The Problem With Obama's Faith in White America

The president’s optimism about race blinded him to the pervasiveness and stubborn persistence of racism.

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 screamed a lot while reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s My President Was Black. When I was done reading and screaming, I cried.

The last time I felt this far removed from this president was when I first worked so hard to elect him.

In 2007, the very idea of a President Barack Obama was ridiculous to me. I was and am southern, god bless. I am black. I come from black people who are southerners even when they were New Yorkers for a spell. We are the black American story of enslavement, rural migration, urban displacement, resistance, boostrapping, mobility, and class fragility. In this milieu we, as a friend once described it, know our whites. To know our whites is to understand the psychology of white people and the elasticity of whiteness. It is to be intimate with some white persons but to critically withhold faith in white people categorically. It is to anticipate white people’s emotions and fears and grievances because their issues are singularly our problem. To know our whites is to survive without letting bitterness rot your soul.

That’s what I was dealing with when I went to my first Obama house party in 2007—a few generations’ worth of lived and inherited expertise in knowing our whites. Our whites are southern, like me. Even if they spent some time in places north and west, to become white in the south is to absorb some large part of its particular iteration of the U.S. racial hierarchy. The house party was being held in Myers Park, a lush wealthy in-town enclave in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte was my home. I knew Myers Park as a place and a symbolic map of the city’s racist histories. Myers Park is gorgeous. The streets are wide. The homes are stately without being garish. The residents are mere miles from the center of the city’s banking, employment, transportation, and entertainment hubs. As neighborhoods throughout Charlotte fell victim to blight during the housing crash of the 2000s, Myers Park remained stable, thriving even, with housing values continuing upward trends year-over-year.

Myers Park is also, as one with even a cursory knowledge of how wealth works in the United States would know, the benefactor of years of racist covenant restrictions and redlining. Myers Park is beautiful because it has encoded its whiteness into the mundane market transactions that we rarely see: zoning, planning, investment, homeowners associations. White people in Myers Park, no matter where they are from at one time in their lives, are of Myers Park whether they acknowledge it or not.

I grew up knowing those whites. They mostly go to private school. When they don’t, they make the public high school (Myers Park High School, naturally) function like a private school. They donate to area charities and lobby to keep the uncharitable from their neighborhoods and lives. I could not believe the Obama house party was happening in Myers Park of all places in the city.

The party was in one of the homes usually only accessible to someone like me when, twice a year, you can pay $15 or so for one of those charity parades of homes. I was early. When I rang the bell a young white woman, still wet from a shower, told me to come on in but no one was yet there. I sat for almost half an hour as they finished preparing, acutely aware of my social faux pas. As people arrived, of all ages and walks of life, I was the only black person until almost an hour into the house party. That’s when a brother carrying a bicycle arrived with his white girlfriend.

The hosts asked for donations without stuttering the way that I still do when I have to do “the ask.” It was taken for granted that you had come to spend money and had money to spend. Here, a full eight years before mobile credit card payments would penetrate my black hair salon or Saturday swap meets, the hosts took mobile payments using a website. The whites in this room were all in for Obama. They talked about him like old black people talk about Martin Luther King. They loved his biography. They embraced his political mantra. They were positive he could win.

Back at home, the black people I know were positive that white people were crazy to think that he could win. My mother told me as much: “White people are crazy.” She, like me, knew her whites. I went home that night and told her that I had seen, not new whites, but white people doing what people do: coalescing around shared interests. Only their shared interests converged with my own. These white people were not new. They still had more money, more power than we had. They were as young as me but lived in million-dollar estates. They would still negotiate the daily experience of racial segregation in their neighborhoods and schools and jobs but they had, for a million reasons, chosen this black man as “their guy.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it, Ma,” I told her. “But this black man can win.”

Today, my mother has no fewer than 19 portraits and commemorative magazine covers of Barack and Michelle Obama on her mantelpiece. She has exactly three pictures of me, for reference. She has only one of her husband, something that annoys him to no end. She hangs up the phone with me if Barack is giving a speech and she would, I am sure, trade me for Sasha and Malia in a heartbeat.

At the time, back in 2007, Vivian could not believe that a black man with a funny name who so clearly did not know his whites stood a chance.

What convinced her finally? A house party, also in Myers Park. I dragged her there. She almost didn’t get out of the car. But when she did, she saw it, too.

It wasn’t that Barack Obama knew his whites that convinced me or my mother. It was that whites knew Obama.

Coates argues that Obama knows his whites because he was born to them, raised and loved by them. For this reason, Coates says Obama was able to offer white Americans “something very few African Americans could—trust.” Obama’s faith in white people’s goodness and white America’s capacity to rise above racism runs throughout his presidency and Coates’s moving, infuriating, eloquent memorial for our first black president.

The essay is moving. That is because Coates wrote it. And on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidency, the essay is all the more moving. Many black people will never again have a moment when they feel as American, for good or for ill, as many of us have felt the past eight years. Many of us will never again feel safe from history, seeing it reassert its racist, sexist violence so forcefully back into our political sphere. The essay is also infuriating. It attributes so much of Obama’s improbable presidency to his inimitable faith in white Americans’ higher self, something I can only describe as Obama’s painful rejection of black folks’ agency. 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 in white Americans is not better insight into their soul where, presumably the mythical “racist bones” can be found. 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. Here, what is referred to alternately in Coates’s essay as Obama’s “hybridity” and “two-ness” and “biracial” identity may have mattered. It did not matter because of how it shaped Obama but because of how it made white voters feel about themselves. In sociology, there are several theories about those who are born or socialized into two cultures at once. These people have been called liminal or marginal, for being suspended between two societies. The black world and white world that Coates describes and that are often tossed about casually are important to understand. There is a black norm only because there is a white norm, and vice versa. As some of these ideas go, people like Obama exist in both spaces simultaneously. For some people this means someone like Obama has special insight into both cultures. That insight supposedly breeds empathy. That kind of empathy may be why 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.

The other interpretation of liminality, or double-consciousness, that Obama is said to represent is more complicated. Not only does one trapped between two sets of social norms understand each better, but he is often blinded to the ways in which they are in conflict. Duality can breed insight but it can also breed delusions. The challenge of holding two sets of social selves, two ways of being and understanding the world at one time is to soften the edges so much that for the liminal, the edges no longer exist.

The black president that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes is one who thinks he could have ever really “embraced” or “chosen” blackness. He seems to truly believe that he exercised some great act of charity and agency in adopting black cool. My first black president seems to think that he can raise his daughters to believe in systemic racism without legitimizing the idea of systemic reparations. He thinks that he can be his brother’s keeper without changing the world that keeps his brothers in bad jobs, poor neighborhoods, bad educational options, and at the bottom of the social hierarchy. My first black president seems to think he can have black cool without black burden. For all his intimacies with his white mother and white grandparents, my first black president doesn’t appear to know his whites.

There’s no other way to explain Obama’s inability to imagine that this nation could elect Donald Trump. Those of us who know our whites know one thing above all else: whiteness defends itself. Against change, against progress, against hope, against black dignity, against black lives, against reason, against truth, against facts, against native claims, against its own laws and customs. Even after Donald Trump was elected, Obama told Coates that all is not lost. He is still hopeful about the soul of white America. He said nothing about the soul of black America. That is where my hope resides. It is where my faith has always resided.

The anger that David Axelrod says was so a part of Harold Washington and that Barack Obama wonderfully did not have is also the hope that defends against America’s worst impulses.* To think Obama is commended for not being angry, for not having the fortitude of deep knowledge about how white identity politics sustains and circumscribes black lives is enough to make me cry.

I’ll remember my first black president, my black first family, for these contradictions and these disappointments. The joy of seeing Michelle cannot be separated from the pain of wondering if Barack could see me. All of that black cool on display at the White House and that will surely be enshrined in the history books doesn’t change that. My president was black and I still am.

* This article originally referred to Harold Washington as Harold Ford. We regret the error.