Obama's Faith in White America Was Not Misplaced, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to Ta-Nehisi’s cover story “My President Was Black,” Daniel Foster, a contributing for National Review, countered with “Obama’s Faith in White America Was Not Misplaced.” The best reader contribution to this debate comes from Ayana Wilson, who falls somewhere between Foster and Coates:

Many thanks to Daniel Foster’s essay; I found it refreshingly measured. (Though I’m not a writer by trade, writing has been my primary sense-making practice since the election.) I agree with Foster’s main premise that Coates misinterprets Hillary Clinton’s loss as indicative of a kind of physics of history that forecloses the possibility of disentangling America from the bigotry on which it was founded. This physics of history is evident toward the end of Coates’s essay: “Six months later the awful price of a black presidency would be known to those students, even as the country seemed determined not to acknowledge it.” In other words, the election of Trump is the price of Obama’s presidency; Obama’s presidency necessitates Trump’s: If President Obama, then President Trump. If President Trump, then not President Clinton.

If progress necessarily leads to counteraction, then it follows that Obama’s presidency has been a “minor perturbation” from a “bigoted equilibrium,” as Foster puts it. This logic suggests that meaningful progress is not possible. Instead of progress, America goes through permutations of black subjugation: redlining replaces legally codified segregation, fatal police “mistakes” replace lynching, free labor extracted via mass incarceration replaces abject enslavement.

Of course, the institutionalized subjugation of black folks is alive and thriving, and Coates is right to emphasize the permutations of black subjugation that dangerously distract from the ways in which very little has changed since Jim Crow. When permutations are mistaken for progress, Shelby County v. Holder and other retrograde laws that impede progress seem permissible.

Still, I disagree that progress is not possible, that America will never be able to transcend its sordid past. For example, the very existence of a black male adolescence like Obama’s that was unacquainted with and unfettered by the cruelties of systemic racism demonstrates progress.

To my mind, Coates confuses the necessity of Trump’s election with the necessity of Trump’s candidacy. Obama’s presidency necessitated Trump’s candidacy, but it did not necessitate his election.

That said, Foster made some points to which I’d like to respond in the hopes of furthering the dialogue. He wrote:

But it also seems plausible that most of the white people who voted for both Obama and his successor, and whom Coates counts among the “badge holders” of white privilege, don’t imagine themselves privileged. That they don’t know what “white innocence” is or could possibly mean.

This logic would have us believe that any disparity between the self-perceptions of white Trump voters and the left’s data-driven interpretations of them is meaningful. That white Trump supporters do not see themselves as privileged does not in any way diminish or make less manifest their white privilege. One need not know what white privilege is to benefit from it. One need not know what white innocence is to subconsciously require his black president to protect it.

Foster again: “If white America’s original sin remains uncleansed, if Obama were really such an aberrance, how strange it is that America rejected him only when he stopped appearing on the ballot?” It is an undeniable fact that white America’s original sin remains uncleansed. Obama’s presidency did not and couldn’t have provided the absolution required to repair the centuries-long subjugation that no doubt keeps black folks at the back of the proverbial bus to this day.

Foster then wrote, “The racism Coates sees in America is constitutive, metaphysical.” Racism is indeed constitutive—embedded—in the DNA of America. We need only recall that our founding patriots compelled many slaves to fight in the Revolutionary War against the loyalists in exchange for freedom in the event of victory. As we know, that freedom was not granted.

It is also instructive to revisit the letters between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker—a great scientist and mathematician who, as the descendant of captured Africans, enjoyed an anomalous if precarious status as a freedman. Banneker earnestly appeals to Jefferson’s sense of justice, liberty, truth, and beauty in attempting to convince him to abolish slavery so that America might actualize the very ideals Jefferson was enshrining in the Constitution. In response, Jefferson blanches: He knows Banneker to be a man like himself and yet cannot envision a not-too-distant world in which the link between America and slavery is broken.

So, Coates rightly argues that racism is constitutive to America, but to his mind, this racism is not metaphysical but supervenient. Coates is not a metaphysicist; if he were, he’d probably be less culpable of the dark determinism that Foster correctly ascribes to him. Coates perceives in history a type of physics whose laws are not altogether different from the physics that supervenes on the natural world, which is why he thinks that DNA is destiny. The reasoning is clear and compelling: If the subjugation of black bodies was constitutive to America’s origins, will it not be constitutive to America’s future? Is it possible for a nation to transcend its DNA?

Foster: “[Coates is] quick to assign collective intentionality to white people, to spot white supremacy across individuals and contexts and epochs, to practice rhetorically the same agency-stripping essentialism that got us here in the first place.”

Foster misunderstands Coates when he says Coates “assigns collective intentionality to white people.” For most white Americans, white supremacy operates on the level of the subconscious. A white person need never hear of white supremacy to benefit from and further it. Like fish in water, most white folks are so acclimatized to white supremacy that it takes immense insight to recognize that this is water, this is water, this is water. Moreover, the persistence of white supremacy and the recent resurgence of white nationalism do not strip white folks of agency, nor does Coates suggest that they do. Like Baldwin, Coates believes that white folks are capable of awakening from the sinister fictions that divide us, namely race.  

Foster:

But in place of Coates’s imagined sea-to-shining-sea conspiracy, I’d posit something a bit more parsimonious. That while injustices accrue systemically, caring about them has to be done individually. Plenty of Americans, brown and white, care plenty of the time. They care when confronted with video of Walter Scott’s murder or toddlers’ lifeless corpses in Aleppo. [...] But they care in fits and starts, when they can spare the psychic energy. When their kids are fed and their own anxieties subdued. This is how it has always been and how it will always be.

Tell me, what good has the average American’s care for the “lifeless corpses in Aleppo” done for those still breathing in Aleppo?

What Black Lives Matter activists request is that white folks do more than passively care; they want white folks to actively resist white supremacy by joining a group like SURJ in the recognition that, in the words of James Baldwin, “If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

If black folks must wait till white folks’ “kids are fed and their own anxieties subdued” for white folks to join us in our efforts to dismantle white supremacy, well, then, we’ll be waiting forever. To quote Baldwin again: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

***

Another reader, Niru Anya, has a valuable view of “My President Was Black”:

I was a little put off by TNC’s befuddlement over Obama’s “unique circumstances” growing up as a biracial kid in Hawaii. Speaking as 23-year old, biracial male (Nigerian and Iranian) who grew up in Houston, and as a black kid who likes to think he has membership in the black community of his hometown, I don’t think Obama’s childhood circumstances, worldview, or identity is peculiar to him, or even just a minority of mixed and black people in America for that matter.

For me, it seemed as though TNC was presupposing the coequality of suffering and trauma of every black American. While I recognize and abhor the existence of institutional racism, and am outraged at the ever replenishing well of videos of unarmed black men being shot by police, I know that I cannot rationally assume that every black man, woman, and child has suffered through the same experience of growing up black in West Baltimore. And as I believe no individual has the right to qualify another’s suffering, I feel it careless to act as if every black person is afflicted by equivalent and horrendous racial trauma. The differences in the degree of hurt and responses to that hurt among black and non-white individuals is real and is in no way a qualifier of an individual’s identity (self-ascribed or conferred). To ignore that fact is to encourage the myth of the racial monolith.

I also take issue with TNC’s assertion that a black person could never both gain enough favor and approval from white people to attain the highest office of the land and also have lived through racial or sexist trauma; I do not believe in the mutual exclusivity of those realities. I agree with TNC insofar as Obama’s privilege of growing up in a welcoming environment comprised of loving whites and non-blacks (one that not many, but still plenty of people share) enabled him to trust white people when other people of color couldn’t. But to treat Obama as an enigma or as a rarely repeatable anomaly is disingenuous.

What I have time and again found unsettling is the implication that one is a sellout or “not (insert racial group here) enough” for not having lived through the same traumatic experiences of others (see monolith comment above). And I can’t help but be defensive at the suggestion of Obama’s experience not being reflective of the “greater black experience.” While such racial ambassadorship, inherently absurd, might be expected of him by non-blacks (an expectation I myself have had thrust on me), that doesn’t make it a valid method of evaluation. Part of what makes the black community splendorous is the dynamism and diversity of opinion, experience, and thought that comprises it.

Nonetheless, the trials and tribulations faced by the Obama administration are a source of endless aggravation for me and, as I’m sure, millions of other Americans. Thus I’m extremely grateful to The Atlantic and Ta-Nehisi Coates for providing such a superb work of thought and therapy.