Reading ‘My President Was Black’ In Spite Of Privilege

On Friday, we all listened to the latest Code Switch podcast on explanatory comma. It comes off lighthearted, but it brings up all these issues surrounding how we talk to one another, in what contexts, with what expectations, and through what lenses. More immediately relevant, it suggested to me that there may be value in approaching ‘My President Was Black,’ Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memorial to the Obama presidency, from the perspective of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s response to it. I had accidentally read Cottom first, and it primed me for better understanding why Coates roots his piece in Obama’s understanding of, and relationships with, White people.

Cottom writes early on in her essay:

I am black. I come from black people who are southerners even when they were New Yorkers for a spell. We are the black American story of enslavement, rural migration, urban displacement, resistance, bootstrapping, mobility, and class fragility. In this milieu we, as a friend once described it, know our whites. To know our whites is to understand the psychology of white people and the elasticity of whiteness. It is to be intimate with some white persons but to critically withhold faith in white people categorically. It is to anticipate white people’s emotions and fears and grievances because their issues are singularly our problem.

Coates, for his part, suggests that Obama transcended racial tensions because he was uniquely optimistic and trusting of White people, and they responded to this. Through Coates’ writing, we are implicitly asked to question whether Obama was wrong to trust White people, wrong to be optimistic about them, and how this trust undermined advances he might have been able to work towards for black Americans. But Cottom makes a more difficult ask: was Obama wrong because he believes he can transcend race without permission from White people?

Cottom and Coates both write with a palpable anger and sorrow. But I am realizing that Coates’ article, the tone of it, his drive towards emotion and eloquence, as opposed to bluntness, may allow us to read it comfortably as a post-mortem that places blame in the abstract on White Supremacy and is not an immediate call for action; that leaves us assured that Obama still trusts us to do the right thing.

This is why Cottom’s piece is an essential pairing, because it argues that Obama’s presidency was something Whites allowed and his race, by nature of his unique personal backstory, was something that they could accept. “White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.” His election was still part of a narrative of White Supremacy and entrenched racism.

If, after all this, you read the Coates article and feel sad but slightly comforted, not particularly angry, please, immediately go read section five of it again. Don’t read anything else, just section five. Coates writes: “The Republican Party is not simply the party of whites, but the preferred party of whites who identify their interest as defending the historical privileges of whiteness.” 

Here’s how another great writer Jamelle Bouie puts it: “Trump intuitively sees the interplay between economic interest and identity, pandering to white workers as whites and workers, who want racial hierarchy and economic revival, who see the weakening of the former as a threat to the latter, who exist in a society where economic advantage often follows the isolation and segregation of nonwhites.”

And Cottom concludes: “Those of us who know our whites know one thing above all else: whiteness defends itself. Against change, against progress, against hope, against black dignity, against black lives, against reason, against truth, against facts, against native claims, against its own laws and customs.”

These three pieces offer important perspectives, and I found them particularly critical reading because they openly reject the narrative that has dominated lately, I call it the Hillbilly Elegy theory, which is that Hillary would have won had she catered to some supposed downtrodden White working class, as opposed to alienating them by celebrating diversity and saying racism is bad. This theory is problematic on many levels, but at its heart ignores the actual economic/social makeup of Trump voters (more middle class than dirt poor), and openly suggests that we should extend not just empathy, but sympathy towards poor Whites who have disrupted lives due to globalization, with no attached expectations of personal responsibility and assimilation that have been applied to similarly poor and disrupted Blacks, or struggling immigrants. The theory asks us to protect their feelings by not calling them racist because it implicitly demands an acceptance of White Innocence (when Whites accept the need for equality before the law, but deny that their Whiteness affords them any benefits or that there is a need for anti-racist policies). I think, fundamentally, the appeal of the HB theory results from conceiving of discussions of racism solely within a good/evil dichotomy, where calling out racism is only about personally guilting and shaming. I’m not saying that discussions about race and racism don’t bring a risk of discomfort, but that’s not their sole purpose: they can be powerful ways of identifying discrimination and building empathy with one another so that we can move forwards.

Cottom writes “empathy may be why Obama could look at years of pictures of his wife and children drawn as apes and decades of white backlash to perceived black socio-economic gains as racial, albeit not racist: “I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race.” In politics, this kind of empathy, while difficult and asking so much of those who are discriminated against, is essential. Obama has asked repeatedly for more empathy, and it’s what social commentary, like that of Coates, Cottom, and explanatory commas, can build. It is absolutely necessary for us to continuously acknowledge and discuss how the social constructions of race shape our views and those of others. Only from that knowledge will we find a way to build compelling narratives that are not specially aimed at a supposed disadvantaged White working class, but recognize that in politics, “identity and representation are critical. They ground a broad appeal that is attentive to lived experience, that stresses common threads without losing sight of the challenges facing each group, that sees diversity as integral to making progress on all struggles. This is a broad and inclusive liberalism—common vision from common struggle.”

Amy Sanderson21/12/16