The Longest War


Last week we saw quite a few African-American bloggers and writers offering critiques of birtherism and race. The salient point is that the tradition of attacking the citizenship rights of African-Americans extends from slave codes to state-wide bans on black residence to black codes to debt peonage to literacy tests to felon disenfranchisement. You literally can trace attacks on black citizenship from the very origins of American citizenship itself right up to the present day.

Birtherism is an alloy of that unfortunate American thread and the anti-elitist, white populism of Andrew Jackson. Calling it an alloy is imperfect, as it implies that American anti-elitism has no relation to racism, which is false. (See our conversations on Howe's What God Hath Wrought, or more appropriately, read the book. Sorry for lecturing, but it's your history. And it's listed on Amazon for roughly the same price as a good burger.) 

But there are deeper reasons for why African-Americans find requests for Obama's birth certificate, college transcript, SAT scores, high school grades etc. deeply unsettling. A reader captured this in the following note. He'd just finished watching the video above of Michelle Obama dancing with a group of kids:

I planned on sending you an email today that offered my thoughts on why people my age ran into the streets to celebrate on Sunday night. I was going to write about how the prevalence of social networking normalized and made it easier for people in their early 20's to congregate during important moments. Then, I ran across this clip of Michelle Obama dancing with a group of middle school students in Washington today. 

After getting over my initial shock that the First Lady was at least vaguely familiar with a dance that I might sloppily attempt in a nightclub, I thought about how familiar the image was to me. She reminded me of my aunts at our family cook outs, where they get up and try to do the new dance, but then school all of us with the Electric Slide (or in this case, the Running Man).

That thought brought me back to your comments about why Donald Trump's comments feel so offensive, how his comments undercut all of the things that Black parents say to children about how they will be respected if they study and work hard.

Maybe it's unfair, but I now realize why I am more offended by comments about the President and First Lady than I was about comments about President and Mrs. Clinton. It's not just that they are Black and I am too. I think it has more to do with the fact that they are so familiar, they remind me of people I know, which causes a more personal reaction.

One of things that always amazed me about the reaction to the Poundcake Speech was the assumption among pundits that Cosby was somehow bravely stating truths that the black community didn't want to address. This is the sort of thing that happens when you have a pundit class more interested in abstract thought experiments, than actually going into black neighborhoods, or really, any neighborhood that might be unfamiliar.

In point of fact, every black parent I know is at war with their children in a way that white parents are not.  I grew up in house where the history of race and racism was the air. But concurrent to that history was the deeply held belief that American racism was never an excuse for cynicism, anti-intellectualism, thuggism or nihilism. My parents were  conscious. But when I was failing my way through school, I don't recall them ever raising their clenched fists and exclaiming, "Damn the white man." 

To the contrary, there was a deep-seated belief that educating yourself was essential, and that hard work ultimately prevails. Whatever their broader critiques, it was that essential faith that united them with the rest of the country. Preaching that faith is a lot easier when you have actual examples to point to. In terms of external examples (outside of the family) there are no better models, right now, than Barack and Michelle Obama.

What many white people fail to realize is that though Barack Obama and his family are unique to them, they are deeply familiar to black people. Put differently, they are from our particular neighborhood. I think back to Michelle Obama's own words:

"People have never met a Michelle Obama," the soon-to-be first lady said toward the end of our interview. "But what they'll come to learn is that there are thousands and thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas across America. You just don't live next door to them, or there isn't a TV show about them."

But we do live next door to them, and the TV show is our lives. We went to church and played in summer leagues with people like them. I went to college with people like them. This is not to slight Barack Obama's truly remarkable story, nor the indispensable labor of the people who raised him. But there were biracial black people with wild stories all across my college campus. The first girl I ever really loved was raised by her Jewish mother, in all-white small town in Pennsylvania. She was unique, but not because of her background. The strictures of segregation gifted black people with the particular beauty of being a deeply interwoven diaspora on to ourselves, rendering "Black" into a broad country.

To see that country manifested in the White House is the sort of boon that you can't really attach to statistics. But for those of us who are waging the fight against a crippling cynicism, who are urging our children on, who visit schools and begin our addresses with, "I remember when I just like you," the First Family is perhaps the greatest weapon in our arsenal. 

From the perspective of race, we don't object to people trying to defeat Obama. We don't object to Hillary claiming he's soft. We don't object to McCain claiming he's a celebrity. We don't object to the GOP calling him a tax-and-spend liberal. We don't even object to Mitt Romney aspiring to hang him. (We know what you meant, Mitt.)

But when broad sections of this country foolishly follow a carnival barker in the ugly tradition of attacking black citizenship rights, when pundits shriek that Obama's successes are simply the result of the misguided largess of white people, they undermine our most intimate war. They undermine the notion that someone familiar to that kid on the corner could legitimately reach the highest levels of the country, that someone like that kid's Aunt could be the First Lady. They undermine this country's social contract, and the "hard work pays" message of my parents. And to that we object.

For if they will not take as legitimate a magna cum laude from their highest institutions, if they will not accept a man who tells black kids to cut off the video games and study, who accedes to their absurd requests one week, and slays their demons the next, who will they accept? Who among us would they ever believe?
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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