Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates Responds to President Obama

For all the ways we've been reminded lately that racism is alive and doing fairly well in this country, I'd like to ask you to take a moment and consider the fact that a young African American writer is having a conversation with our first African American president about the role of race in our lives and politics today (even if that conversation is happening over distance and time). I'd say that's pretty remarkable.

It all started when President Obama gave a commencement speech at Morehouse College. Ta-Nehisi Coates responded with a critique. Rather than try to summarize all that, I'll just let you go back and review those for yourself.

On Tuesday, President Obama participated in a forum on poverty in America. During the course of the discussion, the moderator (EJ Dionne) asked the President to respond to Coates' critique. Here's a part of what he said:
It’s true that if I’m giving a commencement at Morehouse that I will have a conversation with young black men about taking responsibility as fathers that I probably will not have with the women of Barnard. And I make no apologies for that. And the reason is, is because I am a black man who grew up without a father and I know the cost that I paid for that. And I also know that I have the capacity to break that cycle, and as a consequence, I think my daughters are better off.

And that is not something that—for me to have that conversation does not negate my conversation about the need for early childhood education, or the need for job training, or the need for greater investment in infrastructure, or jobs in low-income communities.
On Wednesday, Coates responded. He basically made two arguments. First of all, he points to the President's statement about the need for both/and rather than either/or when it comes to moral arguments about responsibility and policy solutions. He sees a difference in how the two are addressed. On the moral questions, President Obama specifically targets those messages to African Americans. But he takes a different approach when it comes to policies.
Obama’s policy message to African Americans does not enjoy this level of targeted specificity. Instead he endorses the sort of broad policies which most progressives support—criminal justice reform, “investment in infrastructure,” improved healthcare coverage, “jobs in low-income communities.”...

I endorse all of these initiatives and ideas—but not because they are targeted policy. They are not. And you will hear no policy targeted toward black people coming out of the Obama White House, or probably any White House in the near future. That is because the standard progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy.
On the surface, this is a good point. But then one begins to ponder what a "targeted policy" would look like. How does a president go about crafting criminal justice reform targeted only at African Americans? It seems to me that targeted policies only make sense in the context that Coates wrote about so powerfully a few months ago when he addressed the question of reparations. If Coates and Obama ever have the opportunity to talk directly with each other, addressing that would be a fascinating follow-up.

Coates' second point about the President's remarks is simply wrong.
This affliction is not solely Obama’s. Consider that in a conversation about poverty, featuring America’s first black president, one of its most accomplished progressive political scientists, and one of its most important liberal columnists, the word “racism” does not appear in the transcript once. That is because the progressive approach to policy which directly addresses the effects of white supremacy is simple—talk about class and hope no one notices.

This is not a “both/and.” It is a bait and switch. The moral failings of black people are directly addressed. The centuries-old failings of their local, state, and federal government, less so. One need not imagine what a “both/and” approach might sound like, to understand why a president of the United States can’t actually offer one.
If Coates was assuming that the only way to do that was for the President to channel Malcolm X (what he linked to), of course he's going to be disappointed. But there was one point in the panel discussion when I actually clapped and said, "YES!" particularly because President Obama addressed the historical context of African Americans and poverty. It all happened prior to the point when Dionne asked the President to address Coates' previous critiques. Here's an extensive quote so you get the context.
And when I read Bob’s book, the first thing that strikes you is when he’s growing up in Ohio, he’s in a community where the banker is living in reasonable proximity to the janitor at the school. The janitor’s daughter may be going out with the banker’s son. There are a set of common institutions...and all the things that stitch them together. And that is all contributing to social mobility and to a sense of possibility and opportunity for all kids in that community...

And what’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better -- more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages -- are withdrawing from sort of the commons..An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together. And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids...

Now, one other thing I’ve got to say about this is that even back in Bob’s day that was also happening. It’s just it was happening to black people. And so, in some ways, part of what’s changed is that those biases or those restrictions on who had access to resources that allowed them to climb out of poverty...all those things were foreclosed to a big chunk of the minority population in this country for decades.

And that accumulated and built up. And over time, people with less and less resources, more and more strains -- because it’s hard being poor. People don’t like being poor. It’s time-consuming’ it’s stressful. It’s hard...So all that was happening 40 years ago to African Americans. And now what we’re seeing is that those same trends have accelerated and they’re spreading to the broader community.
I have to say that simply because the President didn't use the word "racism" doesn't mean he didn't address it's importance in the context of a conversation about poverty.

Overall I appreciate the role Coates is playing in pushing this conversation. But I always get the feeling he's frustrated with something and I can't quite figure out what it is. Perhaps its the same frustration commenter Sheba Lo shared on my post about Michelle Obama's speech at Tuskegee.
How long will blk folks have to prepare their children to live in a racist America...
Now THAT's a frustration that I can understand!


  1. But I always get the feeling he's frustrated with something and I can't quite figure out what it is

    They have a completely different relationship with fatherhood and their own families, for one, even though they both make it a point to talk about getting married and raising their kids right. Also, all black people are not obligated to ultimately think as one and jack each other off over how much they can stir the heart with poetry and teach the kids to love and forgive and heal the world forever. You can watch TNC grow colder and more detached from where he was seven years ago, immersed in more global pursuits (French, general "worldliness") and a completely unsentimental opinion on the history of America and the tenacity of progressive reform. Mysteriously, the President does not agree with Coates that his agenda in office is a hopeless cause and that black people will be little better off in the long run for his efforts.

    TNC would say you're dead wrong in highlighting what you highlight. If we accept Obama's premise, white America got so out of control in its racist weaponry that they turned some of it on itself and self-sabotaged, creating the space for new action. And now his lift-all-boats repairs will covertly bring blacks along where previous efforts failed. And Coates just laughs and argues that even if white economics are healed, black boats simply don't rise with the tide and keep getting sunk to white supremacy. And as long as even the good-intentioned out there play their public roles in explaining just What's Wrong with Black People today, it's all a big political farce. One is an optimist, one is kind of a nihilist.

    Alternatively: TNC is just jealous of PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (PREACH) and then something, something, everyone starts arguing about who the real Tom is...

    1. Was this intended to be sarcasm? Respectfully, go fuck yourself! The reality is that there is nothing this President can do or say to please the do-nothing Black Intellectual crowd. Period. They'll never be pleased at anything he says or does so why bother. They're no different from the far left whiny White purity liberals in media ---whom sit on the sidelines & do nothing but complain.

      Coates tells Black folks to sit out during the midterm elections then expects the President to put on a cape & cowl & single handily save the hood--Get real.

      I don't remember Coates pushing for Black Community targeted jobs programs in the Stimulus fight---instead he railed against its' price tag. Foolish.

      I don't remember Coates making the minority case for healthcare reform---instead he railed against it despite it's success in decreasing the Black uninsured rate. Way to go there!

      I don't remember Coates supporting the need for sensible Gun Control Laws in 2013---instead he railed against it & questioned Obama's intentions for wanting to do something about it in the first place. Way to contribute there!

      I don't remember Coates cosigning PBO's plans to encourage White business Ceo's to hire more Black workers ---Coates didn't bother to speak up.

      Whether Coates & other Black critics of the President are jealous or not; their critiques hold no real weight & fall on deaf ears if their personal actions/statements don't actually contribute to resolving the actual problems that persists. They [his critics both White & Black] are irrelevant until they are more willing to get their hands dirty & fight for the causes they "proclaim" to believe in. Practice what you preach.

      PBO continues to work for people/progress despite obstacles while Coates & his ilk continue to work for a paycheck. Who's the "Tom" again??

    2. I think you just made my point.

      Because when one thinks of TNC, one immediately thinks of gun control (wtf) and his election coverage.

  2. Indeed, their experiences with fatherhood are quite different. One, as he but a few days ago pointed out, didn't have one. The other does. But, even at that Coates' dad, quite openly, had two families. The impact of growing up in either fashion certainly would be and is significant.

    We've talked about this before, Nancy. And, you may recall, I was at the Morehouse commencement two years ago as it was my 40th reunion time. He, actually, talked about a number of things. But, for this matter that tends, it seems to often rub Coates the wrong way, it is important to note that those graduates didn't see it like that. They, in fact, were on his every word. Eventually, it became rather like "Church" with the call and response approach going back and forth between PBO and the grads (and the audience). It's two years later. I've actually been looking to see if I can find ANYthing from ANY of those grads that he was speaking directly to that would line up with Coates' critique. The crickets continue to chirp.

    I think the words of my friend Jack White continue to apply. "White people will have to get used to someone black running the country. Black people will, too".

    PBO is NOT a Civil Rights leader And, that, to me, is what the (from Coates and others) is what that frustration is about.

    1. PBO is NOT a Civil Rights leader And, that, to me, is what the (from Coates and others) is what that frustration is about.

      Nailed it!!!

      Did you see that the White House Blog listed their 5 favorite commencement addresses - and at the top of the list was PBO's at Morehouse? Of course, Michelle Obama's at Tuskegee made the list too.

      My response was that I would include PBO's commencement address at Notre Dame. When he went there - he focused on the issue of abortion, a VERY hot topic there. So he challenges the audience he is speaking to. Coates thinks he only does that with African Americans...because he doesn't listen to the other stuff.

  3. Well, I don't know if he doesn't listen to the other stuff, but, indeed, my observation is much the same. PBO challenges the audience he addresses ("take your house slippers off...." remember how THAT challenge was met?? Maxine Waters was spittin' nails). And, no...I had not seen that link at the White House Blog (thank ya for that heads up and link). But, now that I have (and I know you didn't miss this) but LOOK at that picture of those young men (I was further over to the right of that one). IN THE RAIN (it, literally, started raining as he started to get into his address). Let those who have eyes to see, see for yourselves. Do those look like insulted young men to you (and it's hard to say that this was toward the end of his speech as those over 500 young men were standing up and "Amenin' and saluting throughout). Again - IN THE RAIN.

    Coates is impressive. Don't want to take anything away from him. But, I do wish he'd leave this poor chicken alone. Sincerely hope these two can meet. After PBO is finished with actively being President would not be too late, either.

  4. "The reality is that there is nothing this President can do or say to please the do-nothing Black Intellectual crowd. Period. They'll never be pleased at anything he says or does so why bother."

    ^^Spot on Mario.

  5. See also Obama's speech on inequality from Dec. 2013:

    And if, in fact, the majority of Americans agree that our number one priority is to restore opportunity and broad-based growth for all Americans, the question is, why has Washington consistently failed to act? And I think a big reason is the myths that have developed around the issue of inequality. First, there is the myth that this is a problem restricted to a small share of predominantly minority poor. This isn’t a broad-based problem; this is a black problem or Hispanic problem or a Native American problem. Now, it’s true that the painful legacy of discrimination means that African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans are far more likely to suffer from a lack of opportunity -- higher unemployment, higher poverty rates. It’s also true that women still make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. So we’re going to need strong application of anti-discrimination laws. We’re going to need immigration reform that grows the economy and takes people out of the shadows. We’re going to need targeted initiatives to close those gaps.