Obama’s Racial Counter-Revolution and the Disappointment of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0


What’s the deal with the liberal Black novelist, political commentator, and occasional Barack Obama courtier Ta-Nahesi Coates? Look at this passage from an interview he did three weeks ago, with the white Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) member and “Public” Broadcasting System “NewsHour” host Judy Woodruff:

Judy Woodruff, CFR and PBS:One of the things you write [in The Atlantic – P.S.]  is that — it has to do with the election of Donald Trump being the price that has to be paid for having Barack Obama as president. What did you mean by that?”

Ta-Nahesi Coates, The Atlantic: “Well, I meant that if having an African-American president was as revolutionary as we claim it was, that there’d probably be some sort of backlash or some sort of counter…a great deal of Barack Obama’s power is symbolic and is in the symbolism in what it communicates to African-Americans. … [the existence of a Black president] communicated great… power to African-Americans…. But that also communicate[d] things to other people also, who may not necessarily be so happy about that kind of progress, you know, who have all sorts of feelings wrapped up in that, and so I think a lot of that culminated in the election of president-elect [Trump].”

“Revolutionary?” I wonder if Coates caught the New York Times’ memorable report on widespread Black non-voting in Milwaukee (the most populous state in the contested state of Wisconsin) during the 2016 election. By the account of Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise after a visit to the heavily segregated city of Milwaukee’s Black North Side:

“At Upper Cutz, a bustling barbershop in a green-trimmed wooden house, talk of politics inevitably comes back to one man: Barack Obama. Mr. Obama’s elections infused many here with a feeling of connection to national politics they had never before experienced. But their lives have not gotten appreciably better, and sourness has set in.”

“‘We went to the beach,’ said Maanaan Sabir, 38, owner of the Juice Kitchen, a brightly painted shop a few blocks down West North Avenue, using a metaphor to describe the emotion after Mr. Obama’s election. ‘And then eight years happened.’”

“All four barbers had voted for Mr. Obama. But only two could muster the enthusiasm to vote this time. And even then, it was a sort of protest. One wrote in Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The other wrote in himself.”

“ ‘I’m so numb,’ said John Toney, 45, who had written in Mr. Sanders. He said no president in his lifetime had done anything to improve the lives of black people, including Mr. Obama, whom he voted for twice. ‘It’s like I should have known this would happen. We’re worse off than before.’”

“Mr. Fleming, 47, who has been trimming hair, beards and mustaches for 30 years, had hoped his small business would get easier to run. But it hasn’t… ‘Give us loans, or a 401(k),’ he said,…His biggest issue was health insurance. Mr. Fleming lost his coverage after his divorce three years ago and has struggled to find a policy he could afford. He finally found one, which starts Monday but costs too much at $300 a month. ‘Ain’t none of this been working,’ he said. He did not vote.” (emphasis added)

There’s a real and nationwide material-economic basis for such complaints. By the fifth year of Obama’s presidency, U.S. Black households’ net worth had fallen to one-thirteenth of the wealth of U.S. white households at the median. This helped generate a sense of futility about voting among Black citizens – a sense that contributed significantly to Mrs. Clinton’s failure to re-create the electoral coalition that elected Obama in 2008 and 2012. Talk about voter suppression!

The smart reparations advocate Coates knows all this, of course.  He’s not stupid. He persists nonetheless in seeing Obama’s presidency as racially “revolutionary” because of its symbolic significance.

A Last Nail in the Coffin of White Willingness to Acknowledge Racism

The “symbolic” victory was a double-edged sword with counter-revolutionary implications more perverse and subtle than just the provocation of angry white Trumpian backlash. “For many white Americans,” the Black economist William Darrity, Jr, has noted, Obama’s “elections confirmed their belief that American racism is a thing of the past.” This is something that I was worried about from the onset of Obama’s emergence as likely (more om that below) next president.

I had, to be sure, many concerns, about the Obama phenomenon, which dates from the future president’s remarkably right-wing and nationalistic Keynote Address to the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2004  Like other left writers and activists, I was troubled by his “vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics” (Adolph Reed Jr. on Obama in January of 1996), his related CFR-informed imperialism (hidden beneath his carefully crafted “antiwar” branding), and his underlying post-racial accommodations of white racism (more on that below). I was also uneasy about the great renewed opportunity an Obama presidency would give white America to congratulate itself yet again on its supposed transcendence of racism and to argue that racism no longer posed serious obstacles to Black advancement and Black equality. Related to that, I was concerned that Obama’s ascendancy to the White House would reinforce the nation’s prevalent superficial understanding of racism as being all about subjective personal prejudice and outward bigotry instead of being more fundamentally about how the nation’s dominant daily institutions – the labor market, the credit system, the housing market, the criminal justice system, the schools, and more – function to perpetuate Black disadvantage and inequality. I worried that Obama’s symbolically “revolutionary” election would help cloak societal and institutional racism, deeply understood, rendering it even more invisible than before.

Those fears have been born out. Again, and again during the Obama years, I have heard whites articulate sentiments pretty much exactly along the lines I had worried about during the Age of Obama.  “See? Don’t talk to us about racism anymore.  The president is Black for crying out loud!”  For much of white America, Obama’s ascendancy was the last nail in the coffin of their already severely degraded willingness to acknowledge the deeply entrenched and pervasive role of anti-Black racism in U.S. life.

Black Identification with the American System

Another problem I worried about with the coming “symbolic” “revolution” of an Obama presidency had to do with Black politics and world view.  Black Americans have long been the most progressive, left, social-democratic, and anti-imperialist part of the U.S. citizenry qua electorate.  Thanks to their special, undeniable, and living history of oppression, Black Americans have long been in the vanguard of progressive consciousness and struggle in the U.S.  Would the figurative potency of a first Black president who happened (no accident given the corporate and imperial establishment’s power in vetting officially “viable” presidential contenders) to be a committed imperialist and a corporate neoliberal damage the portside alignments of Black America?  Would it shift the nation’s leftmost ethnocultural group more to the disastrous center and away from the kind of heroic activism that had always been at the heart of the struggle for racial and broader social justice in the U.S. since (and before) the days of Frederick Douglass?

The Obama dividend to the white establishment included some of that in his first term – so I have been told more than once by Black leftists.  But there has been a welcome resurgence of Black militancy in the wake of the Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, and (fill in the name…it’s a long list) killings and in accord with the great lesson that Obama has given poor and working class (and other) Black Americans on the real world limits of “symbolic” racial identity politics – on how putting a few “Black faces in high places” (even in the symbolically highest place of all) is cheap change when material and social conditions deteriorate for millions of ordinary Black Americans.

The lesson was somewhat available even under Dubya. With Colin Powell as his first Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as his first National Security Adviser and his Secretary of State, and Alberto Gonzales as his second Attorney General, George W. Bush’s cabinet was the most racially diverse on record.  Bush’s presidency was also the most reactionary White House since James Buchanan’s and prior to Donald Trump’s.

The Perfect Actor for the Role

I believe Coates when he tells the CFR’s Judy Woodruff that “many African-Americans got…much joy out of the image of Barack and Michelle and Malia and Sasha, the first family” and that “The notion of an African-American president for black people was perceived as being so impossible that most of the great sort of representations of it are in comedy. It’s just a moment that seemed so impossible and so far off that actually it came to be, it actually happened.”

But there was nothing impossible about it from my perspective. I’d been predicting it since late 2006. I lived in the Caucasian Caucus state of Iowa when Obama announced his contention for the nation’s top symbolic job. And it was clear to me from conversations with white voters in 2006 and 2007 that Obama was going to be the nation’s next president.  The majority white electorate was ready for a certain kind of bourgeois, charismatic, white-pleasing, and racism-downplaying first Black president.  It was in place for someone like Obama.

True, he would never get a majority of white Caucasian ballots in any election after he won a statewide race for the U.S. Senate over the preposterous Black Republican Alan Keyes in 2004. Obama would go on to lose the white vote to terrible white Republicans like the bumbling John McCain and the laughable uber-1 percenter Mitt Romney in both of his presidential elections.  Still, it was evident to me by late 2006 that the Obama phenomenon would get enough white votes to combine with huge minority and especially Black turnout to put Obama over top over against whatever sap the badly damaged Republican Party put up in the wake of the long national George W. Bush nightmare. That plus the fact the U.S. corporate, financial, and imperial establishment needed an especially vivid and theatrical, fake-revolutionary re-branding for the American System after that nightmare spelled an Obama presidency in 2009.

The onset of the financial crisis on Dubya’s watch and McCain’s clumsy response to the meltdown sealed the deal. It was a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner [the White House]” moment and Obama was the perfect actor for the role.

Contrary to the claim that Obama’s election signaled the decisive defeat of American white racial prejudice, many of the whites who marked their ballots for Obama did so only on the conditional basis that he was “Black but not like Jesse” – that he wasn’t “all that Black” and made sure not to sound angry about, or even particularly focused, on Black issues.  (As Coates has noted, Obama didn’t have to do a lot of acting to keep such anger at bay. Obama’s privileged upbringing in relatively multicultural and liberal Hawaii, where he was raised mainly by two loving white grandparents, had sheltered him from the harsh racial and related class oppression experienced by millions on Black Americans.)

Post-Racial Warnings: Loud and Clear

Coates has at different times expressed disappointment in his friend and (to be honest) hero Obama’s pallid record on racial justice – and over Obama’s penchant for giving Blacks “personal responsibility” lectures on their own purported fault for disproportionate Black poverty, joblessness, and incarceration.  But, as Coates certainly knows, candidate Obama made it clear that he would steer clear as president from any serious confrontation with societal racism, deeply and properly understood. He made a sharp point of avoiding the problem of racial oppression in any serious and substantive way.  He was determined not to trigger whites about race in any other way than the simple fact of being technically Black.

Obama’s deeply conservative, American-exceptionalist, fake-progressive, and Ronald Reagan-praising, Nineteen Sixties-dissing 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope is a case in point. The book’s title was stolen from a sermon given by his former Black pastor Jeremiah Wright, who candidate Obama would later toss under the bus in a speech suggesting that angry Black anti-racism was no longer appropriate in “post-racial” America – a curious thing to argue in a nation still deeply scarred by living societal and institutional racism along with widespread racial prejudice.  In a chapter of Audacity titled “Race,” Obama tried to cover his ass with white America by claiming that “what ails working- and middle-class blacks is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts.”  Equally soothing to the master race was Obama’s argument that “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America” as “even the most fair-minded of whites…tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization and race-based claims based on the history of racial discrimination in this country” (p. 247). Part of the reason for this “push back” – also known as denial – was, Obama claimed, the bad culture and poor work-ethic of the inner-city black poor (pp. 245, 254-56).

Never mind that lower-, working-, and middle-class blacks continued to face numerous steep and interrelated white-supremacist barriers to equality. Or that multidimensional racial discrimination was still rife in “post-Civil Rights America,” deeply woven into the fabric of the nation’s social institutions and drawing heavily on the living and unresolved legacy of centuries of not-so “past” racism. Never mind that the long centuries of slavery and Jim Crow were still quite historically recent and would continue to exercise a crippling influence on black experience even if the dominant white claimed that black “racial victimization” was a “thing of the past” was remotely accurate (see, for example, Joel Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations [New York, NY: Routledge, 2000] and Michael Brown et al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society [Berkeley, CA: University of California-Berkeley Press, 2003]).

White fears that Obama would reawaken the unfinished and betrayed revolutions of Reconstruction and Civil Rights were further soothed by his claim in Audacity that most Black Americans had been “pulled into the economic mainstream” (pp. 248-49). Never mind that blacks are afflicted with a shocking racial wealth gap that kept their average net worth at one eleventh (it’s one thirteenth now) that of whites and an income structure starkly and persistently tilted towards poverty.

Another warning bell on the coming racial and social conservatism of the nation’s first technically Black president came in the part of Audacity where Obama audaciously claimed that “conservatives and Bill Clinton were right about welfare.” The abolished Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, Obama claimed, mirroring white Neoconservative doctrine, “sapped” inner-city blacks of their “initiative” and detached them from the great material and spiritual gains that flow to those who attach themselves to the noble capitalist labor market, including “independence,” “income,” “order, structure, dignity and opportunity for growth in peoples’ lives.” The future president argued that encouraging black girls to finish high school and stop having babies out of wedlock is “the single biggest that we could do to reduce inner-city poverty” (p. 256).

Never mind the absence of social-scientific evidence for the “conservative” claim that AFDC destroyed inner-city work ethics or generated “intergenerational poverty.”  Forget the existence of numerous studies showing that the absence of decent, minimally well-paid, and dignified work has always been the single leading cause of black inner-city poverty and “welfare dependency.”  Disregard research showing that black teenage pregnancy reflected the absence of meaningful long-term life and economic opportunities in the nation’s hyper-segregated inner-city and suburban ring ghettos.  Forget that the single biggest thing that could be done to reduce inner-city poverty would be to make the simple and elementary moral decision to abolish it through the provision of a decent guaranteed income – something once advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and that other dangerous left “moral absolutist,” Richard Nixon.  And never mind the dominant place in the U.S of a structurally “perverted” (as King used to say) social order that grants hundreds of millions of dollars to parasitic hedge fund manipulators and murderous war masters while plaguing those who want to work for democracy, peace and social justice with constant economic insecurity.

More warnings on Obama’s coming objective service to societal and institutional white supremacism came with candidate Obama’s ridiculous statement in Selma claiming that that Black America ’s post-Civil Rights “Joshua Generation” had comes 90 percent of the way to full equality. And then there was candidate Obama’s instantly and widely white-heralded Philadelphia Race Speech, in March of 2008.  The oration was dedicated to the proposition that Jeremiah Wright’s anger at American racial oppression was no longer appropriate in a contemporary United States where someone like, well, like Barack Obama, was now possible.

Keynote Warnings

Nearly four years before, in the Democratic National Convention Address that had turned him into an overnight national and global phenomenon, Obama had idiotically proclaimed to wild applause that “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s [just] the United States of America.”  Absurdly conflating Black chattel slavery with the white working class and the “brave” (and unmentionably racist and mass-murderous) U.S.-imperial occupation of Southeast Asia during the 1960, he waxed moronically and all too post-racially about “the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.” He claimed that “my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible” – as if politicians from far humbler origins than his own (e.g. Brazil’s Lula) had not risen high in the electoral and political systems of other nations. (Coates himself has wrestled with some of the post-racial absurdities of “the speech that made Obama.”) No serious historian of Obama’s pre-presidential career will have any business finding anything surprising about President Obama’s pronounced reluctance to tackle the nation’s deep-seated racist structures in any meaningful way beyond the mere symbolism of his and his family’s color.

Obama’s Deeper Gift to Trump

Did the symbolically “revolutionary” presence of a Black family in the White House in the land of slavery and Jim Crow help elect the noxious racist and quasi-fascist Donald Trump by driving a certain number of bigoted backlashing and disproportionately countryside-rooted Caucasians out of their white supremacist minds? No doubt.  But Obama’s bigger contribution to Trump’s election was to help (with no small assistance from the “lying neoliberal warmonger” [Reed] Hillary Clinton and the dismal Democratic National Committee) demobilize and depress the Democrats’ fading working class and minority base by governing in deeply conservative accord with the nation’s reigning unelected dictatorships of race, class, and empire. Obama’s biggest gift to the right and Trump was to be so damn counter-revolutionary beneath the supposedly revolutionary symbolism of it all. And with racism, as with the two other parts (economic injustice/capitalism and militarism/imperialism) of what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the triple evils that are interrelated,” candidate (and state and U.S. senator) Obama gave numerous warnings on precisely how conservative his presidency would be. This is history worth keeping in mind before we let the coming anti-Trump resistance be coopted into a great big get-out-the-vote campaign for some new great fake-progressive Democratic hope like, say, Corey Booker or Kamila Harris in 2019-20.

A Short Postscript: On Coates’ Most Recent Lunch at the White House

Bourgeois and imperial identitarianism is a harsh mistress. Listen to the following passage in Coates’ recent and endless Atlantic magazine reflection (“My President Was Black,” The Atlantic, January-February 2017) on Obama’s legacy:

“Last spring, I went to the White House to meet the president for lunch. I arrived slightly early and sat in the waiting area. I was introduced to a deaf woman who worked as the president’s receptionist, a black woman who worked in the press office, a Muslim woman in a head scarf who worked on the National Security Council, and an Iranian American woman who worked as a personal aide to the president. This receiving party represented a healthy cross section of the people Donald Trump had been mocking, and would continue to spend his campaign mocking.”

Okay, I was impressed at the multiculturalism of all that. But I was also disturbed at the creepy kind of cover it provides for a president who has stayed remarkably silent on racism deeply understood during a presidency that has seen median household Black net worth fall to one thirteenth that of whites and who has wreaked remarkable havoc in the Muslim world…with such things as the Hillary-trail-blazed collapse of Libya and a drone war program that Noam Chomsky has called “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern history.”

“A Muslim woman in a head scarf who worked on the National Security Council [NSC].”  Well, but the NSC is an imperialist war agency that has a lot of Muslim (and other) blood on its hands. This is the kind of childish nonsense we leftists must work around with empire- and neoliberalism-blind liberals everyday…a bizarre kind of Orwellian cluelessness and/or cynicism with a fake-progressive bourgeois-identitarian cloak.

“A deaf woman.” Well, good for the Obama White House’s hiring practices, but I wonder how many people of color have been rendered deaf by Obama’s bombs, missiles, grenades, artillery, and drones between 2009-2016/17. It took him, what, one or two days to start killing and maiming people in the Middle East after his first Inauguration. I imagine he’ll keep the “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern history” going on right up until the day he hands the bloody baton to his legacy Donald Trump, the coming next and terrifying “bobble-head on the dashboard of power.”

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).