Ta-Nehisi Coates's 17,000-word history of the Obama presidency in the Atlantic is called "My President Was Black," but it's about the very special kind of blackness that Obama embodied — not because whites saw the biracial politician differently, but because Obama's extraordinarily supportive white family and unique boyhood in Hawai'i spared him the racial trauma visited on other young black people in America.
Coates believes that Obama's unique relationship to white America, along with his ample talents for tactics, rhetoric and personal connection, made him the first black man to attain the presidency — and that it was Obama's blackness that made Trump possible. The GOP has been the party of white supremacy for more than a generation, since the Civil Rights Act, the party where polls show members are overwhelmingly possessed of a belief of black inferiority, where blacks are almost never to be found in the ranks of the powerful, where appeals to racial angst are surefire winners. Trump entered politics through the espousal of the racist birther conspiracy theory, and if his political career later came to encompass misogyny and Islamophobia, these hatred were never far from his essential program of anti-black, white supremacist rhetoric.
But Coates says that Obama's unique blackness also led to blind spots for the president, manifested in his tendency to lecture black people on being better parents, getting off drugs, eating better food and turning off the TV, and other racist shibboleths. Likewise, Obama's inability to understand how much of the opposition he faced was purely racial.
As good as this piece is, it also frustrated me for its omissions of Obama's essentially neoliberal, authoritarian record. I'm with Coates as he celebrates Obama's accomplishments in criminal justice reform, in drug war reform, in ending don't ask/don't tell in the US military, and other social justice accomplishments. But I wanted Coates's incisive analysis to be applied to Obama's foreign policy, his drone wars against racialized people in Africa and the Middle East — and, domestically, to Obama's mass deportations, to Holder's complicity with the finance industry (whose criminal impunity for fraudulent foreclosures were disproportionately hard on black Americans), and, especially, to Obama's ramp-up of America's surveillance apparatus, and what he has bequeathed to Donald Trump, who has promised deportations and surveillance for millions of Americans.
Coates does put this question to Obama, and then allows Obama's absolutely, facially untrue response to pass without much comment — Obama asserts that the NSA only spies on foreigners (as though this was a great comfort), not Americans. But of course, the NSA does spy on Americans, and this is unequivocally true, and Coates knows it, and so does Obama.
But while Coates skates over these substantial deficits in Obama's presidential record, he is brilliant and nuanced on the deficits he does identify, bringing to them the kind of nuance and thoughtfulness (and lyricism) that made Between the World, his outstanding 2015 book about being black in America, such a vital read.
This is the best postmortem on the Obama presidency I've yet seen, the cornerstone of the literature that will be written about the previous eight years. Make time for it today.
I thought of Hoover's FBI, which harassed three generations of black activists, from Marcus Garvey's black nationalists to Martin Luther King Jr.'s integrationists to Huey Newton's Black Panthers, including my father. And I thought of the enormous power accrued to the presidency in the post-9/11 era—the power to obtain American citizens' phone records en masse, to access their emails, to detain them indefinitely. I asked the president whether it was all worth it. Whether this generation of black activists and their allies should be afraid.
"Keep in mind that the capacity of the NSA, or other surveillance tools, are specifically prohibited from being applied to U.S. citizens or U.S. persons without specific evidence of links to terrorist activity or, you know, other foreign-related activity," he said. "So, you know, I think this whole story line that somehow Big Brother has massively expanded and now that a new president is in place it's this loaded gun ready to be used on domestic dissent is just not accurate."
He counseled vigilance, "because the possibility of abuse by government officials always exists. The issue is not going to be that there are new tools available; the issue is making sure that the incoming administration, like my administration, takes the constraints on how we deal with U.S. citizens and persons seriously." This answer did not fill me with confidence. The next day, President-Elect Trump offered Lieutenant General Michael Flynn the post of national-security adviser and picked Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama as his nominee for attorney general. Last February, Flynn tweeted, "Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL" and linked to a YouTube video that declared followers of Islam want "80 percent of humanity enslaved or exterminated." Sessions had once been accused of calling a black lawyer "boy," claiming that a white lawyer who represented black clients was a disgrace to his race, and joking that he thought the Ku Klux Klan "was okay until I found out they smoked pot." I felt then that I knew what was coming—more Freddie Grays, more Rekia Boyds, more informants and undercover officers sent to infiltrate mosques.
My President Was Black
(Image: Ta Nehisi Coates, Montesbradley, CC-BY-SA)