Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates' analysis of the effect of white racial assumptions on Obama's Presidency

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been getting a lot of well-deserve attention for his provocative essay, Fear of a Black President The Atlantic Sept 2012. Erik Loomis, for instance, called it "probably the best essay on this country I’ve read in 2012. ... if you haven't read this essay, put down what you are doing and spend the next 10 minutes on it. It's amazing." (Fear of a Black President LGM 08/25/2012)

The video at this link of an interview with the author shows him expressing some of the ambiguity that his article expresses, of recognizing that Obama faced particular challenges as an African-American buyt also recognizing that his restraint that is related to those challenges has also produced substantive failings in his Presidency.

Three things particularly stand out for me in Coates' article.

The first is his description of the ways Obama has been limited by racial frames, in particular the stigma against angry black men. He describes the dilemma that the Jeremiah Wright controversy in 2008 represented for Obama's candidacy:

Obama offered black America a convenient narrative that could be meshed with the larger American story. It was a narrative premised on Crispus Attucks, not the black slaves who escaped plantations and fought for the British; on the 54th Massachusetts, not Nat Turner; on stoic and saintly Rosa Parks, not young and pregnant Claudette Colvin; on a Christlike Martin Luther King Jr., not an avenging Malcolm X. Jeremiah Wright's presence threatened to rupture that comfortable narrative by symbolizing that which makes integration impossible — black rage.

From the "inadequate black male" diatribe of the Hillary Clinton supporter Harriet Christian in 2008, to Rick Santelli's 2009 rant on CNBC against subsidizing "losers’ mortgages," to Representative Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst during Obama’s September 2009 address to Congress, to John Boehner’s screaming "Hell no!" on the House floor about Obamacare in 2010, politicized rage has marked the opposition to Obama. But the rules of our racial politics require that Obama never respond in like
fashion. So frightening is the prospect of black rage given voice and power that when Obama was a freshman senator, he was asked, on national television, to denounce the rage of Harry Belafonte. This fear continued with demands that he keep his distance from Louis Farrakhan and culminated with Reverend Wright and a presidency that must never betray any sign of rage toward its white opposition.
When Obama leaves office, whether in 2013 or 2017, I fully expect to hear some very of this argument made by corporate Democrats to defend Obama against criticism from progressive that his approach was too conservative, too little supportive of labor, too friendly to Big Finance. "He tried to do more, but racial prejudice prevented him from doing so," the argument will run. I saw a hint of this from Melissa Harris-Perry in the discussion on the 08/25/2012 edition of Up With Chris Hayes in which Coates also took part.

Coates' article may even be cited in support of this pitch. But he does not use this as an excuse for Obama's shortcomings. "But whatever the politics [of white racial fears], a total submission to them is a disservice to the country." Coates describes what happened when the late Andrew Breitbart went after a USDA official, Shirley Sherrod, with a dishonest report that completely falsely made her sound like a racist against white people:

But then the administration, intimidated by a resurgent right wing specializing in whipping up racial resentment, compelled Sherrod to resign on the basis of the misleading clips. When the full tape emerged, the administration was left looking ridiculous.

And cowardly. An e-mail chain later surfaced in which the White House congratulated Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's staff for getting ahead of the news cycle. None of them had yet seen the full tape. That the Obama administration would fold so easily gives some sense of how frightened it was of a protracted fight with any kind of racial subtext, particularly one that had a subtext of black rage. Its enemies understood this, and when no black rage could be found, they concocted some. And the administration, in a panic, knuckled under. [my emphasis]
The second thing that strikes me is his description of how Obama's presence as an African-American in the White House is a living challenge to the institutional racism of American society:

Obama doesn’t merely evince blackness; he uses his blackness to signal and court African Americans, semaphoring in a cultural dialect of our creation—crooning Al Green at the Apollo, name-checking Young Jeezy, regularly appearing on the cover of black magazines, weighing the merits of Jay-Z versus Kanye West, being photographed in the White House with a little black boy touching his hair. ... Whatever Obama’s other triumphs, arguably his greatest has been an expansion of the black imagination to encompass this: the idea that a man can be culturally black and many other things also—biracial, Ivy League, intellectual, cosmopolitan, temperamentally conservative, presidential.

It is often said that Obama’s presidency has given black parents the right to tell their kids with a straight face that they can do anything. This is a function not only of Obama’s election to the White House but of the way his presidency broadcasts an easy, almost mystic, blackness to the world. The Obama family represents our ideal imagining of ourselves — an ideal we so rarely see on any kind of national stage.

What black people are experiencing right now is a kind of privilege previously withheld — seeing our most sacred cultural practices and tropes validated in the world’s highest office. Throughout the whole of American history, this kind of cultural power was wielded solely by whites, and with such ubiquity that it was not even commented upon. The expansion of this cultural power beyond the private province of whites has been a tremendous advance for black America. Conversely, for those who’ve long treasured white exclusivity, the existence of a President Barack Obama is discombobulating, even terrifying. For as surely as the iconic picture of the young black boy reaching out to touch the president’s curly hair sends one message to black America, it sends another to those who have enjoyed the power of whiteness.
The third thing that impresses me about Coates' article is that he also describes well how Obama's conservatism isn't just temperamental, but extends to policy, even to policies that disproportionately harm African-American communities, and to his attitude toward combating racial prejudice. This is a particularly dramatic formulation, comparing Obama to the classic "Uncle Tom" of African-American leadership, Booker T. Washington:

... 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 timehonored 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.
Coates goes back to Obama's famous speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention in which, "There was not talk of the effects of racism." We all should probably have listened to that speech more closely.

Indeed, there is no small amount of inconsistency in our black president's either ignoring or upholding harsh drug laws that every day injure the prospects of young black men — laws that could have ended his own, had he been of another social class and arrested for the marijuana use he openly discusses.
Something very similar could be said of Obama's finance-industry-friendly tolerance of high unemployment, his virtually non-existent assistance to homeowners whose mortgages are under water, and his treasured goal of Grand Bargain to cut benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

As we have seen over and over, the Republican Party has taken advantage of Obama's relentless centrism to mainstream even more extreme and destructive policy ideas and make them more a part of the general political discussion.

And, as always, it's important not to fall into the trap of the punditocracy and focus excessively on the personality and style and political "horse-race" considerations and neglect the ideological/policy aspects of Obama's politics. Going back yet again to his famous 2004 Democratic Convention speech, in which he described his social priorities in contrast to those of the Cheney-Bush Administration:

People don't expect -- People don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. [my emphasis]
This is actually a modest statement of goals for a Democratic Party leader, and completely within the narrow confines of neoliberal doctrine. It's just that the "left" version of neoliberalism offers "a slight change in priorities" from the rightwing version. Both versions are suspicious of a strong regulatory state offsetting corporate power on behalf of the democratic majority. Both reject the New Deal/Great Society emphasis on what we have come to modestly call the "safety net", which really includes essentials of what Americans think of as "middle class" life like Social Security and Medicare; the "left" version doesn't want to cut them as much as the rightwing version. There are real differences. But neither approach offers an aggressive defense of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, nor look to a pathway to comprehensive single-payer health insurance coverage.

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