Is it possible for the U.S. to transcend its racist history? The title of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most recent book – We Were Eight Years in Power – suggests a lost moment, a fumbled opportunity encapsulated in Obama’s presidency. The book itself is more complex (and its criticism of the first black President more stringent) than some of its critics would suggest, but the unspoken message is that racism is an indelible stain, and that whatever dreams of racial harmony Obama might have engendered have been inevitably crushed under the mighty hammer of white supremacy.
It’s a worldview that Coates has been building for a while, and its progression from his last volume, the more intimate Between the World and Me, is evident. In that book he posited himself as the new James Baldwin, updating his hero’s The Fire Next Time for a new generation. Where that book was lyrical and epistolary (taking the form of a letter to his 14-year-old son, as Baldwin’s book had taken the form of letter to his 15-year-old nephew), We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of essays reprinted from his eight years as a staff writer at The Atlantic.
It’s also a collection of influences. There is something refreshing about how open he is about his inspirations, from Malcolm X to Eric Foner, and his citation-laden texts allow readers to follow the threads of his thought to their intellectual precedents. In his essay “Notes From the Third Year” he names Barbara Fields as someone who guided his thoughts on the Civil War. It’s worth reading her thoughts on race (the two of them once shared a stage together for a discussion on the topic) and see how she is sees race as part of a larger matrix of oppression.
Not all white people have the same power and not all white people are in the same class position…We’re living in the midst of the most unrelenting and successful period of class warfare in American history. The targets are working people, all kinds of working people, and the more we allow ourselves to look away from the structural political reasons for it, the more we are helping those who have their feet on our necks.
Fields sees race as a series of arbitrary distinctions conjured by those who had something to gained by conjuring them, a false series of divisions given the veneer of biology, but which owe their societal significance to what she calls “racecraft”—a sort of magic trick by which the ruling class seeks to maintain its own ill-gotten power. Racism begets race, in other words, not vice versa. Compare that to Coates, on the same page he cites Fields no less:
Profits pulled from [slaves], repression of the normal angst of labor, and the ability to employ this labor on abundant land stolen from Native Americans formed a foundation for democratic equality among a people who came to see skin color and hair textures as defining features.
The problem is not that Coates correctly attributes America’s wealth to the unpaid labor of slaves, but that he persistently refuses to acknowledge that innate racial difference, as Fields stresses, is a fiction meant to prop up a fraudulent hierarchy. Only a black/white binary that ignores all class distinction could support the idea that “democratic equality” among white people, which should be news to those unfortunate whites who lost their homes due to subprime mortgages in the 2008 financial crisis (giving them common grievance with a disproportionate number of black families).
One of the most glaring admissions of the book concerns this very crisis. The books most celebrated essay is a powerful call for reparations, and indeed the moments of quiet loss and pain that surface in his portraits of disenfranchised black Americans are testament to his power as a probing interviewer and understated storyteller. Skimming the history of anti-black prejudice in the housing market, the essay ties together racially restrictive covenants, redlining, and lynch mobs to the policy of Wells Fargo preying on black homeowners they referred to as “mud people.” The conclusion—inevitable from such strong evidence—is a public and private conspiracy to cheat and rob black citizens that continues to this day. But what does Coates make of the fact that Obama did so little to help black homeowners avoid foreclosure while gifting Wall Street with a $700 billion bailout?
Adolph Reed (whom, like Barbara Fields, the book cites as an unlikely inspiration) believes his political stance as both unrealistic and overly solicitous of white liberals fan base. In an interview with Doug Henwood, Reed says:
If you grant for the sake of argument that the injuries were highly and explicitly racialized, it does not follow from that that the remedy needs to be of the same coin. And I have not seen Coates or others who make that assertion actually argue for it-i.e. give a concrete and pragmatic explanation of how (the remedy is supposed to) work.
He makes a good point. In place of the massive wealth redistribution intrinsic to socialism, Coates advocates a vague race-based redistributive program that would necessarily rely on some version of the very “one-drop” rule used to subjugate blacks in the first place. And if slave ancestry were the only criteria for receiving reparations, this program would not necessarily benefit those who need it most; Oprah (net worth $2.7 billion) would receive reparations, while a Nigerian immigrant scanning the bar codes of the Oprah’s sponsored food products at a supermarket checkout would not.
These are questions Coates never grapples with, just like he never shows much interest in the aims of socialism that might have appealed to black radicals from Fred Hampton to Angela Davis. Speaking of Bernie Sanders’ platform, Reed asks, “How is a $15 minimum wage not a black issue? How is massive public works employment not a black issue? How is free public college higher education not a black issue?” How indeed?
The word “drone” appears exactly once, and to be fair the characterization is negative (“I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy.”) But in a book approaching 400 pages, covering eight years of a presidency in which Obama authorized ten times more drone strikes than his predecessor, killing hundreds of civilians in multiple countries, is that single denunciation really adequate?
As the Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra writes in his incisive review, the book’s essays “ultimately reveal their author to be safely within the limits of what even a radicalised black man can write in the Atlantic without dissolving the rainbow coalition of liberal imperialism or alienating its patrons.” After all, the magazine’s editor-in-chief is no less a proponent of American imperialism than Jeffrey Goldberg, a former IDF prison guard who admitted to beating Palestinians and who was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the Iraq War.
We Were Eight Years in Power is stunted by a continual unwillingness to follow insights and anecdotes to their larger implications. An essay on the legacy of Malcolm X includes a story about a white cop named Gerry Fulcher. Listening to Malcolm’s wiretapped conversations, Fulcher came around to some of his views about self-improvement through work and education. A page later he compares Malcolm to Obama:
Obama’s moral appeals are warmly received, not because the listenters believe racism has been defeated, but because cutting off your song’s PlayStation speaks to something deep and American in black people-a belief that, by their own hand, they can be made better, they can be made anew.
When Coates situates these arguments in the speech and writing of moral scolds like Bill Cosby and Bill Moynihan, he rightly criticizes it. And there is a section, later in the book, in which he relates this objection to Obama’s face. But there is not much made of the possibility that Obama truly believes the things he was saying, and that his similarity to Malcolm exists largely in this bootstraps conservatism – the same quality that earned the cop’s admiration.
Elsewhere, the book quotes Joseph E. Brown, the former governor of Georgia: “Among us the poor white laborer is respected as an equal.” What’s surprising is that the book takes Brown at his word. In this formulation, white supremacy is not a vehicle for subjugation of the lower classes, but an end in itself. As a scholar of American history, Coates is surely familiar with Bacon’s Rebellion, but he appears to reject the common conclusion: that in their fear of a multiracial alliance among white indentured servants and black slaves, the ruling class provided poor whites with the illusion of superiority in order to sow division.
The same worldview is evident in his essay “My President Was Black,” which presents Trump’s racism as proof that economic considerations are a smokescreen for a deeper truth. The essay excoriates “everyone from leftists to neoliberals to white nationalists” for neglecting to acknowledge that “a significant swatch of this country did not like the fact that their president was black,” which should be news to nearly every leftist and most of the neoliberals who wrote about Obama during his presidency, and who commented endlessly on the racism ingrained in the Tea Party. “Far better to imagine the grievance put upon the president as the ghost of shambling factories and defunct union halls,” he continues sardonically,” as opposed to what it really was – a movement inaugurated by ardent and frightened white capitalists.” The end of this statement is unquestionably true – Trump has always been an avatar of the 1%, and his half-baked appeals to the working class were never more that manipulative sophistry.
But if this demagoguery is, as this passage suggests, an integral part of a ruling class strategy to turn poor whites against blacks, then what is the solution? Could it be that, as Obama himself suggested in his book The Audacity of Hope, that “sustained, broad-based political coalitions [are] needed to transform America” and that “strategies that help all Americans” like decent schools, jobs, and healthcare would “disproportionately help minorities”? Since programs like social security already disproportionately benefit black Americans, isn’t the solution to eliminate racial barriers to these programs, like the kind that left blacks out of the GI Bill?
To Coates, this is a naïve question. There can be no solutions that don’t hinge directly on race, because race, unlike in the work of Adolph Reed and Barbara Fields, is primary and inescapable. There are no solutions, despite what Fred Hampton or Fannie Lou Hamer might have believed. Resistance is futile, and the American racial caste system is intractable (despite the fact that race as we now conceive it didn’t exist several centuries ago). Such a view doesn’t only flatten the differences between black Americans, but between white Americans as well. From this perspective, there is little to no difference between a black UPS driver and a black millionaire, or between white fast food workers and the CEOs who reap the rewards of those workers’ labor. There is black and white, simple as that, and any other considerations do nothing but cloud the picture.