Hey Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barack Obama is No Paul Ryan
It is alarming, the increasing venom with which Atlantic Magazine’s ONLY black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (TNC) has attacked President Obama (e.g. here, here, here and here) over what he calls the President’s embrace of the discourse of Black pathologies. He accused the President of being no different than Paul Ryan who made the offensive comments about “lazy inner city males.” In a nutshell, TNC’s beef is that whenever President Obama speaks to black audiences he resorts to admonitions about moral behavior instead of attacking the structural obstacles that White Supremacy has placed on black people since this country’s founding.
“Paul Ryan’s explanation for urban poverty isn’t much different from Barack Obama’s. Why did it make liberals so angry?”
He argues as head of the very government that has throughout its history, overseen the institutionalization of racist policies and physical harm to African Americans to this date, President Obama, as a black man, has even greater responsibility not to patronize and blame the victims of said policies. In a series of exchanges with Jonathan Chait (follow up rebuttal here) about his accusations against President Obama, TNC details the long history and examples of how White Supremacist ideology is not incidental to, but the very structuring principle of this country – from the well-known creation of American wealth out of black slave labor, to the denial of civil rights to black people, the redlining domicile and housing practices, social security limitations, and exclusion from the GI bill that shut them out of the budding Middle Class boom and wealth accumulation of the mid-20th century, to current freighting of criminalized black bodies through the profit-making prison industrial complex, and worse.
History all true. And it is good for Coates to “blacksplain” it to his readers, many of whom commented that he had “opened their eyes.” But none of this history is news to any conscientious social justice activist, black, white, or brown. It certainly is no news to Professor Barack Obama who taught courses on race relations, civil rights, and the mechanics of POWER contests:
Obama prodded his students to go past identifying problems into looking at HOW to solve them in the context of countervailing forces which never stand pat for social change to be enacted. Kantor wrote:
TNC’s catalog of historical oppression is also no news to the Community Organizer Barack Obama. We know this because his fellow community organizers in Chicago attested to it in interviews preceding 2008 elections, also from David Remnick’s copious book The Bridge (2009), and because Barack Obama himself wrote about it nearly 20 years ago in Dreams from My Father in which he concluded from his own work with Altgeld Gardens residents in Chicago’s South Side, that protest, petitioning, and agitation have their place as mobilizers of communities, but structural change only happens by actually getting the reins of POWER, HOLDING that power, then ENACTING policies that benefit the community.
Starting from 26:00 minute mark
On a blackboard in one of his classes, Obama delineates concisely the nature of that tug of war between the wielders of power and the masses who fight for that power in order to effect change. As he has always said publicly, those who wield power don’t give it up easily, and never stop fighting to get it back. He is President now but he’s under no illusions about the armada of powerful interests lined up against his agenda for Americans, as well as the constitutional limitations on his own executive power. The reality of his presidency has borne that power contest out glaringly for all of us to see.
So it is galling the dishonesty with which Coates leaps to accuse President Obama of tacitly endorsing the oppression of black people then blaming them, just like Paul Ryan has done, because PBO supposedly avoids TALKING about said structural obstacles (not true), in favor of moral exhortations. This juvenile logical fallacy is not only astounding, but Coates’s deliberate SILENCE on what President Obama has actually accomplished in office, the bulk of which directly benefits African Americans, other minorities, and disenfranchised groups, says a lot about TNC’s sterile thinking and worse! So he ends one of his pieces in this series in fashionable pessimism that:
“I think God is fatalistic. In the end, we all die. As do most societies. As do most states. As do most planets. If America is fatally flawed, if white supremacy does truly dog us until we are no more, all that means is that we were unexceptional, that we were not favored by God, that we were flawed—as are all things conceived by mortal man.
I find great peace in that. And I find great meaning in this struggle that was gifted to me by my people, that was gifted to me by culture.”
Sure…from the curvy facades of his current abode in France, he should tell that to:
1. The millions of Americans, including huge numbers of African Americans, previously shut out of that most basic human need – access to healthcare – who now have it, because President Obama fought and is still fighting tooth and nail for it at immense political cost. In case TNC does not know, the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare is the ONLY Social Safety Net that was created with UNIVERSAL ACCESS built in from inception. That unprecedented sweep of the law is precisely the reason why the right-wing Roberts Court sabotaged the MANDATORY Medicaid expansion provision in the states and made it OPTIONAL. And we’ve seen how promptly GOP governors blocked that provision by cutting off more than 6 million people from access to affordable healthcare. Which population does Coates think is adversely affected by this wicked GOP act in majority southern states?
As TNC himself noted Social Security and Medicare were passed and signed into law only after exclusions to minority participation were put in, to appease mostly southern racist lawmakers, and only after decades of tweaking did those 2 rails of the social safety net become available to all. Justice Roberts and fellow right wing ideologues are not focused on what President Obama says, but instead watch what he is DOING, and it spooks them into an existential war against him. TNC and emoprog ilk don’t see it because they are too busy indulging in fashionable post-modern angst/ennui.
2. Tell that to the Pigford farmers who for the first time in several decades of petitioning successive administrations, got the money they had been cheated out of because the Obama administration moved to remedy a historical wrong.
3. Tell that to those in the criminal justice system for drug related offences who’d suffered disparate sentencing compared to whites, that the Justice Department now treat with parity
4. Tell that to HBCUs who got money for the first time, or the many communities including predominantly black communities that benefitted from the Stimulus in 2009 that put a floor under our recession
5. Tell that to Native Americans who got restitution for monies the government owed them for centuries, and so on. The list of accomplishments is endless. All the more remarkable because of the headwinds the Obama Administration has battled from day one.
Of course TNC’s free speech rights allow him to write whatever he wants for his employers and readership. He says:
“I never expected a single thing I wrote to change anything. Writing rarely does. I never expect to make any white person see anything. And if they do, I hope they go read more. But really it’s beside the point.”
But as the ONLY black voice there with a cult following, his is not just one of many viewpoints, he becomes a token black voice whose appeal lies in his practiced “edginess” — the kind of edginess that the so-called liberal media now coddles because it is hip and sells page clicks. Put crudely, attacking the Obama Administrations sells these days. When it comes from an African American, even better.
By the way, exactly what is it President Obama has been saying to Black audiences that so offends Coates?
a) Turn off television, Study hard, make responsible life choices — to young people at graduation
b) Responsible fatherhood, because he himself grew up without a father and wishes that he had one who stuck around — at Father’s Day church services.
These are the Sins of Barack Obama that equate him to Paul Ryan (whose perennial budget would take us back to a Dickensian dystopia)? These messages are what render Barack Obama the purveyor of the White Supremacist agenda in America? Wow!
Coates is a thoughtful writer, but he had no answer for a commenter to his recent article, who asked why he did not take into consideration the tangible accomplishments of Barack Obama as President. Therein lies the rub. His work as writer is to inform his readers. President Obama’s job is to navigate a political minefield, and the nuts and bolts of congressional legislation to enact tangible change in Americans’ lives. There’s a difference. That blindness to what PBO actually does risks TNC joining the ranks of Obama Derangement Syndrome Archbishops Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, Ben Carson, Herman Cain, Allen West, Tara Wall et al. Not good.
For all his copious expositions about black history and culture, there is one important facet of black survival in the face of oppression that Ta-Nehisi Coates seems ignorant about – the Art of Signifyin’. It was the dexterity with which African Americans under the yoke of slavery or Jim Crow, spoke loudly but without the slave master “hearing” what they were saying, nor “seeing” what actions they were actually undertaking behind their public façade….
…..Swing low…Sweet Chariot… You get the drift?
No need spilling it all out here, except to say check out what policies or executive actions come down the pike, NOT what people think they HEARD President Obama say. And even when they listen to him, how many REALLY HEAR him? Those who do, nod KNOWINGLY.