Guest Post: Zigs and Zags
By Daniel Sherwin
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ elegy for the Obama presidency is heartbreaking. Based on four and a half hours of conversation with the president, Coates grapples with the meaning of eight years of a Black man in the White House. Two themes are woven throughout, the singularity of Obama, and the tragedy of Trump.
The tragedy is plain to see. For several years, Coates has been the most prominent journalist arguing that White Supremacy is the driving engine of American politics. His “Case for Reparations” is indispensable. It puts faces to the tragedies of American injustice, and shows that state-sanctioned discrimination and disenfranchisement of Black people in America has persisted from slavery to the present day.
True to this thesis, Coates has no patience for those who would downplay the role of race in explaining Trumpism, “In the days after Donald Trump’s victory, there would be an insistence that something as “simple” as racism could not explain it.” “No.” retorts Coates “Racism is never simple.”*
The singularity of Obama comes from his unique relationship to American history. Obama grew up outside of the mainstream American racial order. His parents committed no crime with their inter-racial marriage. Through his grandparents, Obama saw the best, and not the worst, of White America. He is a believer, in Coates’ phrase, in “White innocence.”
In Coates’ telling, this belief becomes Obama’s defining feature, his greatest political asset and the cause of his great blindness. In an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Coates explores this core dimension of his thesis – that a Black man who believes what Coates believes, who believes in White Supremacy and not White Innocence, could never become president.
Obama’s faith in White America, and in American institutions, perhaps explains his calm in the face of Trump’s election. “To be optimistic about the long-term trends of the United States doesn’t mean that everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line,” Obama says, “It goes forward sometimes, sometimes it goes back, sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it zigs and zags.”
* It does no good, as Coates would surely agree, to lean on White Supremacy as an explanation if its only effect is to demonize Republican voters and foster a sense of smug, cosmopolitan superiority. On this score, two short articles on the experience of the what working class in America, one in Cracked (and endorsed by Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr) and the other in the Harvard Business Review, are invaluable. I would also quote Heather McGhee of Demos who merges the two lines of analysis in her elegant phrase “Race is the weapon in the class war” (again in an Ezra Klein interview).