In a wide-ranging interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, President Obama had some advice for college protesters across the country.
Over the past several months, protests have occurred at schools such as the University of Missouri, Yale and Ithaca College over issues ranging from offensive Halloween costumes, to the racial climate and the lack of minority faculty at schools, to school administrators' responses to racially insensitive vandalism and other incidents on campuses. Many of these protests have been led by students of color and draw inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement.
Obama did not get into specifics about any particular recent protests and punted when asked whether schools like Harvard and Yale should get rid of symbols linked to slavery. But he did say that protesters on college campuses need to engage people they don't agree with, even as they protest.
"I think it's a healthy thing for young people to be engaged and to question authority and to ask why this instead of that, to ask tough questions about social justice," Obama told Inskeep. "So I don't want to discourage kids from doing that."
But, he continued, "As I've said before, I do think that there have been times on college campuses where I get concerned that the unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right."
Obama pointed out instances where students protest "somebody like the director of the IMF or Condi Rice speaking on campus because they don't like what they stand for."
"Well, feel free to disagree with somebody," Obama said, "but don't try to just shut them up."
"My concern is not whether there is campus activism," Obama told Inskeep. "I think that's a good thing. But let kids ask questions and let universities respond. What I don't want is a situation in which particular points of view that are presented respectfully and reasonably are shut down, and we have seen that sometimes happen."
NPR's Gene Demby has written extensively on the wave of protests sweeping across college campuses, noting that "agitation for more resources, more active inclusion, more safe spaces and more black faculty has been a through line for black students on university campuses for generations." Demby also points out Obama's time at Harvard Law School, where he spoke out about faculty diversity, an issue college protesters continue to raise.
Obama wrote of his time as a student activist at Occidental College in his memoir Dreams from My Father. On Feb. 18, 1981, he gave a speech urging Occidental to divest of its investments in apartheid-era South Africa. To make the point that students in Africa were being silenced, Obama was dragged offstage by two white friends before he could finish the speech.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's listen to a discussion about a changing America. It's part of our year-end interview with President Obama.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In this talk, the president had some tough advice. He gave a warning to people on the left, saying some campus protests shut down debate. He said Americans should listen to people they disagree with.
MONTAGNE: When our Steve Inskeep sat down with the president just before he headed out for a Christmas vacation, Obama faced this question - whether he understands the people who profoundly disagree with him.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We began this part of our talk with a list. It's a list of major events of 2015. I read them off to the president as we sat by a fireplace in the White House Cabinet Room. They are all events that highlight the question of national identity, who we are - a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, the Black Lives Matter movement, the immigration debate, the question of whether to admit Syrian refugees and whether to admit Muslims. All of them commanded attention this year, and all touch on who's in, who's out, who's allowed, who's not.
What has caused that issue of who we are to come forward again and again and again at this moment in history?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, Steve, it never went away. That's at the center of the American experience. You pick any year or any decade in American history, and this question's been wrestled with. Sometimes, it pops up a little more prominently. Sometimes, it gets tamped down a little bit. But this has been true since the founding and the central question of slavery and who was a citizen and who was not.
INSKEEP: The president offered his own list from history, signs saying no Irish need apply, the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, decades of debate over LGBT rights.
OBAMA: So I don't think there's anything new about it. I do think that the country is inexorably changing, I believe in all kinds of positive ways. I think we are - when I talk to my daughters and their friends, I think they are more tolerant, more welcoming of people who are different than them, more sophisticated about different cultures and what's happening around the world. But I do think that when you combine that demographic change with all the economic stresses that people have been going through because of the financial crisis, because of technology, because of globalization, the fact that wages and incomes have been flat-lining for some time and that particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they're no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck, you combine those things. And it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear, some of it justified but just misdirected. And you know, I think somebody like Mr. Trump's taken advantage of that. I mean, that's what he's exploiting during the course of his campaign.
INSKEEP: Let me follow up on a couple of things you mentioned. You mentioned slavery. Among the many protests this year are two small but symbolically interesting ones at Ivy League universities. At your alma mater, Harvard Law, there's a seal for the school that is based on the family crest of a slave owner. At Yale, there is a school is named after John C. Calhoun, who was a great defender of slavery.
INSKEEP: The call is to get rid of those symbols. What would you have the universities do?
OBAMA: You know, as president of the United States, I probably don't need to wade into every specific controversy at a...
INSKEEP: But you can do it. We're here.
OBAMA: At a university (laughter). But here's what I will say generally. I think it's a healthy thing for young people to be engaged and to question authority and to ask why this instead of that and to, you know, ask tough questions about social justice. So I don't want to discourage kids from doing that. As I've said before, I do think that there have been times on college campuses where I get concerned that the unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right. And that, you know...
INSKEEP: Meaning listen to people that you might initially think are bigoted or...
OBAMA: Yeah, you know, there have been times where you start seeing on college campuses students protesting somebody like the director of the IMF or Condi Rice speaking on a campus because they don't like what they stand for. Well, you know, feel free to disagree with somebody. But don't try to just shut them up. If somebody doesn't believe in affirmative action, they may disagree. You may disagree with them. I disagree with them. But have an argument with them. It's possible for somebody not to be racist and want a just society but believe that that is something that is inconsistent with the Constitution. And you should engage.
INSKEEP: And you mentioned Donald Trump taking advantage of real anxieties in the country but that the anxieties are real.
INSKEEP: Some of that anxiety, as you know, focuses on you, Mr. President.
OBAMA: (Laughter) Yeah.
INSKEEP: And I want to set aside the politicians for a moment and just talk about ordinary voters. Do you feel, over seven years, that you've come to understand why it is that some ordinary people in America believe or fear that you are trying to change the country in some way that they cannot accept?
OBAMA: Well, look, if what you're asking me, Steve, is are there certain circumstances about being the first African-American president that might not have confronted a previous president, absolutely. You know...
INSKEEP: I don't know if that's all of it. But...
OBAMA: Well, I'm sure that's not all of it.
INSKEEP: That's not all I'm asking, anyway. You can answer it any way you want.
OBAMA: Well, you're asking a pretty broad question. I don't know where to take it. So if you want to narrow it down, I can. If what you're suggesting is that somebody questioning whether I was born in the United States or not, how do I think about that, I would say that that's something that is actively promoted and may gain traction because of my unique demographic. I don't think - (laughter) - I don't think that that's a big stretch. But maybe you've got some other - something else in mind.
INSKEEP: Well, I mean, years ago you made that remark. You were much criticized for saying something about people clinging to guns and religion. This was before you were even elected president. And although you were criticized for the phrasing of that, it seemed to me that you were attempting to figure out, what is it that people are thinking? What is it that's bothering people?
INSKEEP: And now you've had several more years to think about that.
OBAMA: Well, keep in mind, Steve, I was elected twice by, you know, decent majorities. So, you know, the fact of the matter is that in a big country like this, there's always going to be folks who are frustrated, don't like the direction of the country, are concerned about the president. Some of them may not like my policies. Some of them may just not like how I walk or my big ears or - you know, so I mean - you know, no politician, I think, aspires to a hundred percent approval ratings.
INSKEEP: Within that opposition, the president argued, there are some specific strains of the Republican Party suggesting he's different or Muslim or disloyal.
OBAMA: But that's not to suggest that everybody who objects to my policies may not have perfectly good reasons for it. You know, if you're living in a town that historically has relied on coal and you see coal jobs diminishing, you're probably going to be more susceptible to the argument that I've been wiping out the economy in your area. And you know, it doesn't matter if I tell them actually it's probably because natural gas is a lot cheaper now. And so...
INSKEEP: Coal plants are already closing, yeah.
OBAMA: It doesn't pay to build coal plants - if somebody tells you that this is because of Obama's war on coal, well, you know, that's an argument that you may be sympathetic to. And that's perfectly legitimate. So as I said, yeah, you asked a pretty open-ended question. I think you were being a little - a little coy in how you asked it.
INSKEEP: I'm trying to give you room to answer the way that you want to answer.
OBAMA: No, I understand. But what I'm saying is, is that I think that there's always going to be, every president, a certain cohort that just doesn't like your policies, doesn't like your party, what have you. I think if you're talking about the specific virulence of some of the opposition directed towards me, then, you know, that may be explained by the particulars of who I am.
INSKEEP: That's President Obama as part of a year-end talk at the White House. He added that all presidents face fierce passions. And he said finding reason to dislike a president is a well-traveled path in this country. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.