DAILY KOS Sun Aug 26, 2012 at 11:12 AM PDT
Fear Of A Black President: A Reflection On Race And The 2012 Campaign
Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The owners of this country know the truth: It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it. — George Carlin
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s trenchant article, Fear Of A Black President, in this month’s Atlantic Magazine, is a pointed critique of President Obama’s leadership on matters of race. It was–by his own admission–written in anger. The inciting incident for Coates’s ire is the president’s remarks on the February shooting death of Miami teenager Trayvon Martin. Mr. Obama set off a firestorm of right-wing criticism by saying that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Coates takes the president to the woodshed for saying it: “The 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. The illusion of consensus crumbled.”
Mr. Coates then invokes what my mother used to call “old and new” to buttress his case: Shirley Sherrod… The 2008 Election… Drug policy… Booker T. Washington… Torture… Drone strikes on American citizens abroad… Reverend Jeremiah Wright… Spudd Webb? Barack Obama is hit with the rhetorical kitchen sink for opening his mouth about the Trayvon Martin case and lancing a boil that drenched us in racialist pus.
Even as I agreed with each argument, I still felt at odds with what he was saying. “…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,” Coates said.
That is not an irony; that is a paradox. Coates mentions the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his own home–an event that thrust President Obama into a miasma of white outrage for saying that the Cambridge, MA police acted “stupidly” in detaining Gates. Never mind that the president is a lawyer, and carefully phrased his response. The issue for the right was not what the president said; the issue for the right was and is that a Black Man is president. Any black person in a position of authority traverses the same loaded territory: not only are there still white people who reject the idea that a person of color could/would pass judgment on their actions; (spoiler) there are black people who feel the same way. President Obama’s blackness does not “irradiate everything he touches.”
The president’s remarks on the Trayvon Martin tragedy were heartfelt, to-the-point, and utterly uncontroversial. As a father, I felt kinship with the president when he said that a son of his would look like Trayvon. That kinship transcends race because a majority of Americans felt it as well. Unlike Mr. Coates, I saw and heard an outpouring of concern from a broad cross-section of Americans who saw injustice and spoke out about it. In the press, and particularly on the internet, millions of parents of all races echoed President Obama once they heard the facts of the Martin case. Hearing people say “Trayvon Martin could be my child” has a special resonance and symmetry for someone like me who remembers being shown pictures of Emmett Till’s lifeless body as a prelude to a family trip down South. The hatred that Ta-Nehisi Coates decries is an echo of the America that is dying away rather than a harbinger of the America that is becoming.
And therein lies my basic disagreement with Coates: Fear Of A Black President is a reaction to the death throes of that old America–a reaction that ignores the quickening of a better, more compassionate nation.
Mr. Coates says:
In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.
A more “stereotypical” Barack Obama would play directly into Republican rhetoric about race by embodying the “Angry” “Incompetent” “Thieving” Black Man invented by the Right. It is much easier to caricature someone who is a caricature. Imagine where we’d be politically had President Obama followed the advice of Coates, and many others, who urged him to abandon his strategy of bi-partisanship. Obama now has the high ground in taking the obstructionist House Of Representatives to task. Even I could write that speech:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know what more I can say. I don’t know what more I can do. I’ve offered them everything they wanted and more. I cut taxes. But, I didn’t cut them enough. I offered cuts in Medicare and Social Security, but they wouldn’t budge on revenues. I reached across the aisle on legislation time-after-time in the last four years, and have been told “no” each and every time. I offered to meet them halfway but they’ve refused to meet at all.
Now, I’ve taken a lot of flak from a lot of folks on my side of the ball because of my good-faith efforts on behalf of bi-partisanship. You’ve heard them. You can’t help hearing them. I sure did. And they’ve convinced me. They’re right. But the other side can’t say I didn’t listen. The other side can’t say that I didn’t try. Now, we do it my way.
A president who sought confrontation for the sake of appearing genuine to his base couldn’t say that.
An important thing to understand about the president is that he is the definition of “African-American.” His childhood in Hawaii has made him American, but it has left him without the amount of racial and emotional baggage that black Americans descended from slaves carry. Expecting him to act like a “typical” black person is unrealistic. Barry Obama of Punahou High took his ribbing just like the Japanese and Korean and Portugese and kama’aina kids in Hawaii did, but that is nothing like growing up black in the Deep South or even growing up black in a family from The South.
I lived in Hawaii for nine years. Hawaiian culture explains a lot about who and what President Obama is. The “typical” American Black is an invention of slave owners to justify stealing blacks from West Africa. Those kidnapped Africans were strong, used to heat and humidity, and resistant to the virulent strains of malaria brought to the Americas by Europeans (malaria killed as much as 40% of European colonists who ventured below the Mason-Dixon Line). Slaves were the interchangeable working parts of a nation that they built and sustained (AKA “niggers”). They–along with Native Americans, women, and anyone who wasn’t a white, propertied male–were written out of the nation’s founding documents and deprived of the “blessings of liberty” because they weren’t considered people.
If Mr. Coates wants irony, I have one: it is ironic that the GOP — the party that did the most to remedy slavery in America — is dying because it made compact with the confederacy that it vanquished. The devil’s bargain the Republicans made with white supremacy has poisoned the party. Romney & Ryan promise to restore an America that never existed. The GOP version of the American Dream–rich white guys win–is collapsing.
The Republican platform–touted by them as the “most conservative in modern history“–represents a last-ditch effort to arrest that collapse. Romney and Ryan now have the task of convincing minorities, women, immigrants, the LGBT community, the poor, and the middle class that throwing their own rights and interests under the bus is the smart, correct, patriotic thing to do. That’s why they need the image of an incompetent Barack Obama–someone in over his head who can’t get anything done; someone who has made the disaster they caused worse.
“Obama As Thief” plays into that stereotype. “Obama steals $700 billion from the Medicare Trust Fund to pay for ObamaCare.” Lies about waivers granted by the Obama Administration to states for their welfare-to-work programs are being used by the Romney Campaign to imply that hard-earned taxpayer money is being stolen and shunted to lazy, good-for-nothing blacks by “their” president. The problem for Republicans isn’t just the lies themselves; the problem is that it’s getting harder and harder for the Republicans to find voters gullible enough to fall for them.
Evolution is especially cruel when it happens to people who don’t believe in it.
People and attitudes have evolved. Welfare queens are a ridiculous stereotype that was invalid even before Bill Clinton “reformed” the family assistance program. Women consider their right to choose a settled question. The fact that we’re talking about rape rather than the economy and jobs on the eve of their convention is evidence that the clue train has not pulled in for the Republican Party. Romney’s refusal to release recent tax returns in the face of charges that he has paid close to nothing begs for a privacy that he refuses to accord to women. A generational sea-change has made marriage equality a given everywhere but in the Party of Lincoln. Deniers of climate change are silent on the question of drought in the nation’s breadbasket or the cook-off of Greenland’s ice cap or open water in the Arctic. Science and technology have given us a sense of our place in the universe even as Republicans demand that we turn our backs on that knowledge in favor of religious dogma and corporate bullshit.
Barack Obama is by no means a perfect president. He has relied on the “old hands” in Washington for counsel rather than bringing in new blood. He has not brought Wall Street or the previous administration to account for their misdeeds. The administration’s performance in the case of Shirley Sherrod is an embarrassment. I’m disturbed that the president signed a defense authorization bill containing the indefinite detention provision (a signing statement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on). But Barack Obama has succeeded at the one thing the right could least afford: he has been presidential. There is an overwhelming reservoir of goodwill for him and for his family. He has brought dignity, resolve, and good judgment to the office. This is especially true in the Trayvon Martin case.
I applaud Ta-Nehisi Coates for addressing the subject of race in an open, honest, intelligent way. America will never become that better, more compassionate nation if we don’t discuss the issue. Fear Of A Black President is a heartfelt, but flawed attempt at doing just that.
Hat Tip: Don Boyd