The Race

By James Bennet

Televised debates still rely on lights instead of boxing bells, and they rather heartlessly lack corners for the likes of Rick Perry to collapse into—to get toweled off and receive growled words of encouragement from a grizzled strategist (“Go for the ribs! Don’t let that bastard breathe!”). But with their voice-of-God announcers, blow-by-blow Twitter analyses, and snap judgments about winners and losers, debates have in other respects come, like so much of campaigning, to resemble a blood sport.

Related video: Watch "Obama" and "Romney" duking it out in the boxing ring during Alison Jackson's Atlantic cover shoot.

And so, for James Fallows’s presidential-­debate preview, a quadrennial tradition at The Atlantic since Al Gore squared off with George W. Bush, we chose a cover image that we think captures the drama and even violence of this matchup. (For reasons that may surprise you, Fallows argues that the challenger heads into these debates with the advantage.) The British artist Alison Jackson put a Barack Obama look-alike and a Mitt Romney look-alike through their paces in a New York gym. She equipped her boxers with blue and red gloves, respectively, for the obvious reason.

But maybe we should have made the gloves black and white. Maybe we are experiencing, as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues elsewhere in this issue, not the polarization of politics, but its racial­ization. Holding the antagonism toward Obama up against the history of racism in America, Coates sees a nation “enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.”

As the Obamas moved into the White House in January 2009, Hua Hsu took note in The Atlantic of an emerging “white identity politics,” which he connected to our coming demographic transition to a majority-minority nation. Coates argues that, as the first black president, Obama has been struggling to appease what Hsu called “a racial pride that dares not speak its name.”

Coates writes: “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.” It is striking how little of the saturation coverage of this presidency and this campaign has addressed race head-on. Whether from nervousness, ignorance, or indifference, we, along with the candidates, tend to address race (like Mormonism) only glancingly. Do you expect either subject to be raised in the debates? It would be interesting to hear each candidate challenged to describe without platitudes how his race and his religion affect his thinking about the country.

Coates directs some of his anger—it is, I think, a properly angry essay—at the president, for what he sees as Obama’s cautious if not tortured handling of race. Obama, he writes, is following a deeply worn groove, striving to be “twice as good” and “half as black.”

“And even then,” Coates writes, “full acceptance is still withheld.”

Coates’s argument manages to be at once highly original and rooted in a tradition. It was in these pages that Booker T. Washington advanced the view that blacks needed to manage whites’ fears and patiently work for acceptance. “It is through the dairy farm, the truck garden, the trades, and commercial life, largely, that the negro is to find his way to the enjoyment of all his rights,” Washington wrote in “The Awakening of the Negro,” in our September 1896 issue. “The white man respects the vote of the colored man who does $10,000 worth of business, and the more business the colored man has, the more careful he is how he votes.”

Washington was unusual in publicly espousing this approach, which has tended to be more practiced than preached. W. E. B. Du Bois and others, including Martin Luther King Jr., advocated less forbearance. King’s insistence on nonviolence is retrospectively confused, I think, with a Washington-like patience, contrasted as it often is with Malcolm X’s violent black nationalism. (As Coates notes, a popular black view of King has been that he “turned the other cheek, and they blew it off.”) This misunderstands King’s radicalism; he may have been twice as good, but he was not half as black. King closed his letter from Birmingham jail, which The Atlantic published in August 1963, this way: “If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with any­thing less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/the-race/309051/