Obama reflects on country’s divide in conversation with CPS students: ‘Our shared story has broken down’

The former president touched on some of the defining issues of the past year — including the riot at the U.S. Capitol, the protests sparked by George Floyd’s killing and the nation’s troubled response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Former President Barack Obama on Thursday speaks to five Chicago Public Schools students about his latest book, “A Promised Land.”

YouTube/Chicago Public Schools

As former President Barack Obama fielded questions about his new book during a virtual forum Thursday with a group of Chicago Public Schools students, he reflected on some of the defining issues of the past year — including the riot at the U.S. Capitol, the protests sparked by George Floyd’s killing and the nation’s troubled response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The conversation was first announced last November, when Obama surprised CPS’ 105,000 high schoolers and thousands of teachers with free digital copies of his bestselling memoir, “A Promised Land.”

During the hour-long talk moderated by ABC-7’s Val Warner, the former commander-in-chief maintained his trademark cool as he joked with students and reflected on his post-presidential life. However, he didn’t shy away from addressing the nation’s current divide.

Obama specifically reflected on the need for “a common story” that binds Americans and hinges on democratic ideals, like free elections.

“We all saw what happens when kind of our basic democratic conversation breaks down and you have people rioting at the Capitol and putting people at risk,” he told the five high school students on a Zoom call.

Obama acknowledged that America’s shared story has always been in flux, noting there was a time that African Americans and women didn’t have the right to vote. But he claimed the country is now at an inflection point, which he described as “one of those moments where our shared story has broken down.”

That breakdown is due in part to “the fact that we never really fully did a reckoning of our history and our past,” Obama said. And while Obama noted that people from diverse backgrounds have gained some power and become more represented, he claimed those who believed “American democracy’s just for some people” have, in turn, “felt threatened.”

In highlighting the country’s fragmented state, Obama complained that Americans “don’t even agree on basic facts” as he warned against “certain conspiracy theories” propagated online, namely those currently “promoting an anti-vaccination mentality.”

Obama encouraged Americans to “think about where you’re getting information from” and to avoid “following some of these rabbit holes on YouTube and Facebook.” He also urged the students to interact with different types of people to build a sense of common understanding.

“If you’re on the internet usually, or you’re on a text group chat or whatever, usually you’re talking to people who you agree with, and you’re just reinforcing the same ideas that all of you have,” he said. “But when you’re in the real world interacting with people who are different than you, now you have to listen to other peoples’ perspectives.”

Obama said he was encouraged by the nationwide protests led by young people from different backgrounds that broke out after after Floyd was killed last May by a police officer in Minneapolis.

“When they let that out in an organized fashion, it has power. … And in a lot of jurisdictions, you’re starting to see change. But if all you’re doing is complaining or sitting back and feeling cynical about it, then nothing changes.”

Obama also reflected on the country’s response to the COVID-19 crisis while responding to a question about how the pandemic has personally affected him. He claimed the outbreak “could have been handled better,” adding that the toll of more than a half-million dead has disproportionately affected people of color.

“If government hasn’t been doing work ahead of time, then when a disaster like a pandemic strikes — they haven’t prepared and lined things up, didn’t focus on worst-case scenarios — there’s a price to that.”

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