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Twice as Good with Half as Much

barack-obama-black-children

In “The Champion Barack Obama, How Black America talks to the White House,” Ta-Nehisi Coates explores his complicated reaction to the first African-American president, a man he both very much admires and finds frustrating in his handling of America’s racial history The essay is as much narrative as analysis and needs to be read as a whole to be appreciated. I commend it to you.

While the piece defies excerpting, I want to highlight two small passages. First:

Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don’t expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama’s on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don’t expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again. (In the private spaces of black homes, I see it all the time.) And no matter how many times I’ve seen it in my private life, at Howard, in my home, among my close friends, I don’t ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again.

While I’ve spent much less time in black homes than TNC, this struck me initially as throat clearing. Sure, the Obamas are a remarkable family. And, of course, there are tens of thousands of remarkable black families out there that go about their lives outside the national spotlight.

What never occurred to me until a discussion of this in the comments section, though, is how stark the contrast is with most of our recent presidents.

While George W. Bush seems like an outstanding husband and father, he came up under infinitely more privileged circumstances and yet managed to get arrested for drunk driving and have a pretty serious cocaine problem before cleaning himself up and getting his life on the straight and narrow. And, while his daughters turned out just fine and were quite a bit older than the Obama girls at the time he assumed the presidency, they did get into some minor trouble involving being over-served at night clubs. Very minor stuff, to be sure, and they’ve turned out to be fine young women. But all of these things would have been seen in a much different light for a black man, let alone one named Barack Hussein Obama. Indeed, mere casual association with some mildly unsavory characters created more scandal and turmoil in his campaign than even the 11th hour DUI revelation did for Bush.

And, goodness gracious, can you imagine if Obama had anything like Bill Clinton’s baggage? It was bad enough for a white man. The narrative around Clinton was that he was a hound dog who used his power and celebrity to bed a string of women. To be sure, many of us thought that made him unfit to be our head of state. But the connotation of “sexual predator” would be completely different for a black man.

There’s not even a Billy Carter equivalent in the Obama narrative.

While the parallels aren’t by any means perfect, he’s a veritable Jackie Robinson. Even six decades later, a black man breaking such a major barrier had to be unusually, to use Joe Biden’s term, “clean.”

Interestingly, though, most of TNC’s essay—the part that most vexes him about Obama—is grappling with that concept. He cites the long legacy of strong black leaders—whether national figures like Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. Du Bois or unsung heroes like his own mother—who counsel “personal responsibility.”

When Barack Obama steps into a room and attacks people for presumably using poverty or bigotry as an excuse to not parent, he is channeling a feeling deep in the heart of all black people, a frustration, a rage at ourselves for letting this happen, for allowing our community to descend into the basement of America, and dwell there seemingly forever.

My mother’s admonishings had their place. God forbid I ever embarrass her. God forbid I be like my grandfather, like the fathers of my friends and girlfriends and wife. God forbid I ever stand in front of these white folks and embarrass my ancestors, my people, my dead. And God forbid I ever confuse that creed, which I took from my mother, which I pass on to my son, with an wise and intelligent analysis of my community. My religion can never be science. This is the difference between navigating the world and explaining it.

[...]

And I struggle to get my head around all of this. There are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed. No other resident of the White House, could have better explained to America what the George Zimmerman verdict meant. And I think history will remember that, and remember him for it. But I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of “twice as good” in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.

This is a hell of a duality.

On the one hand, I fully agree that the “personal responsibility” mantra, much less the “twice as good” standard, is not only unfair it’s damaging. Not only does it allow white people to ignore four hundred years of history but it tells black people who couldn’t overcome that history even with real effort that it’s their fault. And, subtly, it sets up the likes of Jackie Robinson, Bill Cosby, Colin Powell, and Barack Obama to be the minimum acceptable standard for black manhood rather than as aspirational figures worthy of emulation, if probably unattainable, regardless of race.

On the other, however, one can hardly fault Mrs. Coates for her message to her son or President Obama for this message to the country. Is life fair? No. Is it even less fair if you happen to be born black, much less black and in poverty? Of course. But I’d fully expect a black mother to tell her son that, regardless of that fact, they’re just as good as any white child and should strive to be their best—even if they have to work harder than the white kids—and make their mama proud. And, while perhaps the First Black President ought to do more to reshape the landscape and remove those historical barriers, I don’t begrudge him also holding himself up as a model of what’s possible for a black boy with talent to aspire to.

 

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. James Pearce says:

    Coates is an excellent writer and a first rate thinker, but sometimes I wish he would just cut out all the flowery stuff and get to the point.

    In a later comment, he seems to have condensed it somewhat:

    He is wrong because “personal responsibility” has zero explanatory power in understanding the problems of black America. In Du Bois’ time the rhetoric was the same. No one would cite “personal responsibility” as an explanation now.

    It is very hard to say white supremacy is the answer. Period. It presents us all with some unsavory and unfortunate conclusions.

    Hate to say it, but “zero” seems way too low. “Personal responsibility” can explain a lot of problems in America generally.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  2. steve says:

    I wish conservatives would read people like Coates. They mostly seem to think that Al Sharpton is the official spokesperson and representative for people of color, not realizing that writers like Coates even exist.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  3. MBunge says:

    One fascinating aspect of that TNC essay is I can see him grappling with the limits of his own perspective. He has to criticize Obama because, of course, anyone who doesn’t criticize Obama is just a brainless sheep and not a shining example of delicate genius who would make everything better IF PEOPLE WOULD JUST LISTEN TO ME, DAMMIT! On the other hand, he has a clear-eyed appreciation as a black dude of just how phenomenal Obama’s accomplishments are and phenomenal Obama has had to be to accomplish them.

    Take his complaints about personal responsibility. He doesn’t like such preaching intellectually or viscerally but when put up against Obama, his complaints wither into an annoyed kvetching. That’s because he’s self-aware enough to grasp that didn’t preach personal responsibility, who instead talked the talk that TCC wants the way TNC wants it, wouldn’t be President and wouldn’t have done any of the good things he’s done.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  4. PJ says:

    @steve:

    I wish conservatives would read people like Coates. They mostly seem to think that Al Sharpton is the official spokesperson and representative for people of color, not realizing that writers like Coates even exist.

    Or they know that writers like Coates exist and chose to not acknowledge their existence and their writing for a obvious reason.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I don’t expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama’s on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.)

    Hell, at 55 years of age, with memories of “Whites Only” signs, I feel blessed to have seen it at all. When looking at how far we have yet to go, it helps to look back from time to time and realize how far we have come.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  6. wr says:

    In the prime of his career, Sidney Poitier longed to play a villain, or at least a seriously flawed character. But he knew he couldn’t. He was the First Black Movie Star, and he had to be a role model in every part he played.

    I’ve long suspected that Obama feels much the same way. Of course he’d like to say all those things about the Republicans that we long to hear him say. But The First Black President can’t also be the Angry Black Man. He’s got to be the Good One.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  7. Monala says:

    One thing I wish that prominent black folks (including TNC and President Obama) would do is publicly celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans as a whole, and not simply those of individuals who achieve extraordinary success. I think that would go a long way toward ending the “black pathology” narratives that are too prominent in some circles. Statistics I read on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act include that fact that since 1964 the the black poverty rate has declined by half; the black high school graduation rate has tripled, and the black college graduation rate has increased by 950%. That’s a tremendous number of ordinary people overcoming a lot of history.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. bill says:

    seems hollow at best. obama is half black/white and was raised by white people for the most part (until mitt romney had his mother killed). he had very little “black experience” in life aside from an absentee father.
    you people who put an extra burden on him are as bad or worse than all the affirmative action apologists, get a life.
    his failures as president have 0.0 to do with his skin color, more to do with your allowing him to do so because of it. the msm’s persistent pandering and failure to criticize him was nothing short of collusion, and a massive embarrassment on their part that’s been noted worldwide.
    other than that, all’s well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 9

  9. wr says:

    @bill: Sorry Bull Connor, but the rules your people laid down in this country say if a man’s got a drop of black blood in his veins, he’s one of “them.” For you now to play the “he’s really not black, he’s half white” is simply demonstrating your inbred racism even as you keep insisting that race doesn’t matter to you.

    What the hell do you know about “black experience” anyway? I guess to you that means he doesn’t wear a purple duster and drive a Cadillac.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  10. Just nutha... says:

    And, while perhaps the First Black President ought to do more to reshape the landscape and remove those historical barriers,

    I truly wish that I lived in the same America that you do James. It must be a wonderful place full of unicorns and other amazing things. Alas, in the America that I live in “the First Black President” has to fight with a recalcitrant GOP cohort in Congress to even get the debt ceiling raised, let alone “reshape the landscape and remove those historical barriers.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  11. Stonetools says:

    @James Pearce:

    This may be hyperbole, but contrast it with the conservative position on black America, which is :

    “300 years of slavery, followed by 100 years of Jim Crow, plus continuing discrimination today? Pshaw! The only problem with black America today is that these lazy, shiftless Negroes don’t want to work and are always looking for a handout!”

    A better statement of the argument is that MOST of the problem with black America has to do with white supremacy and other structural problems that can’t be solved by simply exhorting black Americans to “strive!” Lots of them already are striving.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha…: I’m summarizing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ position there. I fully concur that Obama’s ability to do much of anything has been constrained by recalcitrant Republicans. But It’s not as if he has fought and lost big battles on this issue. He really hasn’t engaged at all, except on the margins of things like the Gates arrest and the Martin-Zimmerman case.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. bill says:

    @wr: you don’t know who “my people” are or what rules they laid down, your “profiling” for some reason. my gf’s black, does that count?
    aside from that- where i grew up and with whom is something you have no clue about, keep that lame and tired race card in the deck.
    obama was not cut out to “preside” and that’s reason #1 why he’ll be remembered as a mediocre president. his inability to “reach across the aisle” let alone be “transparent” are a major reason for his failures. the biggest clue to what he’s doing now should have come from his performance in his first debate with romney- he looked and acted like he didn’t want to be there let alone do 4 more years.
    that’s not racist, it’s realist!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  14. Grewgills says:

    @bill:

    seems hollow at best. obama is half black/white

    In the US if you look black you are treated as black. You should realize this more than most, given your romantic relationship. You should also realize that most people that are black in America are not of 100% African decent, yet they are all treated as black. Ask your GF if you doubt this.

    (until mitt romney had his mother killed)

    Where did this come from?

    he had very little “black experience” in life aside from an absentee father.

    Admittedly Hawaii is a very different place to be raised than the mainland as far as racial concerns go, but he did move to the mainland for college and from that point forward was seen as black. This also ignores the community organizing work he did that has been so disparaged by people on the right.

    you people who put an extra burden on him are as bad or worse than all the affirmative action apologists, get a life.

    There is a rather significant difference between putting a burden on someone and recognizing a burden on someone.

    his inability to “reach across the aisle”

    Really? Placing the complete intransigence of the Republicans on him is beyond dishonest. From before he was inaugurated the stated goal of the Republican leadership was no compromise period.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1