Ta-Nehisi Coates has a (long) essay at The Atlantic that has been passed around quite swiftly online for something so large. In it he describes a couple things: first, how it seems as if every political subject once it is touched by the black guy that happens to hold the nuclear launch codes at the moment becomes some racially polarizing flare-up. Take him commenting on Trayvon Martin, for example:
The moment Obama spoke, the case of Trayvon Martin passed out of its national-mourning phase and lapsed into something darker and more familiar—racialized political fodder. The illusion of consensus crumbled. Rush Limbaugh denounced Obama’s claim of empathy. The Daily Caller, a conservative Web site, broadcast all of Martin’s tweets, the most loutish of which revealed him to have committed the unpardonable sin of speaking like a 17-year-old boy. A white-supremacist site called Stormfront produced a photo of Martin with pants sagging, flipping the bird. Business Insider posted the photograph and took it down without apology when it was revealed to be a fake.
Newt Gingrich pounced on Obama’s comments: “Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be okay because it wouldn’t look like him?” Reverting to form, National Review decided the real problem was that we were interested in the deaths of black youths only when nonblacks pulled the trigger. John Derbyshire, writing for Taki’s Magazine, an iconoclastic paleoconservative* publication, composed a racist advice column for his children inspired by the Martin affair. (Among Derbyshire’s tips: never help black people in any kind of distress; avoid large gatherings of black people; cultivate black friends to shield yourself from charges of racism.)
Now, the murder of Trayvon Martin never really needed much help becoming a racial football. Prior to that though, there was the idiocy of Henry Louis Gates being arrested at his own damn home after some neighborhood busybody called the cops assuming it was being broken into by a burglar. Observation of how stupid that was should’ve been swift, obvious, and unobjectionable on basic property rights grounds. Yet, Obama does it & we get yelling that eventually leads to that goofy “beer summit”.
The trend goes into very absurd territories from there, to the point where there’s actually been a survey showing correlation between ones racial views and what they think of his dog, ffs!
As ridiculous as all this is, Coates also briefly observes the flipside: blacks approaching Obama gingerly out of sympathy for him as a black man regardless of his actions as president. At one point he speaks with Shirley Sherrod, the ex-USDA official who was fired after a video of remarks she made at an event was edited out of context & released to make her seem racist against white people, and even she appears to apologize for Obama, fearing that her words will hurt him. Ta-neishi engages in this himself in the same article, acknowledging the reality of his presidency in passing only to wave it off for the most part:
The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. [...]
Of course someone who has actually experienced the world and knows what it is like to be defined as Other should know better. Yet, that he does not — or worse, knows and simply doesn’t care — should shake to their very core anyone who still believes in the great lie at the heart of continued allegiance in general, and particularly those who bought the “Change!” gimmick. Fearing name-calling that takes place anyway (there’s still “apologizing for America” garbage going on, and ads suggesting the OBL hit wasn’t his call somehow. One look at who those drones have been catching in the crossfire though, and maybe somebody should apologize…) is no excuse for the onward thrust of hegemony. Coates basically says here that the small, self-serving case for maintaining the empire is a correct one.
When 9/11 happened, I wanted nothing to do with any kind of patriotism, with the broad national ceremony of mourning. I had no sympathy for the firefighters, and something bordering on hatred for the police officers who had died. I lived in a country where my friend—twice as good—could be shot down mere footsteps from his family by agents of the state. God damn America, indeed.
I had nothing in particular against them at that moment. At least in running into buildings that civilians were trying to get out of in order to help they were doing what on paper they are supposed to do. Though, beyond a sense of the true roots of the attack and worry about what the response would be — at the time I was about 90% sure nuclear weapons would be involved — I just felt…numb. Another turn of the wheel for us hamsters. This continues to be a country where what Coates describes happens, and indeed always has been, as are all states in some form.
I grew. I became a New Yorker. I came to understand the limits of anger. Watching Barack Obama crisscross the country to roaring white crowds, and then get elected president, I became convinced that the country really had changed—that time and events had altered the nation, and that progress had come in places I’d never imagined it could. When Osama bin Laden was killed, I cheered like everyone else. God damn al‑Qaeda.
My response to both events was, shall we say, a bit more subdued. This is because I realized what had not changed: the surveillance state, militarism, & state-capitalism remain. It’s not to say I saw absolutely nothing in the former case since it occurred in a nation where some people still remember lynchings — there was some surprise. However, a black man obtaining the keys to the empire isn’t exactly cause for popping bottles when the desire is for it to be dismantled.
Living vicariously through a political elite because they look like me, like Obama observed his hypothetical son looking like Trayvon, does nothing for me. It’s not like I am, or any other black person, or any other person period is closer to freedom, peace & prosperity because the president is black. The drug war rumbles along, the economy continues to suck for most people even during a so-called “recovery”, and the dying breath of the last threat is being drowned out by the seeds being sown of the next one.
Yet we can’t talk about it, because all that isn’t enough to convince some people that they’re still in Kansas. Which is the problem.
What are any of us gaining here, other than a headache?
(Props: Nob Akimoto for informing me of Coates’ post)
(* – ideological identification error corrected)