“God gave Moses the rainbow sign/No more water, but fire next time.”—Negro spiritual
When Barack Obama first ran for the presidency, many counted his chances as slim. Here was a man with relatively little political experience and a foreign name that rhymed with the world’s most notorious terrorist. And he was black.
“America will never elect a black President.” So said 15-year old me. This was not born out of any knowledge of the history of the American Civil Rights movement or any lived experience of African-American life. No, this was a function of the consciously contrived cynicism and willful ambivalence—a necessary feature of my existence as an entitled American teenager.
Still, I can’t be too hard on my rounder, more acne-ridden previous self. Given the renaissance of cynicism and ignorance in American political life, I have to admire the prescience.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “My President Was Black” is essential reading. Coates is one of the most insightful and thought-provoking voices on the American racial experience, and he is the ideal writer to reflect on Obama’s legacy on matters of race because they appear to approach the subject in fundamentally different ways. Where Obama adeptly weaves a narrative of our society, Coates reports on its tragic realities. Where Obama sees a glass half full, Coates points out that to be half full is to necessarily be half empty. Where Obama praises the heroism of marchers venturing onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Coates remembers the violence on the other side. If Obama is King, Coates is Malcolm. King’s moral arc bends toward justice; Coates’ bends toward “chaos.”
Coates, then, is aptly positioned to question the all-too-easily embraced conclusions of the post-election analysis. The most egregious of this has been the minimization of racism as a factor in the Trump vote. Pundits, in an effort to align themselves with “middle America,” have broadly exonerated the electorate—saying they took him “seriously” but not “literally.” It’s unclear to me what exactly this empty soundbite means—or why it carries any modicum of virtue. Despite its vacuity—maybe because of it—it has taken root (like a fungus!) in the political-media landscape. Trump voters didn’t take him literally! Many of them voted for Obama! Racism can’t have been a factor, because it can’t quite be that simple!
Since when was racism simple?
Since the achievements of the Civil Rights movement, racism has been increasingly defined as a worldview based on explicit racial supremacy—a definition that fits our collective revisionist tendencies (more on that in a moment). In truth, racism hinges on at least three additional phenomena: 1) implicit and institutional biases; 2) racial indifference (read: color-blindness); and 3) political and economic systems erected on the traditions of exploitation and subjugation of people of color.
The myth of “simple racism” is either wishful thinking or willful denialism, and it’s easy to see the attraction. If you define racism as legally segregated lunch counters, widespread lynching, and Klansmen lighting crosses ablaze, then the triumph of tolerance over hate is virtually uncontestable. Define racism a little more comprehensively, and that verdict begins to dissolve.
Those other three pillars I mentioned are pervasive and omnipresent, which has made them virtually impossible to address in any sort of overt fashion. Moreover, they are enabled by a tradition of American revisionism that blinds us from accurately diagnosing social ills. We constantly recreate realities as narratives that are more palatable—stories that serve the interests of powerful institutions even at the expense of justice.
The downplaying of the role of race in 2016 voting behavior is a just one example of this revisionism. Consider any one of the countless police killings of unarmed African-Americans: Eric Garner was illegally selling cigarettes, Terrence Crutcher was a “big, bad dude” who was found with illicit drugs in his car, and Trayvon Martin was dressed like a “thug.” Before their bodies were cold, their characters were smeared. In each case, black life was devalued in order to justify its taking.
There is an obvious racial theme to these particular revisions. But as a general proposition, I don’t think revisionism is inherently racist—it’s inherently human, and it very frequently runs in parallel to the forces of hate.
One of the things the 2016 election unearthed was the degree of that revisionism among many on the left, and I include myself (me!—a reader of Alexander, Coates, Blackmon!) in that criticism. Whatever knowledge I had about the legacy of racism in American society, I genuinely believed that any misgivings about Hillary Clinton would pale in comparison to a rejection of the hatefulness upon which Donald Trump staked his political identity. I did not, as Dave Chapelle said, “know the whites.”
In retrospect, Trump succeeding Obama seems increasingly obvious, given the state of race relations, an almost necessary outcome. Those of us surprised by his victory clearly saw Obama’s presidency as a sign of racial progress but also forgot the unprecedented, coordinated obstruction he faced for eight years, including a line of conspiratorial racist lies enabled by party leadership, piped through living room television sets, and championed by his soon-to-be successor. As Coates notes, the story of the ascension of a black man to the presidency has an ugly underbelly—and those of us who have been blind to the African-American experience were found been similarly blind to that counter-narrative.
This notion of revisionism brings up one point of difference with Coates, and it has to do with the allegedly different prisms through which Obama and Coates view American racial life. Coates, as mentioned before, has a more pessimistic prognosis for race relations—progress is not inevitable, oppression is not only institutional but an institution in and of itself, and the moral arc of the universe bends towards chaos.
Coates argues that Obama’s optimism is a product of his biography. He was raised in a multicultural environment, with close white family members who embraced and celebrated his blackness. Coates points to these formative childhood experiences as the bedrock for Obama’s enduring trust in white Americans, the political skillset that facilitated his rise, and the Achilles heel that blinded him from the Congressional obstruction he faced throughout his administration. The implicit conclusion is that Obama was naïve on issues of race, a conclusion more vociferously made by one of the response articles to Coates’ piece.
I think this is conjecture. We may never truly understand what Obama truly thinks about race in America—his opportunities for candor are limited by the nature of his position. And, lest we forget—this is a politician who has carefully build a brand of hope and change, and politicians value their brands. I would argue that Obama’s optimism is born more from the execution of that brand and by the necessity of his office.
For one, it is (unfortunately) not clear what political benefit would be gained by taking a position of racial honesty. It would be perceived as hypocrisy for a black man to call out the racist origins of American government while simultaneously rising to its highest office; it would also be a self-defeating abdication of power. Moreover, Coates’ pessimism, though it hews more closely to racial realities, doesn’t offer much of a practical roadmap for governance. Indeed, Coates’ most well-known significant public policy recommendation is for reparations, and I think he would be the first to say that a) it’s never going to happen, and b) that proves his point.
On the margins, I think we can see evidence that Obama’s approach to race has been a carefully constructed public performance, and that he is more aware of the state of race relations than he publicly divulges. For instance, he told David Remnick of The New Yorker that he felt his presidency occurred two decades too early. David Axelrod, one of Obama’s closest advisers, has recounted one of Obama’s frequent jokes: “I’m a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama and I’m President of the United States—I’m the luckiest guy in the world.” To be sure, these are off the cuff remarks, but they reflect a sense that Obama’s political ascendancy is a reflection more of his qualities as an individual than of sweeping racial progress, and this is precisely the case that Coates makes. That so many Obama voters switched to Trump is not a rebuttal of racism but a proof of it:
Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.
I think Obama’s public, more optimistic approach to race reflects the degree to which relentless pragmatism has characterized much of his presidency, albeit to the disappointment of liberal purists. In a recent interview, he commented on the importance of communicating a message “in a way that will be heard.” The unvarnished truth on race may well be intellectually, morally, and rhetorically compelling, but it is also defeatist in matters of practical political governance.
All the wrong lessons
Our political culture is overly deferential to the mythical ordinary American—the fallacious narrative that heartland residents are somehow more authentically American than residents of the “bubble,” a line of thought expertly dispatched by Richard Cohen.
To that end, it’s concerning that the Democratic Party seems poised to learn all the wrong lessons from its loss in 2016. The most troubling and misguided argument is the one advanced by Mark Lilla in the Times, in which the author downplays the role of race and advocates for the dismissal of the Party’s pro-diversity, multicultural messaging.
I think it is fair to say that an exclusively identity-based message is not be sufficient for Democratic success, but I do think it is necessary. First, from an electoral perspective, demographic changes continue to favor the left—racial and ethnic minorities, young people, and immigrants generally support Democrats, and signs of that tide were present even amidst defeat. Though former blue bulwarks in the Rust Belt flipped, they did so along single-digit margins. Meanwhile, Clinton outperformed Obama in eleven states, including the swing states Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia. These four states have an electoral count of 78, which is almost equivalent to the 80 points in Rust Belt states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa). If you include North Carolina, which has been generally trending more blue over the past 16 years, you can make the case for an emerging Democratic coalition in the South (93 points). Not only do these states collectively outweigh the Rust Belt in the electoral math, but also they are growing in population while the Rust Belt shrinks. In 2000, the Rust Belt accounted for 16.8% of the Electoral College; in 2016, it accounted for 14.9%. By contrast, the aforementioned southern states increased from 14.9% to 16.7%. They have essentially flipped in population, and, if demographics bear out, they will flip in political allegiance.
Second, to blame identity politics ignores other strategic errors and unprecedented obstacles. I’m loath to join the pile-on on Hillary Clinton, but reporting has increasingly revealed that her organization failed to recognize signs of weakness in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which are widely identified as the three states that determined the election. The campaign held few events in this states, where the margins of victory were 0.8%, 0.23%, and 0.73% respectively. (By the way, these margins were narrower than the Jill Stein vote). Further, Democrats were undercut by unprecedented Russian interference, voter suppression laws, and a press that created a moral equivalence between the foolish use of a private email server and the hateful spread of racist lies. And I haven’t even mentioned sexism.
Finally, Democrats won the popular vote. The identity liberalism message worked for 2.8 million more people. That may not count for much, but it ain’t nothing.
But who knows. I’m not, like, a smart person.