Video: Ta-Nehisi Coates Discusses Fear Of A Black President

Courtesy: The Atlantic.

By Arturo R. García

In “Fear of a Black President,” which appeared this past week in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes on the entirety of President Barack Obama’s approach to racial matters during his tenure. Or, as Coates defines it, his lack of an approach.

Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical: he declines to use his bully pulpit to address racism, using it instead to engage in the time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.

His approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity. It is the approach of L. Douglas Wilder, who, in 1986, not long before he became Virginia’s first black governor, kept his distance from Jesse Jackson and told an NAACP audience: “Yes, dear Brutus, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves … Some blacks don’t particularly care for me to say these things, to speak to values … Somebody’s got to. We’ve been too excusing.” It was even, at times, the approach of Jesse Jackson himself, who railed against “the rising use of drugs, and babies making babies, and violence … cutting away our opportunity.”

At the same time, though, he takes issue with Obama’s remarks following the killing of Trayvon Martin, saying his weighing in with empathy toward the Martin family and recognition that, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon, took the case “out of its national-mourning phase and lapsed into something darker and more familiar—racialized political fodder. The illusion of consensus crumbled.”

As I’m still wading through the piece, I do feel the need to point out that, had Obama not said anything–or offered only encouragement that justice be served–that illusion would have crumbled anyway, from any direction. It’s not like Rush Limbaugh, The Daily Caller, or the conservative hate machine around them were waiting for that particular moment to bring out the torches; they would’ve just changed the vitriol to focus on some supposed callousness on his part.

“Trayvoning,” a meme too disgusting to dignify with a link, didn’t come about because of Obama’s remarks–it happened because there are thousands of people too insensitive and too emboldened by relative anonymity who can’t resist making jackasses of themselves online. No speech could have prevented it. As MacDaffy put it yesterday at The Daily Kos, “President Obama’s blackness does not ‘irradiate everything he touches.’ Racism does.”

Coates subsequently did a video interview with the magazine’s deputy editor, Scott Stossel, about the piece.

Early on, Coates goes over his premise, and Stossel mentions that at the front of the magazine, Atlantic Editor-In-Chief James Bennett calls it “appropriately angry,” which Coates initially disputed.

“I did not think it was that angry when I turned it in,” he explains. “When [Stossel said] that and I went back and read it, I do think it’s okay, as long as it’s not a rant.”

I also wanted to share this video – it’s part of the discussion that took place on Up With Chris Hayes yesterday, where Coates went over the piece with Melissa Harris-Perry, W. Kamau Bell, and Jay Smooth.

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Like I said earlier, there’s a lot in this one I’m still processing as the week kicks off, but I wanted to get your take on both Coates’ argument and the ensuing discussions.

  • http://www.bradezone.com/ Brade

    I didn’t quite know what to make of the article, and it was reassuring to know the author himself had similarly conflicting thoughts (as was shown in the video, where he initially thought it wasn’t an angry piece but later admitted that it was). It was a very winding analysis without much of a strong thesis other than the assertion that Obama’s presidency hasn’t cured racism once and for all. Anyone would readily admit as much, so Coates hasn’t really made a point that is controversial or even intriguing.

    His comparison of Obama to Booker T. Washington is apt, however. Having read “Up From Slavery” this year, I can agree with Coates that Washington sought to take a non-aggressive “higher ground” approach to promoting racial unity. The entire theme of his book was to exhort black people to PROVE to the white establishment that by the unmistakable fruits of their talents, they deserve to be on the same level. Washington knew that this would take time, which is why he placated the segregationists during the period in which he lived. Achieving positions of power by sheer talent rather than brute force or government mandate seems to have been a sensible approach.

    Coates also unfortunately resorts to an all-too-common attack on the Cosby ethos, when he writes, “And yet what are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxt­ables?” I am not black myself, so I have no idea how the black community as a whole feels about a statement like this, but to me it seems disturbing. He seems to harbor a bizarre view of black families who are financially successful and ethically above board, inferring that they are too much like some vaguely held idea of white perfection. His main thrust in this article seems to be that he wishes a black president could be more “angry” at the racial divide, but I would argue that we Americans never tend to elect leaders that come across as angry, no matter their race or gender. (At least this has been the case for the 34 years I’ve been alive.) Yet the fact that Obama has chosen to take Washington’s high road somehow bothers Coates.

    Again, the article is so meandering that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the author really wants to express. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a general frustration that Obama’s presidency hasn’t panned out exactly as he wished. But how many presidents truly exceed expectations? Not many. It is part of the American character to level harsh and consistent criticism against all of our establishments. The reasons for such a character are many: the freedom of speech that we are rightly taught to hold dear from childhood, the inherent diversity of our population, and the general spirit of individuality that has pervaded our nation ever since its defiant beginnings. Critics will continue to flourish in this country, on both sides of the aisle. The few who can successfully deflect that criticism and rise above it demonstrate the type of levelheadedness we demand from our leaders. In this, Barack Obama has succeeded masterfully.

  • Andrew

    I dunno, I thought he was saying that everything Obama does is seen as a black action by his opponents, not that he somehow causes them to be racist. I thought he was critiquing the culture that forces the President to be hands-off on a lot of issues, not the President himself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wranell Mikael Wranell

    Here’s my 2 centimes. It has to be said that the text is magnificently written and that the theme and hypothesis is beautifully expressed. Impressive craftmanship. Kudos. Big kudos. Then I have to declare my perspective. I’m living in Scandinavia and have Ethiopian background. There is definitely nuances in this that I probably don’t get.

    Regarding the Angry-ness
    I didn’t feel or interpret the text as a rant at Obama for not expressing racial issues or concerns enough. To me, as a foreign observer, it clarified the boundaries of race and highlighted the insecurities “white america” have around a black man( or percieved as black man) wielding power. To me it was an extremely well researched and subtly, but powerfully, argued indictment of the idea that race isn’t an issue in modern America

    Appropriately Angry-comment 1
    It seems that any kind of criticism, however subtle or sweet, of Obama is perceived as angry. Election year or because Coates is black? Or maybe even anything not Louis Armstrong-happy is seen as angry?

    Appropriately Angry-comment 2
    Anybody remember Bill Hicks? The “are you in Marketing please kill yourselves”-joke? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDW_Hj2K0wo
    Obviously the Atlantic have recognized that there is a market for what they see as “angry minority-voices”. In the spirit of By any means necessary I find that if the recognition of this “market” is what it takes to get these voices heard rather than their implicit and explicit aritstic, political and societal value I’m… ok with that. Not happy. But ok. The cynicism, and what me and my friends sometimes call suburban-nihilism( a kind of valulessness that comes from assured relative plenty), of the comment signifies actually enrages me and makes me question if we will ever get any true middleclass white allies…The excitement of having an “angry black man” on board also implies a sort of exoticism for white made archetypes that I, when in a good mood, call unintentional bias and when I’ grumpy, racist BS.
    Is that to harsh?

  • http://twitter.com/haiNICKIgurl nicki werner

    I don’t think the author is saying the speech caused attacks on Trayvon’s character, I think he is analyzing the sequence of events. If there is anger in the article, I think it is anger at the facade of progress in race relations and race in the media. I think the first video you posted enforces this point even further, specifically when Coates says he didn’t think Obama should pursue that line of thought at the risk of not pursuing health care reform. I think the piece is less about Obama himself and more about the static state of race politics during the Obama presidentcy, due in part to Obama’s race, and the author’s frustration with the kind of glossing over that must be done because Obama is black (i.e. Shirley Sherod’s case vs. James Crowley’s arrest of the Harvard professor). I think the authors gets to this point best when he says “Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics”. I guess I read the article more as being about “lens through which many Americans view all his politics.”

  • http://twitter.com/haiNICKIgurl nicki werner

    I don’t think the author is saying the speech caused attacks on Trayvon’s character, I think he is analyzing the sequence of events. If there is anger in the article, I think it is anger at the facade of progress in race relations and race in the media. I think the first video you posted enforces this point even further, specifically when Coates says he didn’t think Obama should pursue that line of thought at the risk of not pursuing health care reform. I think the piece is less about Obama himself and more about the static state of race politics during the Obama presidentcy, due in part to Obama’s race, and the author’s frustration with the kind of glossing over that must be done because Obama is black (i.e. Shirley Sherod’s case vs. James Crowley’s arrest of the Harvard professor). I think the authors gets to this point best when he says “Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics”. I guess I read the article more as being about “lens through which many Americans view all his politics.”

  • THarris

    really poignant in a lot of ways but also kinda naive. i can’t really imagine obama ever being in a solid enough position to address racial disparities head on without getting voted out, impeached, or shot up. this is amerika. the first black senator elected during reconstruction faced some of the same stuff. yeah it was a milestone but he had to tread soft as a mofo too. give us a couple more black presidents and i think we can start to handle business :)

  • THarris

    really poignant in a lot of ways but also kinda naive. i can’t really imagine obama ever being in a solid enough position to address racial disparities head on without getting voted out, impeached, or shot up. this is amerika. the first black senator elected during reconstruction faced some of the same stuff. yeah it was a milestone but he had to tread soft as a mofo too. give us a couple more black presidents and i think we can start to handle business :)

  • jimmy classington

    as usual for The Atlantic, nothing about class.

  • jimmy classington

    as usual for The Atlantic, nothing about class.

  • miga

    Can anyone explain to me what Trayvoning is? I don’t want to drive up its google hits.

  • miga

    Can anyone explain to me what Trayvoning is? I don’t want to drive up its google hits.

    • Anonymous

      Basically, “impersonating” a dead body, often with a bag of Skittles in the shot.

    • Anonymous

      Basically, “impersonating” a dead body, often with a bag of Skittles in the shot.