Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why doth not the black man rage?

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.

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.
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.

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.


  1. Ida B. Wells, in her study of lynching in the first Jim Crow period (we seem to be entering another one) pointed out that the image of the dangerous, predatory black man was created after the abolition of official slavery as an excuse for the reign of terror that prevented putatively free black people from having freedom. She pointed out that the very white men who asserted that black men were dangerous left the same black men alone with white women on plantations as they went to war to maintain slavery.

    That it is as useful to Republicans after the "Southern strategy" proved so successful, against a black president, WITH THE FULL SUPPORT OF ALLEGEDLY LIBERAL, NORTHERN MEDIA, was similar to what Fredrick Douglass said about Francis Willard taking up the segregationist line in The Lesson of the Hour.

    I'm writing a long series of posts about Darwin's eugenics and I'm finding, as I trace eugenics and the attributions of it to him, not to mention the resurgence of eugenics, today, that we haven't gotten past the 1820s, Malthus and the depravity of the Georgian and Victorian ages.

    By the way, I think you'll find the one about "quote mining" amusing.

  2. Thanks, Anthony.

    And here I'd always assumed the fear of the "angry black man" was a subconscious guilt and fear of righteous anger.

    Seems it's entirely manufactured. As the song says, "You have to be carefully taught."

  3. I wish I'd had Project Gutenburg and other online sources when I'd been in college. I'd have wasted a lot less time believing in the secular pieties and lies of the common-recieved wisdom of the putatively educated class of today. Yet those persist, especially among the putatively educated class of today.

  4. Thanks for the link to the Coates essay, Robert. It was surely worth a read. I hope Obama has an adequate outlet for the anger that must surely arise, simply because he is a human being. He's navigated the path for a good many years before becoming president, but never on so large a stage.

    Now I'll go read your link, Anthony.

  5. The Thought Criminal, I tried to leave a comment at your blog, but after 6 unsuccessful tries, I gave up. Blogger does a much better job now of screening out spam, so I removed from my blog the word verification function with its fuzzy letters, and I've received many thanks from my commenters.

  6. Grandmere Marie, I'll try it. On the blog I used to write for I'd regularly get huge numbers of flaming comments. I tend to write controversial things, thus the name change.

  7. TTC, do what you think is best. Blogger will only protect you from spam, not from trolls or flamers. Fortunately, I get few of either, and when they come, I delete without engaging with them, and they usually go away. I'm not going to put up with them, and I'd use comment moderation, if they came in great numbers. The fuzzy letters are beyond me, and I've about decided not to comment when word verification is in place, so I would not feel right about inflicting them on others.