On the Death of Dreams

If we are honest with ourselves we will see a president who believes in particular black morality, but eschews particular black policy.
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Watching Barack Obama's speech yesterday, I thought of a young W.E.B. Du Bois who in 1897 authored the original Poundcake Speech:
We believe that the first and greatest step toward the settlement of the present friction between the races—commonly called the Negro Problem—lies in the correction of the immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes themselves, which still remains as a heritage from slavery. We believe that only earnest and long continued efforts on our own part can cure these social ills.

Du Bois styled himself as a speaker of bold truths, arguing that black people "must be honest" and fearless in "criticizing their own faults." Those faults included a disturbing number of black boys succumbing to "loafing, gambling and crime," and a "vast army of black prostitutes that is today marching to hell."

Du Bois was writing at a time in which such views were current in the world of white sociology. The way to defeat them was not to attack them at their root, but to be better, to be twice as good—"There is no power under God's high heaven," asserted Du Bois. "That can stop the advance of eight thousand thousand honest, earnest, inspired and united people."

Much like Du Bois more than a century ago, Obama positioned himself as an airer of laundry and speaker of bold, necessary truths:

And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support—as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.

It goes without saying that the president is using a tank to bravely plow through an army of straw men. George Will could not have done better. I have met a lot of trifling human beings who happened to be black, and from them, I have heard a lot of trifling excuses for not parenting. I have never met one who cited racism as an excuse for not parenting or for giving up on oneself. I doubt that Barack Obama has either.*

The president's comments regarding the riots are particularly illuminating. The black community in 1968 had born the brunt of roughly a hundred years of lynchings, beatings, rapes, firebombs and racist policy. The American state which Barack Obama represents regarded Apartheid not as an unfortunate side-effect  but as one of its necessary premises. Nothing was immune—not postbellum reunion, not Prohibition, not the New Deal, not the G.I. Bill, nothing. In the main, the black community responded to this campaign of white terrorism and racist policy with stoic protests, hypermorality and nonviolence. Bloody Sunday was not original. It just happened to be televised.

There is the rub: In the 1960s, black men and women who carried the pain of living in a white terrorist state, who carried the pain of redlining, of job discrimination, of being cheated out of land, put on the television and saw black women and children getting the shit kicked out of them. No one was being punished. Sometimes the police were doing the kicking. They saw this, and they stewed. They'd seen it before. And as they had in the face of racial pogroms, and in the face of slavery itself, they closed their mouths, swallowed the daggers, and got dressed for work.

Martin Luther King turned this stoic tradition into high art. It was a kind of jujitsu by which our pain could be made redemptive. The price was high. If that imagery cut black folks to the core, one wonders how far it went in normalizing the idea of the black body as the rightful field for violence. If you accept that being twice as good is the price of the ticket, then you accept a double standard, and thus necessarily accept the precepts of racism.

The response to this bargain was to bug King's phones, to send lewd tapes of his affairs to his wife, to plant informants in his inner circle. The heads of the American state signed off on this bugging. Jackie Kennedy held him in contempt. John F. Kennedy liked to demean him as "Martin Luther Queen." The response of the white public was considerably more vicious. And so for daring to oppose Vietnam, for challenging Apartheid, for claiming that garbage workers are people, they murdered him. 

None of us in this generation can truly know how it must have felt to be black, to have come out of the long night of slavery, into the clutches of revanchists, to have survived only to see your great ambassador slaughtered like a dog. Barack Obama doesn't know anything about this. None of us know anything about this. None of us can really know how deep that pain must have cut. Anger is human. It is fantastic to see the head of the same American state that created the ghettos (which predictably exploded) attack the people imprisoned there for being self-defeating. 

Like Du Bois, Barack Obama has taken the stage at a moment when it is popular to assert that black people are the agents of their own doom. The response to Trayvon Martin, indeed the response to Barack Obama himself, has been to attack black morality, to highlight black criminality and thus change the conversation from what the American state has done to black people to what black people have done to themselves. Like Du Bois, Barack Obama believes that these people have a point. Du Bois's biographer, David Levering Lewis, says that Du Bois came to look back back on that speech with some embarrassment. I don't know that Barack Obama will ever reach such a conclusion.
 
Indeed, if we are—as the president asks us to be—honest with ourselves, we will see that we have elected a president who claims to oppose racial profiling one minute, and then flirts with inaugurating the country's greatest racial profiler the next. If we are honest with ourselves we will see that we have a president who can condemn the riots as "self-defeating," but can't see his way clear to enforce the fair housing law that came out of them. If we are honest with ourselves we will see a president who believes in particular black morality, but eschews particular black policy.
 
It is heartbreaking to see this. But it is also clarifying.
 

*This sentence was changed and clarified in response to this comment
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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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