Since 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:
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:
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.