Who Ya Callin’ Racist?

March 1, 2019

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Among Michael Cohen’s many accusations against President Trump at Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing was an accusation of racism. He based this on Trump’s longstanding pattern of racist remarks, such as his claim that African Americans don’t vote for him because they’re “too stupid.” We have heard similar remarks in public. During the 2016 election campaign, House Speaker Paul Ryan called it a “textbook definition of a racist comment” when Trump said he couldn’t get a fair hearing in a civil case because the judge was of Mexican descent.

We already knew, of course, that Trump took the lead in spreading the unfounded rumor that Barack Obama was an illegitimate president born outside the United States. Most Americans have no difficulty seeing birtherism as a racially motivated campaign. Trump’s refusal to criticize white supremacist groups demonstrating in Charlottesville was another red flag, since passive acceptance of other people’s racism is part of the problem.

At the hearing, Republicans asked few questions and made little attempt to defend Trump on most of the charges, such as paying hush money and lying about it, or pursuing a huge real estate deal in Russia during the campaign and lying about it. The Republicans found themselves in the position of arguing that Cohen couldn’t be believed because of past lies, while supporting a president who told many of the same lies.

One Republican, however, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, took it upon himself to defend the president against the charge of racism. Trump cannot be a racist, you see, because here we have Lynne Patton, Trump’s African-American employee and family friend, who would never work for a racist. This prompted Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib to say that the “fact that someone would actually use a prop, a black woman, in this chamber, in this committee, is alone racist in itself.” This in turn produced an outraged reaction from Congressman Meadows, who demanded that Tlaib’s comments be stricken from the record.

Critics of racism do have a dilemma when confronting what they see as racist behavior, as well as feeble, clueless defenses of that behavior. It is part of the more general dilemma we face when reacting to bad behavior of any kind. We want to be judicious and open-minded in our response, leaving open the possibility that a particular act does not fully define a person. Faced with a thoughtlessly selfish act on the part of a child, a wise parent prefers to convey the message “You’re better than that” instead of “You’re an awful person.” Ironically, the entire debate over Cohen’s testimony depended on whether Cohen was rising above his former self or continuing a pattern of bad behavior. It was the Republicans who refused to give Cohen the benefit of any doubt, while expecting African Americans to give whites accused of racism the benefit of every doubt.

And so instead of an honest discussion of particular behaviors, we get exchanges of moral outrage: “Who ya callin’ a racist?” vs. “Why are you acting like one?” Meadows insisted that “there is not a racial bone in my body,” but the media quickly discovered that he too had called for voters to “send Barack Obama back to Kenya or wherever he’s from.” I hope he is better than that, but that doesn’t excuse his racial insensitivity when he displays it.

I’m glad that Mark Meadows and Rashida Tlaib hugged and made up yesterday. Wouldn’t it be even better if they–or any of us–could have a honest discussion of the attitudes and behaviors that have kept minorities and women in their place? And in the context of congressional oversight, can’t we have an honest examination of the president’s attitudes and behaviors toward people of color, unencumbered by outraged reactions against any accusation of racism?



Strangers in Their Own Land (part 2)

June 19, 2018

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The deep story

Arlie Hochschild defines a deep story as a “feels-as-if-story…the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tell us how things feel.” She tries to grasp the deep story Tea Party conservatives tell themselves and others that explains many of the political positions they take, some of which seem to work against their own economic self-interest.

Hochschild conveys the deep story using the metaphor of a long line leading up a hill. “Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.” If you work hard and live your life responsibly, you should expect to move forward.

You’ve suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. You have shown moral character through trial by fire, and the American Dream of prosperity and security is a reward for all of this, showing who you have been and are—a badge of honor.

But something has gone wrong in recent decades. While the very front of the line continues to progress, the line has bogged down for the great majority. That’s because gains in income have gone primarily to the richest tenth of the population. (Actually, she could have said the richest 1% or less.) There is still some individual movement forward or backward, of course. But without general advancement for the line as a whole, someone’s movement forward must be offset by someone else’s movement backward. That intensifies competition and puts the aspirations of different groups in conflict.

The people in the back of the line certainly aspire to move up, and liberals say that they deserve to, since most of them were born with fewer advantages than those farther ahead, and many have been unfairly held back for one reason or another. (In a fair race, of course, everyone is supposed to begin at the same starting line and run unimpeded.) On the other hand, people in the middle of the line can make a case for at least keeping the position they have, a position that reflects their hard-earned achievements. They may see the line more as a checkout line, where no one should cut in front of you.

In this context, people can have a strong emotional reaction to government assistance to those in the back of the line. Whether your reaction is sympathetic or resentful depends on whether you are willing to acknowledge the folks back there as underprivileged and disadvantaged, or if you prefer to defend your own position by seeing them as less deserving than you are. In the latter case, you see government assistance not so much remedying an injustice as creating one. As Hochschild’s Tea Partyers saw it, “The free market was the unwavering ally of the good citizens waiting in line for the American Dream. The federal government was on the side of those unjustly ‘cutting in.'”

Race and Southern conservatism

In theory, such attitudes toward economic inequality and the role of government can exist even if all the people in line are the same race. Add America’s sad racial history to the mix, and the emotional stakes get even higher. Hochschild considers race an essential part of the deep story, although her subjects were reluctant to discuss it.

The American South has always been known for its extremes of wealth and poverty, including considerable white poverty.

Compared to life in New England farming villages, there was much more wealth to envy above, and far more misery to gasp at below. Such a system suggested its own metaphoric line waiting for the American Dream—one with little room for the lucky ahead, and much room for the forgotten behind.

Lower-income Southern whites have always been stuck in the middle, having only limited opportunities to move up, but determined to defend their place against the aspirations of the large populations of black people behind them.

Here I would like to add that the voting history of Southern whites shows that they have not always been so hostile to Big Government. Louisiana supported every Democratic presidential candidate from Roosevelt to Kennedy (1932-1960), except when they supported the States Rights Democrat Strom Thurmond in 1948. Only after the national Democratic Party supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did Southern whites turn Republican in large numbers. Now they vote very Republican in national races–Trump won by a 20% margin in Louisiana–although Democrat John Bel Edwards did win the governor’s race in a runoff election in 2016. As part of the Roosevelt coalition, Southern whites had little objection to New Deal programs like the WPA and GI Bill that benefited mostly whites, but they are more critical of anti-poverty programs like Medicaid and Food Stamps that go disproportionately to people of color. In fact-checking her subjects’ opinions, Hochschild found that they tended to exaggerate how much of the federal budget went to safety-net programs, how many people of working age were living on “welfare” instead of working, and what proportion of the poor were getting TANF (today’s main family assistance program), a proportion which was quite low in Louisiana.

Hochschild does not specifically accuse her subjects of racism, settling for the more general statement that “many Americans, north and south, are racist.” What we can say is that Tea Party conservatives oppose government programs designed to help the most disadvantaged Americans; that people of color rely more on such programs because of the legacy of discrimination; and that Southern whites are especially drawn to Tea Party conservatism. Put all that together and it strongly suggests that racial divisions reinforce the status anxieties and resentments of white people in the winner-take-all economy.

To the extent that Southern conservatism is racist, it is rarely the explicit segregationism of Strom Thurmond or the Ku Klux Klan. Hochschild’s subjects didn’t want to talk about black people very much at all, at least in her presence. But they did want to talk about the freeloaders and line-cutters, the people who want to get ahead of them without deserving to. It is hard for such complaints to avoid implicit reference to the people of color who are still at the back of the line, people who have long been demeaned by stereotypes of laziness and irresponsibility.

Many Southern whites are not very far from the back of the line themselves. Yet they have strong motives to distance themselves from the most needy and disdain government dependency, although they do use programs for which they qualify. That emotional distancing helps explain why they “identify up,” voting with the white rich even when the latter are enriching themselves at the expense of the majority. It also explains why they oppose Obamacare, even though it makes health insurance more affordable for millions who are not poor. They did not succeed in stopping the expansion of Medicaid in Louisiana, once it was championed by the new Democratic governor. A recent LSU study concluded that the additional $1.8 billion in federal spending on health care created thousands of jobs and had a $3.5 billion economic impact on the state. In general, poor red states like Louisiana receive more federal dollars than their residents pay in taxes.

Cultural marginalization

In addition to feeling both economically challenged and threatened by less deserving competitors, Tea Party supporters also feel that their cultural norms and values are under attack. Since the 1960s and 70s, the mainstream culture has been moving away from them in several respects.

The government no longer endorses and enforces Christian norms as much as it used to. Gone are official prayers in public schools, laws against contraception and abortion, strict divorce laws, and anti-sodomy statutes. This too has alienated Christian conservatives from their government.

In Lake Charles, religious teachings “focus more on a person’s moral strength to endure than on the will to change the circumstances that called on that strength.” This conservative brand of religion helps explain why even people who personally experience environmental disasters look to God for answers instead of to government. That puts them at odds with most of the environmental movement, although some evangelicals are starting to see good stewardship of the earth as part of their religious obligations.

When women joined the “long parade of the underprivileged” to call for equal rights, it was experienced by many conservative men as another threat to their precarious economic position. It was experienced by many conservative women as a disparagement and rejection of their traditional, and perhaps God-given, role as homemakers. Family variations that liberals see as liberation from a “one-size-fits-all” family system strike conservatives as the “breakdown of the family.”

The 1960s also saw immigration reforms that ended the quotas favoring Europeans, opening the country to more Asians, Africans and Latin Americans. Whereas establishment conservatives have often welcomed the cheap labor, Tea Party conservatives more often see the new immigrants as unwelcome competitors for jobs and as carriers of alien cultures.

All this puts white Christians on the defensive, especially the Southern, white, Christian males who are the primary supporters of right-wing conservatism. The two main political parties used to disagree mainly over economic policy. Since the cultural revolution of the 1960s, they have come to disagree over deeply emotional cultural issues as well.

Political propaganda

Hochschild says that the deep story her subjects tell is “also the Fox News deep story.” She describes a man who supported environmental causes, but also put up lawn signs for a candidate who wanted to cut the EPA. One reason was that “his source of news was limited to Fox News and videos and blogs exchanged by right-wing friends, which placed him in an echo chamber of doubts about the EPA, the federal government, the president, and taxes.”

Right-wing messages appeal to people for many different reasons:

You may assume that powerful right-wing organizers—pursuing their financial interests—“hook” right-wing grassroots adherents by appealing to the bad angels of their nature—their greed, selfishness, racial intolerance, homophobia, and desire to get out of paying taxes that go to the unfortunate. As I saw at the Trump rally in New Orleans, some of that appeal goes on. But that appeal obscures another—to the right wing’s good angels—their patience in waiting in line in scary economic times, their capacity for loyalty, sacrifice, and endurance—qualities of the deep story self.

If we can cross the “empathy divide” and relate to conservatives as human beings, we can avoid dismissing them as stupid or evil. They are standing up for what they deeply believe to be right, even if they create or perpetuate problems for other people by doing so.

Having said that, I still worry that political propaganda may be threatening our democratic institutions, as indicated by the success of Fox News and the election of a master propagandist as president. Much of the blame for that goes to the abundance of dark money in politics and the fragmentation of media by cable TV and the internet. Our society makes it awfully easy to promote extremism. But I also suspect that the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s, much of which I support, ushered in an era of unusual emotionalism in our politics, making people much too susceptible to emotional appeals unsupported by rational, fact-based arguments. Something is lost if deep stories do indeed remove judgment and fact. Hochschild’s sociology of emotions may reflect the times as well as illuminate them. In a previous post, I expressed some concerns about the extraordinary weight Jonathan Haidt gives to intuitions in The Righteous MindI don’t doubt that people vote their deep feelings, but I think that educators and other responsible leaders should be encouraging people to examine their feelings, not just catering to them.

My next post will deal with Hochschild’s take on the rise of Donald Trump and possible liberal responses to far-right conservatism.



We Were Eight Years in Power (part 3)

March 24, 2018

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In his final chapter, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on Donald Trump’s election, a tragic turn of events from his point of view.

Race trumped class

Many commentators on the Trump election prefer to explain it more by class than by race. Focusing on Trump’s slim but crucial victories in industrial states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, they tell a story of working-class voters threatened by trends like globalization, loss of manufacturing jobs, and the declining share of national income going to labor. Although there is some truth to this interpretation, Coates has some good reasons to be skeptical.

As I pointed out in my post “Why Trump Won” shortly after the election, Trump won Michigan by less than one percentage point, but he won Alabama by 28 points. This is no surprise to Coates, who finds that race and racial attitudes were better predictors of voting than economic class. Although enough Obama voters switched their allegiance to Trump to swing the election, the bulk of the Trump voters were the same whites who never supported Obama in the first place.

There are plenty of working-class people in all racial groups, and “deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality…have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people.” Yet it was primarily whites who went for Trump, by a 20-point margin according to the exit polls. Clinton won blacks by an 81-point margin, and she won both Latinos and Asians by 38 points.

One study found that “the most predictive question for understanding whether a voter favored Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was ‘Is Barack Obama a Muslim?'” This is not really surprising considering that Trump achieved political notoriety as a “birther” suggesting that Obama’s African birth disqualified him to be president. “Trump truly is something new,” Coates says,”–the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.” Trump’s election was impossible without eight years of white fear and resistance directed against Obama despite his moderation and careful racial neutrality.

Considering all the talk about the Trump campaign as a populist working-class movement, readers may be surprised to learn that on the average, Trump voters had incomes a little higher, on the average, than Clinton voters. And why shouldn’t they? Trump voters were predominantly white men, who are still the highest earning group in the country.

In order to predict how someone voted, the first thing I would want to know is their racial identification. The second thing I would want to know is how threatened they feel by the ascendancy of minorities and women. (I would also want to know if they are evangelical Christians threatened by the secularization of public policies on issues such as abortion and gay rights.) Only then would I turn to economic status for an explanation.

The politics of racial identity

Our ability to see race as an issue is affected by white racial dominance itself. If white is the norm and black the exception, then blackness is what is noticed. Problems concentrated in black areas, like a crack epidemic, are black problems, while problems concentrated in white areas, like opiate addiction, are just problems. The second type gets a lot more sympathy than the first.

Although many commentators have criticized “identity politics” for polarizing the country, they apply the term more readily to black identity than white identity. If a black female voter votes for Clinton, they can easily see her as voting her race or gender identity, and they can readily blame Democrats for playing “identity politics.” If a white male votes for Trump, they say he is voting his working-class interests. So Trump is the working-class champion, while Clinton must be the elitist out of touch with “real people.” Never mind that Clinton did better among voters who saw the economy as the most important issue, as well as voters who were most interested in having a president who “cares about me.” And never mind that she won the popular vote, which Democratic candidates have now done in six out of the last seven elections. If Trump voters were real people, what were Clinton voters, aliens? Trump’s suggestion that he lost the popular vote because of fraudulent votes from illegal aliens goes exactly in that direction.

Identity politics is alive and well in both parties. Accusing the other party of narrowly appealing to blacks and women is an effective way of making one’s own narrow appeal to white men. And vice versa.

But class mattered too

Coates emphasizes that Trump was elected by a broad coalition of white voters–men and women, young and old, with and without college degrees. But his own numbers show that Trump won white college graduates by only 3 points, while winning white non-graduates by 37 points. No doubt economic issues played a role in that result, since people without college degrees are faring especially poorly in the new economy.

However, we cannot be sure that even people who are in the working class actually voted on the basis of their class interests. They could still be voting more as whites clinging to white privilege, as men with disparaging attitudes towards women, or as evangelical Christians hostile to gay rights. All of these tendencies are more common in the less educated white population, and especially in the less educated white Southern population. They may even be voting against their true class interests, if voting conservative on race, gender or religious grounds plays into the hands of economic elites pursuing their own agenda.

When less educated workers do vote their economic interests and insecurities, they may be drawn to an ugly, zero-sum, “beggar thy neighbor” kind of economics. The aim is to protect one group’s jobs at the expense of some other group, such as immigrants or foreigners or even U.S. citizens in other industries. Tariffs on steel may help U.S. steelworkers but hurt not only foreign steelworkers but workers in other domestic industries affected by higher steel prices.

Trump’s populist appeal continues a long tradition of appeals that do not so much help workers as a class as keep them fighting among themselves for meager benefits, while the interests of the wealthy are fully served. That’s a pretty good description of Trump’s fiscal policy, which cuts taxes primarily for the few while hurting programs beneficial for the many.

How to respond?

The fact that race and class are so entangled in our politics makes Coates’s emphasis on race both illuminating and limiting. How much to focus on race in our political discussions remains a delicate issue.

When Obama was interviewed by Coates, he said, “I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race.” He understood that calling his white opponents racists would only harden opposition to his policy agenda. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton couldn’t resist calling Trump supporters racists, sexists and xenophobes–deplorables, in short–and that didn’t help her cause either.

I would like to see politicians promote their policies with positive appeals to egalitarian values and the general economic good. For progressives, that includes sharpening their economic message to persuade people that progressive taxation to support investments in education, infrastructure and universal health insurance is better than more trickle-down economics. To those who say the country cannot afford these things, progressives should challenge them to explain how we can afford still more tax cuts, extravagant military expenditures and deficits.

As an educator, I realized that I had to gently lead my students to raise their consciousness about race and gender, so they could gradually acknowledge and transcend their own prejudices. I would like to think that a good political leader would also be partly such an educator. We must call out political operatives who manipulate prejudices for their own advantage, but we must also have some faith in the majority of Americans to achieve greater racial understanding. Coates admits that his own experience–and his experience of the Obama years in particular–has caused him to lose that faith. I understand his pessimism, but I cannot endorse it.



We Were Eight Years in Power (part 2)

March 22, 2018

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My favorite essay from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s collection is “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” which he wrote in the seventh year of the Obama presidency. Here Coates insightfully connects two social developments–a policy debate over black families that started in the mid-1960s, and a dramatic increase in incarceration that started in the mid-1970s. He says he was excited about this story because “I believed that ‘family’ had been ceded to moral scolds who cared more about shaming people than actually helping families.”

Redefining the problem

Coates begins his story with the failure of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s liberal vision for black family progress. Moynihan, who worked in both the Johnson and Nixon administrations before becoming a US Senator, wanted to go beyond civil rights legislation to help undo the damage to families resulting from centuries of racism and discrimination. In his own words, “Family as an issue raised the possibility of enlisting the support of conservative groups for quite radical social programs,” such as a guaranteed minimum income for every family. That turned out to be overly optimistic.

The so-called “Moynihan Report,” whose real title was “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” was originally intended for internal government discussion, but soon became public. Moynihan described the problem not just as poverty and discrimination, but as the “matriarchal” family structure that resulted from a shortage of successful male breadwinners. For him, achieving “family stability” was as important as achieving economic justice.

For conservatives, however, the report served as a golden opportunity to shift the blame for the plight of black families from racism and discrimination to their own family behaviors, such as bearing children outside of marriage. It didn’t help, I would add, that Moynihan had overstated the case by exaggerating the stability of white families, just at a time when the sexual and gender revolutions were starting to challenge conventional norms there too. Moynihan was surprised when civil rights advocates accused him of racism for contributing to a pejorative stereotype of black families.

As for the guaranteed minimum income idea, President Nixon proposed a modest one in his Family Assistance Plan, but it failed to pass Congress. Coates does not mention what I have read elsewhere, that Moynihan eventually soured on his own proposal when a pilot study found a higher rate of marital breakup for recipients of a guaranteed income than in a control group of non-recipients. Moynihan, whose own childhood Coates describes as “a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood,” saw family stability as the key indicator of policy success. He was not prepared for the possibility that some individuals would take the opportunity provided by a guaranteed income to leave unsatisfying relationships.

Black vilification, then and now

The critique of black family “pathology” became part of a long history of black vilification. Earlier in the book, Coates defines black enslavement as a twofold problem:

First there is the actual enslavement and all that has followed from it, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. But then there was the manufactured story that was told to ennoble and sanctify that enslavement.

Racial domination has always been accompanied by stories that serve to explain and justify it. The common theme in these stories is that something is wrong with the oppressed people themselves, rendering them unfit for independence and equality.

Based on my teaching experience, I would add that these stories have changed in some important ways over the years. Almost never did I hear from my white students an explicit assertion of African racial inferiority. On the contrary, they much preferred a story of equal opportunity but individual failure. Now that anti-discrimination laws have been passed and racism is on the decline, the story goes, doors that were closed are now open. The corollary is that people who still don’t get through those doors have less reason to blame white society and more reason to blame themselves. The family and personal problems that Moynihan saw as effects of racial inequality can be interpreted as causes of inequality. Black people would be successful if they would just live right, not dropping out of school, getting in trouble with the law, or having children they aren’t ready to support. What is strongly implied if not explicitly stated is that there must be something wrong with these people after all. The critique of black family instability by Mohnihan and others helped reinforce those attitudes.

The Republican philosophy of limited government is not in itself racist. But its surge in popularity among whites during the Nixon and Reagan presidencies is at the very least somewhat suspicious. After the Democrats embraced civil rights and the War on Poverty, whites turned Republican by the millions, turning what had been the Democratic “Solid South” into the essential core of the Republican base. Coates quotes Nixon’s domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman as later admitting that “subliminal appeal to the antiblack voter was always in Nixon’s statements and speeches….” At the same time, public policy turned away from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.

Mass incarceration

Coates says, “One does not build a safety net for a race of predators. One builds a cage.” Stories of black inferiority and failure have always implied a need for strong social control, but the forms of control have varied. In the early twentieth century:

…Jim Crow applied the control in the South. Mass incarceration did it in the North. After the civil rights movement triumphed in the 1960s and toppled Jim Crow laws, the South adopted the tactics of the North, and its rates of imprisonment surged far past the North’s.

Since 1970, the number of people in prisons and jails increased seven-fold, from about 300,000 to 2.2 million. (Adjusted for population growth, that was still a five-fold increase.) The United States leads the world in incarceration rate, with Putin’s Russia a distant second. “The United States now accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s inhabitants–and about 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants.” For males age 20-40, the black incarceration rate is ten times the white rate.

The rising incarceration rate is partly a response to an increase in crime that occurred after 1970. To see it as only that, however, overlooks some other considerations:

  • After the 1980s, rates of violent crime fell but rates of incarceration continued to rise.
  • Other countries also experienced a rise and fall in crime rates, but came through it without such a large increase in incarceration.
  • Who we imprison depends on what we choose to criminalize and where we choose to look for offenders. “Surveys have concluded that blacks and whites use drugs at roughly the same rates,” but arrests for drug possession are much higher for blacks.
  • A large proportion of the imprisoned are mentally ill, functionally illiterate, addicted and/or impoverished, suggesting that the U.S. relies on imprisonment to address social problems that would better be handled in the community.
  • Imprisonment has additional economic functions such as providing jobs for whites in rurally-located correctional institutions, and disguising our black unemployment problem. People in prison aren’t counted as unemployed because they’re not in the labor force.

Coates’s main point is that resources that could have been used to uplift and integrate black people were used instead to stigmatize and exclude them.

Criminal justice reform

Shrinking the prison population will require a lot more than just shorter sentences or earlier parole. We will need to think about what we define as crime, how else we might address social problems of mental illness, under-education, drug abuse and poverty; and how to reduce racial bias in arrests, prosecutions and sentencing.

Coates also points out that a smaller correctional system is not necessarily a fairer one. Among states, Minnesota has one of the lowest rates of incarceration, but one of the highest disparities between black and white incarceration. He ends by saying that we cannot pretend “that one can extract the thread of mass incarceration from the larger tapestry of racist American policy.”


We Were Eight Years in Power

March 20, 2018

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Ta-Nehisi Coates. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: New World Publishing, 2017.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of essays published by Coates over the course of the Obama presidency. Coates introduces each essay with a “notes” section written for this book. This format requires the reader to work a little to understand the author’s current thinking. Sometimes Coates uses his introductory remarks to express doubts about what he has previously written, especially in the earliest essays.

Changing views of the Obama presidency

One of the areas in which Coates’s views have evolved is the nature and significance of the Obama presidency. At first, he expresses some optimism that Barack and Michelle can rise above the racial divide and help bring about a post-racial society. Looking back on that phase now, he says, “In those days I imagined racism as a tumor that could be isolated and removed from the body of America, not as a pervasive system both native and essential to that body. From that perspective, it seemed possible that the success of one man really could alter history, or even end it.”

In his essay on Michelle Obama, “American Girl,” he describes her story less as a distinctively black story than as part of a common American story. She is not a victim of poverty, but a product of a “proto-middle-class group of blacks who held the community together.” She can remember her South Side Chicago neighborhood with pride and nostalgia, just as other ethnic groups can remember neighborhoods they may have left behind in their moves to the suburbs. “If you see black identity as you see southern identity, or Irish identity, or Italian identity–not as a separate trunk, but as a branch of the American tree, with roots in the broader experience–then you understand that the particulars of black culture are inseparable from the particulars of the country.”

Writing a year later, however, Coates is starting to the see the Obama presidency as part of a familiar cycle of “transracial spirit” followed by “retrenchment.” By then he has read works like Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, which have led him to believe that white freedom, equality and wealth have long rested on a foundation of black oppression, an arrangement highly resistant to change. By the fourth year, he says that “the full dimensions of a tragedy were starting to come into view for me, with the movement to cast Barack Obama as alien as its first act.” This leads him to a renewed interest in Malcolm X’s critique of American society and his advocacy for black consciousness and black pride.  When Coates writes “The Legacy of Malcolm X: Why His Vision Lives on in Barack Obama,” he is struggling to reconcile Malcolm’s radicalism with Obama’s more cautious efforts at change, but in retrospect he admits that the “Obama-Malcolm parallel” in that essay is “strained.”

In “Fear of a Black President,” written in the fifth year, Coates’s disappointment in the Obama presidency is on full display.  Now he writes that “Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical.” He has been forced into moderation by 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.” When he reveals any identification with black people, as when he expresses sympathy for shooting victim Trayvon Martin, the issue becomes politicized and more whites take the opposing position. That “prevents Obama from directly addressing America’s racial history, or saying anything meaningful about present issues tinged by race, such as mass incarceration or the drug war.”

After interviewing Obama for “My President Was Black,” written in the eighth year, Coates seems to have lowered his expectations enough to admire Obama for how he has handled his job. “For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell. Nothing in that time suggested that straight talk on the facts of racism in American life would have given him surer footing.” At this point he is more accepting of what Obama has done, but still has no illusions about how much real change has occurred. “I don’t ever want to forget, even with whatever personal victories I achieve, even in the victories we achieve as a people or a nation, that the larger story of America and the world probably does not end well. Our story is a tragedy.” Coates describes himself as being resigned and at peace, accepting that “resistance must be its own reward,” whether it accomplishes social equality or not.

A tragic view

Coates is serious when he subtitles his book “An American Tragedy.” By his own admission, he can accept a rather bleak racial outlook with some resignation because “I am an atheist and thus do not believe anything, even a strongly held belief, is destiny.”

Coates thus explicitly rejects Martin Luther King’s assertion–paraphrased from the nineteenth-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker–that “the arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.” For Coates, there is no reason to expect progress, nothing to have faith in. “There would be no happy endings, and if there were, they would spring from chance, not from any preordained logic of human morality.”

This is significant because it places Coates outside of a long tradition of black optimism, often expressed in religious language. In the words of the “Black National Anthem” (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”): “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us/Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.” Or as King said, “We as a people will get to the promised land.”

A focus on race

Coates’s relentless focus on race in telling the American story is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because it informs the reader by delving deeply into racial history. In “The Case for Reparations,” which Coates regards as the best essay in the collection, he documents the long history of discrimination that has kept black families in inferior housing and prevented them from accumulating wealth in real estate. They have been victimized by questionable tax claims and land seizures in the South, restrictive covenants forbidding sales to non-whites (my parents’ house had one), redlining of black neighborhoods for mortgage and insurance purposes, contract sales in which buyers accumulated no equity, discrimination in home loans (even for veterans under the GI Bill), as well as outright violence and intimidation.  Most recently, black loan applicants have been targeted for predatory loans with extremely risky terms, leading to disproportionate losses in the foreclosure crisis.

The effects of deprivation accumulate from generation to generation like compound interest, something that whites forget when they wonder why anti-discrimination laws haven’t led to instant black progress. Income disparities accumulate into larger disparities in net worth, so that black families have much less to fall back on in times of financial distress. Because of continuing patterns of segregation, “black families making $100,000 typically live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000.” That’s a sobering thought for anyone who has wanted to move into a better neighborhood for the sake of their children.

Once he appreciates the extent of the damage from racial segregation, Coates takes a dimmer view of black neighborhoods like the one Michelle Obama grew up in:

It is common today to become misty-eyed about the old black ghetto, where doctors and lawyers lived next door to meatpackers and steelworkers, who themselves lived next door to prostitutes and the unemployed. This segregationist nostalgia ignores the actual conditions endured by the people living there—vermin and arson, for instance—and ignores the fact that the old ghetto was premised on denying black people privileges enjoyed by white Americans.

Coates would like to see some form of reparations to compensate for the economic damage done to black people. He is open to different forms it might take, including Charles Ogletree’s proposal for “a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races.”

Obviously any program that sounds specifically race-based will face significant white opposition, at least until white America faces up to the magnitude of the harm it has done. But even those who are skeptical about reparations can benefit from the information Coates provides in making his case.

A blind spot on class

On the other hand, the strong focus on race leads Coates to downplay the class factor in the American story. The point is not just that variables like class–and gender and religion too–are important in their own right. It is that they intersect with race to add new dimensions to the race story itself.

Because he draws the line so sharply between black and white, Coates tends to lump all whites together as beneficiaries of racism. The story he wants to tell, based on Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, is a story of “rights gradually awarded to the mass of European poor and oppressed, at precisely the same time they were being stripped from enslaved Africans and their descendants.” These two developments are integrally related. “Enslavement provided…the foundation of white social equality.”

Ironically, the idea that whites are equal in their superiority is exactly what Confederate leaders liked to claim, as Nancy Isenberg discusses in White Trash. Jefferson Davis said that “white men have an equality resulting from the presence of a lower caste,” and John C. Calhoun said that all whites, “the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” But is that fact, or part of racist ideology?

The alternative, advanced by critics of the South from Ulysses Grant to Lyndon Johnson, is that poor whites have been victims too, of a system that held down the cost of labor and set one part of the working class against the other. Whites who are low on education and income are especially interested in being respected as whites–and maybe as men and as Christians too. But that may lead them to vote their social identity instead of their class interest. What they don’t get for their support of the white establishment is collective bargaining rights or greater investment in public education. In this view, racism plays into the hands of economic elites by dividing and weakening the working class.

Coates is skeptical of race-neutral programs, since they may help both blacks and whites without necessarily closing the gap between the two groups. The counter-argument is that any program aimed at the disadvantaged should help black people disproportionately, since they are disproportionately disadvantaged! The expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare is a much simpler and politically feasible way of helping minorities than reparations.

Finally, the exclusive focus on race may be largely responsible for Coates’s pessimism. By seeing the problem just as a conflict between a black minority and a white majority, he paints himself and his people into a corner, unable to make common cause with other oppressed peoples. Cornell West goes so far as to accuse Coates of inadvertently serving the global elites by marketing fatalism.

Although I recommend this book for its racial insights and historical information, I prefer the vision of William J. Barber’s The Third Reconstruction. He calls for a “fusion coalition” uniting people with many different social justice concerns across racial and other lines.