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Fear of a Black President

[ 49 ] August 25, 2012 |

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay, “Fear of a Black President,” is probably the best essay on this country I’ve read in 2012. It’s hard to even know what to excerpt here. Of many excellent passages, I’ll go with this one:

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness. Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical: he declines to use his bully pulpit to address racism, using it instead to engage in the time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.

His approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity. It is the approach of L. Douglas Wilder, who, in 1986, not long before he became Virginia’s first black governor, kept his distance from Jesse Jackson and told an NAACP audience: “Yes, dear Brutus, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves … Some blacks don’t particularly care for me to say these things, to speak to values … Somebody’s got to. We’ve been too excusing.” It was even, at times, the approach of Jesse Jackson himself, who railed against “the rising use of drugs, and babies making babies, and violence … cutting away our opportunity.”

The strategy can work. Booker T.’s Tuskegee University still stands. Wilder became the first black governor in America since Reconstruction. Jackson’s campaign moved the Democratic nominating process toward proportional allocation of delegates, a shift that Obama exploited in the 2008 Democratic primaries by staying competitive enough in big states to rack up delegates even where he was losing, and rolling up huge vote margins (and delegate-count victories) in smaller ones.

And yet what are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxt­ables? An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.

All I can say is that I am extremely excited for Coates’ book on African-Americans and Civil War memory to come out.

And if you haven’t read this essay, put down what you are doing and spend the next 10 minutes on it. It’s amazing.

Comments (49)

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  1. Murc says:

    In my opinion, the single sentence that cuts to the heart of the entire issue is this:

    “The thing is, a black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there… However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”

    Yes, I know, that’s a quote from a four-year-old Gwen Ifill piece. It’s still true and it’s still the most concise reading of the issue.

  2. MikeJake says:

    TNC isn’t my favorite blogger, but his stuff on black America has genuinely enhanced my understanding of the black mindset. I don’t know if I totally buy his racial double-standard argument for Obama’s supposed “timidity” (I think his political instincts and neoliberal beliefs play just as significant a factor), but it is a compelling argument.

    And his Civil War stuff has been thought-provoking. Before I had read him, I had always unquestionably accepted the framing of slaves as property. They were property without rights, then the Civil War happened, then they had rights. But really, if you take what the Constitution and the Declaration says about liberty and the inalienable rights of man at face value, then they were citizens and they did have rights, even before the war. We just had a society that conspired to subjugate them and violate their rights. That’s an important difference. It means that even when we don’t live up to the standards and ideals our society has set out for itself, it isn’t the final word on how things should be, and it endows us with the moral force to demand change.

    • TT says:

      I agree to an extent that Obama’s inherent centrism fuels his political “timidity” as much as race. I also think that he missed a huge opportunity with the Sherrod episode. Until I read Coates’s article, I really didn’t know about Sherrod’s background and the genuine heroism and selflessness with which she has carried herself throughout her lifetime. I guess I was more caught up in hating Breitbart and what he had done to her, and seething at the truly disgusting spectacle of Breitbart claiming that Sherrod pretty much owed him an apology for forcing him to smear her.

      Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech was probably the main reason I decided to vote for him over Clinton in the primaries. I remember listening to it on the radio in the car and feeling that, for a politician anyway, this was a guy who actually wanted to speak to me like I was a normal, intelligent adult. He could have done a similar race relations speech about Sherrod and the power of reconciliation, and the grotesque wrong perpetrated against her by Breitbart and his minions (and–ahem–the gutless Tom Vilsack). He would have hit it out of the park, kicked conservative racial arsonists right in their howling whiny nuts, and maybe even won plaudits and a few converts from the average American. Instead he punted. For shame.

      • What, exactly, does kicking people in the nuts mean?

        His supporters feel happier, his opponents feel angrier, and then what? What’s the goal here?

        Or is His supporters feel happier, his opponents feel angrier the goal in and of itself?

        • Murc says:

          There’s something to be said for making your supporters feel happy, although I’d prefer that come in the form of red-meat policies rather than red-meat speeches.

          Speaking for myself, I want to see Obama go after the Republicans harder because I’d like two things to happen; I’d like Democrats to get more radicalized, and I’d like independents who voted for Obama (and therefore are inclined to take him seriously) to have the insanity of Republicans waved in their face as often as possible.

          To be fair to Obama, he’s been better than he has been on this over the past six months or so. But he also says things like he did a few days ago, when he expressed the belief that if he wins re-election Republicans will be more inclined to compromise with him, which makes him either delusional or a bald-faced liar.

          • I’d like independents who voted for Obama (and therefore are inclined to take him seriously) to have the insanity of Republicans waved in their face as often as possible.

            Never get in your opponent’s way when he’s destroying himself. Have you seen what’s happened to the Republicans’ and Congress’s approval?

            Reread what Coates wrote about the public’s reaction to the Trayvon Martin case, and what happened after Obama injected himself, and fill in “Republican craziness” in place of “Trayvon Martin.”

            To be fair to Obama, he’s been better than he has been on this over the past six months or so.

            Obama’s rhetoric on race hasn’t changed the slightest bit in the past six months.

            which makes him either delusional or a bald-faced liar.

            I really have trouble attaching moral judgement (bald-faced liar ohnoes!) to aspirational political rhetoric.

          • Hogan says:

            I want to see Obama go after the Republicans harder

            I want to see Democrats go after the Republicans harder. It doesn’t have to be Obama, and in many ways it’s better if it isn’t.

        • TT says:

          I’m not talking BULLY PULPIT or magically moving legislation through a recalcitrant Congress or anything like that. What I am talking about is Obama spending minuscule political capital in order to stand up for a grievously and obviously wronged woman who his administration hired and weaving it into a larger theme that he’s uniquely suited to address. The point isn’t so much to energize his base or enrage his enemies as it is to just speak honestly about a difficult subject. I don’t think it’s wrong for a president to do that now and then.

          So National Review would have condemned him. Your point is? They condemn him for receiving dead soldiers at Dover. Sometimes doing the right thing is just that, an end in itself, above and apart from politics. And Obama could have done the right thing here but didn’t.

          • So it’s sort of an Aaron-Sorkiny, no real purpose type of thing.

            • timb says:

              Allowing the Right to create a narrative and meme to the public meeting Sherrod for the first time has no consequences

            • gmack says:

              I don’t much care one way or the other about Democrats or Obama “going after Republicans” more. Such a phrasing is, to my mind, too psychological, as if the main purpose of “going after Republicans” is to have me be able to say “Fuck yeah!” as I hear the report on the news.

              Nevertheless, I do think Obama should have gone to bat for Sherrod. Partly, it’s a point of honor. More importantly (at least politically speaking) the attack on Sherrod was so clumsy and so idiotic that, at least in my judgment, it would have been an easy win for the administration–and thus also another humiliation for the Breitbart crowd pushing the story. Obama, of course, wasn’t interested in this fight, at least, not at that time. I understand the calculation, but I also disagree with it.

    • Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech was probably the main reason I decided to vote for him over Clinton in the primaries.

      That’s because it was delivered to Democrats. Sure, we loved it. Meanwhile, the response at National Review was to describe it as “Hate Whitey and raise the red flag of socialism.”

      He could have done a similar race relations speech about Sherrod and the power of reconciliation, and the grotesque wrong perpetrated against her by Breitbart and his minions (and–ahem–the gutless Tom Vilsack). He would have hit it out of the park, kicked conservative racial arsonists right in their howling whiny nuts, and maybe even won plaudits and a few converts from the average American.

      And it would have worked out differently that Obama’s comments about Trayvon Martin, how exactly?

      The reaction to the tragedy was, at first, trans-partisan. Conservatives either said nothing or offered tepid support for a full investigation—and in fact it was the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, who appointed the special prosecutor who ultimately charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. As civil-rights activists descended on Florida, National Review, a magazine that once opposed integration, ran a column proclaiming “Al Sharpton Is Right.” The belief that a young man should be able to go to the store for Skittles and an iced tea and not be killed by a neighborhood- watch patroller seemed un controversial…Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

      Haven’t we watched this happen, over and over again, on every single subject Obama addresses, racial or not? Haven’t we learned by now that the use of the BULLY PULPIT works to gin up support among supporters, while opponents rush to address exactly the opposition of the President’s position, even if it was their own ten minutes before?

  3. Woodrowfan says:

    the comments on the original story at the Atlantic are depressing…

    • Hogan says:

      Yeah, and the contrast between those and the article itself is . . . well, like black and white. Way too much like black and white.

    • Medrawt says:

      Indeed. I don’t know whether to call it lack of reading comprehension, or just the poverty of empathy, or what.

      I’m a white man. I don’t anticipate that I’ll ever really understand what it’s like to be suspect because of my gender or race. So when almost every woman, or almost every black person, in my personal or literary acquaintance, tells me something about what it’s like to be them, what kind of blind arrogance does it take to dismiss that and say “I don’t see it”? How stupid do you have to be to read TNC’s piece and say “Gosh, anger isn’t a positive emotion,” or “It’s just all about race to you, isn’t it?”

      • Dirk Gently says:

        Seems to me the good comments outweigh the bad, but only just. The main thing I can’t get over is how quickly (obviously white) people are to get their hackles up, and in a way that proves TNC’s point. Using the term “racist” or “racist” in their presence is the equivalent of sticking them with a cattle prod. It’s like psychological projection, but not quite that–surely there is a term for this…

      • cheap wino says:

        Reading comprehension. Possibly, but I suspect many of them didn’t get past the first page. The prospect of rationally engaging what’s going on in the dark part of their minds being unpleasant and all. Much easier to just embrace their outrage.

  4. owlbear1 says:

    That is a great fucking read I and encourage everyone to read it. All of it, there’s even a scene after the credits roll.

    Thanks for the link!

  5. angry bitter drunk says:

    Throughout the fall of 2008 I argued with a liberal friend who was convinced a black candidate couldn’t win the presidency. My response was that even if 40 percent of the country would reflexively vote against him, Obama would win. My reasoning was everything was going to shit, and the alternative (McCain-Palin) was so spectacularly and transparently bad even the largely inattentive public could see it.

    In short, people were desperate in ’08. Even a few of the racists were desperate:

    http://beckleyworks.com/2008/10/18/were-votin-for-the-nigger/

    I guess what I’m saying is, yeah, we elected a black man, but between the financial crisis and the Republicans having Bill Kristol select their VP candidate, it took some extraordinary circumstances. Obama’s election may have led us to believe or hope we had taken a significant step forward, but in that sense it was a cruel hoax. The racists never went away, and we should have known they wouldn’t.

    Also, if I wasn’t too old to have heroes, Shirley Sherrod would be my hero. Wow.

    • Hogan says:

      It *was* a significant step forward. But we still can’t see the finish line from here.

    • Anybody who thought that the election of Barack Obama would make the racist go away is an idiot.

      And idiot who has only himself to blame, since the Obama campaign itself certainly never made any such claims.

      • timb says:

        Joe, once again, bravely straps on the shield to defend the President from his enemies….and once again forgets that these are the President’s friends.

    • I guess what I’m saying is, yeah, we elected a black man, but between the financial crisis and the Republicans having Bill Kristol select their VP candidate, it took some extraordinary circumstances.

      Well, no. Obama led McCain throughout the entire campaign. He led for months before the financial crisis, for months before the Palin selection.

      • Murc says:

        I would say that the eight years of the Bush Administration count as extraordinary circumstances. McCain/Palin being an awful ticket and the financial crisis are what got Obama to what is probably the biggest possible margin of victory available these days, but his election was made POSSIBLE by eight years of misrule.

        Pace Berke Breathed (and a bunch of other people, really) I always figured that the first black man (and it was almost certainly going to be a man) in the White House would be a conservative. Sort of a Nixon-to-China thing. But 2008 was such a good year on the fundamentals that it opened up a window.

        This is not, of course, to denigrate Obama’s excellent skills as a politician. He took down Hillary Clinton in a primary. That remains impressive.

        • I would say that the eight years of the Bush Administration count as extraordinary circumstances.

          I really don’t see anything extraordinary about the Bush presidency. That’s what the Republican Party is, and what they will be for the foreseeable future.

          • Cody says:

            No doubt it’s their party platform, but the results were obvious to every day people in spectacular clarity.

            Sure, Republicans are scheming to take my money and give it to the rich every day. However, usually they don’t take 80% of my money all at once and give it to Romney. Generally it’s by a more abstract method, like the continual wealth gap.

  6. heckblazer says:

    We still may be in extra-ordinary circumstances. Southern Partisan magazine thinks Romney’s economic plan is so horrible they’re going with Obama:

    http://southernpartisan.com/2012/01/27/247/

  7. Dirk Gently says:

    I think Chris Rock said it best, regarding the apparent uptick in racial tension in the country as espoused by angry white teabaggers:

    “I actually like it, in the sense that—you got kids? Kids always act up the most before they go to sleep. And when I see the Tea Party and all this stuff, it actually feels like racism’s almost over. Because this is the last—this is the act up before the sleep. They’re going crazy. They’re insane. You want to get rid of them—and the next thing you know, they’re f—-ing knocked out. And that’s what’s going on in the country right now.”

    Now, the time frame of when “they’re fucking knocked out” may be quite wide yet. And that aspect of white denial or anger at so-called “white guilt” may take a LOOOOONG time to go away still. But that older form, the form that has defined virtually all of American history…I think it’s literally dying out.

  8. John Revolta says:

    From your mouth to God’s ear………….

  9. thorton says:

    Coates wrote a very good essay but I think it suffers a bit from attempting to cover so much ground. He does an excellent job with driving his main thesis but the essay is so dense there are a few sections that needed to be better integrated. It feels like there are three great essays being crammed together into one good mega article.

    • Ed says:

      It feels like there are three great essays being crammed together into one good mega article.

      Yes, very much so. And there are odd little asides, as when he announces that he cheered “like everyone else” when Osama bin Laden was killed and adds helpfully “God damn Al Qaeda” for good measure, just in case anyone was wondering where he stood on that. Not to mention that not everyone cheered and many people who had no use for bin Laden and were not sorry to see him dispatched found the spectacle of the cheering distasteful. But, like Coates, I digress.

  10. I agree, that was one of the best pieces I’ve read in a long time.

    Unfortunately, Erik decided that the weakest part of the essay was his favorite. I have no idea what the claim that Obama engages – regularly, as the central element of his discourse on race, according to Coates – in “black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture” is supposed to refer to. He doesn’t provide any examples. If it’s so central to his message, shouldn’t it be relatively easy to come up with instances?

    • Aaron says:

      The claim is more comprehensible and familiar if you’ve read TNC’s other work, for example, his classic essay about Bill Cosby and black conservatism. He provides reasons for associating Obama with this movement.

      Of course, failing to summarize those reasons in this section of his “Fear of a Black President” essay is still a problem, but he has made the argument elsewhere.

      • He doesn’t really provide much in terms of evidence that Obama engages in Cosby-style rhetoric. I do remember the one debate in October 2008, which included a reference to “turn off the Playstation,” but that type of rhetoric has been completely absent from his presidency, and was a miniscule part of his rhetoric about race even during the campaign.

        Coates seems to be using the category “hectoring black people” to encompass everything that isn’t fiery anti-racism. The “More Perfect Union” speech, for example, is much more emblematic of his rhetoric, and includes exactly zero examples of hectoring black people. There is a pretty big difference between not foregrounding racial civil rights rhetoric, and Bill Cosby’s approach.

        • Aaron says:

          It is difficult to be a black conservative if you don’t talk about race at all. Perhaps TNC would argue that Obama feels he can’t talk about race, but if he could he would sound more like Bill Cosby than Jesse Jackson. Alternatively, it’s possible that TNC came to this conclusion during the campaign and just failed to revise his view in the face of counter-evidence, which is no uncommon sin. The lack of detail in this section of the essay doesn’t give a lot of guidance to how his views have changed, if at all.

          • Not talking about explicitly about race is a dramatically different stance than hectoring black people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Coates seems to be setting up a theology featuring Malcom X and late-stage Bill Cosby (if you’re not using the rhetoric of anti-racist struggle, you’re hectoring black people), but I think we need to add Sydney Poitier to the pantheon – not as an in-between position, but as a third leg on the stool.

      • Ed says:

        I expect Coates was thinking of this sort of thing.

        http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/16/us/politics/15cnd-obama.html

        On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama has frequently returned to the topic of parenting and personal responsibility, particularly for low-income African American families. Speaking in Texas in February, Mr. Obama told the mostly black audience to take responsibility for the education and nutrition of their children, and lectured them for feeding their children “cold Popeyes” for breakfast.

        I don’t recall Obama yakking too much about this while in office, but he seems in general to want to avoid the whole subject. The Beer Summit early on may have had something to do with that, but as Coates notes it’s also his temperament. Also, his African-American base has been very understanding but also restive at times, and somehow I don’t think this talk coming from the presidential pulpit would be pleasing.

        • Yes, Coates seems never to have updated his impression of Obama – an impression based on the media’s overemphasis of a message that was never as significant a part of Obama’s campaign as they make out, and which ignores the rest of what Obama said about race.

          but he seems in general to want to avoid the whole subject.

          He certainly doesn’t make racial issues a prominent part of his message, no. Which is quite a bit different than late-era Bill Cosby. Does he “avoid the whole subject?” I don’t think it’s right to conflate the two approaches.

          • Hogan says:

            Is TNC talking just about the presidential campaign, or about Obama’s whole political career? I don’t know much about what he was saying to audiences in Illinois before 2007.

          • Ed says:

            It seems to me that what Coates said/says relating Obama’s position to Cosby’s views is reasonable and supported by the facts. There is no reason to believe that Obama didn’t mean what he said in 2008, which wasn’t exactly a century ago. That he has shut up about the matter once in office – and that was an assumption on my part, not having looked into it — means only that.

  11. I’ve seen, with my own eyes, how the election of Barack Obama has changed how the kids I teach view their position in our society, and the scope of the opportunities available to them.

    Coates does a good job explaining how it has also changed the views of another segment of society – that is, white people who perceive the world in terms of a zero-sum contest between different races. They view the expanded sense of opportunity that kids in Lowell perceive as a threat to their own status.

    So sad.

    • DocAmazing says:

      Travelling in some of my state’s less-cosmopolitan areas, I ran across some unusual honesty on the part of “white people who perceive the world in terms of a zero-sum contest between different races”. They look at places like Oakland, where a cop can be jailed for killing an unarmed African-American, and see that old sins might well be ripe for addressing. Some are, frankly, scared–not just at loss of privilege, though that’s a big piece of it, but at the spectre of justice in the form of vengeance. They know that if they were part of a community that had been fucked over for generations and achieved political power, they’d be dishing out punishment generously; they assume the same on the part of other people, as well.

  12. Cody says:

    I enjoyed this article greatly. It was a good read.

    I can’t wait for Obama’s Presidency to be over (preferably after his 2nd term), and hope to see him on the speaking tour. It would be great times if he would speak openly about racial problems then.

    Although his policies and speeches in office don’t seem to demonstrate it lately, I can’t imagine he doesn’t have a long list of things he would like to say without fear of political backlash.

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