Coming in the midst of Black History Month, I can think of no better way to honor this President’s Day than to read two essays. Both by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and both published in The Atlantic, but with completely opposed subjects.
The first essay, “My President Was Black” was published a little over four years ago, in January 2017. Obama had just left office, and Coates wrote a long, reflective essay on what the Obama Presidency had meant, both for him as a Black person, and for the country as a whole. He explored Obama’s unique raising, and how that had influenced his perspective on race relations in America. He talks about how Obama achieved so much as President, despite a coalition of racist opposition that formed from his very first day in the Oval Office. And he covers how Obama disappointed him, in the way he spent more time chastising Black people for “blaming White people” and not enough time openly calling out the structures of white supremacy.
Like all of Coates’ writing, it’s powerful, it’s though-provoking, and it’s worth your time.
The second essay, “The First White President”, was published just ten months after the first, in October of 2017. Even then, Coates could see clearly what many commentators could not, until after the Capitol Riot: that Donald Trump’s entire political philosophy, such as it is, can be summed up as white nationalism. That Trump would not have been President at all, were it not for the racism that undergirds all politics in the United States. Trump was the ultimate expression of that racism, of that contempt for non-Whites. His racist supporters elected him as if to say, “True, a Black man can be President, after a lifetime of struggle and study. But any incompetent White man can trip into it, if he hates Blacks enough.”
Everything in that essay still rings true. It’s a potent reminder that Trump’s grounding in racism was always there to see, if we were willing to see it. That so many people were not willing, for so long, tells us exactly how deep white nationalism’s roots go in this country, and how much work we have left to do to pull it out.