Especially when juxtaposed with Between the World and Me, the chapters of Dreams of My Father that profile Obama’s adolescence are striking for the studied dispassion that has marked the president’s decisions in office and seems essential to his character. When he describes the racist episodes of his youth, it is not merely that they lack the “visceral” menace of Coates’s experience—he revealingly calls them a “ledger of slights”—they seem only to scratch him, they never scar.
Obama is aware of this fact, and he realizes that it distances his experience from that of the other young black men he meets on the basketball courts in Hawaii. Listening to their anger at the racism of a world organized and policed by “the white man’s rules,” he glimpses what he calls a “nightmare vision” in which the only affirmative choice a young black man could make was “withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat.”
Whatever the merits of this conclusion, it is drawn by someone who recognizes that he is free to choose a different destiny. That freedom is not a matter of educational opportunities or socioeconomic position so much as the possibilities of a peculiar psychology. Obama, whether because of the exigencies of experience or constitutional caprice, never feels hemmed in by the same sense of anger he sees in his friends. He can stand in their shoes and see the world through their eyes, but he can always step back again and gain a different perspective.
By contrast, the experience of being confined, even trapped, by fear is central to Coates’s account. Violence—whether at the hands of crooked cops, lethal gang members, or even his own father—lurks around every corner, leaving him no choice but to spend the same years Obama spent on the basketball court in recreation and reflection contending with “the sheer terror of disembodiment.” Such an experience leads Coates to favor physics over metaphysics in making sense of the world around him. “My understanding of the universe was physical,” he writes, “and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.”
This is a macabre revision of Dr. King’s famous maxim, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” a quote that President Obama holds in such high esteem he had it embroidered in the rug that greets visitors to the Oval Office. Such optimism may rest on a belief in the ultimate purpose of some divine arbiter—a possibility Coates, an atheist, dismisses—but it can also rely on a worldly faith in empathy. By the power of the moral imagination, individually and as a people, we can slip the bonds of personal grievance and parochial consideration to achieve a kind of secular transcendence.
Obama hints at this possibility in The Audacity of Hope. “To think clearly about race, then, requires us to see the world on a split screen,” he says, “to maintain in our sights the kind of America that we want while looking squarely at America as it is, to acknowledge the sins of the past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair.” And yet, achieving this perspective requires the kind of detachment that few of us come by naturally and which the crucible of Coates’s account, the trauma of fearfulness, inevitably sabotages.
And herein lies a great irony about empathy and a lesson that Obama embodies. It may seem strange that a man who maintains a Spock-like dispassion could also be a conduit for empathic understanding, but rather than being qualities at odds with each other, they are actually conjunctive. A capacity for empathy relies not only on a willingness to step into the shoes of another person, but the ability to step away from yourself. If you can’t leave your own world behind, at best, you may have the resolution but not the wherewithal.