This Ta-Nehisi Coates essay is, as far as I'm concerned, required reading. It's long, complex, thoughtful, and not fully grasped in excerpts; but I'm going to excerpt it anyway.
His central thesis is the prevailing racism in America, which he wisely defines as "not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others." A skepticism based on skin color and culture, which makes it all the more powerful. The quotes in the essay from Robert Byrd and William Buckley are enough to make you realize Faulkner's truth, that the past isn't even past; and that culture is the framework from which we all think about the world.
But one of the most interesting parts of the essay is the political assessment of President Obama. Coates starts off pointing out how President Obama's comments about Trayvon Martin turned that story from one of national sympathy for Martin to one of national scorn and suspicion about black kids and hoodies. In that context, he later develops the argument about the limits placed on a black president who can't be a black man, but rather has to just happen to be black. That argument takes him here:
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.It's the bind so many Obama supporters find themselves in: some of his policies are more Bush than Bush, yet even when he gives the GOP what they want (as in waivers to states seeking to make the "welfare to work" policy work better in their circumstances), he's described as the President who wants to let everybody live comfortably on welfare, with no incentive to work at all. Mitt Romney's racism is no better disguised than Newt Gingrich's "food stamp President". Instead of food stamps, Mr. Romney simply says President Obama doesn't understand the importance of the link between welfare and work. Why President Obama, a man who has worked his entire life, wouldn't understand that goes unstated because it doesn't have to be stated. The whole argument is a baseless lie (Gingrich at least had statistics about food stamps to back up his claim), but the only fact that matters is the President's race.
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.
President Obama is not only a perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism.
But, as Mr. Coates points out, a total submission to right-wing politics is a disservice to the country. It would seem to render President Obama particularly ineffective to not stand up to such attacks, to not assert what he did in Missouri in 2008. However, as Mr. Coates points out a bit later:
In 2009, Sergeant James Crowley arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., the eminent professor of African American studies at Harvard, at his front door in Cambridge, for, essentially, sassing him. When President Obama publicly asserted the stupidity of Crowley’s action, he was so besieged that the controversy threatened to derail what he hoped would be his signature achievement—health-care reform. Obama, an African American male who had risen through the ranks of the American elite, was no doubt sensitive to untoward treatment at the hands of the police. But his expounding upon it so provoked right-wing rage that he was forced away from doing the kind of truth-telling he’d once lauded. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Obama said at the time, “but nobody’s been paying much attention to health care.”In the essay, the parallel is to the Trayvon Martin case: once Obama stepped in, everything changed about that, and it wasn't just because the President of the United States was involved, but because the Black President of the United States was involved. And, among many other causes, this controversy almost derailed health care reform. And would we, as a country, be better off with a black President who stood firmly, even stubbornly, on principle? Or with one who actually accomplished something legislatively?
The tools of racism, the easily provoked fears of angry black men and "unfairness," are still very, very powerful.