Part II: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (quite possibly perfect) analysis of racial double standards in 21st-century America
In the previous installment of this blog series, I set out to debunk the dubious claim that, simply by electing our first ever African-American president, America has finally exorcised the demon called Racism. Not hardly, I scoffed, disgorging a superfluity of statistics to support my contention that, while much improvement has been made, America has a LONG way to go in this area. Today, I’ll add one more such statistic, courtesy of Adam Gopnik, writing just over a year ago in The New Yorker:
“More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system — in prison, on probation, or on parole — than were in slavery then.”
Although Mr. Gopnik seems to be merely elaborating on one of the key findings in Michelle Alexander’s celebrated book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the point is well made. Also, it reinforces the basic argument I’ve been offering: that slavery/oppression of black people in America has morphed rather than been eradicated, with several fairly sickening permutations to date (including the post-Civil War decades of Ku Klux Klan terrorism and lynchings, “Separate But Equal” laws, mass-political disenfranchisement, and a “justice” system that does little more than racially profile and gratuitously incarcerate millions of non-whites… with much brutality along the way).
Now here’s the twist: Just when I was putting the final touches on that first blog installment, I discovered an incisive and truly damning essay in The Atlantic that blew me away: “Fear of a Black President.” Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates had compiled a far more sweeping and devastating case against “Post-racial” America than I had managed, with a scholarly tour of U.S. history, rather than a barrage of statistics, leading the way. Coates has simply (very efficiently) recapped an American history of racism and racial double standards at the national-political level: a succinct account of America’s racial-political history that leads up to — and most definitely includes — the presidency (thus far) of Barack Hussein Obama.
I decided on the spot that Mr. Coates’ excellent (quite possibly perfect) September 2012 essay deserved its own spotlight in a future installment on this topic… and here it is (I’ll hit a few key points, using excerpts from Coates’ piece, but I HIGHLY recommend reading the essay in its entirety).
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My response to “FEAR OF A BLACK PRESIDENT” by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
After expounding on certain challenges facing African-Americans in the United States — who have to be “half as black” and “twice as good” (and/or conservative) as their white counterparts in order to gain acceptance in the broader, predominantly white community — Mr. Coates acknowledges the complexity of the “post-racial” question, with respect to the election of Barack Obama:
“Watching Obama rack up victories in states like Virginia, New Mexico, Ohio, and North Carolina on Election Night in 2008, anyone could easily conclude that racism, as a national force, had been defeated. The thought should not be easily dismissed: Obama’s victory demonstrates the incredible distance this country has traveled. (Indeed, William F. Buckley Jr. later revised his early positions on race; Robert Byrd spent decades in Congress atoning for his.) That a country that once took whiteness as the foundation of citizenship would elect a black president is a victory. But to view this victory as racism’s defeat is to forget the precise terms on which it was secured, and to ignore the quaking ground beneath Obama’s feet.”
Indeed, after his election in 2008, the ground was quaking so furiously that Mr. Obama apparently felt that, in order to reassure The Man, he had to immediately surround himself with some of the very worst elements of the thoroughly rotten (and white-male dominated) establishment: from the tainted agents of Wall Street, Tim Geithner, Rahm Emmanuel, and Larry Summers; to the warmongering neocons, Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, Bob Gates, John Brennan, and Hillary Clinton. The effect was an utter negation of one of the most sweeping presidential election results in American history, putting disreputable and discredited Wall Street crooks and the torturing, law-averse neocons firmly in charge of our government – despite Bush/Cheney’s exit from office and an unmistakable repudiation of all they stood for (even Obama’s 2008 opponent, Senator McCain, took great pains to distance himself from Bush’s radicalism, torture, and failed policies). But President Obama’s Cabinet members, generals, and top advisors alternately tag-teamed, “rolled,” and brazenly defied him from the start, corralling him into permanent, global, extralegal war and a $16 trillion, reform-free bailout of the criminals who trashed the world’s economy (and clearly promise to do so again).
Eventually, Coates offers a statistic of his own, one well worth contemplating:
“One in four Americans (and more than half of all Republicans) believe Obama was not born in this country, and thus is an illegitimate president.”
It’s a telling (and deplorable) statistic, eloquent of the reality of irrationally obstinate racism in 21st-century America — and not merely of how politically divided the nation is. As Coates explains: Clinton-bashing in the 1990s, however vehement and unhinged, didn’t go nearly as far in questioning President Clinton’s very legitimacy. And, to be fair, conservatives had, in Bill Clinton, an actual target — a man with significant personal moral and ethical failings (albeit, not when it came to matters of public policy — at least, not from a corporatist-conservative perspective).
[A personal note: Having just returned from a week in Arizona, I can attest to the resiliency of kneejerk Obama-loathing in some American hearts (though this observation should not be construed as applying to all Arizonans, by any means, but merely to a few individuals I encountered). From the least informed to others who were clearly better educated, I heard that Obama was responsible for everything from defunding NASA -- which began in earnest under George W. Bush -- to the rise of fascism in America -- which also began in earnest with Bush (Obama has merely sealed the deal, and with none of the self-aggrandizement of Bush... or Hitler, for that matter -- with whom I heard Obama compared at least twice during my travels).]
Ta-Nehisi Coates explains the tradition of “black self-hectoring” in connection to his point that, in order to succeed in white society, ambitious black men and women must be “half as black” as prominent whites: half as willing to stand up for blacks and call out racism and institutionalized oppression. While lamenting this tradition, Coates admits the shrewdness of the strategy: prominent African-Americans understand that the American establishment has little tolerance for an angry (or even critical) black voice — whether that anger is justified or not (…precisely because it is justified — and defensive white America, especially the ownership class, does NOT want to hear about it: “Those are our forty acre lots and our mules” they insist, “and deals with blacks aren’t worth any more than, say, treaties with Native Americans!”).
Mr. Coates then presents the findings of a study showing that (two years into his first term) President Obama had discussed race less than any Democratic president since 1961, and further observes that this president:
“…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.”
Other prominent examples of this phenomenon that spring to mind are ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, last year’s Republican candidate for president (brief frontrunner and bona fide screwball) Herman Cain, and even comedian Bill Cosby (a funny, likeable, and admirable public personality who drew criticism from some quarters — appropriately, I would say — for disproportionately blaming poor blacks for the social ills prevalent in their community, while sparing the system that routinely cheats and oppresses them).
Coates then recounts the Obama administration’s shameful handling of the Shirley Sherrod “scandal” (another Breitbart frame-up) providing yet another example of how, generally speaking, this president won’t touch RACE with a ten-foot pole, even when innocent African-Americans are being slandered and destroyed. In the case of Ms. Sherrod, as with ACORN, the decades-old social service organization, careers were ENDED (and whole communities injured) by the blatant falsehoods of an unambiguously disreputable and bigoted political hack and miscreant (may he rot in peace).
Coates concludes his damning case with the following observation:
“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.”
Well, there you have it: Ta-Nehisi Coates has perfectly summed up America’s arrested state of development (if not actual regression), when it comes to racial progress. He has made PLAIN our national refusal to come to terms with endemic and widespread racism — and Barack Obama’s presidency has only underlined that reality. READ HIS ESSAY and please feel free to tell me whether or not you find it persuasive.
Next: Part III – A suburban, white “Zonie” reflects on his imperfect and incomplete journey…