Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Fear of a Black President", Ta-Nehisi Coates

I guess in a lot of ways, I'm still naive about race in the U.S.

During most of Barack Obama's first term I genuinely believed that the ferocious opposition to his administration and its policies was rooted in determined, if often misguided or uninformed, disagreement with the policies themselves. Yes, birtherism and secret-Muslimism were flatly irrational and signaled something other than well-meant "loyal opposition", but the proponents of these efforts wore their racism, often with disgusting pride, on their sleeves. (Why I excused mainstream pols who insisted on riding these non-issues, I don't know. Wishful thinking?)

I don't know exactly when I changed my mind, but I think that for a lot of 2012 I wondered whether the same policies, put forward by a different president, would have elicited the same response at the same intensity. You can't compare Obama either to Bill Clinton's actual terms or to a might-have-been Hillary Clinton first term because over all of these hung, or would have hung, the spectre of Bill's fiercely polarized time in office. But if John Kerry, say, had been president for the past four years, it's hard to imagine that the partisan rancor would have been quite as hysterical on the right.

I mentioned all that to explain why Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece from last August in The Atlantic, "Fear of a Black President", so impressed me. It's not a solidly factual piece: while Coates cites a couple of studies, it's not clear to me that he proved Obama's very presence in the White House has brought racial discord to bear on every dispute he has had with his opponents. And yet, I can't help feeling Coates is right.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened [with regard to the Trayvon Martin shooting],” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.
As Coates observed about the Martin shooting, "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 uncontroversial." And yet, "[t]he moment Obama spoke, the case of Trayvon Martin passed out of its national-mourning phase and lapsed into something darker and more familiar—racialized political fodder."

Coates makes a powerfully emotional case that race still underlies our politics and our culture in a toxic way. Chances are that in our polarized culture, either you've already read Coates' piece and agree with him, or you've never heard of it and after my précis, you have no intention of clicking on the link. If, however, you belong to that increasingly rare species, the uncommitted and non-partisan, you might take a look at the article. Give Coates himself a chance to convince you.

(Thanks to LongReads for the link. Don't blame LongReads, by the way, for my being so abysmally late to this and other pieces.)

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