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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.