In his elegy to Barack Obama’s beatific presidency, “My President Was Black,” Ta-Nehisi Coates talks deeply and broadly about the President’s “innate optimism and unwavering faith in the ultimate wisdom of the American people.”
These sentiments, he says, are undoubtedly what allowed Obama to go from the Illinois State Senate to the Oval Office in five meteoric years.
Coates writes, “By Obama’s lights, there was no liberal America, no conservative America, no black America, no white America, no Latino America, no Asian America, only ‘the United States of America.'”
By acknowledging America’s disgraceful history of slavery, Native genocide, and perennial waves of xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment, yet treating all of these things as “errors” caused by “misunderstanding”–the work of a “small cabal” rather than the mass of the country’s white citizenry and leadership–Obama was able to “emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people,”–according to Coates–and this is what won him America’s confidence, inasmuch as he gained it, and the majority of the electorate in 2008 and 2012.
According to Coates, Obama viewed the hearts of white people as innocent of the sort of maliciousness that would eventually elect Trump. Or I should say he views the hearts of white people as innocent, since he is still speaking about White America, even after Trump’s election, as if Trump’s election was not a deliberate move to grab the country back from his black-ass clutches.
Coates credits Obama’s forgiving view of whites to his family life growing up in Hawaii–the love, loyalty, and protection he received from his white mother and maternal grandparents.
“Obama told me” Coates writes, “he rarely had ‘the working assumption of discrimination, the working assumption that white people would not treat [him] right or give [him] an opportunity or judge [him][other than] on the basis of merit.”
Coates says that Obama admitted “[t]he kind of working assumption [that white people would misuse or abuse, discount or dismiss him solely based on his blackness] is less embedded in [his] psyche than it is, say, with Michelle.”
And Coates doesn’t denigrate Obama for this. In fact, he writes, “Obama’s embrace of white innocence was demonstrably necessary as a matter of political survival.”
By offering white people a trust that most black people cannot or will not, Obama was able to calm white people’s fears, at least superficially, that he would use the presidency to exact some sort of vengeance on White America or elevate Black America above a certain threshold, in turn threatening White America’s hegemony.
“At some level what the people want to feel is that the person leading them sees the best in them,” Obama told Coates during one of their many meetings during his administration.
And he was wholly correct in using this principle to explain his appeal to the white community, but only partially correct in using this principle to explain his appeal to the black community.
Because, Coates concedes, Obama could be “off” in the ways he conceptualized Black America’s problems and possible solutions to those problems.
“For much of his presidency, a standard portion of Obama’s speeches about race riffed on black people’s need to turn off the television, stop eating junk food, and stop blaming white people for their problems,” Coates writes.
Aspects of Obama’s legacy–the Affordable Care Act, the reinvigoration of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division–have only significantly benefited black people because black people were disproportionately affected by the complications with acquiring health insurance in this country or police brutality and murder, according to Coates.
Programs that are aimed directly as the black community, such as My Brother’s Keeper, are “conservative in scope” and do not deal with problems like the dropout rate among black boys or gang involvement or lack of employment holistically, by, say, combatting the redlining that keeps so many black people trapped in the poverty-stricken ‘hoods of America’s urban agglomerations.
Obama opposed reparations throughout his presidency despite the income, student debt, and employment gaps that plague black people in the US, even if they have college degrees.
He consistently and adamantly approached the job of engineering federal legislation with the idea that fixing what was wrong with the system for “everyone” would automatically fix what was wrong with Black America.
“Just play this out as a thought experiment,” he told Coates.
“Imagine if you had genuine, high-quality early-childhood education for every child, and suddenly every black child in America—but also every poor white child or Latino [child], but just stick with every black child in America—is getting a really good education. And they’re graduating from high school at the same rates that whites are, and they are going to college at the same rates that whites are, and they are able to afford college at the same rates because the government has universal programs that say that you’re not going to be barred from school just because of how much money your parents have.
“So now they’re all graduating. And let’s also say that the Justice Department and the courts are making sure, as I’ve said in a speech before, that when Jamal sends his résumé in, he’s getting treated the same as when Johnny sends his résumé in. Now, are we going to have suddenly the same number of CEOs, billionaires, etc., as the white community? In 10 years? Probably not, maybe not even in 20 years.
“But I guarantee you that we would be thriving, we would be succeeding . . . And suddenly you’ve got a whole generation that’s in a position to start using the incredible creativity that we see in music, and sports, and frankly even on the streets, channeled into starting all kinds of businesses. I feel pretty good about our odds in that situation.”
Coates bristles at this, logically:
“The thought experiment doesn’t hold up [he writes]. The programs Obama favored would advance white America too—and without a specific commitment to equality, there is no guarantee that the programs would eschew discrimination. Obama’s solution relies on a goodwill that his own personal history tells him exists in the larger country. My own history tells me something different.”
And this is what’s so maddening about this whole debate about whether Obama did enough for the black community as the first black President:
Black people’s own ungrounded optimism about what, if anything, Obama would do.
The tales of the obstruction with which so many of Obama’s executive efforts throughout his eight years in office were met are unprecedented and borderline epic, but they elide that core issue touched on by Coates–
That so many of those efforts were not to specifically improve conditions for blacks in the US.
Coates writes that “[o]nly Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.”
But did Obama have a blind spot when it came to white people, or was he feigning shock and disappointment as a way to stay out of the racial fray?
Tressie McMillan Cottom touches on this idea in her own Atlantic article, written in response to Coates’s, “The Problem with Obama’s Faith in White America.”
Cottom says that she, as a southern black person, and the majority of black people in America “know our whites.”
“To know our whites [she writes] is to understand the psychology of white people and the elasticity of whiteness. It is to be intimate with some white persons but to critically withhold faith in white people categorically. It is to anticipate white people’s emotions and fears and grievances because their issues are singularly our problem. To know our whites is to survive without letting bitterness rot your soul.”
So knowing your whites, as she describes it, is maintaining a healthy suspicion of the white mass based on history and experience while allowing for individual dealings with whites that prevent you from hating whites. It’s holding a overall negative attitude toward whites as the agents of institutional racism–the converse of the impersonal, procedural “hatred” whites have for blacks as the enemies of their hegemony and privilege–but tempering that negativity with enough forbearance and amenability to keep you alive.
Cottom concedes Coates’s claim that Obama’s “mistake” is that he thought he knew his whites. “I suspect, given Obama’s own words over hours of conversations with Coates that [Obama] believes he really does have some special insight into white people’s better angels,” she writes.
However, she argues for herself, “Obama’s faith in white Americans is not better insight into their soul where, presumably the mythical “racist bones” can be found.”
Cottom agrees with Coates, and Obama, that white people voted for him because of how positively he viewed them:
Yet, she claims that was not Obama’s doing. “White voters allowed Barack Obama,” she writes, “because they allowed him to exist as a projection of themselves.”
According to Cottom, Obama’s careful calibration of black identity–his gift for signifying black with his handshakes, oratory tics, musical taste, cultural references, Southside Chicago brown-skinned wife, et cetera, et cetera–inclusive rhetoric, and colorblind policy building may have been impressive to whites, but it wasn’t what won them over.
Obama’s biracial identity is what really “did it,” Collum claims.
The fact that Obama was half-white, and he was raised by white people, in a somewhat racially ahistorical (at least when it comes to the black-white binary) space like Hawaii, allowed white people to vote for someone “black” that wasn’t really black to them.
It allowed them to seem like erudite or enlightened people–through the act of casting a seemingly nonracist vote–but remain assured that the power of their whiteness would not be threatened if Obama was elected.
Obama doesn’t know his whites, Cottom argues. Because if he did, she writes, he would know the essential truth that “whiteness defends itself. Against change, against progress, against hope, against black dignity, against black lives, against reason, against truth, against facts, against native claims, against its own laws and customs.”
He proved that he does not recognize this truth when he insisted months ago that Trump couldn’t win the White House. So, Cottom concludes, his biracial identity didn’t imbue him with special insight; it just granted him “special” status among whites.
It elevated him above “regular” black people in the assumptive racial hierarchy in the white imagination, and that is what allowed white people to vote for him to be President.
Cottom posits that his biracial identity sabotaged him, too, in another sense, because “[n]ot only does one trapped between two sets of social norms understand each better, but he is often blinded to the ways in which they are in conflict.”
“Duality can breed insight but it can also breed delusions,” she writes.
Consequently, Obama operated out of a delusional view of white identity politics, according to Cottom.
The birtherism movement, the rise of the Tea Party and alt-right directly underneath his nose, the “whitelash” that buoyed Trump’s political ascendancy and fomented widespread racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia in the wake of Trump’s election–these are all things Obama might’ve been able to predict–whose import he might’ve been able to calculate–whose effects he might’ve been able to counter–if not for his “incredible faith” and “improbably trust” in white people; Coates and Cottom agree on this.
They are both angry about his failures, though they view them in slightly different ways. I can see what they are both saying, and I agree Obama didn’t do anything that spectacular for the black community especially.
However, I don’t find Obama’s supposed failures as a President as maddening as they do. The disappointment that they both express in their articles is what is maddening to me, actually.
Because with all their talk about Obama knowing his whites (and all the effort they expend juxtaposing his racial concept and theirs), they’re acting like they don’t know their blacks.
Or I should say more aptly–Coates and Cottom are acting like they don’t know aspirant blacks, who often have very complicated relationships to the larger black community.
Aspirant blacks are those stunningly high achievers with those incredulous biographies. Those role models we hold up to black kids and say “See, s/he did it; s/he started from the bottom, now s/he’s here. If s/he can do it, you can do it.”
Oprah Winfrey is an aspirant black.
Jay-Z is an aspirant black.
Tyler Perry is an aspirant black.
Colin Powell is an aspirant black.
Shit, Ben Carson is an aspirant black.
The thing about aspirant blacks is–and we know this–they customarily cherry-pick when they are black, for whom they are black, and how black their performance of blackness is.
Coates touches on this when he highlights the part in Obama’s memoir when Obama writes, “I decided to become part of [the black] world.” When he recognizes that Obama made a choice to black identify.
“This is one of the most incredible sentences ever written in the long, decorated history of black memoir,’ Coates writes, “if only because very few black people have ever enjoyed enough power to write it.”
Black people are so accustomed to blackness being reviled that we admired Obama for choosing blackness when he didn’t necessarily “have to” since he is biracial, and he was given impressive enough credentials to live relatively inclusively in the white world.
We mistakenly thought his adoption of a black aesthetic and dialect–a black politic–meant he would also adopt certain values of black righteousness, collectiveness, and resistance.
Because we have a liminal identity, too–we “regular” blacks–that are not biracial. We are black and American (black biracial people are not not black; they have a triplicative identity–black, white, and American–minimally), so we have this illogical thirst for belonging, created by the loveless relationship we have with this country.
Because we have spent the majority of our history in this country beautifying our struggle, we have developed a talent for and habit of romanticizing it.
We think of ourselves as superior, in a sense, to whites because we have survived such horrendous experiences as slavery and Jim Crow without completely losing our compassion or empathy. We congratulate ourselves and draw a very unique sense of pride from the fact that we have never launched a full-scale violent revolt against White America. We tell ourselves it is our innate decency that has ultimately kept us from doing that.
And because we have a somewhat mythological view of ourselves as such skillful survivors, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine or believe that Obama wanted to be one of us “fully.”
Then, because we have been gifted with such magnanimous leaders throughout our history here, we believed that a black man would only become President of the United States so he could help us, if not exclusively, then principally.
In that, we ignored the fundamental truth about aspirant blacks: Their ambition is to save themselves from poverty, pathology, and dysfunction, first and foremost.
They want greatness, but that is because they are conditioned, as Americans, to conflate greatness with wealth, and wealth with safety. Not that they are wrong about the purchasable nature of safety in our culture.
Check out their biographies. So many of the aspirant blacks that we pedestalize came from abject poverty, hard conditions, and harrowing abuse. They become achievers because our society rewards achievers, and those rewards often come in the forms of opportunity and money.
Aspirant blacks do what they do to change their personal paradigm. They care about “the people” inasmuch as they need an audience or clientele to applaud what they are doing or buy what they are selling.
And I’m not condemning them for that. I’m just saying. We need to be realistic about how careful, strategic and/or incidental any help they give to the black community is.
Oprah and Tyler and all the rest of them do amazing and wonderful things for the black community, but what they are persistently careful not to do is identify too definitively or publicly with black rage or resentment.
We think of this as a strategy that helps them to secure and maintain a certain level of success, and it is, but we ignore that self-preservation, however it is necessitated, is still primarily for self.
I read every politically correct thing Coates quoted that Obama said about his white family and “reception” into the black community in their interviews, and, while I cannot say the man is lying, I know enough about America to know that he is expurgating.
I think Obama wanted to be President because he wanted to be President, but I also think he wanted to prove something. I think he wanted to be important and/or powerful, and that is generally the desire of someone that’s been made to feel unimportant and/or powerless.
I think black people could’ve come to that–they could’ve realized this man was not a savior or saint–way before 2012, when a lot of us began voicing our dissatisfaction or disappointment with Obama.
That is, if we were more honest about ourselves and the fact that we as black people can be just as opportunistic as anybody else can be.
We also could’ve come to that if we would be honest about our own impulses to assimilate to whiteness and gain white approval if not white “love.”
Just look at our own “ordinary” lives. Many of us, if we have gainful employment or are able to live relatively comfortable lives, modulate or mute our anger and/or resistance toward White America. We go along to get along.
Too, a lot of the black biracial people we know exploit the fact that they are half-white to gain improved or increased access to opportunity. We see this. We know this.
We know our blacks. We know that we are very often placated by even the most minimal increase in our level of material gain or improvement in our social status.
So why did we expect Obama to be some raging race warrior when he won the fucking presidency for God’s sake?
Why did we think that he would risk losing re-election or maybe even his life for our absolute loyalty and love?
And we made the fatal mistake that we always make–we were affectionate and supportive and accepting when we should have been exacting. We let him slide when we really couldn’t afford to, and he didn’t really need us to. Let’s be real here.
Black people regularly heard Obama say stuff like “I’m in a position to understand those essential parts of me not as separate and apart from any particular community but connected to every community,” and we ignored how it negated his racial specificity. How it subtly undermined the concept that he had any special allegiance to us.
We listened to him praise his white mother and maternal grandparents–as he had a right to–but ignored the fact that “[f]or most African Americans, white people exist either as a direct or an indirect force for bad in their lives.”
We expected him to be one of us, but he is an aspirant black. Perhaps the most exceptional aspirant black in the history of aspirant blacks.
And one of the main things that they generally aspire for is to be “more” or “better” and not one of us.
When we elected Obama, and we expected him to “look out” for us on the other end, we conveniently forgot that a “black president would always be a contradiction.”
That’s exactly what Obama was, too. He was black, but he was “both.” He was ours, but he was theirs. He helped us, but not in the most urgent ways that we needed help.
Obama was maddening because he represented a very deep-seated hope black people have always carried to reach the governmental pinnacle.
He gave us spectacular optics and inspiration–but so much of what he did was, ultimately, cosmetic.