“My President Was Black” — An excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s thoughts on the legacy of Barack Obama.
Last spring, I went to the White House to meet the president for lunch. I arrived slightly early and sat in the waiting area. I was introduced to a deaf woman who worked as the president’s receptionist, a black woman who worked in the press office, a Muslim woman in a head scarf who worked on the National Security Council, and an Iranian American woman who worked as a personal aide to the president. This receiving party represented a healthy cross section of the people Donald Trump had been mocking, and would continue to spend his campaign mocking. At the time, the president seemed untroubled by Trump. When I told Obama that I thought Trump’s candidacy was an explicit reaction to the fact of a black president, he said he could see that, but then enumerated other explanations. When assessing Trump’s chances, he was direct: He couldn’t win.
This assessment was born out of the president’s innate optimism and unwavering faith in the ultimate wisdom of the American people—the same traits that had propelled his unlikely five-year ascent from Illinois state senator to U.S. senator to leader of the free world.* The speech that launched his rise, the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, emerged right from this logic. He addressed himself to his “fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, independents,” all of whom, he insisted, were more united than they had been led to believe. America was home to devout worshippers and Little League coaches in blue states, civil libertarians and “gay friends” in red states. The presumably white “counties around Chicago” did not want their taxes burned on welfare, but they didn’t want them wasted on a bloated Pentagon budget either. Inner-city black families, no matter their perils, understood “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.”
Perceived differences were the work of “spinmasters and negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’ ” Real America had no use for such categorizations. By Obama’s lights, there was no liberal America, no conservative America, no black America, no white America, no Latino America, no Asian America, only “the United States of America.” All these disparate strands of the American experience were bound together by a common hope:
It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a mill worker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.
This speech ran counter to the history of the people it sought to address. Some of those same immigrants had firebombed the homes of the children of those same slaves. That young naval lieutenant was an imperial agent for a failed, immoral war. American division was real. In 2004, John Kerry did not win a single southern state. But Obama appealed to a belief in innocence—in particular a white innocence—that ascribed the country’s historical errors more to misunderstanding and the work of a small cabal than to any deliberate malevolence or widespread racism. America was good. America was great.
Over the next 12 years, I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history. He was phenomenal—the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people. This was the core of his 2004 keynote, and it marked his historic race speech during the 2008 campaign at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center—and blinded him to the appeal of Trump. (“As a general proposition, it’s hard to run for president by telling people how terrible things are,” Obama once said to me.)
But if the president’s inability to cement his legacy in the form of Hillary Clinton proved the limits of his optimism, it also revealed the exceptional nature of his presidential victories. For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell. Nothing in that time suggested that straight talk on the facts of racism in American life would have given him surer footing.
I had met the president a few times before. In his second term, I’d written articles criticizing him for his overriding trust in color-blind policy and his embrace of “personal responsibility” rhetoric when speaking to African Americans. I saw him as playing both sides. He would invoke his identity as a president of all people to decline to advocate for black policy—and then invoke his black identity to lecture black people for continuing to “make bad choices.” In response, Obama had invited me, along with other journalists, to the White House for off-the-record conversations. I attempted to press my points in these sessions. My efforts were laughable and ineffective. I was always inappropriately dressed, and inappropriately calibrated in tone: In one instance, I was too deferential; in another, too bellicose. I was discombobulated by fear—not by fear of the power of his office (though that is a fearsome and impressive thing) but by fear of his obvious brilliance. It is said that Obama speaks “professorially,” a fact that understates the quickness and agility of his mind. These were not like press conferences—the president would speak in depth and with great familiarity about a range of subjects. Once, I watched him effortlessly reply to queries covering everything from electoral politics to the American economy to environmental policy. And then he turned to me. I thought of George Foreman, who once booked an exhibition with multiple opponents in which he pounded five straight journeymen—and I suddenly had some idea of how it felt to be the last of them.
Last spring, we had a light lunch. We talked casually and candidly. He talked about the brilliance of LeBron James and Stephen Curry—not as basketball talents but as grounded individuals. I asked him whether he was angry at his father, who had abandoned him at a young age to move back to Kenya, and whether that motivated any of his rhetoric. He said it did not, and he credited the attitude of his mother and grandparents for this. Then it was my turn to be autobiographical. I told him that I had heard the kind of “straighten up” talk he had been giving to black youth, for instance in his 2013 Morehouse commencement address, all my life. I told him that I thought it was not sensitive to the inner turmoil that can be obscured by the hardness kids often evince. I told him I thought this because I had once been one of those kids. He seemed to concede this point, but I couldn’t tell whether it mattered to him. Nonetheless, he agreed to a series of more formal conversations on this and other topics.
The improbability of a black president had once been so strong that its most vivid representations were comedic. Witness Dave Chappelle’s profane Black Bush from the early 2000s (“This nigger very possibly has weapons of mass destruction! I can’t sleep on that!”) or Richard Pryor’s black president in the 1970s promising black astronauts and black quarterbacks (“Ever since the Rams got rid of James Harris, my jaw’s been uptight!”). In this model, so potent is the force of blackness that the presidency is forced to conform to it. But once the notion advanced out of comedy and into reality, the opposite proved to be true.
Obama’s DNC speech is the key. It does not belong to the literature of “the struggle”; it belongs to the literature of prospective presidents—men (as it turns out) who speak not to gravity and reality, but to aspirations and dreams. When Lincoln invoked the dream of a nation “conceived in liberty” and pledged to the ideal that “all men are created equal,” he erased the near-extermination of one people and the enslavement of another. When Roosevelt told the country that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he invoked the dream of American omnipotence and boundless capability. But black people, then living under a campaign of terror for more than half a century, had quite a bit to fear, and Roosevelt could not save them. The dream Ronald Reagan invoked in 1984—that “it’s morning again in America”—meant nothing to the inner cities, besieged as they were by decades of redlining policies, not to mention crack and Saturday-night specials. Likewise, Obama’s keynote address conflated the slave and the nation of immigrants who profited from him. To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased. That is the tradition to which the “skinny kid with a funny name” who would be president belonged. It is also the only tradition in existence that could have possibly put a black person in the White House.
One of my best experiences traveling with the campaign was going to Sunday services at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, and not just because Bernie Sanders and I partook in a Baptist service at the same time in the same sacred place. (I imagined Bernie’s ancestors and my Papist forebears helping each other revolve under their respective sods.) It was a remarkable place from the time of its founding, and it is an even more remarkable place now, since it was baptized in the blood of its congregation on an awful night in June of 2015.
That’s why it became a stop on at least the Democratic side of the 2016 presidential campaign. It was why I was blessed to sit in the back row and pray with the ushers. Before the service, however, I went downstairs where the weekly Scripture study was being held. It was in that same basement that Dylann Roof had unleashed his arsenal six months earlier.
“When I think of repentance and forgiveness,” said one woman, her index finger marking a place in her Bible, “I think of the thief on the cross next to Jesus.” The lesson on many Sundays since last June 17 has been about repentance and forgiveness, both here in the church and out in the country.
On Thursday afternoon, to nobody’s real surprise, Roof was convicted on 33 counts, including nine counts of murder with a hate crime enhancement, for the killing he did in the basement of Mother Emanuel. Of course, the real test will come in January, when the same jury gathers to decide whether the federal government—which is to say, you and me and the President of the United States—should kill Dylann Roof as dead as he killed the nine people on that night in June. And that is not as easy as you might think.
From the start, as The New York Times reported in November, the families of the victims have been opposed to the imposition of the death penalty on the murderer of their husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters.
“My humanness is being broken, my humanness of wanting this man to be broken beyond punishment,” Ms. Risher said. “You can’t do that if you really say that you believe in the Bible and you believe in Jesus Christ. You can’t just waver.”
Don’t kill him in my name. (If the state of South Carolina wants to kill him in the name of its citizens, it will have that chance at a later date.) I worshipped with the people who have the best reasons of all to demand his blood, and they don’t want it. Neither do many of the South Carolinians who have good reasons to demand his blood, but better reasons to doubt the essential justice of the death penalty.
A University of South Carolina survey, conducted last spring, found that 55 percent of South Carolina residents supported a death sentence for Mr. Roof. But divisions among black and white residents were stark: The poll showed that only 31 percent of black residents wanted Mr. Roof to face execution, while some 64 percent of whites backed the use of capital punishment in the case.
My own opposition to the death penalty is beside the point here. This is coming from the day I spent in worship on what one night was a killing ground, and it’s coming from the indomitability of the people who still come there to pray for a better world. I remember what that woman at Scripture study said.
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
—Luke 23: 40-43.
Resistance — John Cassidy in The New Yorker on nine ways to oppose Trump.
Over the past few weeks, a number of anguished friends and acquaintances, and even some strangers, have got in touch with me to ask what they might do to oppose Donald Trump. Being a fellow sufferer from OATS—Obsessing About Trump Syndrome—my first instinct has been to tell people to get off social media and take a long walk. It won’t do anybody much good, except possibly Trump, if large numbers of people who voted against him send themselves mad by constantly reading about him, cursing him, and recirculating his latest outrages.
But, of course, taking a mental-health break is only a first step toward preserving the Republic. As a daily columnist, I see my role as trying to analyze and critique the Trump program, while also trying to understand some of the phenomena that allowed him to blag his way to the verge of the White House. But for those who want to take a more direct approach, here are some suggestions, starting with something you can do immediately:
1. Go to change.org and join the 4.9 million people who have signed a petition calling on members of the Electoral College to reject Trump. Then contact the electors for your state directly and tell them your concerns. On Monday, the five hundred and thirty eight electors will choose a new President. According to the Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, between twenty and thirty Republican electors are ready to vote against Trump. To deny him a majority, the number would need to reach thirty-seven. Most observers think that won’t happen, and, even if it did, the task of electing a President would pass to the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, which would almost certainly vote for Trump. But a big protest vote in the Electoral College could still have great deal of symbolic importance.
A central part of the self-serving Trump narrative is that he won an electoral landslide. That is nonsense, of course. He got about forty-six per cent of the vote, he carried several states by less than one per cent, and Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.7 million votes. But how to manifest these figures? There is no modern precedent for a large-scale revolt against a President-elect in the Electoral College. If one emerges this time, it will send a powerful message to the world that a majority of Americans don’t want Trump as their President.
2. Attend the Women’s March on Washington, which will take place on Saturday, January 21st. What better way to demonstrate the scale of the opposition to Trump than to stage a huge protest on his new doorstep the very day after his Inauguration? On Thursday, the Washington, D.C., police department confirmed that it has issued a permit for the march, which will start at Independence Avenue and Third Street Southwest, right in front of the Capitol. From there, the demonstrators will march west along Independence Avenue, which is on the southern edge of the National Mall. Despite the fact that the marchers won’t be allowed near the Lincoln Memorial, which the National Park Service has cordoned off at the request of the Trump Inauguration committee, they will be clearly visible from the White House.
On Thursday afternoon, a hundred and forty seven thousand people had indicated on Facebook that they intend to be there, but the actual numbers could be much larger. And, despite the name of the march, it is definitely not restricted to people with two X chromosomes. According to its organizers, “any person, regardless of gender or gender identity, who believes women’s rights are human rights” is welcome to attend. Effectively, the march is an opportunity for anybody who opposes Trump to get out there and be heard.
3.Contribute to organizations that will oppose Trump and the Republican agenda. In the wake of Trump’s victory on November 8th, a number of well-known liberal groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League, the Sierra Club, and Planned Parenthood, reported that they had seen a surge in donations and volunteers. That was encouraging news for opponents of Trump, but it was only a start. Given his illiberal instincts, the nature of his Cabinet picks, and the scale of the Republican Party’s ambitions in rolling back the welfare and regulatory state, the battle ahead is likely to be long and bitter, waged on local, regional, and national fronts.
In this contest of words and wills, all sorts of different groups will be in need of financial support, from national organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the political-action funds of the labor unions that will be targeted by Republican governors and their corporate allies to local groups of lawyers trying to help undocumented immigrants who could be targeted for deportation. You can find lists of organizations opposed to Trump here, here, and here.
4. Support independent journalism.Trump is clearly obsessed with the media, and for good reason. Like all skilled propagandists, he knows that journalists represent a potential threat to him and his shameless efforts to traduce the truth. With his popular social-media feeds, and the support of an upstart right-wing press, he has found a way to go around the mainstream media and, when he deems necessary, to confront it head on. But, for all the power of Twitter, fake news, and the social-media echo chamber, real news can still break through all the noise.
Witness the past week’s revelations in the Washington Post and the New York Times about Russian efforts to interfere in the American election. For once, Trump was put on the defensive. For months, he has claimed that nobody knows who carried out the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and other targets: at one point, he suggested it could have been a “four-hundred-pound guy” lying in bed. Last weekend, he called a C.I.A. assessment that Moscow had tried to help him win the election “ridiculous.”
But this week Trump was powerless to prevent leading Republicans, including John McCain and Mitch McConnell, from calling for congressional hearings on the extent and origins of the Russian cyberattacks. Many Presidents in the past have come to fear getting caught inside the Bermuda triangle of prying journalists, official leakers, and congressional committees. But for the oversight process to work there needs to be a thriving and independent press.
5. Get engaged on a personal level. Giving money is one thing, but making a donation to help someone else oppose Trump is no substitute for individual and collective mobilization. In any liberal democracy, the ultimate guardian of decency and civil liberties is an active civil society, which can push back against efforts to mislead the public, flout accepted norms, and centralize power. That’s why, usually, one of the first thing that would-be autocrats do when they take power is attack civil society.
But what is civil society? In addition to big national organizations, such as labor unions, the A.C.L.U., and the N.A.A.C.P., civil society comprises countless local groups, including charities, environmental activists, church groups, think tanks, reading groups, peace campaigners, parents’ associations, and youth groups. It encompasses any group that mediates between the individual, the government, and the market, and whose goal is promoting the common good. The thing to do is to pick an organization that reflects your personal interests or an issue that motivates you, get involved, and stick with it.
6. Contact your congressman and senator and tell them to stand up to Trump. For good or ill, the first line of defense against a Trumpian erosion of democracy will be the U.S. Capitol. As the Trump Administration moves forward with its reactionary agenda, it will be up to legislators in both parties not to cut deals that target the weak, encroach upon civil rights, or enrich the new first family. Thanks to the Internet and a growing number of apps, it is now very simple to find your elected representatives and let them know what you think.
Surprising as it may be to some skeptics, elected officials do listen to their constituents, especially when they get in touch with them personally in large numbers. I relearned this lesson when I was reporting on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, to which many powerful financial interests were staunchly opposed. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation, told me that the only reason he and his allies managed to overcome Republican opposition, and Wall Street’s efforts to win over some Democrats, was that they managed to mobilize enough ordinary people to exert pressure on their elected representatives. In this case, the public will need to be vigilant and involved across a broad range of policy areas.
7. Support local initiatives to resist the Trump and Republican agenda. Last week, Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento, California, put forward a series of measures designed to protect undocumented immigrants in the state from deportation. “We are telling the next Administration and Congress: if you want to get to them, you have to go through us,” Anthony Rendon, the speaker of the State Assembly, said. And earlier this week Jerry Brown, California’s governor, vowed to fight any efforts by the incoming Administration to roll back efforts to tackle climate change. Reacting to a suggestion from one of Trump’s advisers that he could eliminate NASA‘s earth-science programs, which have done much to illuminate the advance of global warming, Brown said, “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight. . . . If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.”
Other Democrat-dominated states, such as Massachusetts and New York, are thinking along similar lines, particularly when it comes to mounting legal challenges to some of Trump’s program. And, ironically, they are taking a lead from Republican-run states, such as Oklahoma and Texas, which have challenged many of President Obama’s initiatives in court, such as his effort to use the Clean Air Act to reduce CO2 emissions. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
8. Support electoral reform. Ultimately, Trump’s win was enabled by America’s antiquated electoral system, which was designed to prevent each vote from counting equally. In still relying on the Electoral College and the rule that says each state has two seats in the U.S. Senate, we are beholden to the prejudices and interests of an eighteenth-century ruling class that was white, landed, and dedicated to preserving the prerogatives of individual states.
With the winner of the popular vote having lost two of the past five Presidential elections, you might think there would be a movement to change the system—and there is. It’s called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and it’s an agreement among a group of states to award all of their votes in the Electoral College to the candidate who wins the popular vote. The beauty of this scheme is that it doesn’t require a constitutional amendment to insure a truly democratic outcome. But it does need the support of states with two hundred and seventy electoral votes among them, and so far only ten states, representing a hundred and sixty-five votes, have signed on.
I asked my friend and colleague Hendrik Hertzberg, who is a longtime advocate of reforming the electoral system at all levels of U.S. government, what people could do to promote the cause. He wrote back, “If you live in one of the forty states that have not yet signed on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact write—better, call—your state legislators and ask them to get on with it. And send some love (and some bucks) to FairVote.org, which just helped Maine become the first state in the nation to adopt ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, for all its important offices, including its congressional delegation. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight.”
9. Be smart: violence would only help Trump. Inevitably, there are going to be many more protests after the women’s march. That is as it should be. The right to protest is a fundamental tenet of democracy, and Trump isn’t just another President: he’s a shameless demagogue. But for now the onus is on the protest organizers and participants to try to keep things peaceful, even if they are provoked by counterdemonstrators or aggressive policing. Doing otherwise would be counterproductive.
History shows that violent political protests often produce a backlash from the public at large—a fact that Richard Nixon, among others, exploited with ruthless effectiveness. Trump, in his speech at the Republican National Convention, has already portrayed himself as Nixon’s heir, and, should things get ugly, he would revel in presenting himself as the upholder of law and order. Genuine authoritarians welcome disorder as an excuse to crack down on all forms of dissent. In many cases, they have fomented incidents of violence for this purpose.
At this stage, Trump is still a President in the making. Some of his critics view him as a would-be authoritarian despot; others think he’s more interested in lining his own pockets. (Of course, it is possible that his ambition is both of these things.) Yet others think he lacks the attention span to be a genuine menace, and that he will merely serve as the front man for Republican ideologues like Mike Pence and Paul Ryan. Before very long, we’ll find out. In the interim, there are lots of ways to get involved and retain your sanity.
Doonesbury — “News”