Yesterday, Ta-Nehisi Coates dropped “The First White President,” a thorough accounting of Donald Trump as an avatar of white supremacy. It would be difficult for me to try to match Coates’s intellect or the power of his prose, but there’s a lot missing or glossed over in his analysis. I’d like to use the space here to draw out some of the problems with Coates’s piece. At a base level, what Coates has done in “The First White President,” despite some meticulous historical work, is to largely gloss over the extent to which white supremacy is endemic to the American presidency in order to present Donald Trump as a rupture in American politics.
It’s important to think about “The First White President” in relation to an earlier piece, “My President Was Black,” a naive and power-serving profile of Barack Obama. Coates himself has been an outspoken critic of Obama, something he notes in the profile when he writes about Obama’s “embrace of ‘personal responsibility’ rhetoric.” “Personal responsibility” is, of course, a fundamentally conservative discourse focused on blaming the poor for their own problems with nary a thought given to how American class structure determines their lives. When this discourse is applied to black people, who are disproportionately poor, is when race and class intersect to produce what can only be called white supremacist rhetoric. If the problem is with black people, if it’s their cultural pathology that prevents them from “success” in America, broadly defined, then what duty does the government really have?
Coates knows this well, likely better than I do. Throughout “My President Was Black,” he recounts the times that he pushed Obama on his use of black pathology, but doesn’t seem to get anywhere with it. He notes that Obama conceded that this kind of “straighten up” talk isn’t useful, but Coates “couldn’t tell that it mattered to [Obama].” That’s a profound statement and it seems to pass by without further analysis. So we can only conclude that Obama wields this kind of rhetoric recklessly, for his own political purposes, with little thought to what reality it reflects about black people. In their discussion on reparations, Coates gets Obama to admit, with seeming reluctance, that there’s a “theoretical argument” for reparations that recognizes the harm of “slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination” but that it’s better to focus on “broad” liberal reforms. Except we have no idea what reparations would look like politically or how they would function, and the government has done nothing to figure that out. Every year since 1989, John Conyers has introduced a bill to get the government to do just that — seems like it would take the first black president comparatively little political capital to throw some weight behind such an endeavor, but undoubtedly Obama and the class interests he represents would not like the outcomes of such an investigation.
That profile received several clapbacks, two of the most notable from William A. Darity and Tressie M. Cottom. Darity is unsparing in his critique, writing that Obama “failed” America, that he resolutely refused to pursue policies that would close the racial wealth gap. Of the black economic statistics that Coates cites, Darity calls them “softer illustrations” of how racism has marked black Americans. He writes, “the average black household would have to save 100 percent of its income for three consecutive years to close the wealth gap.” This kind of racial economic disenfranchisement is huge, and simply not attributable to black people’s bad choices.
Cottom is similarly brutal:
“He seems to truly believe that he exercised some great act of charity and agency in adopting black cool. My first black president seems to think that he can raise his daughters to believe in systemic racism without legitimizing the idea of systemic reparations. He thinks that he can be his brother’s keeper without changing the world that keeps his brothers in bad jobs, poor neighborhoods, bad educational options, and at the bottom of the social hierarchy. My first black president seems to think he can have black cool without black burden.”
Despite the combined strength of their writing, and it is truly hard to grasp just how smart these black folks are, they all stop short of naming Obama for what he is. Cottom seem to think Obama is confused, ultimately naive about his blackness and relationship to white people. Darity chalks it all up to Obama’s timidity, his desire for political expediency. I’m under no such delusions. A man who traffics repeatedly in the rhetoric of black pathology and who does little-to-nothing to improve the crushing material reality of black poverty in America is, at the very least, adjacent to white supremacy, if not an agent of it himself. America functions on the belief that black failure is the fault of individual black people, not centuries of discrimination, and Obama did nothing to challenge that.
This is the space into which something like “The First White President” arrives. Its best moments are found in Coates’s thorough exploration of the white working class. Coates rightfully implicates the white working class in the racist violence that has been perpetrated against black people in this country. However, his greatest contribution is to detail — in ways that it seems no one has done yet — how the phrase “white working class” is used as a rhetorical cudgel by white pundits and politicians. In this, he finds everyone from Nicolas Kristof to Bernie Sanders guilty. Coates is right to do so. I’m an admirer of Sanders’s politics, even if he is defanging “socialist” of its radical meaning. I think it is actually that defanging that holds him back. Bernie doesn’t call for actual socialism, or worker control, but rather for a more equitable distribution of the capitalist hoard. It’s to his great detriment that he has not figured out how to talk about race within that framework, probably because speaking candidly to white people about their racial animus would require a much more substantive refutation of the ruling class.
Where I find Coates’s piece so wanting is in its insistence on what is essentially a kind of logic that is at least partly meritocratic. Coates writes that the “passive power of whiteness” may have helped all previous US presidents, but was decisive in Trump’s election. In Coates’s view, one could argue, detachedly, that other white men deserved the presidency, but no such excuse can be made for Trump. To bolster that point, the article lays out a litany of Trump’s greatest hits: his birtherism; his lack of public service; his willingness to brag about sexually assaulting women. The essay is right to note that no black person could ever get away with any of this, but that is not exactly a revelation.
The other half of this logic posits that there’s no Donald Trump without Barack Obama. That might be true. As the essay demonstrates, Trump came to his recent political prominence on the back of his birtherism and racist attacks on the first black president. Even if we accept this argument, it still does not make Trump the first white president. Such an argument devalues America’s deeply racist history to make a political point, to cast down Trump (not a difficult task) and raise up Obama as an almost mythical figure. Reading “The First White President,” one gets the sense not that it reveals some previously unknown truth, but rather that it attempts to write that truth into existence. It’s to Coates’s immense credit as a writer that he damn nearly succeeds. But to argue that Trump is the one who has finally unleashed whiteness on us all is to argue that whiteness was before somehow contained, and that every president up to this point hasn’t been a representative of white supremacy who has wreaked havoc on black and brown folks at home and abroad.
Trump hasn’t released the “eldritch energies” of whiteness. That happened centuries ago when landowning whites convinced the first white laborers that niggers were the foundation on which all whites could succeed. Instead, he’s risen, Bane-like, to tell us that we’ve all been living on borrowed time. Coates and his media colleagues, high off eight years of a black president, have invested American institutions with an unearned air of dignity. These offices have always been occupied by crooks and dullards, by racists and rapists, by profligate murderers. Now folks want to argue that Trump represents some kind of rupture, a new low in American politics. Perhaps the much simpler truth is that Trump reveals the presidency and American politics for the utter sham that they are.
Despite Coates’s excellent historical work, and an undeniably catchy title, “The First White President” can only be described as ahistorical. Are we really meant to believe that the American presidency was less a blatantly evil manifestation of white supremacist villainy when it was used to intern Japanese immigrants (who, by the way, received some reparations), or to genocide Native Americans? Are we expected to think that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan did less to conjure the spectre of whiteness when the former signaled his willingness to grind black people under the boot of the state, or the latter created the figure of the Welfare Queen at which to direct white anger? Coates desperately wants to single out Donald Trump, but in doing so, almost literally brushes aside an entire history of white supremacy embodied in the office of the president. Whom does this serve? The argument put forth in “The First White President” only makes sense as a kind of revisionist history meant to situate the first black president as a more radical, substantive figure than he actually was.
This is where re-reading that earlier Obama profile is instructive. In that essay, there is a preoccupation with Obama as a symbolic figure. In this one, there’s a similar obsession, but with Obama’s legacy. The essay tells us that Trump wants to destroy everything the black president left behind. In my reading, I can’t help but feel that Obama’s legacy and symbolism are one and the same. What “The First White President” seems to really despise is that the election of Donald Trump immediately mars the one lasting legacy of Obama — the image he provides of the impossibly cool black president and his perfect black family.
Otherwise, what has he left us? What do we mean when we talk about Obama’s legacy? It can’t possibly be his Heritage Foundation-sourced health care reform that compels Americans to purchase insurance that’s too expensive from for-profit companies that do whatever they can to deny coverage. It can’t possibly be the Paris Accords, which even fucking Vox admits is largely symbolic and not taken seriously anyway.
When we talk about Obama’s legacy, a much fuller and realistic accounting is necessary. Obama’s legacy is the bootstrapping American striver rhetoric he never missed an opportunity to drop on black people. It’s his expansion of the national security apparatus that invested him, and Trump, with the power to assassinate American citizens. It’s his unleashing of Hillary Clinton on the state department, giving her the ability to wreck countries around the world at will. It is his complete willingness to stand between the banks that ruined people’s lives and the righteous fury of the American people. His legacy also includes, and it finally needs to be recognized, the absolutely cynical and self-serving appropriation of civil rights movement rhetoric and figures while doing nothing to address the three evils as Martin Luther King described them: militarism, poverty, and racism. The extent to which we feel the need to defend this bloody legacy is the extent to which we continue to nullify our politics.
“The First White President” proves more than anything that we need a radical new framework for black political analysis. After his thorough excoriation of Trump, white pundits, and white supremacist politics, where does the essay leave us? Nowhere, but with another exhortation to the soul of whiteness. Coates writes that Trump is “made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.” So, the solution is what, exactly? For white people to name Trump as a white supremacist? But how could they? How can we expect that of white people when we can scarcely recognize the system of white supremacy to which Obama himself contributed? More to the point, this kind of black political and historical analysis is basically hand-wringing about the empty soul of whiteness. We continue to beg them to finally do something they’ve never shown a capacity to do. This analytic framework is centuries old and has gotten us nowhere. It’s time for a black class politics that holds the oppressors to account, no matter who they are.