[Note: With the recent media coverage of To Kill a Mockingbird being removed from middle-school required reading in Mississippi, I am posting below a discussion from January 2017 of the failures of the novel in the context of the Obama presidency, now even more relevant under Trump.]
White progressives, academics, and book lovers were all atwitter on social media because in his farewell address, Barack Obama quoted from literature:
Similar to my concern about Michelle Obama’s comments on education and teachers, my response to this excitement was tempered:
During the praise tour for the Obamas, I have taken this stance on social media:
Praise for Michelle and Barack Obama has begun as Obama’s presidency comes to an end. That praise poses a few problems: Praise is warranted, must be supported against the inherent racism that demands perfection from minorities and not from white males. However Michelle and Barack have allowed, supported policies that contradict the often wonderful rhetoric, notably about education. Michelle’s recent praise of teachers and the power of education is hard to let lie since Obama’s 8 years have been horrible for education. The policies and rhetoric from the DOE/SOE have been horrible for black, brown, poor students since they have fed deficit ideology. Let us be careful to honor but not idealize, not gloss over the failure of policy beneath the veneer of rhetoric.
Here, I want to deal directly with the paradox of race surrounding Obama’s presidency as that is reflected in Obama’s choice to quote Atticus Finch and not, for example, the essays of James Baldwin or the literature and public commentary of Toni Morrison.
This is offered specifically to white people, in the context of my awareness and rejecting of whitesplaining, and as an ally to all people seeking racial equity in a country that denies its racism daily.
Also this is informed by the wide spectrum of reactions to Obama and his role in confronting racism in the U.S. Black academics and intellectuals are not uniform in how to assess Obama, not uniform in either praise or criticism of Obama.
A powerful touchstone for Obama and race/racism in the U.S. has been Ta-Nehisi Coates’s My President Was Black.
Cottom offers a wonderful and nuanced response, but concludes:
The essay is also infuriating. It attributes so much of Obama’s improbable presidency to his inimitable faith in white Americans’ higher self, something I can only describe as Obama’s painful rejection of black folks’ agency. The theory that Obama could be elected president because his white family had imbued him with an authentic love for and faith in white people that the typical black American does not have is intuitive but wrong. I suspect, given Obama’s own words over hours of conversations with Coates, that he believes he really does have some special insight into white people’s better angels. Nothing is more emblematic of the problem with this theory than Obama’s assessment of Donald Trump’s election chances to Coates: “He couldn’t win.” Obama’s faith in white Americans is not better insight into their soul where, presumably the mythical “racist bones” can be found. Obama’s faith, like the theory that it made Obama’s presidency possible, misunderstands race as something black folks can choose without white folks’ assent. White voters allowed Barack Obama because they allowed him to exist as a projection of themselves. It is seductive to believe Obama could shape that in some way, much less control and direct it. But, as Coates details in painful case after case of political obstructionism among Democrats and Republicans during the first black president’s terms, Obama never had the ability to shape white people’s attitudes. White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.
But Darity is more pointed:
I had a queasy feeling about Barack Obama’s candidacy from the moment I heard his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that lifted him into national prominence, a speech that Coates summarizes in the profile. Toward the end of the speech Obama observed that black families in urban centers realized “that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn... that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” “The acting white” libel ― a myth that will not die ― argues that low school performance for black students is a product of a culturally based black opposition to high academic achievement.
Among these many diverse and critical voices ― and the rhetorical legacy of Obama ― I feel both nervous about expressing and compelled to address how Obama choosing Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird to quote offers yet another reason to believe Cottom’s “White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.”
My short response is Obama has been successful and effective (admitting reasonable people may disagree about what “effective” means) because he is the type of person who knows to quote TKAM when trying to persuade whites about the need to overcome racism.
My longer response must address why white people are so enamored with Finch and TKAM: Like Obama, it is a middle-class and respectable way to confront something very ugly and likely not to be changed by that politeness.
With the controversial posthumous publishing of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, most people fell prey to the debate about Finch as a racist in that prequel and ignored the long critical examination of TKAM and Finch as a failed work on race and racism that is enduring because white privilege loves the white savior narrative, which is the foundational element of TKAM (see Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s Walking in Another’s Skin: Failure of Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird).
“In many ways, Atticus’s subtle racism in Mockingbird is the story’s brilliance,” explains Catherine Nicols.
That “subtle racism,” notes Jennifer Polish, appeals to the Left:
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is widely valorized as a “progressive” book. And this is the larger problem with the book and with Atticus’s character and racism ― Atticus was always positioned as a white savior.
And Osamudia R. James adds the need to re-consider TKAM (a call that may be equally relevant to how we praise and critique Obama):
Atticus Finch presented an enduring model to which many white liberals still cling. But besides being a fictional character, Atticus Finch is a myth. And a dangerous myth because he keeps good white liberals from reconsidering the fact that they live in white neighborhoods; from challenging administrators about the racial segregation of their children’s schools or white supremacy advanced in the curriculum; or from acknowledging how they benefit from a system that keeps people of color laboring in their homes but excluded from their social and professional spaces. Like Finch, it is sufficient that they simply “do their best to love everybody.”
James concludes then:
It would be easier to ignore “Watchman” and stick to white saviors and the triumph of individual values over structural oppression. But if we choose this account, racism is not overcome, black children still encounter anti-blackness at their schools, and whites ― despite their individual goodness ― remain complicit in it all.
It now seems unlikely that Obama’s presidency (at least a significant symbolic moment in race for the U.S.) or the rise of Trump and the concurrent normalization of white supremacy will prompt an impactful reconsideration of race/racism in the country either.
In fact, it seems that the circumstances have been reduced so that we must cling with glee in some way to Obama’s anemic confrontation of race, tempered by the conventional expectations of respectability and governed by white privilege.
Just as the white savior myth needs to be retired from literature and pop culture, the role of white privilege must be eradicated, allowing the equity of all spaces for everyone.
I am skeptical that appeasing white privilege is the course needed for that to occur.
I am nervous about incrementalism ― the belief that Obama is a necessity along the path to racial equity.
I am fearful that Obama’s symbolic and rhetorical moment in history has spawned the worst sort of backlash, one we could not have imagined—or one that whites were unable to imagine while mired in the white savior myth, the lie of post-racial America, and the delusion that systemic racism is not fed by virtually every single white person.
Despite the good that Michelle and Barack Obama have fostered for this country, today we are still being asked to tip-toe around the sensibilities of racists ― not to call racism “racism,” racists “racists.”
This, I am certain, is not progress.