Obama's Faith in White America Was Not Misplaced

Donald Trump’s rise, and Hillary Clinton’s loss, is not a sign that America is irredeemably bigoted.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

This article is part of a series of responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story “My President Was Black.” You can read other responses to the story here.

I deeply dislike the man whose victory may vacate––who in some sense already has vacated––Obama’s legacy. I dislike that man as much as I can dislike anyone I never have and never will meet, and I condemn a great deal of what his partisans imagine he stands for.

But I have never hated President Obama. Not even a little. I found him frustrating and wrongheaded. And of course I wanted him to lose, twice. But I never doubted his basic honor, nor failed to appreciate the import of the very fact of his presidency. I watched with—is there such a thing as begrudging awe?—the jubilee in Chicago in 2008. I retweeted tiny Virginia McLaurin, born ten years before the 19th amendment and 45 before Brown vs. Board, dancing with the Obamas in the Blue Room. The breath caught in my throat when the little boy asked if he could touch the hair.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s president was black. So was mine.

But if even I, the abominable, shared the odd moment of wonder with Coates during Obama’s presidency, I also glumly share his pessimism at its end. Because for all the joy he invests in the personages of the Obamas, Coates’s essay is an autopsy. Obamaism is dead, Coates argues, because Obama bought into America’s founding myths instead of dismantling them, because he cut unapologetic celebrations of blackness with genuflections to respectability politics, because he offered white America a vision that “reinforce[d] the majoritarian dream” by erasing “the nightmare endured by the minority.”

Coates allows that Obama, who had “the luxury of becoming black with minimal trauma”, came to his views authentically. Indeed, the “hybridity” of Obama’s biography, his trust in and comfort amidst white America, his sincere embrace of its republican assumptions, his basic optimism, put him in “the only tradition in existence that could have possibly put a black person in the White House.” But the price of victory was that, in critical moments, the president was blinkered by those assumptions, and so could not glimpse the essential, post-liberal, reparative politics that lay beyond them.

This story, told under many glosses in Coates’s work, is positively Sophoclean in its gray determinism: False consciousness enmeshes black bodies in an evil order that in turn foreordains their failure. And Coates offers an added helping of the dialectical with his casual assurance that Obama’s victories somehow necessitated the president-elect’s. That 2016 wasn’t even just a racist reaction, but a restoration—America regaining its bigoted equilibrium after a minor perturbation.

This highly stylized psychohistory of blackness and whiteness in America is at the very least unhelpful, and probably false. Likewise, Coates’s appraisal of Obama’s legacy seems to me both unduly Whiggish and unfair. Whiggish in that Obama never in fact lived up to the promise of his early, ecumenical republicanism—unfair in its implication that that promise was never worth making.

By Coates’s lights, it was the 2004 keynote at the Democratic National Convention that established Obama’s commitment to “the literature of prospective presidents” over the literature of “the struggle”; that is, to a literature that speaks “not to gravity and reality, but to aspirations and dreams,” a winsome promise of no more white America or black America, but only a United States of America. In the years that followed that address, nabobs swooned and mouthed words like “Lincolnian,” progressives and Blue Dogs alike found favorable timbres in his slogans, the fabled Obamacons saw a way up and out of a divisive and diminished administration, and broader swaths still saw a man who might yet free Americans from their racial baggage.

But in 2016—hell, in 2010—that speech and the lore it produced seem from a bygone era, and the Obama who spoke of unity looks little like the Obama who ruled by a tenacious majoritarianism—whose great accomplishments were scaffolded by perverse exertions of executive power and the uncut goonery of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.

In the interval, progressive politics, at its loudest, became about Twitter burns from baccalaureates, armed with half-digested Critical Theory and looking for scores to settle. The president himself never sank to this level, and admirably called-out left-wing small-mindedness on campus and elsewhere. But nevertheless, under his watch the Left disappeared up its own fundament, replacing Obama’s sober ecumenicalism with a series of diminishingly original comedians on increasingly obscure cable networks snarking to camera about unflattering images of Ted Cruz projected over their shoulders.

This self-infantilization of the Left proceeded apace with the construction on the Right of a kind of discursive ark, a place of refuge, fueled by an emergent Tea Party and a waxing Fox News. In due course, the id-amplifying panopticon of social media helped produce hermetically sealed political ontologies on the Left and Right, completely self-sustaining and utterly irreconcilable. The politics of demonization gave way to something even worse: politics as onanism. How else to explain safe-space culture, or the Mizzou protesters who didn’t want their protests covered, or the Black Lives Matter activists who deemed a meeting at the White House counterproductive to the movement, or the blunderbuss nihilism of the Republican nominee’s campaign rallies.

All of this is very bad. Most of it is not proximately the president’s fault. But even the bits of it that arguably are are not the result of his excess faith in the American promise, any more than it was reverence for good-ol’-fashioned liberal democracy that catapulted the latest inchoate plurality to victory.

It’s true that there was plenty of racist opposition to Obama, and it’s true that the president-elect has the support of many racists both brazen and shy. But one can’t pin Hillary Clinton’s loss solely on racist blowback. Electoral landslides are easy to account for, squeakers are overdetermined. The nature of the president-elect’s win was so narrow, and his path to it so bizarre, that there is an infinite supply of counterfactuals that credibly explain it. It seems to me, then, trivially true that if there were fewer racists in America, Hillary Clinton would be president elect. Just as it seems trivially true that she’d be president elect if she’d used a State Department email server, or advocated a pro-coal energy policy, or visited Wisconsin and Michigan a dozen times more each.

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. That Hillary Clinton’s loss is not a sign that America is irredeemably bigoted.

In an elegant bit of rhetoric, Coates argues that Obama had to be exceptional to win, while all the president-elect needed was “white bluster.” But he’ll no doubt be aware that, by curriculum vitae, candidate Obama was not exceptional in 2008, a fact pointed out by both John McCain and Hillary Clinton. What’s more, all of the pathologies that led, by Coates’s account, to the rejection of Obamaism, were as present in 2012 as in 2016. And in 2012 voters were even presented with an alternative to Obamaism in Mitt Romney, a man white in all ways, who, as his opponents would have it, even hated women and minorities if you applied enough brute hermeneutic force to his rhetoric. 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?

The racism Coates sees in America is constitutive, metaphysical. He’s 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. White supremacy is both the great evil at the heart of the American order and inseverable from it. Cut it off and you lose the patient. Coates’s charge is that Obama had to ignore this to govern. And on that score he is absolutely correct. If America’s racial agony is coded into our alleles, there is very little to be done about it within the 10-year budget window.

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. They care about tsunamis in countries they can’t place on maps, and they cared on Edmund Pettus Bridge when caring meant skin in the game. 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. There’s nothing criminally white or indelibly American about the localism of our hearts or the limits of their capacity for grief, even if this feature leaves some dreams unduly deferred.

This localism is woven into the fabric of our republican order. It endows us with structures that allow individuals to freely pursue rival conceptions of the good, structures that imagine their equality before law, abstracted from the accidents of their birth. If that imagining slows the achievement of some restitutive justices—however long-withheld or well-deserved—that a more nakedly sectarian politics would otherwise hasten, then it falls on all of us to take a basic stand on whether that baby is worth the bath water. Despite our legion of disagreements, I never doubted the president’s position on this matter.

Coates opens with F. Scott Fitzgerald, so I’ll close with him. This, from an obscure and otherwise mediocre short story called “The Swimmers,” is one of my favorite things anyone has ever written, and I’ll use just about any excuse to repeat it in print:

France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter - it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.

I think of that famous picture of Jesse Owens at the Olympic podium in Berlin, standing under a laurel crown above a couple of fascists, right hand raised in a defiant salute to a country as keen to string him up as raise him up.

If America furnished some of the uncomfortable contradictions in this picture of Owens, did it not also furnish his willing heart?