Race and Politics in the Obama Era

Hey! Our president is black!!!!!!

Did you notice? Maybe you were too distracted by all the talk of him hating America, living by different rules, being Muslim, resenting other people’s success, never working a real job, and eating watermelon.

Ta-Nehisi Coates noticed, though.

Coates’s article about race in the Obama era thrilled me. Like the best days in graduate seminar, when ideas pop-rocked out of my head too fast to write down.

One of the only full-length journalistic explorations of race, straight up, neat, no shaker, in the current presidency, it’s full of insight. Coates explores conflicted black patriotism and traces the intellectual and political legacies of flashpoints like Reverend Wright’s notorious 2008 sermon. He discusses research into the interplay of racial attitudes and political beliefs. He interviews Shirley Sherrod.

Read it, please.

Atlantic editor James Bennet notes in his intro to the magazine, “It would be interesting to hear each candidate challenged to describe without platitudes how his race and his religion affect his thinking about the country.”

The unstated power of this proposal is that Mitt Romney has probably never perceived his whiteness as anything to think about. And certainly not something that would give him a unique perspective on his country.

This is what we try to teach college students when we indoctrinate them with liberal orthodoxy: whiteness is universal, invisible, default. People don’t think about it.  The US is white, and everyone else is flavor.

In fact, whiteness has distinct qualities. Like privilege. Like the ability to go through a day just not thinking about it.

Here’s TNC on the best one-line definition of contemporary racism.

Racism … is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye.

In an older piece, Coates describes trying to get a cab on a rainy NYC day, pushing his young son in a stroller, accompanied by two other black writers. “Several yellow drive-bys later, we trot off with this one truth: not even a stroller and a wet infant can take the monster out of three black dudes on a corner.”

Not just black people suffer this broad skepticism. Women might. Jews might. Latinas might. That’s how it works. A slightly greater level of suspicion. Especially in certain hot-button situations. Like black men socializing publicly during work hours.

I kinda want to quote the whole thing. But that would be ridiculous. Right?

One reason Obama rose so quickly was that African Americans are war-weary. It was not simply the country at large that was tired of the old Baby Boomer debates. Blacks, too, were sick of talking about affirmative action and school busing. There was a broad sense that integration had failed us, and a growing disenchantment with our appointed spokespeople. Obama’s primary triumphs in predominantly white states gave rise to rumors of a new peace, one many blacks were anxious to achieve.

Unfortunately, while Baby Boomer-era debates may be tiring, they’re still relevant. Lilly Ledbetter, and abortion, and other womanly issues. And, you know, informal segregation in our schools. And war protesting. And hair ironing. And over-extended guitar solos.

Where was I?

Right. Irony.

Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites… 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 … 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?

Last night Michelle Obama knocked her speech not just out of the park, but off the planet. And she, like her husband, was gentle, loving, brutally intelligent, politically masterful, and assiduously everyday.

She and Barack have a marriage just like yours and mine: begun in young, dumb, debt-ridden striving. In love with their country and each other. Inspired by the traditional values of their parents and grandparents. And not at all different. At all.

Except for that thing about how they’re black.

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