Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of our most incisive contemporary voices on race, has done a great public service with his latest offering in The Atlantic, a powerful exploration of the racial fault lines that President Barack Obama must perpetually negotiate, limiting his potency on a range of crucial issues.
In Coates' telling, Obama -- himself a gifted thinker on race -- has been rendered mute on the subject through a tacit bargain with white America, forged as the price of admission to the White House: He could become the nation's first black president provided that his blackness was an incidental feature of his identity, and provided that he avoided striking the posture of the angry black man whose image still fills the uneasy imaginations of many white Americans.
"Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House," Coates writes, "but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president."
Coates' essay is primarily concerned with revealing the racist conceptions that are deeply intertwined in the political opposition to Obama. He lays bare the roots of anti-black racism that were a defining feature of American democracy at its inception, and have remained in various guises ever since. His piece makes a convincing case that Obama bears an unfair burden to be "twice as good," while eschewing uncomfortable talk about race. This has constrained his ability to discuss and address racial injustice in the prosecution of drug crimes, incarceration, housing policy and job opportunities, to pick merely the most obvious examples.
"Politicized rage has marked the opposition to Obama," Coates asserts. "But the rules of our racial politics require that Obama never respond in like fashion," yielding "a presidency that must never betray any sign of rage toward its white opposition."
In short, Coates is pulling back the curtains on Obama's natural opponents -- white Americans steeped in the notion that the country is inherently white, and attached to white privilege, the sort of people you might find in the Tea Party or challenging Obama's American citizenship. But as I read his piece, I found myself thinking about another group of white Americans that has stuck Obama with an unfair, race-based double standard. Not those who oppose him, but self-identified progressives who once celebrated him with abandon.
For these white Americans, Obama's ascendance was both a sign that their America was a better place than they had previously imagined, enabling an unfamiliar feeling of patriotism that has generally been off-limits to those who decry slavery, Jim Crow, the incarceration rates of young African American men, the Trayvon Martin shooting, and the continued stop-and-frisk policies on the streets of New York.
Here was Obama, enabling progressive white people to revel in a landmark in racial enlightenment, one in which the achieving was being done by white Americans as much as black Americans. We white people could feel a little less lousy about our role in both history and present.
But something else was at work, too, in this white celebration of Obama, a mostly positive racial stereotype of black men yet a stereotype nonetheless: Here was an African American politician who would rectify injustice and champion the cause of equality. Obama would stick it to the man.
"Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred," Coates writes. "It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others."
Among some white progressives, Obama was endowed with "broad sympathy" that stuck him with a certain imagined historical responsibility. This black man powerful enough and inspiring enough to take the White House provoked thoughts of militancy and radicalism -- a kind of positive spin on the fearful composite of black rage that Coates describes as resident in white American consciousness.
And when it turned out that Obama was not into playing that role -- he would not be the sort of black president imagined by white guys who congratulate themselves for reading the collected works of Malcolm X., listening to John Coltrane and Jay-Z, getting the inner meaning of Dave Chappelle, and appreciating the films of Spike Lee -- some white progressives turned on him. Not merely for his policies, which were fair game, but for his failure to be the sort of black man they thought they had elected.
I first became aware of this when people I knew -- people with advanced degrees and influential jobs -- began casually tossing around the term "Uncle Tom," to describe Obama, as we decried his bank friendly economic policies and his seemingly naïve efforts to forge consensus with the Republicans.
One might have said that Obama was a shill for high finance, a charge that could be applied to any politician regardless of race. One might have questioned Obama's manhood, using some metaphor of weakness, which would have been unfortunate, but at least applicable to half the population. But, no, he was an Uncle Tom, a metaphor that involved calling the president a house slave.
Coates demonstrates how Obama bears the double standard of having to be more civil than white politicians while avoiding tripping the alarms of white Americans not fully at peace with the idea of a black man living down the street, let alone at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In this crowd, Obama gets to be president so long as he manages to be not so black.
But these white progressives I have in mind add another unfortunate layer of unfairness. They are annoyed with Obama not merely because of his policy choices, but because, in their view, he isn't black enough -- or at least, not black in the sort of in your face way they had hoped for.
That's a lot of stuff for any human being to have to take on in the course of any job, let alone a job as demanding as the presidency.