U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Obama and the Politics of Race in the 21st Century: On Ta-Nehisi Coates’s "Fear of a Black President," Part I

The following post comes from Carl Pedersen and will be published in two parts on consecutive days.  
Carl Pedersen is Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Business and Culture at Copenhagen Business School. He is the author of Obama’s America (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009). His article on Obama and race, “The Obama Dilemma: Confronting Race in the 21st Century” is forthcoming in Michael Ledwidge et al., eds., Barack Obama and the Myth of a Post-Racial America (London: Routledge, 2013)

The announcement came at 11 pm Eastern time on November 4, 2008. “We can report history” intoned MSNBC. CBS echoed the sentiment. “This is an incredible milestone in the history of this country” exclaimed news anchor Katie Couric. “A century and a half after the Constitution abolished slavery and guaranteed blacks the right to vote, four decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, voters have chosen our first African American president.” When Barack Obama came onto the stage at Grant Park in Chicago moments after havng been declared the winner of the 2008 presidential election, the euphoria in the crowd was palpable. Cameras dutifully panned to the civil rights activist and presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988 Jesse Jackson, who stood with tears in his eyes, overcome with emotion. This was indisputably an historic moment.
Ta-Nehisi Coates apparently thought so too. In his incisive essay on Obama and race in the September 2012 issue of The Atlantic, “Fear of a Black President” (paraphrasing the title of the Public Enemy album from 1990, Fear of a Black Planet), he writes that the election of Barack Obama had “convinced [me] that the country really had changed.” More than three years after the euphoria of Grant Park, the initial reaction to the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida was, in Coates’s words, “trans-partisan.” However, as soon as the president commented on the tragedy by pledging to get to the bottom of the case, “the illusion of consensus” disappeared and reverted to “something darker and more familiar—racialized political fodder.”
His essay, not surprisingly, is bereft of the optimism of 2008. He laments that “[a]fter Obama won, the longed-for post-racial moment did not arrive; on the contrary, racism intensified.” According to Coates, all Americans are left with more than half a century after the Civil Rights Act is a “compromised integration” that reveals “a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.”
Coates condemns the double standard in US politics, rooted in two conflicting facts: a “love of democracy [and] an undemocratic white supremacy” that excuse white resentment and anger but unequivocally condemn black rage and that force African Americans to be “twice as good” if they want to achieve anything resembling parity in US society. What Coates calls “the thoroughly racialized backlash” against Obama is indeed unrelenting. Coates cites the racialized discourse of conservative media personalities such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Republican politicians such as Joe Wilson and Newt Gingrich.
At the same time, he criticizes Obama for virtually ignoring race since he took office. As he puts it, “the myth of ’twice as good’ that makes Barack Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that African Americans—enslaved, tortured, raped, discriminated against, and subjected to the most lethal homegrown terrorist movement in American history—feel no anger toward their tormentors.” He points out that it was Obama himself, in his now famous speech in March 2008, who declared the US could not afford to ignore race.
It is incontrovertible that Obama has avoided talking about race as president. Coates sees Obama’s avoidance of the subject as indicative of his conservatism. His essay, however, has an inner tension between upbraiding Obama for ignoring race while underscoring the underlying constraints that could justify his reticence.
Coates is of course aware of the burdens of history that could impose restraints on a president who possesses a high degree of historical consciousness. Coates goes so far as to say that “[r]ace is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.” Yet, like Adolph Reed and Cornel West, he comes close to calling Obama a race traitor for refusing to address race both rhetorically and in terms of public policy.
However, it could be argued that Obama has made a conscious decision to temper his public comments on race while promoting policies that benefit the African American community.
If we look at the current state of race relations in the US through the prism of what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has called the Long Civil Rights Movement, it is clear that the election of the first African American president did not (and indeed could not) usher in a postracial society.
Hall outlines the ways in which the struggle for racial equality in the 20th century was countered by conservatives bent on preserving white privilege. The two-track system of unemployment insurance established as part of New Deal reforms in the 1930s excluded agricultural and domestic workers and relegated African Americans to means-tested programs. Coates makes no mention of Obama’s proposal to make the work requirements of the 1996 welfare reform act (the official title is Personal Responsiblity and Work Opportunity Act) more flexible by allowing states to fashion alternative ways of putting people back to work than the federal government mandated. The GOP interpreted Obama’s proposal as an attempt to get rid of the work requirement altogether. The underlying message of ads run during the summer of 2012 and at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August essentially accused the first African American president of removing work requirements in order to accommodate lazy blacks. As Martin Gillens observes in Why Americans Hate Welfare, “the perception that blacks are lazy is consistently the most powerful predictor of white Americans’ opposition to welfare.”
To say, as Coates does, that “Obama’s election effectively racialized white Americans’ views, even of health-care policy,” is not the same as saying that racial attitudes did not impact views of health care in the past. Coates notes that President Bill Clinton’s health care reform proposal was not criticized as “reparations” and, quoting a study by Michael Tesler, racial attitudes had a greater impact on public opinion of Obama’s health care plan than Clinton’s. This is undoubtedly true, but it underestimates the degree to which health care reform has been racialized at least since the 1940s. Opposition to President Harry S Truman’s proposal for national health care from southern politicians was rooted in the fear that it would mean integrating hospitals. In the 1960s, Mississippi Senate Democrat John Stennis proposed legislation that would allow states to give Medicare funds to segregated hospitals.
White flight from urban centers in the 1940s and 1950s, and blockbusting and redlining in the suburban real estate market spatialized race. Welfare and housing thus functioned as affirmation action for whites. African Americans were disproportionately affected by the implosion of the subprime lending market. It is no accident that Rick Santelli, in the 2009 rant that launched the Tea Party, cast the subprime crisis in terms of handouts to the undeserving poor.
Conservatives in the 1960s and 1970s articulated a colorblind narrative that equated equality before the law as the culmination of the Civil Rights movement and the triumph of American ideals. Any inequality could henceforth be explained away by references to black culture and deficiencies in black family structure.
Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy built on this narrative and targeted white middle class suburbanites and the white working class by attacking welfare, busing and affirmative action. The Southern Strategy first articulated by Kevin Phillips in a series of memos to Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1968, later expanded in his 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority. Phillips argued that  demographic trends such as suburbanization and population shifts to the South and West combined with resentment against federal government overreach were in the process of creating a constituency that would favor Republican candidates. Phillips made the case that government programs primarily benefiting African Americans imposed onerous taxes on the middle class. The Southern Strategy appealed to white voters through racially-coded language, anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric.
Rhetorically, Republicans increasingly used race-coded language to maintain and broaden support among these white constituencies. Ronald Reagan went to Neshoba, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan, to launch his presidential campaign in 1980 by talking of states’ rights. George H. W. Bush used the image of a black convicted felon to criticize his Democratic opponent’s record on criminal justice in the 1988 campaign. In the 1990s, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein published The Bell Curve, which linked the disproportionate number of blacks in poverty, prison and on welfare with their inferior intelligence, called for an end to the “custodial state” (i.e. welfare state).
At times, the racialized rhetoric would become more overt. In 2002, then Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, at the 100th birthday celebration of Senator Strom Thurmond, a former Democrat and now fellow Republican who had run for president in 1948 on the openly segregationist Dixiecrat ticket, declared that “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.”
Lott’s endorsement of Thurmond underscores how neoConfederate ideology permeates the conservative movement. Coates makes only passing mention of the Tea Party, which, as an NAACP report declared in 2010, is “permeated with concerns about race.” References to the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary garb of many Tea Party protesters conceal the degree to which much of contemporary conservative rhetoric is informed not by reverence for the Revolutionary era, but is rather infused with the Lost Cause ideology of the post-Civil War era. Accusations of voter fraud, threats to nullify federal legislation, and giving more power to the states have an eerie resemblance to opposition to Radical Reconstruction after the Civil War and are part and parcel of a backlash of white resentment that is formidable and intransigent in its hatred for the first African American president.
“The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic,” writes Coates. I couldn’t agree more. However, Coates confines his comments on race and foreign to questioning Obama’s extensive use of drone strikes whose victims include American citizens by arguing that “a black president with a broad sense of the world” should be more sensitive to issues of citizenship.
There is a more useful way of adducing how race affects the conservative view of Obama’s foreign policy. Obama has been criticized by conservative pundits, most recently the Washington Post’sCharles Krauthammer, for returning a bust of Winston Churchill that had been in the Oval Office during George W. Bush’s presidency. So persistent was the rumor that the White House felt compelled to issue a statement declaring the stories completely false.
The Churchill bust was removed from the Oval Office to the White House residence and replaced by a bust of Abraham Lincoln, arguably a more inspiring figure to the first African American president. That having been said, there may well have been another reason that Obama chose to move the Churchill bust. As Richard Toye recounts in Churchill’s Empire, the Churchill of stoic resolve against fascism during the Second World War was also an unrepentant imperialist who thought that the English were a superior race. Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was detained for his subversive activities during Churchill’s suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule in Kenya. It is likely that Obama would rather gaze at the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 than the imperialist dedicated to the perpetuation of the British Empire.
Whatever Obama’s feelings toward Churchill, it is nevertheless a leap to suggest, as does Dinesh D’Souza in his 2010 essay in Forbes, “How Obama Thinks,” that Obama believes in the “anticolonialist ideology” of his father who taught him “to see America as a force for global domination and destruction.” In the summer of 2012, D’Souza released a documentary, 2016: Obama’s Americaand companion book Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream (not in any way to be confused with my 2009 book on Obama with the same title) that elaborated on the essay by claiming that if Obama is re-elected to a second term, he will indeed make good on his message of change by remaking the United States into a weak and impoverished nation. Newt Gingrich, clearly taken by D’Souza’s theory, parroted his views during the primary campaign, calling Obama a “food stamp president” with a “Kenyan anti-colonial worldview.”
Casting Obama as an anti-American subversive comports well with the segregationist critique of the civil rights movement. Indeed, accusations that Obama is a communist and/or socialist (the two terms are often used interchangeably on the right) stem not only from his purported redistributionist agenda, but from the Cold War era, when advocates of racial justice were routinely labeled communist.
During Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s rather hapless trip abroad in the summer of 2012, one of his advisors let slip that Romney understood the deep Anglo-Saxon ties between the US and Britain in contrast to Obama, who “didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.” Romney, who said he was drawing on David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, said that the economic disparity between Palestinians and Israelis could be explained by cultural differences. Diamond, in an op-ed in The New York Times, opined that he suspected that Romney hadn’t even read his book, or if he had, had misunderstood his arguments. Diamond’s study of is a broadside against racist biological explanations of human history. One could suspect Romney of drawing on other work for his worldview. Perhaps he’s been reading Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We?, which defends an Anglo-Protestant core culture threatened by demographic change, or Niall Ferguson’s Civilization that laments “the end of 500 years of Western ascendancy.” This is the ideology of declinism (that also fits in well with D’Souza’s theory of a hidden Obama agenda) that stretches from the anxieties of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby worrying that “civilization’s going to pieces” to Pat Buchanan, whose latest book Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025 is replete with his diatribes against demographic changes and immigration that would lead to “the end of America.”
The US is thus faced with demographic transformation within and the decline of its influence abroad. The two are related and conflated in the conservative mindset. Obama, the African American of Kenyan descent, is the embodiment of both. His Republican opponent wants to reconstitute the neo-con vision of the US role in the world (and has employed George W. Bush’s UN Ambassador, John Bolton, to help him). The fear of a weakened US in the world is paralleled by a fear of a weakened (and increasingly nonwhite) US.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Carl: Can you comment on what polls are suggesting about who Obama has attracted across the demographic categories? For example, the white vote, over all, has real differences depending on region, sex, and, it seems, economic history. White male voting has been in Romney’s camp for a while. But as you suggest in the final few paragraphs of this part of the post, Obama seems to capture in one person all the fears and loathing of a subset of white America that have been developing for 40 years at least.

  2. A recent piece in The National Journal, “Obama’s Saviors? Counting on Midwestern Blue-Collar Whites” (http://www.nationaljournal.com/thenextamerica/politics/obama-s-saviors-counting-on-midwestern-blue-collar-whites-20121022) sums up the problems Obama is having with the white vote, but nevertheless shows that regionally (in IA, WI and OH), Obama is doing well with certain segments of white voters. It would seem that in these states, the auto bailout and Romney’s record as CEO of Bain trump “the fears and loathing” of at least that particular cohort of the white electorate.

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