Posted on | August 23, 2012 | 49 Comments
When I glanced at Memeorandum and saw the headline, it was impossible to suppress my groaning weariness with the worn-out theme:
Fear of a Black President
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic Monthly, September 2012
Show of hands: Nearly four years into the Age of Obama, is there anybody — anybody — interested in reading a 9,582-word “What It Means” essay about the racial significance of Obama’s presidency?
Would you be more interested if I told you that Ta-Nehisi Coates uses the Trayvon Martin shooting as the contextual prism through which he seeks this wisdom? Would your interest be whetted if I told you that Coates name-checks a list of right-wing villains — Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, etc. — en route to a rather nebulous conclusion about the persistence of white racism as the dominant and defining reality of America’s past, present and future?
Admit it, honky: You don’t want to read it.
You “white folks” (yes, he uses that phrase) don’t wish to recline on the psychoanalyst’s couch while Ta-Nehisi Coates explains to you that every reason why you don’t support Obama, when viewed through the lens of history, is irredeemably racist. You “white folks” don’t appreciate your own need for this therapeutic experience.
Why not? Because you’re in denial about your intractable prejudices.
So there you are, with Trayvon Martin’s blood on your hands, rejecting Ta-Nehisi Coates’s generous offer to expiate your sins. Confess your racism, whitey, and let Dr. Coates help you understand your “Fear of a Black President.” Because, you see, somehow the death of Trayvon reflects the hatefulness of those right-wing Republicans and their “strategy of massive resistance” — yes, massive resistance, as if suburban Orlando in 2012 were Mississippi in 1955.
More patient and able polemicists will likely give Coates the thorough fisking he deserves. We can hope that Ace of Spades weighs in with the kind of vicious sarcasm Coates deserves. While awaiting such treatment, however, I’ll force-feed you a few sample sentences.
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.
Coates comes very near to a point here, but misses it, i.e.: In addressing the Trayvon Martin case, the president politicized it, necessarily turning this controversy into a partisan affair.
This is an election year, and it would be impossible for the president seeking re-election to speak out on any controversy without providing his opponents an occasion to criticize him. I’m reminded of how President Bush’s “heckuva job, Brownie” comment about Hurricane Katrina became a club with which Democrats relentlessly pounded him. This is how 21st-century politics works: A politician says something dubious or offensive about a controversial subject, and his partisan foes exploit it to their advantage. Hello, Todd Akin.
Never mind that this is a general rule. In the manner of a crusading district attorney leading an election-year crackdown on drug dealers, Coates is prosecuting the perpetrators:
The moment Obama spoke, the Trayvon case passed out of its mourning phase and into something dark and familiar — racialized political fodder.
And even if white folks could moderate their own penchant for violence, we could not moderate our own. A long-suffering life on the wrong side of the color line had denuded black people of the delicacy necessary to lead the free world.
Damn. Just . . . damn.
What exactly is Coates trying to say here? I’m not sure. He seems fond of eloquent insinuation, so that it is difficult to locate an argument that can be reduced to a syllogism. It’s as if we are being challenged to refute a Rorshach inkblot test. Coates goes off on tangents of irrelevant free-association, flinging around stylish prose that defies counter-argument because what it’s really about is emotional symbolism, and no one can dispute the reality of another’s feelings.
The “racialized political fodder” that Coates calls “dark and familiar” — yes, one way or another, we can all agree that it is familar. But insofar as the racialized fodder becomes political, or the political fodder is racialized, isn’t this unfortunate intersection at least in equal measure the responsibility of the president and his allies? Why must Coates attempt to fix blame exclusively to the president’s opposition?
Democrats have deliberately and shamelessly used Obama’s race as a bludgeon against Republicans, and every time anyone complains about this, their complaint is cited as proof of their racism. It’s a non-falsifiable hypothesis, a Venn diagram with two non-intersecting sets: (A) People who support Obama, and (B) Racists, where AB is a null set and thus the only way to disprove one’s racism is to support Obama.
Given the fact that racial discrimination is a federal crime, and has been since 1964, these provocative insinuations of racism are a type of emotional terrorism, a psychological warfare campaign of political intimidation masquerading as a desire for “social justice.” Cooperate with the Democrats’ political agenda or else you’ll be branded with The Scarlet H — hater! — and targeted for destruction.
Having lit this spark, Coates pours on the gasoline:
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.
This is a familiar trope: Liberalism as a sort of ESP, imparting to the anointed a magical psychic mind-reading ability, so that the inner motives and beliefs of conservatives are always transparent to their liberal critics. It has been this way at least as far back as Theodor Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality. No matter how often we point out the bogusness of this style of “argument” (which is really just name-calling), liberals keep trotting it out, as if no one could possibly doubt their mystic ability to know the evil motives of their opponents.
Every so often, liberals will proclaim that what they want is a “discussion” or a “dialogue” about race, but any effort to actually have such a discussion is doomed by the liberal’s imagined intellectual and moral superiority — the “dialogue” becomes a monologue and the “discussion” becomes a lecture, because no conservative deserves to be treated with respect, as if his ideas might actually be valid.
Conservatives being manifestly inferior, the liberal is entitled to turn any “discussion” into a sermon on the moral wrongness of conservatives: “They gonna put y’all back in chains!”
Yes, Joe Biden is your moral superior, merely because he is a liberal Democrat and you are not. Your inferiority disqualifies you as a participant in the discussion, and your role as a conservative is to sit there in apologetic shame while you’re scolded. You may not talk back, no matter what provocations Ta-Nehisi Coates may shove at you:
When 9/11 happened, I wanted nothing to do with any kind of patriotism, with the broad national ceremony of mourning. I had no sympathy for the firefighters, and something bordering on hatred for the police officers who had died. I lived in a country where my friend — twice as good — could be shot down mere footsteps from his family by agents of the state. God damn America, indeed.
This is the Rorshach motif again: Coates describes his feelings — his emotional association of the 9/11 hijacking with his friend’s death in a mistaken-identity case involving Prince George’s County (Md.) Police Cpl. Carlton Jones — and dares us to argue with his feelings. Coates deliberately appeals to irrational symbolism and expects no one to quarrel with his provocative expression of anti-patriotism, because anyone who does so would be volunteering as a target, branding himself with The Scarlet H and inviting an angry lecture about racism. And in case you missed the extortionist’s threat, Coates gives you another hint:
In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.
What the hell is this “Al Roker standard”? Never mind.
What Coates is signaling to those “in the professional world” (presumably including his white Atlantic supervisors and co-workers) is that his own courtesy toward them is a careful masquerade, his “dulcet tones” a disguise for the barely controllable rage he feels toward them, his shame at having to seek “white acceptance” by soothing their “racial consciousness” in this “infantile” country.
This kind of self-dramatizing tantrum, of course, is exactly what we have come to expect from liberals. If Coates’s tantrum is more elegantly expressed than the incoherent chants of the Occupy mobs, it is still a tantrum. And he calls us “infantile”!
UPDATE: Figuring that nearly 10,000 words from Coates weren’t enough, Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect piles on:
Of course there are politicians and political parties that capitalize on racism. Why wouldn’t they? The end of our state-sanctioned racial caste system is a recent event in our history; more recent than Medicare or Medicaid, more recent than the advent of computers, more recent than the interstate highway system, and more recent than Social Security. Taken in the broad terms of a nation’s life, we’re only a few weeks removed from the widespread acceptance of white supremacy.
Right. I’m 52 and was not yet in kindergarten when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. Is there, “in the broad terms of a nation’s life,” some sort of expiration date on grudge-based politics?
Or are we not supposed to notice that Jamelle Bouie (University of Virginia, Class of ’09) was born during the second term of the Reagan administration and thus is rehearsing grievances that pre-date his birth by more than two decades? It makes as much sense, really, as invoking the Smoot-Hawley tariff or Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech as the basis of our politics. I’m anti-tariff and pro-gold, but these policy preferences have nothing to do with the interest-group politics of my great-grandfather’s era, and anyone would be puzzled if I were to argue as though we were living in the Gilded Age or the Roaring Twenties: “Standard Oil! Monopolies! Temperance! Child labor! Women’s suffrage!”
Why, then, do most people not object when youngsters (Coates was born in 1975, and was not quite 2 years old when Jimmy Carter was elected president) invoke an increasingly remote oppression as if they themselves had endured it, or as if there were a danger of its return?
The politics of nostalgia is the politics of fools.