Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Obama Presidency

Ta-Nehisi CoatesSince the election, I’ve been clinging to voices of sanity. Anyone with a brain. I like imagining they aren’t outliers. Scientific lectures, comedy, even politicians talking — if the author has something to teach me. So, I’ve wondered, where has Ta-Nehisi Coates been? After all, Trump ran the most overtly racist campaign since George Wallace. Coates is one of our finest essayists — especially on racism in America. He would certainly have a unique way of viewing the election.

As it turns out, he’s been preparing a richly-layered analysis of Barack Obama. It appeared earlier this week in The Atlantic, My President Was Black. It features both interviews with Obama and Coates’ views on the President’s legacy. Like most of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing, it caused me both to question and accept many of his conclusions.

Why Was Obama So Centrist?

He notes, “I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history.” Skilled and moral, yes. But among the greatest? I’m not so sure. He didn’t pass all that many laws after 2010.

Coates continues, “He was phenomenal — the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people.”

Obama Was Constrained by Racism

This is unquestionably true. It gets at both my primary criticism of the Obama administration (not liberal enough), and Coates’s ongoing examination of the role racism plays in America. It’s unlikely Obama could have been much more liberal. Any such effort would have been excoriated as “Giving Free Money To Shiftless Negroes” (many Republican voters believe this falsehood).

Obama says as much to Ta-Nehisi Coates, talking about being approached by activist groups: “You feel like saying to these folks, ‘[Don’t] you think if I could do it, I [would] have just done it? Do you think that the only problem is that I don’t care enough about the plight of poor people, or gay people?'”

And here’s the conundrum of Obama — the devil’s bargain anyone who seeks power inevitably makes. The key factor in a “deal with the devil” story is very like the Midas legend; be careful what you wish for, you may get it. Obama was elected on a populist platform he had no hope of enacting. Racism will out.

Election 2016: The Unblackening

Ta-Nehisi Coates unflinchingly describes the myriad versions of racial backlash Obama’s mild-mannered demeanor inspired, and quotes the President in a frank observation of why New Deal politics may now be unsupportable:

But what I do believe is that if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority… that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class—and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of those same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them—then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are, and what’s different, and what’s changed.

Obama and Coates (And you and I!) all know “what’s changed.” Wealth redistribution was fine when it went from richer to poorer white people. After the civil rights movement secured legal racial equality (theoretically anyway), suddenly redistribution became an evil. An assault on freedom. This reaction was in place long before mythical legends of Welfare Queens driving around in their Cadillacs.

I have struggled with the election results. There are two primary reasons. First, I am simply afraid of their practical ramifications for people inside and outside the country. Second, I know the hideousness that produced the results. This is both the hideousness of rapacious corporate greed that’s erased our safety net and the demonizing of the Other, which capitalism is quite happy to exploit. This is America’s fascism. Perhaps it always was.

Being Wrong About the Comforting Narrative

“Racism is never simple,” Ta-Nehisi Coates succinctly observes. Earlier, he delivers a solid refutation of my own previously held position:

One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.

It’s what scientists call a positive feedback loop. Racism gave Republicans their first opportunities to chip away at the New Deal. That erosion made life for working people worse. That made them blame “government” (for presumably wasting their tax dollars on minorities) more. So it enabled further-right politicians, who slashed the safety net more — and on and on and on.

It’s not “chicken and egg,” because we know what came first. Racism did. But it is a self-strengthening mechanism. A Danish friend once told me their saying is “a screw without an end.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates Makes Me Think

Ultimately, Coates’s article made me reconsider Obama’s time in office. I wanted him to be more liberal. I still want Democrats to be. And yet, even the conservative ACA was seen as a giveaway to Those People. How much more could Obama have done? How do we end the screw?

Can we fight inequality without being accused of racial favoritism? Can we fight inequality without a dedication to alleviating the great injustices done to so many of our citizens? These positions seem contradictory. Since the disease of racism poisons all of us.

And Coates made me aware just how much darker Trump’s election was for people of color. What a slap in the face it is that the centrist, elegant Obamas incurred so much hatred. Even the “talented tenth” (or thousandth) of a percent are never acceptable enough.

Ta-Nehisi Coates noted of an Obama appearance at the storied Howard University, “Six months later the awful price of a black presidency would be known to those students.” What a price! What moral debts we have accrued. And what terrible interest we continue to pay.

4 thoughts on “Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Obama Presidency

  1. I think we (as in the “we” who actually had some inkling of the danger that this American fascism represents) are going to get hammered along with the rest of the 99% because a critical mass of our “fellow citizens” – largely the white and well-to-do – are utterly ignorant why that old aristo FDR gave away tax money to Those People. It wasn’t because he loved the small proles. It was because he’d been raised in the end of the Gilded Age when people like him and his class lived in terror of “anarchists” and labor riots and revolutions. It was because of the Bad Examples of Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy showing why would happen if Those People got desperate enough.

    The long Social Peace won by the New Deal is looking very fragile. It will be interesting (in the sense of “OMFG, what fresh hell is this?”) to see what happens when the huddled masses wake to the understanding that their fantasy of becoming rich has ended and that the return to the openly oligarchic United States of 1890 has occurred.

    • Not far from here is the James J. Hill mansion, high on a bluff. Hill was a railroad baron, he fought tooth and nail against labor organizers. The front side, facing the rich avenue, looks normal (if garishly overdone). The back side (the side facing the town below, where the Poors live) has iron bars like a Mafia compound. Hill knew what side the danger was on.

      The historical amnesia you describe is a huge problem. I think we’re seeing it bigtime in Europe — they’re going through what we did in the 80s in England and America. People who aren’t in a union still benefit from a strong labor movement. Everybody’s wages go up. Then you get prosperity (for most) and forgetting. What things were like before. Why solidarity is important. A Reagan, a Thatcher come along, and promise to benefit You by screwing over Them. You’ve always gotta have a Them.

      Of course in this country the Them has always been Black people. They could join unions, but they couldn’t get promoted. (That’s largely why we had riots in the 1960s.) Now the list of Them is pretty endless, ain’t it? Public employees. Gays. Anyone of color. Anyone who speaks a foreign language. Sure. Because after you’re elected on a platform of getting Them and you don’t deliver economic magic, well, obviously, you need a new Them. Killing welfare and jailing Black men hasn’t worked. It’s gays! Mexicans! Muslims! Nasty women!

      Oh, well, this is nothing new. As Dr. Chomsky always reminds us, the labor movement was broken by 1930. We built it back up. We can do that again — or something like it that serves the same purpose.

  2. I was going to write a response to the Coates article but honestly, I don’t disagree with him. I pay attention to Black twitter and they have long pointed out most of the themes and why this election turned out the way it did.

    You can’t have economic progress in this country the way that FDR did because the electorate has changed enough to make it impossible. Which means we have to figure out how to either outnumber the white people or teach them to stop hating when others get the same level of benefits.

    • Yeah, I don’t disagree with him, either. Which is why this post is basically a 7th-grade book report. (“I read Watership Down, it’s about rabbits.”)

      The only thing I wanted to counter, and Coates doesn’t even push on it too hard, is the ongoing election post-mortem fake dichotomy. Either Trump voters are racists, or hitting back against Big Gummint elites who’ve done little to make them feel more secure about their future, their children’s futures. Why does it have to be either/or? Isn’t it both? So I liked the Danish phrase, “screw without an end.” Plus “screw” has multiple meanings in English, including “screw someone over.” That worked for me.

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