BY DR. GLENN ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
Ta-Nehisi Coates has always wanted to write with gravity and clarity, without sanctimony or sentimentality. Art, he believes, “must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in the hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire to not be enrolled in its lie, to not be coopted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.”
At the same time, “with outrages compiling daily,” Coates keeps “hoping that I am wrong, that I am somehow unnecessarily bleak.”
Coates is, of course, the author of “Between the World and Me’’ (2015), a polemic ostensibly addressed to his son, which won the National Book Award. He is also a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.
“We Were Eight Years in Power’’ consists of eight essays, in which Coates sets each year of the Obama administration in the context of his own experiences and perceptions; eight essays previously published The Atlantic; and an epilogue entitled “The First White President.”
Beautifully crafted, the book illuminates the Obama era with sensitivity, sympathy, stridency, and searing insight. And “We Were Eight Years in Power’’ lays bare in its “full complexity” the tension between hope and despair in 21st-century America.
Coates’ thesis is straightforward and stark. The American story, he declares, is a “majestic tragedy…To be black in America was to be plundered. To be white was to benefit from, and at times directly execute, this plunder.” Racist banditry was not – and is not – “incidental to America, it was essential to it.”
In several of his controversial, yet deservedly iconic, Atlantic essays – “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”; “Fear of a Black President”; “The Case for Reparations”; and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” – Coates demonstrates how deeply racism is embedded in our country’s practices, politics and policies.
On election night 2008, Coates points out, some Americans concluded that racism had been defeated. Acknowledging that Obama’s victory underscored the “incredible distance” the United States had traveled, Coates maintains that it is a mistake to ignore the context in which that victory was secured and “the quaking ground beneath Obama’s feet.”
The election of Donald Trump, Coates writes, confirmed everything I knew of my country and none of what I could accept…I was shocked at my own shock.” Defiance, “the general theory of the life,” became, as it had been, his “firm ground.”
Racism, Coates repeats, is “at the heart of the country’s political life.”
However compelling, this conviction leads him to downplay or dismiss other forces and factors. “We Were Eight Years in Power,’’ for example, does not mention the growth of a Black middle class.
Coates acknowledges but questions the efficacy of the formula used by Obama and other progressives to close the gap between Blacks and Whites by designing programs for all Americans, like the Affordable Care Act, which reduced the uninsured rate for Blacks by over 30 percent.
Nor does he adequately explain what is wrong with a “both/and” strategy based on simultaneous critiques of White racism and Black ghetto culture (whose downside has been documented by Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson).
Call for resistance
“We Were Eight Years in Power’’ ends with a reminder that President Trump’s tenure in office does not “mark the end of history.” Coates calls for resistance, especially against “the bad bargain that whiteness strikes with its disciples,” a bargain that, alas, “has held through boom and bust.”
Insisting there should be no conflict between resistance to White supremacy and opposition “to the degradation brought about by an unrestrained capitalism” – and no contradiction between supporting reparations and living wages, law enforcement and single-payer health care, Coates seems, at some level, to endorse the “both/and” strategy about which he had expressed skepticism.
Nor can you be sure that he’s motivated only by “the power and necessity of immediate defiance” and not abstract ideas of hope, justice, and national redemption.
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.