“Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” (123)
I first discovered Ta-Nehisi Coates when a friend of mine recommended The Beautiful Struggle back in 2009. Since then, I’ve kept my eyes out for Coates, whether he’s speaking on The Daily Show, or writing a new book. When I noticed his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power (2017), I immediately got on the wait list at the library. As a side note, I was a little surprised that I first saw this one in a suburban Costco in a very white neighborhood. Maybe I’m not giving my neighborhood enough credit, but I hope they sold a lot of copies.
We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of articles that Coates had written for The Atlantic during each of the eight years of the Obama presidency. He introduces each article with a short description of what he was thinking then, and what he thinks of his article now. I saw some definite evolution in the clarity and incisiveness of Coates’ thoughts as the years progress. In the book, Coates compares the time of Obama as president to the time directly after the Civil War when Black men and women finally got some political power. Segregation and the Jim Crow era was the response to the post-civil war era, and Trump is the response to the good years of Obama.
The articles in this book include:
This is How We Lost to the White Man – Coates discusses powerful Black men, such as Bill Cosby (before the majority of his scandals) complaining about Black culture and saying that is why the Black population is struggling so much today. Coates also discusses how Obama does this to some extent as well–on the campaign trail and even at college graduations.
American Girl – This is an essay on Michelle Obama. Coates focuses on Michelle Obama’s childhood in South Chicago, what that neighborhood was like, how it’s changed, and how it’s shaped Michelle Obama’s life.
Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War? – Coates has become something of a Civil War buff. He describes being the only Black person at many of the major Civil War historical sites. “White Americans finding easy comfort in nonviolence and the radical love of the civil rights movement must reckon with the unsettling fact that black people in this country achieved the rudiments of their freedom through the killing of whites.” (84)
The Legacy of Malcolm X – This one was a deep discussion of who Malcolm X was and what he stood for. Unfortunately, I am pretty ignorant about the details of Malcolm X’s life, and I felt that much of this essay went over my head.
Fear of a Black President – These next three articles were my favorites in the book. “The irony of Barack Obama is this: He has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear.” (122) Coates discusses how carefully Obama had to tread on racial issues so that he did not anger or scare his white voters. He stated that studies have shown that as soon as Obama became attached to anything, the issue would become divided on racial lines. Coates also compared the Obama response to the policeman who arrested the Harvard professor in front of his home to Shirley Sherrod. Sherrod worked for the Obama administration and was quickly fired when misleading cuts of videos were leaked that made it look like she had discriminated against a white farmer. It’s a powerful comparison and a powerful essay.
The Case for Reparations – This was another powerful essay and one of my favorites. I’d never thought reparations were really possible, but Coates brings up a number of points I’d not thought through before. “Reparations beckon us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is–the work of fallible humans.” (202) He discusses more about what happened to Black people after the Civil War–including forced labor and especially “redlining” where neighborhoods were racially segregated. Redlining had a strong, negative impact on the upward mobility on all Black families and the repercussions of that continue today. I learned a lot from this article. “They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success.” (196)
The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration – Another one of my favorite essays, although it is a topic I am more familiar with, so there was less new information. Coates goes into how high the U.S. incarceration rate is, especially with Black men, and how it tears up people and families. He also mentions that incarceration was used as a way to control Black men–that incarceration of Black men in the South increased precipitously after the end of segregation. “A series of risk factors–mental illness, illiteracy, drug addiction, poverty–increases one’s chances of ending up in the ranks of the incarcerated…” (241) “But the attitude that helps one survive in prison is almost the opposite of the kind needed to make it outside.” (240)