On Being a a White Liberal in the Era of Ta-Nehisi Coates
First, a confession: I’m not a very good liberal. I supported Bernie Sanders, but he and I don’t always see eye to eye. I’m still ambivalent about single-payer healthcare and 50% tax rates and government debt. Still, though moderate, I am very much a liberal. And I’m very white.
Second, an introduction: For those not yet familiar with Ta-Nehisi Coates, I consider him one of the most brilliant writers of our time. Originally a journalist, he has developed a brilliant essay style, and his social commentary is devastatingly insightful and brutally honest. For me, his magnum opus thus far is his semi-autobiography Between the World and Me, but everything he has written for The Atlantic and other publications is worth reading.
The work which prompts my present response is his most recent article in The Atlantic, “The First White President.” I highly recommend the read, despite its length — I won’t do justice to his eloquence and passion here. Essentially, he argues that Trump is the tragic result of a white backlash against Obama. For centuries, the white hierarchy had perpetuated itself on the doctrine that even the lowest class of whites was better than black Americans. Even those who worked for abolition and fought Jim Crow laws shared a fundamental assumption that black Americans needed shepherding by a superior white race. Coates argues that the election of Obama upended this social hierarchy and galvanized whites (the majority of whom voted for Trump across almost every demographic) to elect someone who was not only white, but who was willing to express openly — if carefully — that whites were superior to other races. Trump filled that void, and in that way, he is the first white president.
I will respond directly to this article, since I believe Coates is both correct and incorrect in very important ways. But I also want to face the general tension that Coates, with his uncompromising honesty, exposes in the liberal camp. The fact is, liberals in America, as embodied in the Democratic Party, are being pulled in two basic directions. One is general class and economic concerns, drawing on the working class as a base (which is still majority white). The other is minority and civil rights, which draw on minority voters as a base. That battle for the soul of progressivism, well documented in current media coverage, has great bearing on the future of our country.
The reason I love Coates is that I believe the basic soul of modern liberal politics is found in fighting for the powerless. It’s why I tear up reading The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’s classic about a little man who speaks for the trees. In modern America, our racial minorities have relatively little power — the cause of a liberal, then, should be exactly what Coates insists: equality for racial minorities, empowerment of the poor, and may the rich and powerful fend for themselves. And yet…
…And yet, there is something incomplete about Coates’ arguments. In the recent article on Trump, he makes two revealing claims. One is the subtitle: “The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.” The other comes in the first section: “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy.” The first is undeniably true. Republicans generally disliked Obama, and running on an anti-Obama campaign was a good strategy for conservatives. Since his election, Trump has been strident and uncompromising about criticizing nearly everything his predecessor accomplished. I really believe there is truth to what Coates says: “For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally.”
But this fact alone does not make Trump a white supremacist. The fact that Trump honestly, deeply believes that blacks are inferior to whites does not mean that he believes, according to Merriam Webster’s definition of white supremacist, “that white people should have control over people of other races.” I think that Trump, like a growing number of Americans, is not really opposed to blacks or Latinos or any other race being in power in theory. He just doesn’t believe many of them are capable of being in power.
Take the Trump quote about black accountants, which Coates uses in his article: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” This demonstrates that Trump is an uneducated bigot who blindly accepts common stereotypes. That much has been clear for ages. It also indicates that Trump’s paradigm is that everyone should stay in their place — Jews in banks, Mexicans in Mexico, blacks in working-class jobs, and whites in charge. But one’s paradigm is not one’s ideology.
We need only look at Abraham Lincoln to have proof of that. Lincoln’s paradigm on race, after all, was not so different from Trump’s. In 1858 he said about blacks, “While they [blacks and whites] d0 remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” Yet Lincoln’s ideology was, in the end, abolitionism and union. He won the Republican Party nomination primarily because of his unique and powerful statements against slavery. He poured the resources of the nation into a war that was, essentially, about stopping eleven states from creating a new pro-slavery nation. Lincoln’s ideology was not white supremacist, even if his paradigms unconsciously were.
Trump is no Lincoln. But I believe this is key to understanding Trump and many of his supporters. Some of those supporters have adopted white supremacy as an ideology, of course, and not just David Duke and Richard Spencer. But many just operate passively under the old paradigm that whites are superior. They are not actively fighting for a white-ruled state. They just believe it will naturally occur under a fair system.
To be clear, I do not excuse such passive racism. Nor am I saying that racism, active and passive, played no role in the rise of Trump. It clearly did. Just as many people, consciously or sub-consciously, assumed Clinton was unfit for the presidency primarily on the basis of her womanhood, many assumed Obama was unfit for office on the basis of his blackness. Somehow, they seem to believe that Trump — despite his disgusting history of racist and sexist behavior, despite his deplorable lack of original thoughts on society’s most pressing issues — will be a better president than Obama because he is white. We can never cease fighting until such assumptions are put to rest.
But this is the challenge of being a white liberal in the era of Ta-Nehisi Coates. I am morally bound to join Coates and fight against such bigotry because I believe it is false. I am also patriotically bound to fight it because I believe it hurts my country. Yet, concurrently, I am bound to acknowledge the truth that many who hold such paradigms do not realize they hold them. And as a white person, when I say that racism is not always as overt or as calculated as Coates argues, I am entirely vulnerable to charges of willful blindness to the realities that racial minorities experience.
This is the tension which has paralyzed liberals at the very moment when it is most important to present a united front. The nation faces three more years of a calloused, arrogant fool in the presidency, with the potential for four more. Yet liberals haven’t yet been able to offer a coherent alternative, either through the Democratic Party or otherwise. I believe that failure is primarily due to our inability to agree on how to address bigotry and racism. Time is not on our side. Elections come quickly. Liberals, black and white and every other color, let’s start figuring this out.