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Book Review: Ta-Nehisi Coates’

“We Were Eight Years In Power”


Despite a torrent of racist attacks and a variety of voter suppression efforts, Barack Obama won reelection in 2012. According to Ta-Nehesi Coates’s book, “We Were Eight Years In Power,” Obama’s boundless enthusuasm won him a second term. Coates’ asserts that it was Obama’s boundless optimism ___ his firm belief that white folks are basically good people ___ that convinced Obama that Donald Trump could not win the 2016 election. Coates didn’t understand that it wasn’t optimism but the Deep State that put Obama into office and controlled his presidency. Obama didn’t believe that the Deep State wanted Trump to be his successor.

Eugene Stovall

Oakland, California, January, 2018

 

The New York Times Magazine article, “Cornel West Doesn’t Want to Be a Neoliberal Darling,” created a controversy between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates. To me the controversy was just another feud between two black proxies. No black writer gets any ink in the New York Times magazine without playing Charlie McCarthy for one white sponsor or another. However, I did  become curious about the ‘we’ in the title of Coates’ book. Possibly Coates’ many visits to the White House and his inclusion in the Obama traveling entourage made the young author believe that the aura of presidential power had extended itself over all presidential ‘groupies.’ Nevertheless, the ‘we’ fascinated me so I decided that Coates’ book was a must read. “We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a compilation of eight blogs written for The Atlantic Magazine during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Coates introduces each of his chapters with ‘Notes’ written specifically for the book. Coates’ ‘notes’ are fresh insights, new reflections and critiques of his previously-written blogs. But these musings are more about his own intellectual development ___ and financial success ___ than they are about Obama and the power of the White House. Possibly instead of ‘An American Tragedy’, the book should have been subtitled, ‘The President Helps Out A Brother.’

Coates’ book is easy to read. He does not feign a black identity; his range of topics and themes validates his black identity. Coates engages his reader in the reality of black life. He gives an unblinking description of how racism is the foundation of white privilege. Racism provides white people with the means to systematically appropriate the privileges and rights of all other races. White privilege does not occur naturally or as a result of hard work and merit. White privilege results from the persistent application of mass terrorism, mass incarceration and mass murder.  

 

Coates’ surprising insights conveys how deeply white racism is rooted in the psyche of white and non-white people alike. The perniciousness of white racism functions to infuse governmental, social and economic institutions with the ideology of white supremacy ___ the idea that power should be exercised by and for white people. White people have no problem knowing who ‘we’ are.

 

Notes And Blogs

 

Coates most impressive observations are found in his chapters entitled The Case For Reparations and The Black Family In The Age Of Mass Incarceration. Yet neither of these chapters discuss the use of power on behalf of black people.. Coates uses Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report entitled The Negro Family: A Case For National Action,  which blames the woes of black people on the problems of the black family, in general,  and the irresponsibility of the black man, in particular. Not coincidentally, Coates recalls how Barack Obama echoes Moynihan’s cultural critique of the irresponsibility of black men.

 

According to Coates, without mass incarceration the American society would disintegrate. He says that white folks believe that black people are the ‘preeminent outlaws’ of the American imagination. As such, black criminality is literally written into the American constitution. White folks control the media to perpetuate the myth that all black people are criminals. By declaring themselves for law and order and calling for mass incarceration stricter penalties and longer sentences, political candidates, whether Republican or Democrat, invariably win elections and political power. The more blacks that whites incarcerate, the safer white folks feel. The more rights white people take from minorities, the more privileged white people become.

 

Coates’ chapters, Fear Of A Black President and My President Was Black, specifically discuss Barack Obama, but not how Obama wielded presidential power. Here Coates excuses Obama’s failure to repay black people for their overwhelming financial and electoral support, which catapulted him into the White House. But once there, Obama went out of his way not only to ignore black voters but also to insult them every time he had a chance. Coates suggests that Obama was unaware of the white racism around him. When the white press, white politicians and white police organizations criticized Obama’s response to the Henry Lewis Gates matter and the murder of Trayvon Martin as being too partisan, Coates suggests that Obama had no choice but to retreat into his own fantasy world and pretend that white racism didn’t exist. Bur Obama was so above the fray and completely indifferent black people, Obama even assisted his racist chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, become mayor of Chicago. What Barack Obama did for black people was throw good parties which allowed him to hobnob  with other blacks who gained their celebrity status by entertaining and serving white folks and their interests.

In the chapter, Why Do So Few Blacks Study The Civil War? Coates adopts Obama’s tactic of attacking black people as a means of replacing guilt with superiority. And for black people, there is this ___ the burden of taking ownership of the Civil War as Our War. During my trips to battlefields, the near total absence of African American visitors has been striking. Confronted with the realization that the Civil War is the genesis of modern America, in general, and modern black America, in particular, we cannot just implore the Park Service and custodians of history to do more outreach ___ we have to become custodians ourselves. Coates chides black people for being more responsibile just as Obama does whenever he speaks to black audiences. The Atlantic Magazine gave Coates the time and the financial backing to wander about visiting Civil War battlefields, museums and monuments, so he feels superior. Now Coates can express his newfound status by looking down upon other blacks ____ those without the wherewithal that his financial success has given him. Imitating Obama, Coates says “Look how successful I am in overcoming my blackness; why can’t you do the same? After all we were eight years in power.”  Obama used this tactic so often, that when he invited the Black Lives Matter leadership to the White House, they declined the invitation.  The Black Lives Matter leaders didn’t want to be lectured about overcoming their blackness by some half breed Negro whose white side served the CIA for two generations and whose black side emptied the chamber pots of Kenya’s white settlers and snitched on Mau Mau resistance fighters.

 

 Contrary-To-Fact Thesis

On its face, “We Were Eight Years In Power”, is a contrary-to-fact thesis. No ‘we’ wielded any political power and no ‘we’ initiated any public policy that addressed ‘black’ issues during the Obama years. On the contrary, large segments of the black community suffered under Barack Obama. The enrollment of Black students at HBCUs declined under Barack Obama; HBCUs lost federal funding under Barack Obama. Black students attending HBCUs and paying $50/ semester for health care found themselves mandated to pay $300/ month for health care under Barack Obama. None of the black and minority financial institutions received federal deposits under Barack Obama. The murder of unarmed black people by the police increase dramatically under Barack Obama. Even though major crime decreased during the Obama years, mass incarceration of non-white people increased. Though the Obama administration paid off foreign banks who were injured in the housing crisis, Obama ignored Black people who lost their homes. Under Obama, blacks suffered homelessness, economic deprivation and joblessness in far greater numbers than did whites. As impotent as the Congressional Black Caucus had been under the Bush and Clinton administrations, black congressman were even more powerless during the Obama administration. While Obama spent billions on foreign wars overthrowing governments, killing thousands of civilians and creating a ‘tsunami’ of refugees, bailed out Wall Street, the banks and the auto industries with huge government subsidies, created a government-mandated heath insurance market and financed the pharmaceutical industry, Obama provided nothing ___ no jobs, no stipends, no supports, nothing ____ for black people whose share of the tax burden is disproportionately higher for their numbers. Barack Obama presided over the most massive voter suppression effort by white racists since the post-Reconstruction era without making any effort to stop it. From High School Dropout To Black Public Intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates informs his readers that despite his dropping out of high school and college, as well, he has become remarkably successful financially. What does annoy Coates, however, is the  unreasonable demands his success requires of him, As a black public intellectual for the Atlantic Magazine, he is asked to provide solutions to the problems he raises, Thus Coates is annoyrd either because of his educational deficiencies or because he just doesn’t want to ‘bite the hand when he is asked questions that he is either unwilling to or unable to answer. … the title “public intellectual” had been attached to me, and I saw that what came with it was not just the air of the dilettante but the air of the solutionist. The black public intellectual needs not be wise, but he had better have answers… There was a kind of insanity to this ___ like telling doctors to only diagnose that which they could immediately and effectively cure. Since Coates has no recourse to an educational discipline for guidance, his solution is to seek support from recognized authorities. One such authority is James Baldwin. While claiming to be an atheist, Coates fauns over James Baldwin: “To invoke the name of James Baldwin, these days, is to invoke the name of both a prophet and a God. More than his actual work, Baldwin, himself, has been beatified.” James Baldwin did not receive the critical acclaim and financial success that he thought he deserved. Baldwin’s final years in Europe were those of a bitter émigré. Bemoaning his poverty, Baldwin never passed over any opportunity to backstab Frank Yerby, another black author and émigré, who achieved notable  financial success. Yerby’s novels were not only read throughout the United States but were translated into twenty-four different languages. When Ta-Nehisi Coates, a self-confessed atheist, calls James Baldwin a god, he demonstrates the intellectual inconsistency of a high school dropout..

Coates also ‘chases’ after the authority of E.L. Doctorow, claiming to be inspired by Doctorow’s literary reputation. Doctorow, an American novelist, editor and professor whose novels include the award-winning Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, is credited for his originality and imagination. Coates mentions Doctorow as if the author’s name were a password into some secret society. Its like when Coates mentions Baldwin’s name who, though not especially talented, enjoys immense popularity in the LGBTQ community where he was an active member. Possibly this is the ‘we’ that Coates is referring to when he claims ‘we’ were eight some years in power.

 

Doctorow is credited for originality and imagination because he fits his characters into historical settings alongside historical personages. In reality, Doctorow imitates the costume novel genre pioneered by the great black writer, Frank Yerby. Doctorow was an editor for Dial Press and worked on some of Yerby’s novels. This is how Doctorow learned how to utilize the costume novel genre. If Coates finds Doctorow’s style compelling, he should credit the black genius whose style Doctorow was mimicking.

Finally, one of Coates’ least reputable and, for many black scholars, least acceptable authority is Charles Murray. Murray the co-author, along with Richard J. Herrnstein, of the infamously racist tome, The Bell Curve, claimed that comparative racial studies and I.Q. tests prove black inferiority. In quoting Murray, Coates makes no attempt to provide any context nor background for The Bell Curve’s racist conclusions. Nor does Coates explain how a racist like Charles Murray advances his argument that ‘we were eight years in power.’ To me, a ‘we’ that includes Charles Murray might include a Barack Obama as well as a Ta-Nehisi Coates, but would not include black people who are brave enough to challenge the evil of white racism and the emergence of the ideology of white supremacy. If Ta-Nehisi Coates relies on the authority of Charles Murray, Coates serves the same conservative racists that put Barack Obama in office, though not in power. Eight Years Of Obamism: Style For Blacks, Substance For Whites Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy provides little new insights into the presidency of Barack Obama. The book reenforces the opinion that, in dealing with black people, Obama chose style over substance, glitz over gain,  and frivolity over policy. Coates reports that Barack and Michelle  Obama were more comfortable with black show business people than with black educators. They hobnobbed with black rappers and hip-hop artists rather than with black businesspeople and bankers. They found more in common with black athletes than with black politicians. Obama’s glibness does not disguise his shallowness equalled by the entertainers that he hangs out with. The Deep State actually exercised the power of the White House for eight years. That the Deep State chose Clinton to succeed Obama edplains why Obama was so convinced that Trump would not win the 2016 election. Obama’s boundlessness is not in his optimism but in his belief in the power of white racism.