It happened decades ago, but former President Barack Obama still clearly remembers the day someone he thought had his back called him a racial epithet.
"Listen, when I was in school, I had a friend. We played basketball together," Obama told Bruce Springsteen on their new Spotify podcast, Renegades: Born in the USA. "And one time we got into a fight and he called me a c***. And I remember I popped him in the face and broke his nose."
The move was an instant reaction.
"And he said, 'Why'd you do that?" Obama recalled. "And I explained to him — I said, 'Don't you ever call me something like that.'"
Springsteen, a friend of Obama's, told him about witnessing something similar that happened to Clarence Clemons, his late saxophonist and close friend, who was also a Black man. They had gone to a club when someone called Clemons the n-word. Springsteen saw how upset Clemons was about the incident, especially because the person who used the offensive word was an acquaintance of the E Street band member.
Then, once when they were touring the Ivory Coast, they "came out to a stadium of entirely Black faces," Springsteen said. "And we stand there for a moment, and Clarence comes over and he says, 'Well...now you know how it feels."
The two were friends for four decades.
"It's never something that comes again. You know? It... 45 years," Springsteen said. "And the only thing we never kidded ourselves about was that race didn't matter. We lived together. We traveled throughout the United States, and we were probably as close as two people could be. Yet at the same time, I always had to recognize there was a part of Clarence that I wasn't ever really going to exactly know and ah… it was a relationship unlike any other that I've ever had in my… ever had in my life."
Springsteen was well aware of the fact that Clemons — who was nicknamed The Big Man — had to team up with a white man seven years younger to get attention in an industry he had worked in for a decade.
The rocker asked Obama if he thought America is ready to "deconstruct its founding myths" or consider reparations.
"So if you ask me theoretically, 'Are reparations justified?' The answer is yes," Obama said. "There's not much question. Right? That the wealth of this country, the power of this country, was built in significant part, not exclusively maybe not the even majority of it, but a large portion of it was built on the backs of slaves. They built the house that I stayed in for a while.
"What is also true is that even after the end of formal slavery, and the continuation of Jim Crow, the systematic oppression and discrimination of Black Americans resulted in Black families not being able to build up wealth, not being able to compete, and that has generational effects. So if you're thinking of what's just, you would look back and you would say, 'The descendants of those who suffered those kinds of terrible, cruel, often arbitrary injustices deserve some sort of redress, some sort of compensation — a recognition.'"
Obama said he recognized during his terms as president that the country would not do that.
"And so, this then brings us to 'Could you actually get that kind of justice? Could you get a country to agree and own that history?'" Obama said. "And my judgment was that as a practical matter, that was unattainable. We can't even get this country to provide decent schooling for inner-city kids."
Still, he said, he sees value in discussing it.
"If for no other reason to educate the country about a past that too often isn't taught," Obama said, "and let's face it, we'd rather forget."
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