Barack Obama’s eight years as America’s first black president indirectly paved the way for the country’s «first white president», according to one of America’s most influential African-American writers.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power takes us on a journey through a unique presidency that is intimately linked to the author’s own remarkable career. At the outset Coates is a young, penniless blogger and rap music enthusiast living off his wife. Towards the end of the Obama presidency he has become a celebrated writer, with president Barack Obama as his interview subject. Obama became a symbol to Americans, his inauguration a miraculous triumph for the democratic equality project. Eight years later they find themselves faced with the total opposite: Donald Trump becomes president. Coates explains it all by looking at race.
«TRUMP, however, could do whatever he wanted – because he was white.»
Inaugurated by error
The US Civil War (1861-1865) and the abolishment of slavery were followed by the Reconstruction Era. In the state of South Carolina, which had a black majority, several African Americans were now appointed to positions in the administration. Until one day its white residents put an end to it. Thomas E. Miller was a representative for «Good Negro Government» – which, according to the historian W.E.B. Du Bois, was hated by whites – but in the autumn of 1895 he had to accept that «We were in power for eight years.» Coates claims that no substantial change in the African-American condition has taken place since then. White supremacy permeates all aspects of society, a claim the author substantiates with facts drawn from his own and other studies.To many, the first black presidential family in the history of the US – however impeccable and exemplary they may have been – was an anomaly, a catastrophe. To some, president Obama was inaugurated by error – he could never legally be president since «he wasn’t born in the US». Trump, however, could do whatever he wanted – because he was white. The first white president of the USA. «The whites» had finally gotten their country back.
Coates never takes off his «racial glasses» – systematic, endemic racism is to him the root to all the evil. History provides the framework and gives the author’s attitude a solid foundation. Slavery, with its brutal exploitation of black people, allowed whites to accumulate wealth. African Americans were considered «property» and only had value as «generators of capital». After slavery was abolished, however, a new system was required to keep the structure intact. The segregation laws – which aimed at keeping the public space free of any black presence and to conserve the concept of the «inferior race» – cemented the injustice. The black population was denied access to good schools, good housing, good neighbourhoods and good jobs. The natural consequences were unemployment and crime, which was then explained away as stemming from «the Negro’s nature». This gave rise to a dangerous hatred of black people, something the author James Baldwin described in (to take but one example) The Fire Next Time – one of Coates’ literary bibles.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s brought two iconic men to the front: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. King was the pacifist, Malcolm X the warrior. Their assassinations polarized the fronts further. Coates suggests similarities between Obama and King and between Malcolm X and himself. The first pair are the bridge builders, while the second are on the barricades – this forms the centrepiece of the book. Reading the eight texts, all introduced with entries from Coates’ diary, the message between the lines is clear: Successful African American leadership – personal and political – often ends up sustaining the white supremacy it is trying to combat. Conciliatory approaches and goodwill only benefit the whites, a position to which the Black Lives Matter movement would also subscribe. Coates argues passionately for financial compensation in the chapter «The Case for Reparations».
«Did Barack Obama help Donald Trump into the oval office?»
Hope and Tragedy
When Obama enters the stage and the White House in 2008, Coates is deeply moved. He has never seen anything like it. Here a great leader steps forward, one always referring to himself as black despite his white mother, and who is married to Michelle – a black woman. Unlike Coates he has never had to deal with harassment, has always felt loved by his family and been encouraged to set his sights high. As an African American president, he understands that he can never make a mistake, he must embrace «white innocence» and never play «the race card». But on two occasions he stumbles. The president’s careful comment («It was a stupid act»), referring to the arrest of an African American college lecturer who was trying to get into his own house, was badly received by some white Americans. Later, when the black youngster Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a white man because he «looked like a threat», Obama abandoned his neutrality: «If I’d had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon.» The comment was met with jeers and ridicule by whites.
«A leader of the free world with one main qualification – his white skin.»
Eight years with a black presidential family’s impeccable behaviour – despite drone wars and many political defeats – are matched by eight new years of constant, blatant racism. Thus, the way was paved for what came next: A leader of the free world with one main qualification – his white skin.
«HISTORy provides the framework and gives the author’s attitude a solid foundation.»
Obama had managed to inspire even someone like Malcolm X-Coates with hopes of progress, despite his conviction that «being black in America is being plundered». In the weeks following Trump’s electoral victory, Coates is devastated. He sits in Air Force One with Obama. How is the president’s optimism holding up? Obama responds with his trademark rhetorical skills: «To be an optimist about the long-term perspectives of America doesn’t entail believing that everything will move forwards in one, straight line. It goes forward, sometimes it goes backwards, sometimes sideways, sometimes it zigzags.»
«Eight years with a black presidential family’s impeccable behaviour are matched by eight years of constant, blatant racism.»
Did Barack Obama help Donald Trump into The Oval Office? Or to put it differently: Would it have been better if the US had never had its first African American president? Coates leaves the question unanswered, but the book’s subtitle says it all: An American tragedy.