Keeping the Faith

Melvin Rogers in The Boston Review:

Coates2Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, is his clearest expression yet of political fatalism—his “deeply held belief that white supremacy was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child's lifetime, or perhaps ever.” As in Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015), we again encounter white supremacy not as a political ideology, but as the defining feature of the U.S. polity—its essential nature. The book comprises previously published essays—one for each of the eight years Barack Obama held the presidency—prefaced by moving biographical and personal meditations that give each chapter philosophical weight. Taken together, it is about Obama and the United States—and it is about Coates. It charts the course of Coates’s career from a time when he could not make ends meet to his recent position of speaking for and to Americans about Black America. Obama’s presidency made this possible; it opened the door for a “crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms.” This is also a book about shattering a great illusion—the idea that Obama’s presidency represented black power. “Obama, his family, and his administration were a walking advertisement for the ease with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth. And that was always the problem.”

For Coates, Obama represented a possibility that had always been denied, the idea that a black American could one day inhabit the highest office of the land. And if a black American could be president, couldn’t the United States be more than the explicit racism of its past and the institutional racism of its present? Coates himself was taken by this seductive idea, something he laments throughout the book. As he explains:

It is not so much that I logically reasoned out that Obama’s election would author a post-racist age. But it now seemed possible that white supremacy, the scourge of American history might well be banished in my lifetime. In those days I imagined racism as a tumor that could be isolated and removed from the body of America, not as a pervasive system both native and essential to that body.

Herein lies the explanation for why a man who curries favor with white supremacists assumed the presidency after Obama. Donald Trump’s ascendancy was a virulent reaction not only to Obama, but to the idea that his presidency signaled the country’s embrace of a multiracial polity.

More here.