Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer and blogger for The Atlantic Monthly, wrote an essay entitled “Fear of a Black President” in which, among other things, he described what President Obama’s election means to black people, and especially to black parents. It means that there is literally no upper limit on what black Americans are allowed to achieve. As recently as five years ago, I would not have believed it possible for a black person to be nominated, let alone elected, by either of the two major parties. I take satisfaction as an American that I was proved wrong.
At the same time, as Coates pointed out, Barack Obama is under constant attack based on his race. He is accused, based on no evidence whatsoever, of being a product of affirmative action, of being a Kenyan anti-colonial radical, of hating white people. When Obama said policeman James Crowley’s arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates on trumped-up charges was “stupid,” he was accused of stirring up black people against white people. Given Obama’s difficult situation, Coates wrote, it is understandable that he has not actually done anything to help black people as a group.
I think this is correct. As a matter of pure political calculation, it is more important for him to reassure white people than to stand with black people. The fact that he has shown a black man can be elected President, plus the nature of the attacks made on him as a black man, is enough to assure him the support of the vast majority of African-Americans. So he can afford to turn his back on Van Jones, on Shirley Sherrod and on ACORN, while he would give ammunition to his attackers if he had stood by them.
Obama’s political career, as Coates noted, is based on presenting himself to white people as someone more reasonable than a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton. Obama was not, except for his short and ineffective service as a community organizer, an advocate of the interests and grievances of African-Americans. Rather he was the person who could bring black people and white people together and get them to, if not forget about race, at least put race in the background.
Much has been made of Obama’s connections with the angry preacher Jeremiah Wright, the ex-revolutionary Bill Ayers and the racketeer Tony Renko. Obama is not angry, revolutionary or a racketeer. The significance of these three people is that they are part of the Chicago power structure, which he as an outsider worked his way into, just as he worked his way into the Washington, D.C., power structure.
Obama’s political advancement was based on his ability to convince people in power that what he advocated was reasonable. That is how he persuaded the Illinois state legislature to pass a law requiring police interrogations to be videotaped and made available to juries; that is how he together with Senator John McCain persuaded Congress to create an Internet site on which all earmarked appropriations would be listed. All his speeches—and he is a great speaker—are examples of walking through minefields, of satisfying and reconciling all sides.
My astute friend Oidin pointed out during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama’s advertising and video biography showed him interacting only with white people, not with black people. His black sister did not emerge into the public eye until election night. Many successful black people say they have to purposefully be less forceful than is natural to them, in order that white people not feel threatened by them. President Obama is the prime example of the non-threatening black person—although there are a certain number of white people who will feel threatened by him no matter what he does or doesn’t do.
When I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, it was not in order to do black people a favor. I voted for him because I thought he would stop the country’s drift into perpetual warfare, lawless authoritarianism and economic oligarchy. I thought that merely replacing President George W. Bush would be a change for the better. I was wrong.
I don’t think President Obama is any worse than the leading white Presidential candidates of the past 10 years. Obama built on precedents set by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He probably is no worse than Hillary Clinton or John McCain would have been in his place, let alone Mitt Romney.
But I am not demanding that the black President adhere to a higher standard than a white President. The basic minimum duty of a President is to obey the law and to enforce the law. I would vote for a Gerald Ford if I could count on him to do these two things. President Obama has claimed the power to sign death warrants and commit acts of war based on decisions made in secret according to secret criteria. He has refused to enforce the law against financial fraud or crimes against humanity. The legal and organizational infrastructure for dictatorship exists in the United States, and Obama has not dismantled it. He has strengthened it.
Human rights do not end at the water’s edge. People in targeted areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have as much right as you, me or Trayvon Martin to not be killed based on vague suspicions.
Most of my friends and acquaintances intend to vote for Obama. They tell me it is my responsibility to choose among the options on the table and, if they are all bad, to vote for the least bad. I don’t accept that. If I don’t insist on a candidate who upholds the Constitution and the laws, then I am an enabler for the violation of the Constitution and the laws.
Click on Fear of a Black President for the complete article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic Monthly. It is well worth reading in full.
Click on Vertical Solidarity is nonsense for a rejoiner by “B Psycho” on Psychopolitik.
Click on Why Barack Obama Is the More Effective Evil for an important article by Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report.
Click on The Hard Right Is Paranoid About the Wrong Things for comment by Conor Friedersdorf, another Atlantic writer, on rational and irrational reasons for opposing President Obama.