Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece, “The Problem With Obama’s Faith in White America,” got an enormous response from readers, both in the comments section and via email. The most constructive contributions are below (and Tressie read them all beforehand). The first one comes from an African American reader, Ron:
I appreciate what Tressie says in her article. I never thought I would ever see a Black man in the White House. However, as she and Coates have noted, Obama has not been defined by the most common U.S. Black identity—though African Americans are not a monolith. According to Obama’s book, although he has experienced the turmoil of a racial identity crisis, he has not been shaped by the collective American Black identity seared by years of pervasive racism and disrespect. I don’t fault him for this, but I do take issue with his superficial use of “American Black coolness” to make Black people feel good while simultaneously not doing much for us.
This is as much our fault as it is Obama’s. We are a people steeped in symbolism. I suspect this is because many of our communities are in shambles and we yearn for Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Nat Turner, MLK, Malcolm X, and others. However, as a brand consultant, I can tell you that this can be dangerous. Symbols can take on a life of their own, but when steeped in nostalgia and propaganda, they can also deceive. Obama represented our future and, as far as I am concerned, he did not deliver beyond being a symbol.
This next reader, Neli, invokes her identity as a biracial American to empathize with Obama, despite her misgivings about his presidency:
It was all so new. Barack Obama, as a Black man, had no predecessor on which to base the person who would navigate the treacherous political milieu that is the presidency. I am not sure Obama himself knew what to expect, but I believe he wanted to do the right thing, that he wanted to see himself as a president for all Americans.
Was this naive? It was clear from the start that Congress was not going to work with him. I remember thinking he should have come in tougher, as the “Obama don’t care” man that Larry Wilmore described as “Black Obama.” He should have come in like a substitute teacher, because you can always pull back, but once you’ve lost ground, it is very difficult to recover the classroom.
Was this about personality? Obama endured the most vicious behavior by people who just could not accept a Black man in the White House. I don’t know how he did it. He was too nice, and even this happily married intelligent man who had to be ten times as above reproach as any white candidate never seemed to lose his cool.
As a biracial person myself, I don’t see Obama’s seeming naiveté as the result of his biracial ancestry. I honestly can’t say that I understand whites better than blacks, or that I even understand them equally. I think it is correct to say Obama had too much faith in white America, but I can’t say why that was the case. Perhaps he just didn’t have the political fangs to deal with the den of snakes that is D.C. and so he mostly ignored it, until the second term when he got fired up enough to respond. I also felt he never highlighted his accomplishments enough. (After all, he followed the “Mission Accomplished” president.)
The first Black president—the trailblazer—faced enormous challenges, so it is difficult for me to condemn Obama for what he might have failed to do. I do not think he failed. I was proud of the first Black president, and my allegiance is not always understood by Progressives. I suppose I just saw too much in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. His legacy will be that he made headway in spite of enormous obstacles.
Another reader, Cole, strongly dissents over Tressie’s essay:
I want to start with a qualifier that is incredibly important: I am white. It’s my hope that, while that serves as an significant lens through which to view my opinion, that it does not serve to discredit it.
When reading “The Problem With Obama’s Faith in White America,” I was struck by few thoughts. The first, and most important, is really the core of the essay: to “know your whites.” I can’t comment on whether or not Tressie McMillan Cottom does or does not know her whites, nor whether her family shares this knowledge. What I do know is that there is no way that she can base her judgment and indictment of Obama as a black man, a President, and a figure off of a concept that defined her existence.