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Obama Effect Triggers More Nuanced Conversations On Race


We're about to bring you the first in an occasional series of stories that we'll be hearing over the next several months from our colleagues at NPR's Code Switch Team. That's our team reporting on race, culture and identity. Here in the studio is Code Switch's Adrian Florido. Hey, Adrian.


GREENE: So let me just start with the title of the series. You're calling it "The Obama Effect." Why is that?

FLORIDO: Yeah, that's right. Well, the idea we wanted to get at was this. When President Obama was elected in 2008, there was all this talk about his election ushering in a new era of racial harmony in the U.S. And clearly, that didn't happen, right? You just have to look around to see that racial tension is alive and well in this country. But at the same time, as a nation we seem to be having much more open, nuanced conversations about race than we did before Obama's presidency.

GREENE: And I suppose some questions about whether those different conversations are because you've had the nation's first black president or maybe some of the events that have happened. You know, I think of Ferguson; I think of Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore. A lot of things have triggered sort of conversation.

FLORIDO: Yeah, and so what we're trying to do with this series is to explore how people in different communities of color all across the country are talking about race, and how that's changed over the last eight years, and whether Obama's presidency had anything to do with it - to what extent those events you just referenced had to do with it. And I started in San Francisco.

GREENE: And why there?

FLORIDO: Well, I went there because there was this big protest happening earlier this spring. Students were demanding more funding for the school's ethnic studies department - that's a field that focuses on the histories and contributions of people of color in the U.S.

GREENE: This was at, like, at a college campus?

FLORIDO: Yeah - oh, I'm sorry - yeah, this is at San Francisco State University. And so these are the black, Asian and Latino-American histories you don't really find in high school textbooks. And I went to this protest with Pablo Ramirez. He's a senior.

PABLO RAMIREZ: We are the people. A little bit louder. We want justice for ethnic studies.

FLORIDO: He is from Los Angeles. His parents are Mexican immigrants. And he'll be the first person in his family to earn a college degree. And one of the first classes he took in college was an ethnic studies course.

P. RAMIREZ: And it really was the spark that lit the flame to just understand my history as a Latino male.

FLORIDO: Before that, Pablo always thought of race as a black and white thing. When he started learning about Mexican-American protest movements and other civil rights struggles, he started noticing race in his own life - especially when he'd go back to LA to visit his parents.

P. RAMIREZ: Noticing that my mother would be called wetback, noticing that people would say, like, oh, she's an idiot because she doesn't know English - oh, she's lazy.

FLORIDO: But Pablo says when he would try to point these slights out to his parents, they'd warn him not to, saying things like...

P. RAMIREZ: ...Oh, you don't need to talk about race. And I'm like, I'm not here to play nice to these ignorant people. I'm here to stand up for myself and my family and my heritage.

FLORIDO: Pablo is an American. And he wants to be treated like one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thirty-one through 40.

FLORIDO: Still, when he boards a Greyhound bus to head home for spring break, he's got three forms of ID - one from his school, his passport and his drivers license, even though he's a U.S.-born citizen.

P. RAMIREZ: Because if you just look at me, I'm just a Latino male. I may or may not be undocumented. And my parents and I are scared that they'll just profile me and whisk me off.

FLORIDO: Pablo gets home early the next morning.

MARIA RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: His family owns a small stucco house in South LA. Its paint is a faded pink. His dad's got chickens in the back. When he walks in, his mom's making coffee. His parents and his older brother and sister, they sit and talk with me for a little bit.

P. RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Pablo's dad, Daniel, crossed the border illegally in the early '80s to work. His mom, Maria, came a little later.

DANIEL RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Mr. Ramirez says they'd only planned to come for a couple of years and then go home. But as so often happens to immigrants with this plan - well, life happens. They had kids. Their kids started school, started learning English, started growing up American. And at some point, Mr. Ramirez says they realized they couldn't really go back. In 1986, they got amnesty under Ronald Reagan. And in the late '90s, they decided to finally become citizens. Still, they've never felt truly American.

M. RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Mrs. Ramirez says for them, being American is more about respecting U.S. laws and knowing those laws also protect them. This feeling that even though they're U.S. citizens, it isn't really their country - this seems to get at the heart of this tension Pablo has felt with his parents, pushing them to be more assertive, but them resigning themselves to sort of second-class treatment. Mr. Ramirez chimes in.

DANIEL RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "It's like if I go to a restaurant," he says, "if I'm standing next to an American woman, she'll get served first."

By the way, by American, he means white.

(Speaking Spanish). I asked what he does when that happens.

DANIEL RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Nothing," he says, "because you think, oh, I don't come here that often. So you just kind of take it in stride."

His wife says there was a moment when this feeling of not really belonging sort of changed to her. It was when Barack Obama was elected.

M. RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She says she had never seen so many young brown people go to the polls. "Obama felt like a president for us," she says.

The family had hoped Obama would deliver immigration reform. But it never came. And his administration has deported two and a half million people. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is at a fever pitch. Maria doesn't blame Obama entirely. She also blames Congress and, more recently, people like Donald Trump.

M. RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Mrs. Ramirez thinks Americans want to go back to when this was a whiter country. But Mr. Ramirez says that isn't possible.

DANIEL RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Back then, people of color didn't have a voice," he says. "They didn't have a vote. But now they do."

Mr. Ramirez says there are more young Latinos, like his son Pablo, using that voice. Sure, when Pablo comes home from college full of new ideas, it causes a lot of eye-rolling, especially from his sister Daniela.

DANIELA RAMIREZ: I tell him all the time. I'm like you've got to tone it down with your big words because, I mean, you're being all...

FLORIDO: ...Academic?



DANIELA RAMIREZ: Yes (laughter).

FLORIDO: Everyone at the table nods in agreement, including a guilty-looking Pablo. But his dad says this is because college is opening his mind. Pablo says the biggest thing he's come to understand in college is that he should embrace all of his heritage.

P. RAMIREZ: I actually identify as Mexican and American. And I wouldn't give up either of my identities.

FLORIDO: His sister Daniela and brother Ramon agree. They say they're Mexican too.

DANIELA RAMIREZ: But I also feel like I live an American life.

RAMON RAMIREZ: You learn to love both.

FLORIDO: Listening on, their dad has a big grin on his face.

DANIEL RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "What they're saying," he says, "is that they like to eat both tacos and hamburgers." Adrian Florido, NPR News.


LOS TIGRES DEL NORTE: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.