best practices, then for us to be able to say, you need to adopt these best practices, and if you don’t, then perhaps some of the funding that’s available around some things that law enforcement cares about become less available.  We’re going to provide more to folks who are doing the right thing and we’re going to be investigating folks who are not doing the right thing.  I think that becomes an important part of the leverage that we can exert.

Q    And does that happen through federal legislation, or does that happen through utilizing the DOJ as a -- we saw Eric Holder in Cleveland yesterday, and the decision, the supervision agreement I think was a good one that said to the city of Cleveland, here’s what you’ve been doing wrong, systemically, and now we’re going to hold you accountable.  Is that going to become the rule, or does there ultimately have to be federal policy?

THE PRESIDENT:  Let’s look at what the task force generates. I mean, I have confidence -- we’ve got a police chief, we’ve got a criminologist, we’ve got civil rights leaders, we’ve got activists as part of this task force process.  Let’s see the specifics that they generate. 

But I will tell you that the Department of Justice already has authority.  So in the Eric Garner case, Eric Holder, I think properly, said we’re going to initiate a civil rights investigation.  The Cleveland case you just mentioned.  We already have the ability to take a look.

Now, the standards at the federal level are higher, and there are so many local municipalities, local police departments that doing it at the local level, doing it at the state level is going to be a lot more effective, because to bring federal cases, it’s a high bar.  It’s got to be not just something that happened where there’s some questions; there’s got to be a sense that maybe justice has not been served by the existing process at the state and local levels.

But I think that everybody should feel confident that this Justice Department is taking this very seriously, has taken it very seriously.  What I’d like to do, though, is to change what happens on the ground, because that’s going to be more lasting.  And I’ll just give you a couple examples.

When I was in the state legislature in Illinois, we had problems with racial profiling when it came to traffic stops, and we had problems repeatedly with confessions in crimes that later on there were suggestions maybe they had been coerced.  So two of the things I’m most proud of was passing a law requiring videotaping of interrogations so that -- my argument was this protected the police as well as the accused because there’s not going to be any question.  If they confessed, it’s all there on tape.  If they didn’t, then the suggestion that they did is not going to make sense either.

On racial profiling, it was a simple matter of just keeping data.  You have to record who it is that you’re stopping.  The minute somebody knows they’re being watched, somebody is looking over their shoulder, then they’re a little more intentional about is this a legitimate stop?  Is this a stop that I'm making because somebody is really breaking the law, or because I just don’t like the looks of the person who’s driving through this neighborhood?

     And what we saw was not only a reduction in the disparity on traffic stops, but my argument, again, to the police department was, this will make you a more effective police force, because instead of wasting your time with folks who shouldn’t be stopped you can focus on the folks who should be stopped. 

And one of the things that I want us to make sure we understand is that, communities of color need good law enforcement.  I mean, there’s a lot of crime, and one of the things that we talked about on Monday here was you’ve got young people who end up getting caught between police that they don’t trust and folks on the streets who are trying to rough them up.  And they should have confidence that the police are on their side.  And if they have that confidence then the police are going to have an easier time doing their job, and they’re more likely to come home safe.

     Q    And when they don’t have that confidence -- and we’re seeing that with young people all over the country.


Q    There are a lot of people that in many cases don’t think that you’ve been aggressive enough in talking about the numbers of African American men that are overwhelmingly shot versus white.  Are there ever times when the responsibilities and obligations of President get in the way of how you want to respond as a human?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Well, sometimes people’s concerns are not based on fact, because if you look at after what happened with Michael Brown, if you looked at what happened after Trayvon, if you looked at the decision after Eric Garner, I'm being pretty explicit about my concern, and being pretty explicit about the fact that this is a systemic problem, that black folks and Latinos and others are not just making this up.  I describe it in very personal terms. 

     I think what sometimes people are frustrated by is me not simply saying, this is what the outcome should have been.  And that I cannot do, institutionally.  It is my Justice Department that is investigating these cases.  And part of the rule of law is that I'm not putting my fingers, my thumb on the scale of justice.  And it could compromise investigations if it appeared that I was trying to steer to a particular outcome. 

So I'm sure that there’s some folks who just want me to say, in such-and-such a case, this is what I think should have happened, and if I had been on a grand jury this is what I would have said, and so forth and so on.  I’ll leave it to people to speculate on what I'm saying to myself or Michelle when were alone at night.

But what I can say is that this country is at its best when everybody is being treated fairly.  We have a history and a legacy of people not being treated fairly in all kinds of walks of life.  It is particularly important for people to feel like they’re being treated fairly by law enforcement and police, because the consequences when they’re not treated fairly can be deadly. 

And I’ve said it before:  The vast majority of law enforcement officers are doing a really tough job, and most of them are doing it well and are trying to do the right thing.  But a combination of bad training, in some cases; a combination in some cases of departments that really are not trying to root out biases, or tolerate sloppy police work; a combination in some cases of folks just not knowing any better, and in a lot of cases, subconscious fear of folks who look different -- all of this contributes to a national problem that’s going to require a national solution.

And when I told the young people who I met with -- and we’re going to have more conversations like this over the coming months -- is this isn’t going to be solved overnight.  This is something that is deeply rooted in our society; it's deeply rooted in our history.  But the two things that are going to allow us to solve it -- number one is the understanding that we have made progress. And so it's important to recognize, as painful as these incidents are, we can’t equate what is happening now to what was happening 50 years ago.  And if you talk to your parents, grandparents, uncles, they’ll tell you that things are better.  Not good, in some cases, but better.  And the reason it's important for us to understand progress has been made is that then gives us hope that we can make even more progress.     

The second thing that I insist of these young people is we have to be persistent, because typically progress is in steps, it’s in increments.  When you're dealing with something as deeply rooted as racism or bias in any society, you’ve got to have vigilance, but you have to recognize that it’s going to take some time, and you just have to be steady so that you don't give up when we don't get all the way there. 

     I said to somebody, we're not going to make it perfect, but we can make it better.  And better is good, because over time, you have enough better, 10 years, 20 years from now, our kids are safer, the community is more confident about its place, the police officers are going to be in a position to do a better job.

     Q    I know you’ve got to leave, Mr. President, but my very last question.  We talked about having 15-year-old daughters.  And at one point those daughters may have children.  What’s the vision that you have -- not necessarily as President of the United States, but as Barack Obama, the man -- for those children that's different than what Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and others have had to face?

     THE PRESIDENT:  I want my children to be seen as the individuals that they are, and I want them to be judged based on the content of their character and their behavior and their talents and their gifts.  I don't want them to be objects of fear simply because of misguided attitudes. 

     Part of what I think is so heartbreaking and frustrating for a lot of folks when they watch this is the recognition that simply by virtue of color you’ve got less margin for error.  And that's particularly true for black boys.  Young men, teenage boys -- sometimes they're going to do stupid stuff.  That's true whether they're white, black, Hispanic.  It doesn't matter.  You did stupid stuff.  I did stupid stuff.  Most of the time it’s harmless.  Sometimes it’s careless.  And then we grow and we progress, and we become, hopefully, solid citizens and men who are contributing to our society.  And so it’s not simply that we want to make sure that the perfect young man is treated okay.  We also want a boy who’s a boy, or a young man who maybe is a little confused, maybe makes a mistake -- we want them to be given the same benefit of the doubt as any other man would, or any other boy would be given. 

And that I think is going to be the test of whether or not our society and our law enforcement and our schools are operating the way they should be.  Because this doesn't just begin on the streets.  We’ve been working with the Department of Education on the fact that you've got black kindergartners being kicked out of school at significantly higher rates.  Now, there’s only so much harm a four- or five-year-old can be doing.  By nature, they are disruptive.  And if we're already making judgments at that early age in a school system then what can we expect when those kids get older?

     Q    And they're on the street.

     THE PRESIDENT:  And they're on the street.  And that's that attitude, the mindset that we’ve got to change.

     And as I said before, I think it is changing.  The good news is, is that when you look at who these protesters are, they're not all black.  You've got -- when you talk to the white friends of your daughter or my daughter, they’ve got a better attitude and a clearer mindset and a greater empathy for what’s going on. And I think each successive generation, as it gets more understanding, more familiarity, more comfort with people of other races and other cultures, then some of this dissipates.

But we can’t just wait for that process to happen on its own.  It also requires policy changes.  It requires training.  It requires specific steps by police departments, starting from the top, in order to change some of these mindsets.  And we know what works.  I mean, there are police departments that do a better job and police departments that do a worse job. 

     So I guess the answer to your question is pretty simple:  I want my grandsons to be treated like anybody else’s grandsons.  If they’re messing up, I think they should be corrected -- they’ll first be corrected by me or their mother or their father. But I don’t want them to be subjected to the kind of constant bias that makes them feel as if this is not their home, and that they’re not safe in their own neighborhoods, or that they cannot trust the institutions that are put in place supposedly to serve and protect them.  And I think that can be achieved.

     It’s interesting, having conversations with a lot of white staffers and friends of mine just over the last several days as these issues have come up, I think there is a clear understanding that there’s a problem here.  I don’t get a sense that this society is simply ignoring this or suggesting this is not a problem.  I think people also recognize that police officers do have a tough job, that, in some cases, it’s a very dangerous job, and they’ve got to sometimes make split-second decisions.  But I think they also recognize that there is, as I said before, less margin for error for African American or Latino youth.  And they recognize that’s a problem. 

And we need to build on those better angels in our society and try to come up with practical solutions.  Now is not the time for just rhetoric.  Now is not the time for a lot of conversations -- which sometimes people call for.  Now is a good time for us to figure out what training works, what equipment works, what accountability measures work, what kind of review systems work, what kind of prosecution practices work in order to stop this stuff.

     And, in the meantime, we’ve also got to change hearts and minds.  Dr. King once said, when he was asking about anti-lynching legislation -- somebody said, well, you can’t change what’s in the hearts and minds of the white folks in the South, you can’t legislate what’s in their hearts.  He said, well, you can’t legislate what’s in their hearts but, I tell you what, if you can just stop them from lynching me, that’s progress.  That’s a pretty good thing.  And over time, hearts and minds catch up with laws.  That’s been the history of progress in this country.

     So I think the biggest message I want to give to all your viewers is this is not only personal for me, because of who I am and who Michelle is and who are family members are and what our experiences are, but as President, I consider this to be one of the most important issues we face.  Because America works when everybody feels as if they are being treated fairly and that they’ve got a fair shot.  And whenever we are unified in trying to uphold our ideals, then this country can’t be stopped.  And when we are divided and people feel as if those ideals are being betrayed, that holds us back in every aspect of life. 

And I’m confident we’re going to be able to make progress.

     Q    Well, I appreciate the time, Mr. President.  Thank you so much.

     THE PRESIDENT:  Jeff, I appreciate it, man.  Thank you.

(Photo: BET)

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