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August 23, 2012

Fear of a Black President
Posted by Patrick at 12:41 PM * 78 comments

By Ta-Nehisi Coates. An illuminating, moving, astonishing piece of political writing.

I’m not going to quote even a sentence. You should read it in its entirety. It is all of a piece.

Comments on Fear of a Black President:
#1 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 01:07 PM:

Warning: This is not going to be a thread about:

(1) Whether racism is really a problem in America

(2) Whether racism is just a subset of classism

(3) How you're not racist

--and particularly not:

(4) Random ventings about Obama -- from right or left -- that aren't germane to the political and cultural difficulties that Coates is talking about here.

Coates is making some very nuanced, long-wave points about race in America, and about the lived experience--and concomitant fears, anxieties, etc.--of white and black Americans over many generations of difficulty.

If you aren't prepared to engage with at least some of that, please don't get in the way of people who are.

#2 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 01:54 PM:

I apologize for nitpicking, but it's Ta-Nehisi, not Ta-Nahisi -- also misspelled in "Commonplaces."

#3 ::: Spiny Norman ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 01:58 PM:

Coates might be the most important writer working in the United States today. It has been thrilling to watch as he just gets better and better.

Patrick's right: read the whole thing.

#4 ::: Brad Hicks (@jbradhicks) ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 02:03 PM:

There's a recurring thread in that piece that resonates with me so much that it hurts. If you're angry over an injustice, and people catch you being angry about it, the discussion becomes about wrong you are to be angry or to say angry things, not about the injustice.

I wish I'd known, back in 2008, that Jeremiah Wright had done something almost no Republican official or spokesman or commentator has done, namely actually served his country in uniform. I would have loved to have thrown that in their faces, when they tried to humiliate Barack Obama for having once been in the room when Wright said something that was not even 1% more incendiary than what John Brown said from the gallows.

When we're confronted with monstrous injustice, if we want to talk about it and not have the conversation derailed, we have to restrict our emotional tone to the range from Vulcan logic to, at most, very gentle satire. This prohibition on anger has become, for me, one more thing to be angry about!

(Expletive deleted), I don't know how any black man in America is ever NOT angry. SAMSHA studies have shown that black men make up about 5% of our drug users, but about 75% of the people imprisoned for drugs. If you poke into that, it's not hard to find out why: Terry v Ohio allows cops to search anybody that they feel afraid of to see if they're armed, and later court decisions say that they can use any evidence found "incidental to" that search to bring charges. And cops know that if they say that they were afraid of any rich person, or any woman, or any white person over about the age of 25 who appears sober, the jury won't believe them -- but no jury every doubted that a police officer was afraid of a black man, so every black man who ever interacts with police in any way gets searched for drugs. And every black man in America knows this.

Separately studying the history of financial panics in this country, I spotted an appalling bit of history: in every investment bubble we've had in this country since 1870, the last phase of the bubble comes when rich investors, desperate for the last remaining suckers to dump their investment on before the price tanks, set up charities to persuade black heads of household to invest in their overpriced investment. Which is why every black family in America knows from experience that every 20 years, at most, and sometimes in as little as 5 years, rich people conspire to steal the entire family savings of every black family in America. Every older black person I've brought this up with seemed surprised that I didn't know this already, seemed surprised that everybody doesn't know this.

Is THIS why we're so afraid of anger? Are we afraid that if we let black men be angry, let them experience or express the anger that (I guarantee you) we white men would feel under the same circumstances, that they'd realize that they should entirely justifiably murder us all?

#5 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 02:15 PM:

Wow. That is... hideously important.

Thanks for signal-boosting this--I hadn't seen it anywhere else yet, and I would really hate for this one to have slid under my radar.

Gotta go link this everywhere.

#6 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 02:50 PM:

I basically want a poster with his brain on it.

He's an amazing writer, blogger, and thinker. It's been my profound privilege to watch him get deeper into the Civil War stuff, tie it into current events, and talk about race issues with his typical nuance and depth. Also, his blog community is absolutely the best. He basically moderates harder than anyone I've ever seen. Assholes are banned quickly. It's a privilege to be there, not a right.

If we all work at it, we might convince him to come to Readercon next year. He is a fan, you know. I have this dream of watching him and Junot Diaz talk about whatever they want.

#7 ::: cgeye ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 02:57 PM:

Amplifying this from #4:

"Separately studying the history of financial panics in this country, I spotted an appalling bit of history: in every investment bubble we've had in this country since 1870, the last phase of the bubble comes when rich investors, desperate for the last remaining suckers to dump their investment on before the price tanks, set up charities to persuade black heads of household to invest in their overpriced investment. Which is why every black family in America knows from experience that every 20 years, at most, and sometimes in as little as 5 years, rich people conspire to steal the entire family savings of every black family in America. Every older black person I've brought this up with seemed surprised that I didn't know this already, seemed surprised that everybody doesn't know this."

This alone explains the housing bust, from cash-flow swindles to the forgotten Presidential decrees that "everyone should own a home", to the constant mail spam from subprime branches of investment banks, to hiring the sketchiest people -- people needing a second chance, but who received the barest training or guidance -- to become mortgage brokers for their communities, just like low-level drug dealers cannibalizing their families, first.

Substitute "churches" for "charities", and you've added those who preach the Prosperity Gospel (i.e. pay off our church mortgage and God will help you with yours) to the whole mess. That's why blaming those with the worst credit once the bubble burst was so repellent -- *they* didn't see the profit, did they? Can they get work with a ruined credit history? Stay out of debtors' jail?

Then add the history of life insurance in minority communities, from death benefit policies worse than savings accounts to secret corporate-owned life insurance policies, and you have the dispassionate continuation of practices familiar during Jim Crow, but have much more nicely-designed spreadsheets, attached....

#8 ::: David M Hungerford III ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 04:46 PM:

Brad Hicks @4

Is there a source or something you can point me to on the last-stage-of-financial-panics thing? I have no trouble believing it, but I rather suspect that people I'd want to mention it to would want something more than "some random dude in the comment thread on a blog post"...

Dav2.718

#9 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 05:22 PM:

I can't speak to historical trends, but I think I saw this article reported on when it first came out;

"Our estimates indicate that [the subprime housing crisis] will cause the greatest loss of wealth for African-Americans in modern U.S. history."

This is another good article on the disproportionate impact of the housing crisis on black families, showing that white households in 2009 had 19 times more wealth than black households -- that's almost twice the ratio from 1988.

#10 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 05:39 PM:

AFAIK, that sort of financial trickery is (unfortunately) not only aimed at African Americans, but any minority group, particularly recent immigrants (because of the language barrier.) Worse, it's usually people they know and trust trying to sell them on it—which often means people in their own demographic. (I am reminded of a comment in Reading Lolita in Tehran in which one of the author's students wonders why women end up in the morality enforcement squads so much, and the answer is that when you have no power at all, any power, even that which is against your fellow powerless, is something to be grabbed for.)

#11 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 07:38 PM:

Holy shit. That is one beautiful, awe full, powerful, piece of writing. As moving in its own way as some of the letters of Rev. Martin Luther King or the writings of Malcolm X.

Unfortunately for all of us much of what he says is news and/or unacceptable to most whites in the US, while I suspect very little of it is news to most African Americans. And it will probably be impossible to make any headway on the racial problems in this country until there is a some consensus that what Coates writes about might be true, and needs to be talked about in public and without immediately reducing the conversation to name-calling and cries of "STFU!".

My computer is about to reboot; more comments later.

#12 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 08:34 PM:

It's because he pronounces his name "Ta-Nehasi" that there's confusion. Dunno why he does; must be a reason.

#13 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 09:09 PM:

He is the Coates mundi of the world, sure. /maturin

#14 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 09:15 PM:

An interesting, and possibly related article in the Guardian:

How hip-hop fell out of love with Obama.

#15 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 09:24 PM:

If this is what Coates shut down his Twitter feed for, it was worth it.

#16 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 09:44 PM:

Thank you, Helen. Patrick is fixing all three instances.

#17 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 10:04 PM:

Theophylact @ 12: In languages other than English, 'e' is pronounced something like 'ay' in 'way.'

There is, in fact, one of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels in which that fact sets off the plot.

#18 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 10:08 PM:

I'm appalled. I am a fully paid-up member of the Sodality of Frequently-Misspelled Names, and yet apparently I've been misspelling Coates's first name for years. Oy.

That said, I am astonished by some of the things being mentioned in this thread. I did not know any of that stuff about who gets left holding the bag at the end of the game of financial musical chairs, mentioned by Brad Hicks (awesome comment #4) and amplified by cgeye (awesome comment #7) and, with links, by Emily H. (awesome comment #9).

Don't stop.

#19 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 10:27 PM:

I don't have an awesome comment. That piece is incredible, and has insights I've never seen anywhere else. It stitches together a bunch of things I was barely aware of (and some more obvious ones) into a new synthesis.

Nothing to say but "wow."

#20 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 10:41 PM:

Sometimes there's not a lot to say. All I can do for this one is spread the link. Which I have.

#21 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 10:53 PM:

I hate nitpicking, but it's Ta-Nehisi, not Ta-Nehesi.

#22 ::: Kellan Sparver ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 10:56 PM:

I was going through, empathizing but distantly, and then this bit that Mr. Coates quotes just hit me between the eyes.

They act like they don’t love their country
No
what it is
is they found out
their country don’t love them.

When I say that I hate the place and even more the religion that I grew up in... that's what I mean.

And I feel that same paradoxical defensiveness which Shirley Sherrod evinces when other people, people who don't understand, attack them.

A lot to unpack here.

(On a happier note, if you haven't seen this picture taken in the Oval Office, you really should. It will make your day. They're such geeks, which I say with all the love in the world.)

#23 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 11:01 PM:

Thanks for linking this.

#24 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 11:05 PM:

Brad Hicks @4: And black men have that disproportionate incidence of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes, which I refuse to believe isn't stress-related.

Everybody comes to New York. There are several ways to spot first-generation black African immigrants, but the one I find most striking is that in a relatively relaxed and safe situation, they can be at ease. Until I'd seen black Africans and native-born black Americans riding the same subway cars and sitting out on the same sidewalks of an evening, I hadn't realized that the latter never quite relax in public.

Or it may be that they never relax in public if I'm there. I was grieved and delighted one Halloween to discover how much louder and happier the black children in my neighborhood were when I was wearing a costume that covered every inch of my skin.

#25 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 11:08 PM:

And the behavior TNC describes highlights why Obama not only gets active, no-holds-barred, obstructionism from the Republicans, but can't even count on many of his own party members: As far as they are concerned he has "Stept Out Of His Place".

#26 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 11:30 PM:

People who claim he's not American don't seem to hear his absolutely middle-American accent. You have to grow up with it, I think, to sound like that. (I think they really want him to sound 'black', so they can feel better about their own speech.)

(He sounds like many of the people in my family, who were from the same part of Kansas as his grandparents. It sounds ordinary to me.)

#27 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: August 23, 2012, 11:31 PM:

Kellan Sparver, thank you for linking that wonderful photo.

And Coates is brilliant. Always. But even more so, this time.

Can we have an Essayist Laureate of the United States?

#28 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 12:10 AM:

Just, damn that is some fine writing.

I was particularly struck by the unresolvable tension around keeping cool. If Obama shows the slightest bit of anger or even just vehemence about anything at all associated with race, then the backlash is so huge that it can actually make things worse -- because people with deep-seated racist issues still have so much power in this country. (And to many of those people, everything he does is associated with race, so they react badly to him showing the slightest bit of forcefulness anywhere.) Yet things don't get any better by totally avoiding anything related to race, either.

All the political finesse and verbal judo in the world can't escape that double bind. The only way out I see is for racist people to stop having so much political power, so that a black president no longer has to seriously consider their reactions.

And that's something I have no idea how to accomplish. Lots more time, lots more work, lots more bending the arc towards justice. But it seems to bend so slow.

#29 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker To Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 01:04 AM:

I can't help but wonder if the extreme sensitivity to black anger that is a background to just about all black/white relations in the US is a holdover from the days when the worst fear of whites in the slave states was a slave rebellion. I also wonder how we can possibly get past that as long as it remains the first reaction of so many whites to any sincere reaction from a black that's louder than a whisper.

#30 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 01:22 AM:

SamChevre @ 21: Thanks. Noticed that on this pass and am pleading mental typo. (I hate mental typo.)

Sleep now.

#31 ::: D. Potter ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 01:30 AM:

SamChevre @ 21: Thanks. Noticed that on this pass and am pleading mental typo. (I hate mental typo.)

Sleep now.

ETA: Server error

#32 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 04:42 AM:

Wish you had quoted - I can't get the page to open so I can't read the article!

#33 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 06:12 AM:

The page seems down. Here's a cached copy of it.

#34 ::: PrivateIron ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 08:00 AM:

It is an interesting meditation. Some of the details are news to me, but none of the underlying basics. It is complex and lyrical, which has its good points and its less fortuitous ones depending on what you want from the essay.

By the reaction on the comments here, I think you are missing some of the nuance. You cannot read this essay and say: wow, look at those stupid racists; no wonder we can't have nice things. The author is indicting you, himself, white America, African-America, everything. If you other the problem, then a lot of the message has not sunk in. If you cast it in a simple oppositional dynamic, even if you lump yourself in with the "bad," I also think you have missed something.

My biggest concern with the essay, not a problem with the essay taken as a thing in itself, but in its reception in the larger discourse on racism: it keeps the discussion of race centered on the black/white dynamic with no pointer as to how to adapt to the much more mulilateral world that is being created these days (to the extent there was not something beyond black/white in the old days already.) As an example, Zimmerman figured so prominently, he could have addressed how weirdly Zimmerman's racial identity was framed throughout the development of that story.

I also think that to be complete he would have to address Powell. Doesn't Powell deserve some of the credit for creating a space for a black man to potentially look Presidential? Alternatively, wasn't Powell's acceptance another indication of how America had changed and not just on the left? (And I say this as someone who wants to give no credit to the Sothern Strategizing B***ards.) On the third look, what led certain African American leaders like Powell and Rice to choose the strategies they did? (Rice grew up in a house where she met "radical" black power leaders all the time. There's a pretty complex story there; not that I think I know how to tell it myself, just that I can sense it is there.)

It's a complicated subject and I don't want to just thow out half-thought-through comments in a blurb; so I am not going to react to specific points. I will give Ta-Nehisi big ups for showing the daunting task of evaluating Obama or even finding the proper perspectives from which to look.

#35 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 08:21 AM:

The one tiny nuance I expected to see in the essay, but didn't, was the thread of narrative about how Obama, though black, was not "the descendant of slaves".

I heard it pitched as "and therefore may not be accepted by American blacks", but I'm sure that it came across to other ears as "and therefore may be more acceptable to American whites", with a side order of "mutter mutter reparations mutter".

In either case, it's a relatively minor element in the entire picture. I note it only for completeness.

#36 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 12:02 PM:

I've had to change some of my web habits for years because of the way google can confuse things. I'd rather not bother to make photos of myself prominent online. I'm a photographer, so I need to keep my work prominent. However, I happen to share my name with a child rapist on one of the sex offender lists (also with an individual whose only google significance is LARPing as a dark elf in blackface, which is bad, but doesn't compare). The result for his listing comes up towards the bottom of the first page when searching for my name. Ever since I discovered that, I have made sure there is a clear, prominent picture of me on any bio page just to make it clear that that is not me and hope that google does not otherwise make the confusion. Luckily google image searches for my name is still dominated by my work. The first couple pages are portraits I have done of other people, along with a few self-portraits. It takes some time before you get to the sex offender.

I have found that google seems to disproportionately value data from google+, so I filled out one of those profiles and seeded it with portfolio work, just to be sure it stayed high on google and has only the info I want on there. If I weren't trying to defend against possible confusion, I probably wouldn't bother with it at all.

#37 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 03:17 PM:

abi: thanks for the link. Lost count of the number of times my jaw dropped reading the article - there were a number of bits and pieces that I didn't know about and which I (being British, not American) find flabbergasting.

#38 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 04:02 PM:

abi: thanks for the link. Lost count of the number of times my jaw dropped reading the article - there were a number of bits and pieces that I didn't know about and which I (being British, not American) find flabbergasting.

#39 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 06:41 PM:

I think Keith's comment @#36 was meant to go with the Google posting. Can it be moved, and this comment then deleted for tidiness?

#40 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 07:08 PM:

Alas, I can't move posts from thread to thread. The original author can re-post in a new thread and I can delete the old version.

#41 ::: Lin Daniel ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 09:28 PM:

Thank you, Patrick.

#42 ::: Marian ::: (view all by) ::: August 24, 2012, 11:46 PM:

This breaks my heart and brings to mind so many small, cutting things: Watching "I'll Fly Away" with my mother. When they got to a scene that reproduced police assaulting students with firehoses, my mother said "That's what your friends really think of you"
Another time, sitting at a SF convention panel and listening to a writer sigh and complain about a colleague who asked why her character had to be East Asian. (As in, why couldn't he be normal: that is white?)
I am so tired of this. And the thing is--this is America's problem. But I think it's also human behavior. LeGuin wrote about the child in the basement whose pain allows everyone else to enjoy paradise. I think every nation had a different "child".

#43 ::: Brad Hicks (@jbradhicks) ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2012, 02:53 AM:

Caroline @#28: Richard Benjamin, the author of Searching for Whitopia (which is a great book, informative and very funny) is a black Ivy-league graduate who worked as a real estate journalist at the height of the bubble. He went out and interviewed people in the fastest-growing whites-only enclaves -- ostensibly about their property values, then once he got their confidence about why they spent so much and gave up so much in order to move to whites-only towns.

You ask when things will get better between blacks and whites in America? In Coeur d'Alene, he interviewed the head of the Aryan Nations church, who invited him to join. Yes, even knowing that he's black. He explained to Benjamin that the Aryan Nations church now teaches that blacks are practically white, these days, it's the Mexicans that both Anglo-Americans and African-Americans should both be worried about.

Facepalm all you want, and yes, it shows how awful anti-Mexican prejudice is and how long it'll be before they're accepted as human by some Americans -- but when an African-American descendant of slaves is "white enough" to be invited in all sincerity to join the Aryan Nations, I think it's plausible to say that this particular problem will have finished solving itself pretty soon.

#44 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2012, 11:40 AM:

Either that, Brad, or it indicates that Aryan Nations people are batshit, bugfuck crazy. "We hate them so much we hardly hate you at all anymore" isn't rational even by the low standards of racist shitheads.

#45 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 25, 2012, 11:59 AM:

Brad Hicks #43: Sorry, but that's not solving the problem, it's perpetuating it. Mr. A.N invited a rich, successful black to help him abuse yet another ethnic group... and to whitewash his church's image with their last set of victims. That's not repentance or recognition that their actions were wrong, it's trying to victimize blacks again, by tricking them onto the Hate Train, working in service of their oppressors.

(Colin Powell comes to mind for some reason....)

#46 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2012, 12:01 AM:

abi #35: No black American, other than Alan Keyes, appears to give two hoots about that issue.

#47 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2012, 07:18 PM:

@43-45: I've long insisted that the US has two races (black and white) and that the definition of "white" is broadened as is necessary to maintain a white majority. (See: Catholics, Irish, Jews and, arguably, within the past decade or two, some fraction of Asians.) From an armchair perspective, it explains a decent number of historical phenomena, but I'd wondered how our culture would deal with an increasing Hispanic / Latino population.

I may have to revise this: the US needs *some* sort of racial divide, but the divide is redefined as necessary.

#48 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 12:27 AM:

Fragano@46 re: Abi@35, of course nobody bought it, but it was still an attempt at othering the Democratic candidate, so they wouldn't have been doing their jobs if they hadn't tried it.
"Obama's not only not a real American, he's not even a real African-American! (insert lots of subtext here)"
It's not like a Birther is going to be embarrassed by saying something ridiculous or offensive.

#49 ::: Bill Stewart waves at the gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 12:33 AM:

I've got some home-brewed apple cider here. I didn't squeeze the apples myself, but it's unfiltered Gravenstein, primary fermentation's done and I'm about to bottle the batch.

#50 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 01:08 AM:

LMM @ 47: I've long insisted that the US has two races (black and white) and that the definition of "white" is broadened as is necessary to maintain a white majority.

I recall a history class in college where we were learning about how industry changed with safety regulations. The early process for galvanizing steel was so highly toxic that the workers died after a few years. The only people who took the jobs were immigrants. At that point in time, they were likely to be Polish. A manager who was interviewed at the time said something along the lines of "Well, yes it's nasty, but it's not like they are white men."

#51 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 11:15 AM:

Brad Hicks, #43

And see this, which mentions a Mexican-American as a defendant in a KKK-cross burning case.

The motivation seems to similar to what you describe, though for lower status people. The white power groups described are essentially havens for alienated young men, and spend a lot of their time fighting other white power groups. They aren't terribly picky, though I get the impression the Mexican-American was an anomaly.

This is not to deny that these groups can be very dangerous to their nominal targets.

#52 ::: driveby ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 06:19 PM:

Mr. Coates fielded some questions on Reddit earlier today. The Q&A may be found here.

#53 ::: driveby has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 06:21 PM:

Hello, gnomes. I left all my cookies on my other computer, the one that had a stroke a couple of weeks ago. Have some tea instead?

[Alas, your chosen e-mail address is one that ... well. You know. (Also, any mention of Reddit will be examined.) -- Carionn Qunestro, Duty Gnome]

#54 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 06:57 PM:

One of the common items advertised by comment spam (so much so that it has its own entry in our filter) is a brand of hair-straightening preparation.

#55 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 10:00 PM:

Abi #35: The one tiny nuance I expected to see in the essay, but didn't, was the thread of narrative about how Obama, though black, was not "the descendant of slaves".

Did you see the delicious little twist in this story (not in the sense that it matters in any grand scheme, but it just shows yet again how convoluted American racial history and categories are) that it seems that Obama *is* descended from slaves... on his mother's side. (Which really *oughtn't* to be surprising, since most American whites, unless they're fairly recent arrivals, have some African American ancestors.) There was an attempt (pointed out on Talking Points Memo recently) to argue that Obama's ancestor was the *first* American slave... but that particular argument required a lot of special pleading.

Again, no real importance here, just a nifty little fact.

#56 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 10:16 PM:

most American whites, unless they're fairly recent arrivals, have some African American ancestors

[Citation needed]

#57 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2012, 10:25 PM:

Stephen Frug @ 55/P J Evans @ 56: I have no idea what percentage of white Americans have some relatively recent African ancestors, but since the human race originated on the African continent, I figure we all are if you go back a ways.

On the not "the descendent of slaves" point, I have an observation. I was in an elementary school that was 99.9% white, with one outlier, George. His father was white, and his mother black. I recall being very puzzled when one of my classmates told me that George isn't a negro. His mother is from Brazil.

#58 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 09:13 AM:

P J Evans: Some unknown but fairly large number (though a small proportion compared to the white population of the time) of slave-descended people with white ancestry chose to 'pass' in the white world and intermarry there, leading to a lot of people proud of their "colonial" or "antebellum" US ancestry without knowing it includes slave-descendants.

This is a description of anecdata, not a provision of statistics.

#59 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 10:47 AM:

Elliott @58: And you can add some unknown-but-real population descended from Irish slaves. Probably not a large number, but it doesn't require African ancestry to have been a slave in the New World....

#60 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 11:05 AM:

P J Evans @ 56

The reference I'm familiar with is Robert Stuckert in the 1950's; that (based on estimates, not DNA) estimated that about 20% of the white population of the US had some African ancestry.

#61 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 11:35 AM:

I finally read the whole article (was on vacation last week). Some passages leaped out at me, speaking as a member of another minority most don't think of as being excluded from white privilege:

“The thing is, a black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there,” Cornell Belcher, a pollster for Obama, told the journalist Gwen Ifill after the 2008 election. “However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”


It is often said that Obama’s presidency has given black parents the right to tell their kids with a straight face that they can do anything. This is a function not only of Obama’s election to the White House but of the way his presidency broadcasts an easy, almost mystic, blackness to the world. The Obama family represents our ideal imagining of ourselves—an ideal we so rarely see on any kind of national stage.

What black people are experiencing right now is a kind of privilege previously withheld—seeing our most sacred cultural practices and tropes validated in the world’s highest office. Throughout the whole of American history, this kind of cultural power was wielded solely by whites, and with such ubiquity that it was not even commented upon.

In response to which, I would note that it is not just whites, it is straight white Christian males (similar to John Scalzi's post), and present Jon Stewart talking about what we grow up knowing we can never be, with Kevin Pollak in March of 2000, notably five months before Gore appointed Lieberman to the candidacy for vice president:

#62 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 12:28 PM:

I have an impression that racism works in Obama's favor because Republicans are apt to underestimate how smart, hard-working, and ambitious he is.

#63 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 12:45 PM:

Jon Baker @61: that was straight white Jewish males, not Christians, they were talking about in the John Stewart clip. There is a difference.

#64 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 04:19 PM:

Fascinating article. I had hints of this from black folks I knew, but most that I knew were "acting white" in one way or another at Ivy League schools.

Tom: I'm not sure what your point is. Stewart and Pollak are talking about the assumption common to Jewish men - that a Jew cannot aspire to be President. Which I share.

Because all the Presidents so far have been straight Christian males. Obama is no exception (unless you think he's a seekrit Muslin).

The 2008 primary showed that a woman cannot yet be president either. Think about it. If Florida and Michigan had counted, and the Party Leadership hadn't otherwise rigged the vote to emphasize Obama, Clinton quite likely would have been the nominee.

Similarly, the Supremes acted to prevent a Jew from getting within a heartbeat of the White House. That wasn't their primary goal, but it certainly was an effect of Bush v Gore.

You say "there's a difference". Of course there is, the Black experience has been very different from the Jewish experience, although plenty of Jews in my grandparents' and parents' generations suffered from antisemitism in this country. It wasn't the kind of systemic exclusion and cultural assumptions based in 250 years of involuntary servitude to the same population among which they still live. And often, but not always, Jews can pass, regardless of personal observance or consciously dressing Jewish. Still, Jews and other immigrants have been excluded, and have not all yet been fully included in white society.

BTW, re Brad Hicks @ 43: My wife's grandfather, a Jew, a Zionist, owner of a small reupholstery factory, an immigrant from Poland by way of Palestine, who hired a black guy over a white guy for his foreman (because the black guy was better, natch), in Birmingham AL in the 1940s, was asked to join the Klan. He declined, of course.

#65 ::: Jon Baker-gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 04:22 PM:

evidently I must have invoked a Word of Power.

Perhaps I should emphasize to Mr Whitmore, that when I said "not just whites, but straight white Christian males", I was talking about who *is* the privileged class, where "straight Jewish males" are not the privileged class the same way, although some can pass.

[You were flattering in a way that is, sadly, common to spammers.—Idumea Cheves Novakovsky]

#66 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 05:34 PM:

I read you #61 differently than you intended, Jon Baker, and I can see now that it was more my mis-reading than your mis-speaking.

#67 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 07:50 PM:

There is definitely a hierarchy of non-privilege WRT chances of becoming President. "Straight white Christian male" is on top -- and it used to be "straight white Protestant male", but the last time we had a Catholic contender, the problem seemed to be less about his faith per se than that he wasn't Catholic enough. Different people rank the disadvantages in different ways, but IMO we'll have a Jewish president before we have a female one; a female one before we have a gay one*; a gay one before we have one who is any religion other than Christian or Jewish; and all of those long before we have an openly atheist president.


* I consider James Buchanan to have been an anomaly. Certainly he'd never have been elected within my lifetime.

#68 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 08:16 PM:

Lee @67: I more or less agree with your ranking of presidential chances, except that prior to the election of Obama, I would have put a black president 4 or 5 entries down your hierarchy. So I'm fully prepared to be surprised; maybe we'll get a gay president who doesn't "act gay"; or a non-judeo-christian president who somehow doesn't seem like "one of them"?

I also wonder how long it will be before we elect our next Deist or Unitarian president?

#69 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 09:21 PM:

@67: "Never have gotten elected within my lifetime" encompasses quite a lot (most ridiculously, as Loewen has pointed out in a few places, men with beards) and opens the possibility of declaring, say, Kennedy and Obama as anomalies as well.

It's arguable that, religion-wise, we've gone from emphasizing a particular brand name, or, at least, emphasizing what the candidate is not, to emphasizing the need to be seen as *strongly* religious, whatever that brand of religion may be. (You cited Kerry as an example. I think the fact that Romney isn't being dismissed completely out of hand is also evidence.) *That* fact might complicate life for a Jewish presidential candidate (as "strong belief" and "liberalism" generally aren't believed to coincide), but I don't see it as a fatal flaw.

#70 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2012, 10:04 PM:

LMM #69: Kennedy was a new thing in that regard, and had to overcome suspicion about his potential loyalty to the Pope. And Jews would be several steps down the list if Israel wasn't our foothold in the Middle East.

#71 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2012, 12:49 AM:

Anyone care to guess where getting a short president would be on the list? Perhaps especially a short male president?

#72 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2012, 02:29 AM:

When I was in high school in the early 1980s, it was a commonplace of politics that the advent of television meant that the US would never again have a fat President. A dozen years later, Bill Clinton took the oath of office.

I think of that whenever people say that such-and-such a type of person could never be elected President. (And I think of our current President, but he's a more recent counter-example.)

On Crooked Timber, John Holbo recently pointed out that right now, if you look at the top level of US politics --- the current President and Vice-President, the opposing-party candidates for Pres and Veep, the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority leader, and the entire Supreme Court --- you won't see a single WASP. And hardly anyone even notices!

#73 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2012, 03:30 AM:

Jeremy, #68: I always knew we'd have a black male president before a female one; I did some noodling on the topic here a few years back. It does rather surprise me that we got a black president now. because prior to Obama's emergence I'd have said we were still at least 3 or 4 election cycles away from that. So maybe I'll be surprised about how quickly we get some of the others, too.

LMM, #69: It's much too early to talk about whether or not Obama is an anomaly! Kennedy is more of a gray area; is it only coincidence that no other Catholic has achieved the office in the last half-century, or does being Protestant still confer a large advantage? But Buchanan's term was over 150 years ago, and no one else who has even been suspected of possibly being gay has so much as made it thru the primaries since then. I think that puts him squarely into anomaly territory.

I do think your point about the current necessity for candidates to be strongly religious is a good one. Devoutness is important, although of course that doesn't apply to anyone who is devout in a non-Christian faith.

Nancy, #71: Well, there was John Adams, of course. :-) More seriously, here's a fairly comprehensive list that shows the heights (where known) of all presidential candidates, both winners and losers. Eisenhower wasn't all that tall, although I certainly wouldn't call him short -- just above the short end of average for an American male, more like.

How tall was Winston Churchill? Is it just his "bulldog" image that makes me think of him as being fairly short?

#74 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2012, 09:30 AM:

Lee @ 73

Devoutness is important, although of course that doesn't apply to anyone who is devout in a non-Christian faith.

I'm not at all certain that devout Jews are at a significant electoral disadvantage--both Lieberman and Cantor would be counterexamples. (In the traditionally-Christian circles I am part of, Cantor's Judaism is far less of a problem than Romney's Mormonism.)

#75 ::: Thomas Nephew ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2012, 07:39 PM:

I would just note the double meaning of the title "Fear of a Black President," which I think was intentional. Let's say everything Coates says about race and America, and Obama's significance to that, is true -- I think it is. But even Coates wonders: what kind of bargain have we then struck, what kind did Obama offer? Embedded deep within that long essay, with so many "buts", "yets" that the essay read to me like a bunch of nested terms all beginning with "-1", is:

"...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. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.
But whatever the politics, a total submission to them is a disservice to the country. No one knows this better than Obama himself, who once described patriotism as more than pageantry and the scarfing of hot dogs. “When our laws, our leaders, or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism,” Obama said in Independence, Missouri, in June 2008. Love of country, like all other forms of love, requires that you tell those you care about not simply what they want to hear but what they need to hear. ..." (emphasis added)

Coates is saying, I think, that Obama has settled for telling us what (most/too many) of us want to hear, and not telling us what we don't want to hear. (At any rate, *I'm* saying it.) And the essay reads like an extended excuse for that, or, more charitably, a novelist's explanation of a president's and a nation's psychology. Yet Obama chose to run, and when he won we had a right to assume he'd fulfill the oath of office, clean out the stables, and see justice done -- to torturers, to financial arsonists. He manifestly has not. Coates seems to say "Obama has had a tough row to hoe." True. But that's what he signed up for, and that's what he has not done, e.g., the things Coates mentions, or just this week giving up on any prosecution of torturers.

Elsewhere, Coates writes: "His approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity." That sounds about right to me -- extremely sad, but about right: someone who (despite slogans of "Change" and "Hope") routinely settled for a situation instead of fundamentally changing it. We needed a Douglass or a DuBois, we needed an FDR. We got a Booker T. Obama. Maybe that's what we deserved, maybe that's all Obama could deliver, maybe that's exactly what he wanted to offer. But we really needed more.

#76 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2012, 12:09 AM:

Thomas Nephew @ 75: I'm also very disappointed that torture and "indefinite detention" continues. However, finally passing a health insurance law counts as a significant change. If he can get re-elected, keep Obamacare going, and get a Supreme Court appointment or 2, he might be able get a few more things through. He can take bigger risks in a second term.

#77 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2012, 01:23 AM:

Lee @73

Winston Churchill is usually reported as 5 feet 6 inches tall, the same height as Napoleon.

There's a list in the Guardian newspaper.

Charles de Gaulle tops the list.

#78 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2012, 02:11 AM:

Thomas Nephew @75 mentioned that "we needed an FDR". Any odds on the likelyhood of another wheelchair-bound president? As far as I know we've never had a blind or deaf president, or a president possessed of fewer than 4 complete limbs, though McCain and Dole both tried to push the envelope with regard to functionality of those limbs. Why haven't we seen a one-legged veteran candidate? He'd still be able to "stand tall" for photo ops, but every full length photo would subtly remind us of his sacrifice for our country. Is it just that the intersection of the set of one-legged veterans and the set of people capable of running a serious campaign for president is too small?

Wikipedia has an interesting list of
physically disabled politicians. I notice none of them are deaf. I don't know if that's because the Wikipedians don't consider deafness a significant disability, or because verbal ability is so vital to political success.

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