My President Was Black

May 12, 2017

Ta-Nehisi Coates rose to the nation’s attention when his book, Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. I selected that book for our reading discussion group in March of 2016, and then in April we read Coates’ Atlantic article, The Case for Reparations, published in 2014. 

 

I have found Coates to be a master of our shared language and an insightful commentator on race and history, so I read hungrily when, in the January/February issue of the Atlantic, as President Obama’s term was coming to an end, and the reality of a President Trump was only starting to sink in, Coates dug into the implications of the country’s first African American president. The article, called My President was Black: A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next, was the topic of discussion at BHC last week. 

 

The First Black President Could Only Be One Raised by White People

 

One of the key points of the essay, and something that we spent a good deal discussing, is the idea that Barack Obama was uniquely suited to be the first African American president, because he was raised by white people. As Coates puts it: 

 

Obama’s early positive interactions with his white family members gave him a fundamentally different outlook toward the wider world than most blacks of the 1960s had. Obama told me he rarely had “the working assumption of discrimination, the working assumption that white people would not treat me right or give me an opportunity of judge me [other than] on the basis of merit.” He continued, “The kind of working assumption” that white people would discriminate against him or treat him poorly “is less embedded in my psyche than it is, say, with Michelle.”

 

And a little later in the same section of the article, Coates goes on:

 

What Obama was able to offer white America is something very few African Americans could—trust. The vast majority of us are, necessarily, too crippled by our defenses to ever consider such a proposition. But Obama, through a mixture of ancestral connections and distance from the poisons of Jim Crow [because he grew up in Hawaii], can credibly and sincerely trust the majority of the population of this country. That trust is reinforced, not contradicted, by his blackness. Obama isn’t shuffling before white power (Herman Cain’s “shucky ducky” act) or flattering white ego (O.J. Symposia’s listing not being seen as black as a great accomplishment). That, too, is defensive, and deep down, I suspect white people know it. He stands firm in his own cultural traditions and says to the country something virtually no black person can, but every president must: “I believe you.”

 

I quote this at length because I don’t want to gloss over the point, or the distinction Coates (and Obama himself) make between the 44th president and nearly every other African American. In discussion, we spent some time on this point. I brought up an idea that I have been mulling for several weeks: my sister and I have recently been discussing the idea that, to people of color, we are inherently untrustworthy. Regardless of our intentions or our heart, we have access to a power-over that a friend or colleague or stranger of color cannot trust us NOT to wield. This is true because we are white. My sister had this realization after watching the movie Get Out (which I admit to not having seen, yet). I had it after reading this article.

 

When I shared this idea with my discussion group of white, Jewish women, it caused discomfort. There was some resignation to the idea around the table, but also an impulse—not to deny the fact that, in general, people of color can not trust white people—but to somehow fix it. To figure out a way to make “them” trust “us.” 

 

I am starting to see that the impulse to fix—and fix quickly—is one of the stages (white) people go through as they become “woke” to the realities and indignities of systemic racism, white supremacy, and white privilege. It is a natural desire. I certainly have and do feel it. The hard part is recognizing that it cannot be “fixed” quickly nor by any one individual. Around the library table that night, the assembled answered their own question about how to make “them” trust “us”: First, stop thinking of them and us. Next, show up, pay attention, call out racism when you see it—even in yourself. Lastly, make room for critique and distrust, and be okay with it. Nothing reinforces the fundamental distrust that Coates and Obama reference faster than when someone is called out for something they say or do and they react with “how dare you!”

 

White Populism Evokes Empathy. Black Populism Evokes Scorn.

 

A second point from Coates’ essay that captured the conversation for some time is a double standard he points out. Since the election of Donald Trump (and the Brexit vote across the pond), there has been a global push to explain and understand the populism behind it. Commentators don’t want misogyny and racism to be the primary motivators for Trump voters. As Coates’ says “In the days after Donald Trump’s victory, there would be an insistence that something as ‘simple’ as racism could not explain it.” 

 

There has been much focus upon the loss of jobs and opportunities for large swaths of formerly middle-class voters in America’s heartland. Coates quotes David Brooks from the New York Times, “If you were stuck in a  jobless town, watching your friends OD on opiates, scrambling every month to pay the electric bill, and then along came a guy who seemed able to fix your problems and hear your voice, maybe you would stomach some ugliness, too.” Coates goes on to make his own point: “This strikes me as perfectly logical. Indeed, it could apply just as well to Louis Farrakhan’s appeal to the black poor and working class. But whereas the followers of an Islamaphobic white nationalist enjoy the sympathy that must always greet the salt of the earth, the followers of an anti-Semitic black nationalist endure the scorn that must ever greet the children of the enslaved.”

 

This comparison between Trump and Farrakhan was a powerful one around our discussion table that night. It was also another example of white culture being untrustworthy. As Coates says, “Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.” 

 

In the end, there were no real resolutions from our conversation (c.f. the title of this website), but we all committed to continue to seek out greater understanding, to hold ourselves and others accountable, and to be open to critique. 

 

 

Image credit: Cover image from the Atlantic January/February 2017 issue. Photo by Ian Allen.

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