Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 20th, 2012
There’s no question that Barack Obama has faced unremitting racism of all kinds – crude and subtle, conscious and unconscious — ever since bursting on to the national stage , or that his opponents have fairly openly displayed and cultivated that racism since he was elected President. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s smugly entitled comment that no one had ever asked him for his birth certificate, Hollywood star Clint Eastwood’s excruciating live television “argument,” at the Republican convention, with an invisible, uppity, unrecognizably foul-mouthed Obama — these are but the latest examples of persistent, high-visibility appeals to racism in a United States that is still decidedly non-”post-racial.”
In his recent, celebrated Atlantic Monthly essay “Fear of a Black President,” Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the evident handicap racism — or in the curious political science circumlocution, “racialization” — has been for the Obama presidency. It isn’t surprising, of course, that it plays a strong role in any discourse about race. Obama’s forays in this regard have been exceptionally rare — Coates cites a study* demonstrating that Obama has mentioned race less than any other president since 1961. And when he does, it often doesn’t seem to help him or anyone else much. Obama’s attempts at addressing the Henry Louis Gates** and Trayvon Martin stories were met by reflexive, polarizing racist/racialized responses his by political opponents.
What’s more, there’s reason to believe that even policy proposals by our first black president labor under an (undeserved, of course) racial handicap; Coates cites a persuasive study indicating that when random respondents are presented with the same policies attributed to either Obama or Bill Clinton, Obama-as-author fares significantly worse.
So yes: Obama faces a handicap in today’s decidedly non-“postracial” American politics that a white president would not. And yes: that reflects on the country, not on him.
But yes, also: he signed up for the job and wants another four years. We’re entitled to say “Read your oath of office and do what it says — preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution — regardless.”
I think it’s gone relatively unnoticed that Coates nearly says just that as well:
“…The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on everything. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.
But whatever the politics, a total submission to them is a disservice to the country. No one knows this better than Obama himself, who once described patriotism as more than pageantry and the scarfing of hot dogs. “When our laws, our leaders, or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism,” Obama said in Independence, Missouri, in June 2008. Love of country, like all other forms of love, requires that you tell those you care about not simply what they want to hear but what they need to hear. …”
“But whatever the politics, a total submission to them is a disservice to the country.“ However swaddled in nine thousand words of protective bubble-wrap, that sentence is the core of Coates’ essay. On issues that challenge our ideals, the rule of law, or our cherished illusions of American history, Coates charges that Obama has at best settled for accommodation — for telling us what too many of us want to hear, and for not telling us what we don’t want to hear.
But — like Shirley Sherrod, at the end of the Coates essay, who despite the Obama administrations shabby treatment of her told Coates that she “didn’t want to do anything to hurt” the president — Coates, too, seemingly could not bear to think that maybe the explanation for Obama’s disappointing “submission” is that it’s not submission at all. To invert and repurpose a phrase, maybe the fault lies not in ourselves but in our star.
In this view, Obama’s skimpy dialogue on race, his exaltation of executive power, or his deference to financial elites aren’t despite his fondest wishes. Rather, they express the true worldview of a man Coates prefers to describe as “temperamentally conservative“: disinterested in race unless all but forced to comment, an exceedingly conventional 20th/21st century executive branch role player unless issuing pablum for public consumption.
Maybe Obama really is just acquiescing to what he doesn’t believe –or maybe he actually believes in what he only seems to acquiesce to. The effects are the same: either way, he’s acquiescent. And either way, “America made him do this” or “America won’t let him do that” explanations of this particular black president’s acquiescences and accommodations will fill the pages of our magazines, our social media, and our conversations.
And either way, we can’t afford it. Obama’s presidential conservatism matters in its own right, of course – whether it’s reluctant or determined, and whether it’s about race in America or about other issues. So does the longer, wider role Obama has played in the peculiar institutions and conventions of American politics. As Coates suggests elsewhere in his essay, there are interesting parallels with Obama in America’s past; I’ll write more about that in another post.
* The unpublished study (as of 9/20/12) is either a working paper or a journal article by University of Pennsylvania’s Daniel Gillion.
** See “A teachable moment in which little was learned” on this blog.