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Aug 23 2012

Today’s word-boner: Ta-Nehisi Coates

One of the great tragedies of my life is that while I love language, I can barely find enough time to write as much as I want, let alone read. There are writers out there like Teju Cole, Amanda Marcotte, Jamelle Bouie, Sikivu Hutchinson, Touré, Greta Christina, Tim Wise, and countless others whose ability to work the language makes me feel like a rank amateur, scribbling with my own feces on the wall of a cave*. From time to time though, I manage to get myself organized enough (or, more often, I decide to let another aspect of my life slide enough) to read the latest offering from my favourite writers, but more often I watch yet another masterwork sail past me, like I was a goldfish intently watching Shark Week.

Happily, today was one of those days when I managed to scrape together a few minutes, and I was rewarded handsomely:

But it would be wrong to attribute the burgeoning support for Zimmerman to the blunders of Spike Lee or an NBC producer. Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.) Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.

Finding an appropriate pull-quote from this monster of an essay by The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates was next to impossible – there is no one section that I can abstract from this essay that stands out above the rest. It is masterfully written, researched, and explores so much that it defies parsing. I will, however, do my best to highlight some of the parts that I identified with most strongly:

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police. And hence Barack Obama’s insisting that there was no racial component to Katrina’s effects; that name-calling among children somehow has the same import as one of the oldest guiding principles of American policy—white supremacy.

For the record, I got the “twice as good” talk from my father several times growing up. I saw him struggle to be seen as anything other than ‘exotic’ in his personal and professional life. I’ve also felt the sting of what it means to be both ‘too black’ and ‘not black enough’ at various points in my life, and can empathize with the constant pressure of realizing that one’s race is ignored in success and relentlessly spotlighted in failure.

What black people are experiencing right now is a kind of privilege previously withheld—seeing our most sacred cultural practices and tropes validated in the world’s highest office. Throughout the whole of American history, this kind of cultural power was wielded solely by whites, and with such ubiquity that it was not even commented upon. The expansion of this cultural power beyond the private province of whites has been a tremendous advance for black America. Conversely, for those who’ve long treasured white exclusivity, the existence of a President Barack Obama is discombobulating, even terrifying. For as surely as the iconic picture of the young black boy reaching out to touch the president’s curly hair sends one message to black America, it sends another to those who have enjoyed the power of whiteness.

There is a fundamental difference between what I think my liberal white friends think the significance of “a black president” is, and what I think it means. I was repeatedly treated to the joke that Mitt Romney “looks like a president” at the beginning of his latest candidacy – a phrase that I couldn’t hear as anything other than “he’s a really white man”. It goes beyond optics though – to be black in America is to live in two cultural worlds, an experience that leaves an indelible mark that can be hidden but never completely expunged. Obama’s occasional head-fakes toward espousing his personal background have been an expression that to be African-American is to be American, despite the repeated and poorly-masked assertions of the increasingly-nakedly-racist political right.

Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation: these bonded white people into a broad aristocracy united by the salient fact of unblackness. What [US Senator Robert] Byrd saw in an integrated military was the crumbling of the ideal of whiteness, and thus the crumbling of an entire society built around it. Whatever the saintly nonviolent rhetoric used to herald it, racial integration was a brutal assault on whiteness. The American presidency, an unbroken streak of nonblack men, was, until 2008, the greatest symbol of that old order.

The lifeblood of the American tradition runs through veins of white supremacy that simply cannot be unravelled from its nobler elements – the very idea of a country based on the freedom for human beings to choose their own destiny and to govern themselves was immediately put to the lie by the fact that the vaunted architects of freedom were slave-owning white supremacists. A black president doesn’t simply mean a triumph of colour-blind liberalism – it represents America living up to at least one of its own promises.

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness.

Summarize this blog in one sentence.

And yet what are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxt­ables? An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.

America’s white supremacy is a self-preservation mechanism – one that punishes those with the temerity to try and rise above it and address it directly. The most powerful man in the country is still restrained by the disembodied yet still-living ghost of America’s attitude about whiteness and blackness. Even the commander in chief is rendered powerless by (and becomes complicit to) the myths about what black folks out to be – myths that are never put to words except by those who feel the brunt of their impact.

Like I said – the whole damn thing is quotable (all this is just from the first two pages – his treatise on the political impossibility of “black anger” is a quotable essay in its own right). Find some minutes of your own and read this piece – slowly. There’s so much in there that it’s easy to miss important information. For my part, if I can get the knowledge contained in these 4 pages imparted in a year’s worth of blog posts, I will consider myself wildly successful.

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*Don’t get me wrong - nobody thinks as highly of my writing as I do. I just recognize people who are light years ahead of me – those whose writing makes me physically ache with a deep and resonant agreement.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    'Tis Himself

    I’ve just finished reading Coates’s article. I was impressed.

    Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.

    This is something I’d never considered before. My white privilege is still showing.

  2. 2
    Anne C. Hanna

    I just wonder, how long is it going to take us to really get all the racism out of our systems f’realz? Even as a white person, it’s exhausting to be continually aware of this whole long past and present of awfulness hovering malevolently around every interaction I have with a member of a racial minority group, and making it difficult to just relax and be humans with each other. I assume it’s a few orders of magnitude worse being one of the people who’s actually targeted by it. I wonder if that’s one small part of why there’s always all this wishful thinking like, “Oh, we have a black president, now all the racism is gone.” Because, fuck yeah, it would be really really damn nice if all the racism really *was* gone. :/

  3. 3
    reneerp

    It’s just an amazing essay from start to finish. Coates goes from strength to strength in this one, which took him months (according to a followup blog post) to write.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    I am confused by your use of the term “gone”.

  5. 5
    Anne C. Hanna

    Well, yeah, that’s part of the problem, innit? Because even if somehow magically nobody ever did anything overtly “racist” anymore starting right now, there would still be all that history and all the social imbalances that resulted from that history. I just wonder how long it will take to get to a point where all those imbalances get smoothed out and nobody really has to care any more beyond reading history books and saying, “Man, people used to be really weird and awful, didn’t they?” And then they shrug and go outside to play eleven-dimensional hyperbaseball by the light of the two suns.

  6. 6
    Leigh Williams

    Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national treasure.

  7. 7
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    My word-boner: Thinking “boner” was used as for “error”, in the manner I used it at the beginning of my sentence.

    That was a weird gestalt shift when I realized you weren’t going to critique the use of a word. Oh, you meant that kind of boner. Duh.

    That is some good stuff, and I’m gonna go read it. Thanks for pointing it out.

    There is a fundamental difference between what I think my liberal white friends think the significance of “a black president” is, and what I think it means.

    I readily admit that I have no idea what it means, and I can’t claim to have dwelt on the idea, as I wouldn’t know where to even begin thinking about it. I know what meanings some people take from this, but I’m almost positive I’m missing out on the bulk of meanings out there. I only know that for at least a brief moment in history, we could elect someone who wasn’t whitey mcwhitewhite. Looking back at this from some point in the future, I might have understanding of some additional meanings. I doubt I can ever really grok what having Obama as a President means to black people, or to other groups, but I’ll keep listening.

  8. 8
  9. 9
    Smhll

    I think Barack Obama got elected because he was at least 5 times better than GWB, and perhaps twice a good as McCain.

    I remembered that Gingrich had said something loathesome about the President’s comments about Trayvon, but I hadn’t remembered exactly how twisted and slimy his remarks were.

    I imagine the President can’t invite Shirley Sherrod to the White House before November, but I hope he would do so after.

  10. 10
    Pen

    Before the president spoke, George Zimmerman was arguably the most reviled man in America. After the president spoke, Zimmerman became the patron saint of those who believe that an apt history of racism begins with Tawana Brawley and ends with the Duke lacrosse team.

    I’m not convinced either of these statements is true. The president’s remarks seemed to come in the middle of an international movement to get Zimmerman brought to justice in the face of a judicial system that apparently didn’t care, and that movement succeeded afterwards. I suppose specific examples might be found of people reviling Zimmerman before the president spoke and lauding him afterwards but I very much doubt they amount to a significant change of heart within the USA as a whole, certainly not in the direction indicated. I would imagine the president’s opinion changed the views of a tiny minority at most. I wish I could get Coates’ article to load so I can find out why he thinks otherwise. I think I really need to get it to load to find out what he’s saying about Obama in general.

  11. 11
    emptyknight

    My employer’s web filtering software apparently believes that website is unsafe/possibly pornographic. I’ll definitely read that article when I get home, as it sounds extraordinarily well-written and addresses a topic I’ve often pondered upon.

  12. 12
    jamessweet

    Coates is one of those writers that, even when I’m disagreeing with him (which is admittedly not that often) it’s still a pleasure.

  13. 13
    John Horstman

    This sounds great; I’ll have to needs must check it out once I’m out from under the Guild Wars 2 launch.

  14. 14
    Great American Satan

    “A black president doesn’t simply mean a triumph of colour-blind liberalism – it represents America living up to at least one of its own promises.”

    From about that point on especially, I extra agree with this post. When I was a young child and grown-ups tried to explain to me why this country is teH best 4evar, I was told about these principles which seemed really great to me.

    So my opinion of America has always been held to that image, and as I grew and learn it had nowhere to go but down in flames. As a white dude, I have been massively pissed having to watch Obama caper for the pieces of shit in the national media who need him to be a Huxtable in order to prove he isn’t Malcolm X. It’s horrible.

    And just the other day on yahoo I see a small headline acting as if Romney’s tacit endorsement of birther bullshit lends legitimacy to it. FfffffFWAAAAAAAAKkkkkkk.

    -

  15. 15
    ik

    It will be gone some day.

    One idea I had was a kind of great ethnoclasm, a state program of deliberate race mixing through marriage, residence, labor, and all other areas of society: not merely a massive project of affirmative action, but a grand project to homogenize the country so thoroughly that within a few generations there would be no races.

    I have always been one to do the greatest evil in the name of the greater good.

    More recently, I have been told that that would be an act of genocide. My own judgement remains inconclusive.

    Now, I have adopted a hopeless desire that we might make the world as it might have been, to return to Europe and bury multiculturalism and this hated oppressive supremacy together.

  16. 16
    ik

    Probably from Greta and Maryam’s nude revolutionary calender.

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