Thursday, August 23, 2012

Coates on the Martin/Malcolm struggle in the age of Obama

If you have any curiosity about what racism means in the age of Obama, you MUST - and I mean MUST - read Ta-Nehisi Coates' cover story in the latest edition of the Atlantic titled Fear of a Black President.

After reading it myself, I thought that the best thing I could do was link it, tweet it, and share it with my friends. Its a long complex piece and I feared that writing about it would do nothing more than demean the depths to which Coates takes us.

But then I watched the video embedded in the article where Atlantic editor Scott Stossel interviewed Coates. The things Stossel chose to talk about seemed to represent the triviality that tends to become so much the focus for many white progressives. I decided that this white girl - who is still in the process of learning about these kinds of things from people like Coates - needed to throw her take-aways from the article out there as an alternative. So here goes...

Coates starts out by telling the story of the murder of Trayvon Martin and notes the fact that initially it was cause for mourning from all sides...until President Obama said that "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." Then all political hell broke lose.
The moment Obama spoke, the case of Trayvon Martin passed out of its national-mourning phase and lapsed into something darker and more familiar—racialized political fodder...

For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.

No amount of rhetorical moderation could change this. It did not matter that the president addressed himself to “every parent in America.” His insistence that “everybody [pull] together” was irrelevant. It meant nothing that he declined to cast aspersions on the investigating authorities, or to speculate on events. Even the fact that Obama expressed his own connection to Martin in the quietest way imaginable—“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”—would not mollify his opposition. It is, after all, one thing to hear “I am Trayvon Martin” from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.
KABOOM! THE POWER WAS BLACK...that's the story. It was one thing for white folks to grant legislative equality to black folks, as in the victories of the Civil Rights movement. Its a whole other thing for black folks to grab the power and run things. That sets off a whole different kind of fear in white people. And its the challenge President Obama has taken on.

So Barack Obama has power. To me, the crux of what Coates is writing about is how he got it and what he's doing with it.

After addressing some of the historical and present-day manifestations of racism, Coates gets to the heart of what I think is his own struggle with President Obama.
Obama offered black America a convenient narrative that could be meshed with the larger American story. It was a narrative premised on Crispus Attucks, not the black slaves who escaped plantations and fought for the British; on the 54th Massachusetts, not Nat Turner; on stoic and saintly Rosa Parks, not young and pregnant Claudette Colvin; on a Christlike Martin Luther King Jr., not an avenging Malcolm X.
I've seen this battle in Coates before. Here's how he talked about it shortly after Obama was elected.
Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.
Coates might not be sucking his teeth anymore, but you can tell that the battle between the non-violent King and avenging Malcolm still rages on.

And why wouldn't it? I talked about this once in an article I wrote about What it means to be the first Black President...getting your buttons pushed. Here's a quote from Daily Kos writer Vyan that I used in that one.
Black People hear these Dog-Whistles. They know what they mean.

And they also know that all of these little attacks are intended to Goad them. To make them lose their cool, to make them lose their temper, to make them look irrational and angry.

The Irrational, Paranoid, Screaming Angry Black Man.

That's what they want to turn Obama into. The Angry Black President.

They want him to start Complaining and Whining about the Republicans not treating him nicely. They want him to start "Playing the Race" Card, just so that they throw it right back at him.

And that's also why he resists. It may be infuriating. It may be crazy making. But this is the double-bind that many Black people have had to face all the time when these slights and broadsides come at them with racial undertones, but few clear or logical overtones...

I've lived with that internal, mental battle my entire life - and I very nearly have reached the "Fuck IT/FUCK YOU!" point more than once. Generally speaking, it didn't help much.

That's not the road Obama intends or needs to go down, sorry.
All of that reminds me of a spoken word performance by Daniel Beaty. I first found this one years ago and hesitate to post it because I know that the language is likely to offend some. So if you would rather not hear a black man use the "n" word, perhaps you should skip past this one. But I think it captures this struggle in an incredibly powerful way.

Its not for me or anyone else to suggest how African Americans (and other people of color) should resolve this struggle - but to be aware of its existence and our role in perpetuating it.

In this article, Coates is both admiring and raging against his perception that President Obama has chosen the side of the "nerd" in this struggle. He knows that is the only way America can countenance a black president - and yet the rage, even at that, rages on.
In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.

And yet this is the uncertain foundation of Obama’s historic victory—a victory that I, and my community, hold in the highest esteem. Who would truly deny the possibility of a black presidency in all its power and symbolism? Who would rob that little black boy of the right to feel himself affirmed by touching the kinky black hair of his president.

Yep, I think that's what its all about...Barack Obama has made the calculation that he'll do whatever it is he has to so that maybe one day little black boys and girls have the chance to grow up without all the rage.



  1. I will have to print out the Coates article and read it on the train.

    Thanks for that fantastic video by the way.

  2. A Republican Party official admits they don't want black people to vote.

  3. I grew up in a world that was 100% white. No blacks, no Mexicans, no Asians, not even any Natives.

    I have many times in the past argued with people, mostly white, that we're all racist. That racism is a part of being human. I argue that all the isms exist with in all of us, and when we acknowledge these things in us, when we take ownership of our weaknesses and insecurities, we can then have the power of choice and control. Yes, I'm a racist and I know it. But I'm not going to let the ugliness take control of me, so I choose to not let my racism be who I am, or what I'm about. When circumstances come up in which I feel those old childhood insecurities of race, I don't hide from it or deny it. I own it then make the decision to not let my insecurities make me into an ass hole.

    Besides, one aspect of racism is that we ARE different, and this is a good thing! Celebrate those different heritages and cultures, and in doing so put the shame and fear away.

    Usually when I argue that we're all racist, a few will steadfastly demand that they are not. I reply, if you see a man walking down the street, do you notice if he's a Black man? Or a Native, or a Mexican or Asian? If you can look at another human being and not see their race, then you are not racist. But as I said before, celebrate the differences, which means if you are not racists, then that's also too bad.

    Being a racist doesn't require being an ass hole anymore than being an ass hole has anything to do with race! And yes, we all can get along, just as soon as we make the decision that we will.

    I think you're good people SP. Thanks for the post.

  4. Oh, and one more thing.
    I shamelessly stole your Daniel Beaty video and will share it with my crew on FB, just as soon as FB comes to the conclusion that I'm not one of the bad guys.

  5. I think I'll spice up your comments section with a little respectful disagreement, smarty (and sincerely, highest respect).

    What Coates et. al. fail to understand is that PBO is not in office to usher in a post-racial America. He can't and he won't, therefore they need to let that particular fantasy go.

    While PBO is very accomplished re: civil rights (see the DOJ's prosecution of police Katrina murders for one example of too many to count), and his election is an undeniable civil rights milestone, PBO is not Civil Rights Activist in Chief.

    He is the President of the United States with a very specific job and a terrible set of working conditions (due to an inherited economy in major distress, much of the media which is toxic, and unprecedented GOP bad faith). He has competently performed that job by minimizing the impact of the toxicity and choosing to not play a part in the Shaft theater so desired by reactionaries on both ends of the ideological spectrum.

    In other words, he's the POTUS, he aint the entertainment, and anyone upset that PBO uses his common sense and doesn't spend all day raging against obvious injustice, preferring to work to correct it instead, is simply going to have to get over it.

    And IMO, PBO interjected himself into the Trayvon Martin case when a "debate" was raging about whether Trayvon had it coming, because after all, everyone knows "they all kill each other anyway, where's all the outcry for black on black crime?" and in his hoodie, Trayvon must have "looked like a thug." PBO said, no, he looked like the *son of a United States President.* That was his point. And indeed, the right wing lost their minds and turned a child murderer (and alleged molester) into a cause celebre (IMO, for political alongside racist reasons; I followed the Justice For Trayvon movement closely, and there were repeatedly articulated fears expressed by the right that PBO would find some way to ingratiate himself to, and capitalize from, the energy of the teens of color who largely drove that movement).

    My two. Happy Friday, and I love your blog.

    1. Howdy gn!

      I guess I didn't get from Coates that he was suggesting that Obama should be the "Civil Rights Activist in Chief." I think that if you read that last quote from him that I used, he's instead pointing out the racism in this country that places such limits on the kind of black person we are willing to accept. And its that racism that leads to the internal struggle I see Coates, Vyan and Beaty all speaking to.

      I'll leave it to you and Coates to disagree on the context in which Obama talked about Trayvon. But there's no way anyone can doubt that the MINUTE Obama has ever stepped into an issue that directly involves race (I think not only of Trayvon, but of the Gates incident, Shirley Sherrod and Van Jones) - everything about the incident blows up out of all proportion.

    2. PS, I just want to add that when I hear Coates speak of the Martin/Malcolm struggle within himself, I think he's capturing the essence of how racism plays out in this age of Obama.

    3. Yes, I def. agree with you in that because the person who is the most qualified to be POTUS at this moment in time is a black man, the issue of race has become explosive within the political realm and in order to do his job competently, PBO indeed has to be careful about playing into the hands of regressives. I just don't see how one can acknowledge that reality, and then turn around and call the WH "cowardly" for their admitted mishandling of Sherrod, as does Coates. Seems like the same doublestandards which Coates derides, he traffics in himself. Coates recently ended a piece in the NYT describing PBO as "the man Cheney imagined himself to be" after denouncing PBO's drone attacks. It's a bridge too far for me to see this same person waxing poetic about black men getting a bum rap while he participates in promoting such a narrative (I don't care what one may think of the drones, Barack Obama is absolutely nothing like Dick "carve up Iraqi oil fields and falsify intelligence" Cheney imagined, thought, or wanted to be. I'm sure that plenty of people disagree with me and my opinion will likely be an outlier on most blogs, just my two cents.

    4. I actually wrote about what Coates said in the NYT piece - and took him to task rather strongly for it.

      I see it as part of the struggle he's working through in this article. I admire him for putting that struggle out there because I think its something an awful lot of African Americans feel very deeply. Its the position that racism puts them into.

    5. Although it's true that Obama is President of the United States, he can't escape the issue of racism. Especially since a large number of the public views him along racial lines.

      If anything, gn, Coates' article, when taken in context, with everything else he's written, is a description of the struggle he's grappling with. It's a struggle I deal with as well.

      And actually, when you think about, African-Americans have been debating this amongst ourselves since our ancestors were freed from slavery.

      When do you accommodate and when do you confront? This question has always been at the heart of African-American struggle in this country.

    6. nabsentia23 - I see the part of the struggle that is between when to accommodate and when to confront.

      But if - for example - you put this to the question of Martin/Malcolm - its more of a question about HOW to confront.

      I think that's important because it opens up the possible conversation about how Obama is not just accommodating but confronting in a different way.

  6. Interesting post. I'm definitely going to read the Coates article.

    As an African-American, I'm also aware of the struggle between MLK and Malcolm X. However, there will be times when an issue is too massive for just one solution. Racism is such an issue. Both MLK and Malcolm X addressed different aspects of racism. Although I favor Malcolm over MLK; MLK accomplished a lot more on the national scene. Meanwhile, Malcolm dealt more with the internal issues among African-Americans.

    To me, these two men actually complement each other despite the fact that when they were alive, they disagreed on methods. MLK rightfully dealt with the laws and customs of segregation. He also exposed American segregation to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Malcolm dealt with how African-Americans internalize racial animosity and its effects on our communities, families, and own personal identities.

    Both of these avenues are necessary in dealing with racism. Combating segregation and legalized abuse of black people only goes so far if you don't address the issues of black identity and consciousness. Racism doesn’t just have a societal impact, but a personal one as well. It affects how you view yourself and the world around you. If you have internalized a good deal of the racism directly towards you; it would be very difficult for you to then ask for more equality legally and socially. However, just dealing with black identity and consciousness alone without addressing the legal and overall social framework of the country has its limits, too. Even if you choose to segregate yourself from those who oppress you (just as Malcolm X advocated earlier in his political life) you are still not protected from the laws, regulations, and overall social customs that allow for your oppression.

    And President Obama has to hold both of these energies. Just like Coates, I, too have also wished Obama would "go off" on those who disrespect him. But, just as Dave Chappelle use to say, "You've got to pick your spots." Chappelle even had a recurring segment on his TV show called, "When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong." He was right. Dead right.

    Besides, these two men were impacted by racism in different ways. This has a lot to do with how they chose to address it and even their view of white people. MLK came from an educated background while Malcolm X was a gangster serving time in jail before joining the Nation of Islam. That has to be taken into consideration when understanding where these two came from.

    1. I really appreciate this thoughtful comment. It points out how I have probably trivialized the differences between Martin and Malcolm in order to make them symbols for the struggle I see Coates describing.

    2. The differences between Martin and Malcolm have been trivialized for a long time. It's part of the "boxing match" the media has played when it comes to black leaders.

      The fact remains that despite what disagreements I may have with some of them, most black leaders have contributed something to the struggle. And it doesn't have to be all one way or the other. As said before, racism is a complex issue that requires attention on different levels.

    3. I believe this is one of the contributions Coates makes to this discussion (as well as Vyan and Beaty) - by showing us that the difference is not always demonstrated between two people, but is often a struggle within each one.

  7. One more thing...

    Our society (through the media) has a funny tendency to pit black leaders against one another by presenting one leader as the “acceptable” option while the other as the “dangerous” one. Before MLK vs. Malcolm X, it was Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B Dubois. More recently, it has been Jesse Jackson vs. Louis Farrakhan. Even, Al Sharpton has been pitted against Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan from time to time. Although, I don’t like either Jackson or Farrakhan, I can see beyond the media “match up." At least I learned more about both Jackson and Farrakhan on my own instead of just relying on the media to give me the "acceptable" option.

    1. When you read Coates' article, you'll see that he walks through much of that history and its mot recent iteration in Obama/Wright.

      The other angle on how those divisions have been politically exploited is in attempting to blur the lines between the two approaches - in other words, to suggest that Obama IS Wright.

    2. Yep, Obama/Wright is yet another example of the media pitting two black leaders against one another with a twist.

      Washington, Dubois, Jackson, Farrakhan, Jackson, Malcolm and yes, even MLK all have or had political influence to varying degrees. But, President Obama has actual political power. So what would have been Obama vs. Wright in a previous generation is now Obama = Wright. There were attempts to blur the lines between the two approaches in previous times, but not like this.

      Despite Obama's political power is not absolute or imperial, his living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW scares many people into believing he's like Jeremiah Wright. Just running for POTUS and winning was itself a confrontational and extremely radical move akin to anything Wright may have said or did. And not only did Obama run and win, but he's following his own lead.


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