WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama says the history of slavery and segregation is "still part of our DNA" in the United States, even if racial epithets no longer show up in polite conversation. He uttered the N-word in making his point.
In an interview, Obama talked about the debates over race and guns that have erupted after the arrest of a white man in the racially motivated shooting deaths of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina.
"Racism, we are not cured of it," Obama said. "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 to 300 years prior."
Obama's remarks came during an interview out Monday with comedian Marc Maron for his popular podcast, where coarse language is often part of the discussion. The president uttering a racial slur aloud stirred controversy, especially on social media, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said later Monday that wasn't surprising.
Obama didn't plan in advance to use the word to be provocative, Earnest said, but was simply making a point during a casual, free-flowing interview. He said he didn't recall ever hearing the president say the racial slur aloud before, but noted that it did appear in his book, "Dreams from My Father."
The White House on Monday said Obama, would travel to Charleston on Friday to deliver the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emanuel AME Church and one of the victims of last week's shooting. First lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden also plan to attend. The Obamas knew the slain pastor, who also was a state senator and an early Obama supporter in the 2008 presidential campaign.
In the interview, Obama said while attitudes about race have improved significantly since he was born to a white mother and black father, the "legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, that casts a long shadow and that's still part of our DNA that's passed on."
Obama also expressed frustration that "the grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong" and prevented gun control from advancing in Congress after 20 children and six educators were massacred in a Connecticut elementary school in 2012.
"I will tell you, right after Sandy Hook, Newtown, when 20 6-year-olds are gunned down, and Congress literally does nothing — yes, that's the closest I came to feeling disgusted," he said. "I was pretty disgusted."
He said it's important to respect that hunting and sportsmanship are important to a lot of gun-owning Americans. "The question is just is there a way of accommodating that legitimate set of traditions with some common-sense stuff that prevents a 21-year-old who is angry about something or confused about something, or is racist, or is deranged from going into a gun store and suddenly is packing, and can do enormous harm," Obama said in a reference to suspect Dylann Storm Roof, whose purported 2,500-word hate-filled manifesto talked about white supremacy. Roof faces nine counts of murder in connection with Wednesday's shooting.
Obama sat for the interview Friday in Maron's Los Angeles garage studio — close to where the president attended Occidental College — and seemed to marvel at the absurdity of it. "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 as president, with a comedian ... it's not possible to imagine," he said. But he said he did the interview because he wants to reach a nontraditional audience and "break out of these old patterns that our politics has fallen into" where "it's not this battle in a steel cage between one side and another."
With the campaign to replace him heating up, Obama said he thinks he would be a better candidate if he were running again, because although he's slowed down a little bit, "I know what I'm doing and I'm fearless."
"I've screwed up. I've been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls. And I emerged and I lived. And that's always such a liberating feeling," he said.