Readers respond to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s analysis of Obama’s legacy and more.
My President Was Black
For the January/February cover story, Ta‑Nehisi Coates interviewed Barack Obama and analyzed his legacy as America’s first black president. “This is the best postmortem on the Obama presidency I’ve yet seen,” Cory Doctorow wrote at Boing Boing, “the cornerstone of the literature that will be written about the previous eight years.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates compellingly details the inexcusable, racially charged rhetoric with which many Americans have described our first black president. It pains me to consider the racial tension that festers within our country.
At what point, though, do reports like this widen the racial rifts by describing Americans’ views with too broad a brush? After all, Coates fails to mention that the white-supremacist-tinged language and extreme anti-Obama vitriol documented in his article come from the fringes of our society and do not represent the views of most Americans. Surely the number of people who would gleefully chuckle at things like “Obama Bucks” and “Obama Waffles” is terribly small (not to mention the fact that some individuals cited in the article have apologized for their own remarks).
We should not dismiss the uncomfortable picture Coates paints; yes, our country’s racial divides run deep, and the hurtful reactions to Obama’s presidency underscore that. But we should remember—and take solace in the fact—that the many inflammatory words and racist acts Coates describes certainly do not represent the majority of white people, the majority of conservatives, or the majority of Americans.
Garrett Haley Lubbock, Texas
I know the battle surrounding race in this country does not belong to me the way it belongs to Ta-Nehisi Coates. I am a middle-aged white guy. Still, I have reread “My President Was Black” twice now. I love reading what Coates writes, but am also deeply troubled by much of what the piece has to say. I know the racism this country faces is not my fight the way it is his. I know it is not my fight the way it is the fight of the black students who sit in disproportionate numbers in the lower-level academic classes that I teach. I know the advantages I have had because I am white, just like I know the advantages I have had in being male.
I know this is not my fight, but I also know that my president, too, was black. And that made me proud. It gave me hope.
Coates emphasizes that whiteness in America is a “badge of advantage”—a concept that no intelligent person could refute. But he also writes that in response to a black president, “the badge-holders fumed. They wanted their country back. And … they would have it.” His use of they troubles me, because it blurs the lines between me as a white male and the insidious, hateful people coming out of the woodwork in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. I don’t have my country back; I have had it hijacked by a man who rode to the presidency on the backs of the worst monsters that humans could conjure up. While I am white, I don’t think my race makes me any less distraught at who will run this country, how he got elected, or what that says about this nation.
Coates tells the reader, “For most African Americans, white people exist either as a direct or an indirect force for bad in their lives.” I find that troubling as well. Certainly there are white people who are both direct and indirect forces for bad in the lives of African Americans. But they are that way because of their character, not their skin color. We need to change this narrative to focus on behavior and beliefs rather than pigmentation. If we fail to do that, we risk sliding further and further away from our goal of making progress. We risk sliding backwards to a time when everything was judged in terms of color.
Coates talks about trust a lot in the piece. He writes about Obama’s ability to trust white people because his childhood experience taught him that white people were to be trusted. Later he writes, “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.” That does not leave us much room to move forward. If in fact the transgressions of whites that came before me make it so that a great voice of contemporary black America can’t even consider the proposition of trusting me, then we are doomed. If little kids are raised to mistrust my two young boys just because of their color, their generation is doomed as well.
I hope Obama’s sense of hope does not die in the face of one catastrophic failure. I hope Coates can see in me an ally, a man who wants for his child the same thing I want for my own children. I hope we can all see one another for who we are, and not revert to superficial and detrimental definitions of race.
Jeremy Knoll Medford, N.J.
The theory that Obama could be elected president because his white family had imbued him with an authentic love for and faith in white people that the typical black American does not have is intuitive but wrong. I suspect, given Obama’s own words over hours of conversations with Coates, that he believes he really does have some special insight into white people’s better angels. Nothing is more emblematic of the problem with this theory than Obama’s assessment of Donald Trump’s election chances to Coates: “He couldn’t win” … Obama’s faith, like the theory that it made Obama’s presidency possible, misunderstands race as something black folks can choose without white folks’ assent. White voters allowed Barack Obama because they allowed him to exist as a projection of themselves. It is seductive to believe Obama could shape that in some way, much less control and direct it. But, as Coates details in painful case after case of political obstructionism among Democrats and Republicans during the first black president’s terms, Obama never had the ability to shape white people’s attitudes. White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.
It didn’t matter that Obama had faith in white people; they needed only to have faith in him: in his willingness to reflect their ideal selves back at them, to change the world without changing them, to change blackness for them without being black to them … Obama could look at years of pictures of his wife and children drawn as apes and decades of white backlash to perceived black socioeconomic gains as racial, albeit not racist: “I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race.” That is catnip to millions of white voters.
In his conversation with Coates, the president appears to acknowledge that there is a sound moral and philosophical case for reparations, particularly if—as Coates presses him to concede—incremental changes in existing social programs will not close the gaps, especially the racial wealth gap. The president ultimately takes the position that it is politically untenable to enact a reparations program. If so—and if nothing comparable can be realized—then I contend that it is impossible to close the racial wealth gap …
There is no doubt that the political obstacles to congressional approval of black reparations are significant. But in 1820 in the United States one might not have been able to conceive that American slavery would ever come to an end, yet there were some who advocated abolition. In 1950 in South Africa one might not have been able to imagine that apartheid would ever come to an end, but there were activists who already had begun to oppose the system. If black reparations is the right thing to do—and I know in the depth of my soul that it is—then we should work to make it happen, no matter how long the odds. We should not bow at the altar of presumed political expediency.
I am a great fan of James Fallows, but I believe that he may have missed the mark here. Some 63 million people chose to vote for the coarsest, stupidest, most ill-informed, megalomaniacal, dishonest, and just generally vile candidate in memory and probably in history. Why? Anger. Anger at our politicians for failing to govern. Anger at our political system and the economic system it has spawned that unrelentingly concentrates obscene levels of wealth in ever fewer hands—hands attached to all too many people who increasingly alienate themselves from the broader community and care nothing for its welfare. Anger at a president many of us expected to be Teddy Roosevelt but turned out to be Jimmy Carter, and who, alas, was really not qualified for the job. Anger that so many people who have lost their jobs, their communities, their health, and their homes have been largely ignored while efforts seem to be made to keep the Wall Street bonus system intact. Anger that so many of the people getting the new jobs we hear touted can’t make a living wage, even in manufacturing.
I am a retired scientist with a Ph.D. My friends are scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, academics, and corporate people. We are by many definitions part of the professional elite. And we are angry too. We see the growing inequities in our society, the threats to our own well-being, the disintegration of America’s social fabric. Some of us even voted for Trump, simply because he offered the promise of something different.
I think Fallows gets excessively teary-eyed when talking about “real Americans” in the heartland, and has missed the unifying mood of the country.
Arthur Moss Wilmington, Del.
As an admirer of James Fallows, I think everything he says in “Despair and Hope in the Age of Trump” rings true, but in my view the things he left out are more significant. To James Comey, the Russians, and the relentless poll-watching that declared Hillary Clinton a done deal, add the national press coverage of Clinton’s non-scandals versus Trump’s real ones. What this election shows us is not just the breakdown of norms in flyover country, but in the institutions we depend on to perpetuate the norms in the upper echelons of Washington and New York.
Margot Ammidown Asheville, N.C.
Fear of a Female President
In October, Peter Beinart examined the “gender backlash” against Hillary Clinton, arguing, from a sociological and psychological standpoint, that “the Americans who dislike her most are those who most fear emasculation.”
Peter Beinart did not identify correctly the root cause of the attacks on Hillary Clinton. She was attacked because she is a Democrat, pure and simple. In 2008, if Condoleezza Rice had run for president, she might very well have won the Republican primary race. In a contest with Barack Obama, she might have won the presidency. As a nominee and as a president, Rice would have had the full support of Fox News and its thuggish commentators; they would not have generated sexist, or racist, attacks against the Republican torchbearer.
I live in a very right-wing, rural community. In August 2008, one of our right-wingers put up an eight-by-four plywood sign on a highway on which he painted palin for vice president. In November 2008, he crossed out the word vice.
I contend that if a right-wing nutcase was all in favor of a female president in 2008, then we may safely assume that the glass ceiling had been broken well and good by that time, and that we are now free to focus on policy and principles, rather than on identity politics.
Sallie Skakel Goldendale, Wash.
The most-read magazine stories from 2016 on TheAtlantic.com
(On TheAtlantic.com, readers answered January/February’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)
5. Neville Chamberlain: “Peace for our time” led to World War II and millions of civilian and military casualties.
— Gerald Bazer
4. Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, took a reasonably functioning country and left it vulnerable to radical revolutionaries. He lost the war with Japan and was losing his side of World War I. His misjudgment allowed Rasputin to become influential. That was a huge mistake.
— Ahmad Alsaleh
3. Few can compare to the enigmatic Napoléon Bonaparte, whose grandiose, ambitious foreign policies and epic military blunders ultimately led to the collapse of the first French empire.
— Dan Fredricks
2. Adolf Hitler was evil; George W. Bush’s policies produced evil results.
— Bill Turney
1. Adolf Hitler was the worst leader in history. He provoked World War II, which was the greatest and most destructive event in history. He caused the most deaths by war ever, and unprecedented suffering. His political philosophy was the most bigoted and violent over the widest expanse of space and people.