Ta-Nehisi Coates And 'The First White President': An Alternate View

The writer's latest essay falls short as a piece of political analysis.
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In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates (TNC) uses the election of Donald Trump, “the first white president,” to offer a blockbuster portrayal of the politics of race and white supremacy in the U.S. As political analysis, it is disputable and fair game. Out of respect for the erudite, eloquent, and accomplished Mr. Coates, let’s not hold back, okay?

The victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election was founded on a positively tiny margin of votes in just three states. As such, a change in any number of factors could have brought about a different result. Such factors include but are not limited to: the 11th hour “Comey letter” suggesting malfeasance on Hillary Clinton’s part, Russian interventions via the Internet, suppression of African-American and other voters, bizarre mainstream media coverage, Bernie Sanders’ blistering primary challenge, and an assortment of questionable decisions by Hillary Clinton prior to 2016, and by her campaign in 2016. Here are 37 reasons that could explain the outcome. And don’t forget Facebook.

In the inevitable post-mortems, many tend to fixate on the factor that is most congenial to their own pre-existing political views. The same was true after the 2000 election, one with a ridiculously narrow margin of victory. Monocausal explanations, especially those founded on analytical biases, ought to be rejected. With such a narrow margin, it would only have taken a reversal of one factor to change the outcome. The counter-factual is unknown.

The other inescapable implication of the tiny victory margin is that it is problematic to associate any great, purported shift in the zeitgeist to such a small difference. To be sure, the implications of unified Republican control of the Congress, White House, and Supreme Court are malignant and momentous. But our subject here is the thinking that informs and misinforms voting behavior.

“Yes, we’re drowning in a sewer of racism, thanks in part to the Trump cultural revolution, but that doesn’t explain the ascendance of the “first white president.””

The cause that TNC adds to the mix is racism. My claim is that Coates’ analysis is both unsupported and destructive of progressive politics. His erudition and literary talent are not in question. I don’t fault his intentions. Some think he is facing hard truths and call his view realistic. That is the question, isn’t it? How real is it? What’s in question is not TNC’s experience of racial oppression, of the psychology underlying it, or his ability to bring it to life in a text. I’m talking about a political analysis.

If I felt under constant, homicidal threat as a person of Jewish descent, or if I had personally witnessed the deaths of relatives in the Holocaust, I don’t doubt that I would tend to dwell on my Jewishness, such as it is, and ponder the endurance of anti-Semitism through the ages. On this level, I can hardly fault TNC for centering race and white supremacy in his account.

Coates’ text still deserves rigorous criticism. It makes explicit reference to political events and persons. It embodies a political stance. Whether you call him a politician or public intellectual, TNC is interested in politics, and his politics are interested in you.

The stand-out feature of Coates’ analysis is the timelessness of racism in the U.S. In his telling, it begins when America’s white indentured servants are socially promoted into a racially-superior class. The psychological dependence of white people of lesser status on their allocated privilege, which hinges on their enjoying a position superior to that of black people, becomes the ineradicable obstacle to working class unity and social-democratic transformation.

The poster boy for the ascendance of whiteness as the fundamental governing principle in U.S. politics is of course the 45th president, a man so manifestly inferior in all respects that it is truly impossible to imagine an African-American with any subset of his deficiencies going nearly as far in the world.

Trump’s racism is explicit. It has been documented to be a long-standing component of his outlook. Perhaps Coates’ most powerful assertion is that his millions of voters were okay with it. There is no getting around that. A President Trump is prima facie proof of racism at large. So far, so good.

The problem here is that as matter of electoral dynamics, Trump’s victory was not necessarily the result of an uprising by the white working class (WWC). Coates himself makes clear that Trump won more white votes than Hillary Clinton in all types of economic and demographic groups. Trump’s white coalition transcended class.

Coates does not show any movement of WWC voters from Democratic to Republican due to Trump. That could be called a kind of uprising, if it had happened. There is some evidence for it, if we define WWC as those with no college. In this sense TNC sells his analysis a bit short. Even so, WWC voters were trending Republican before Trump ever put his face into presidential politics.

An alternative hypothesis is that the Democrats suffered from a multiracial working-class uprising, one in which white voters bolted for Trump, while non-white 2012 voters stayed home. That leads to a different narrative, one that proposes a Democratic Party failure in the realm of class politics.

Please, let’s not recoil as if I’m blaming black folks for Trump. The responsibility lies with the Democratic Party for not keeping voters of all colors on board. But if the race factor is more about Democrats than Republicans, that goes against the grain of TNC’s focus on Trump’s explicit, vicious, unforgivable racism. The white supremacy rap doesn’t fly nearly as smoothly when applied to Hillary Clinton, whatever her faults.

If there wasn’t a WWC uprising, maybe it was more generally a white riot. Again, to cite the 2016 election as a sign of something new, we need to compare it to prior elections.

When it comes to turnout, the salient fact in 2016 was a modest increase in white turnout, and a significant decline in non-white turnout. This doesn’t debunk Coates, since his thesis would be supported by evidence of a great shift from D to R among white voters, but it takes us a step closer to some illumination which Coates provides himself, when he says “Trump’s share of the white vote was similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012.” Actually, Trump did somewhat worse with white voters than Mitt Romney did in 2012, particularly with women. But we don’t need to quibble.

Little change in overall white turnout combined with little change in Trump’s share of the white vote blows up the white riot theory. Yes, we’re drowning in a sewer of racism, thanks in part to the Trump cultural revolution, but that doesn’t explain the ascendance of the “first white president.” Trump ran against the Republican establishment in the primaries, but these same worthies closed ranks around him at the convention. Only recently have some fault lines appeared. The 2016 Republican electorate was the usual gang of idiots.

Ironically, TNC’s one-dimensional focus on whiteness glosses over a genuinely new element that Trump has introduced into our politics: the elevation of the most racist elements of the population. We now have outright Nazis and Klansmen achieving social media celebrity and drawing crowds to speeches and marches. These deplorables were never going to vote Democratic, so their electoral significance in 2016 vs. 2012 can be discounted. However, in this regard TNC’s whiteness frame is too broad: it obscures the progress of U.S. neo-fascism.

Nor does the often-remarked on movement of Obama 2012 voters to Trump make any sense in the context of Coates’ analysis. After voting for a black man, maybe twice, you say, “The guy I really want to be president is the big racist”? To explain that, we would need to theorize an upsurge of raging misogyny, but that’s not in TNC’s wheelhouse.

In a television interview, TNC invoked the Jackie Robinson example – racists cheering for black sports heroes. That analogy to a presidential election is strained. As everyone knows, Jack Johnson and Jesse Owens disproved to the least-educated minds the premise of a white race superior in all respects. Racism has transitioned to the view that non-whites can run and jump, but they still don’t deserve the respect of their fellow citizens.

To say racism has always been with us, not least with the benefit of Coates’ historical examples, is not to say the condition of racism’s victims has been frozen since time immemorial. And that is not to say progress has always been swell and will surely continue. There has been progress, and there could be more. In this sense, Coates’ use of history is ahistorical. Pessimism is certainly justified, but it need not be taken to the nth degree.

Hopes to the contrary are stigmatized by TNC as blindness to the intensity of racism, if not to racism itself. There is a strain of emotional blackmail that runs through Coates’ essay, not to mention in much less edifying Twitter spats on this question. If you don’t buy what he’s selling, your perception of the dominance of racism in all of American life falls somewhere in the range between malign neglect and malevolence.

I am not here to enthuse a post-racial paradise, that things have gotten much better and progress is inevitable. The former is incontrovertible. On the latter, I’m afraid not. The arc of history bends every which way.

As a policy guy, to me another off-putting dimension of the TNC view is its gloss on Republican economics. His implication is that racism is the fundamental motivation for the GOP legislative agenda, personified by Trump’s intense, personal hatred of our first black president. To the contrary, Republican political economy is all about exploiting the working class for the sake of the 1%. Racism is a political tool. Racism is constructed for the ulterior motive of class domination. It’s all about the money. I don’t really think TNC would disagree, but such considerations get utterly lost in his story.

When it comes to Democrats, class politics – a focus on programs of universal benefit to the working class is the question. How big to go. (In DP-speak, for “middle-class working families.” They play by the rules!)

TNC claims that social-democratic proposals cannot overcome the depth of racism in the white working class. He goes so far as to describe their advocacy as “escapism.” If you take exception, he will remind you that “working class whites had been agents of racist terrorism since at least the draft riots of 1863.” This can be an intimidating assertion to a white reader, but it is also rubbish. It visits the sins of some on an entire racial-economic class, for all time. It’s like Trump and his ‘Mexican rapists.’

Such a standpoint lends cold comfort to the predominantly minority workers striking McDonalds, “Fighting for Fifteen,” and battling Walmart for union representation, or to minority youth financially blocked from a post-secondary education. Neither is there much hope for the Black Lives Matter movement, if it is doomed to eternal rejection by an irredeemable white majority.

The postulate of ineradicable racism is vulnerable to two criticisms:

1) It is not necessary to convert the WWC wholesale to progressive politics to win elections. Remember the tiny margins of defeat in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Only a few to whom class politics can appeal are needed. Even some who voted in response to Trump’s racial cues may be redeemable. Democratic politicians have been winning elections with the benefit of some racist votes for a long time.

2) Social-democratic proposals can motivate greater turn-out among people of color, who are overwhelmingly working class.

Either could have reversed the November outcome.

It is undeniable that ‘universal programs’ are not a sure-fire political winner. If they were, by now we would have full-spectrum social-democracy. More important, they do not go as far as desirable in addressing race-specific (and gender-specific) disparities. When a rising tide lifts all boats, it does not necessarily narrow the gaps between them. So more than class politics is needed for social justice. This is the truth of Coates’ disapproval of “raceless anti-racism” on the left. At the same time, there should be no doubt that social-democratic programs disproportionately benefit minorities and women. Not for nothing did Martin Luther King Jr. come to this view. Recognizing the needs of the white working class, those indeed held in common with minorities, doesn’t neglect the black working class. It magnifies its political salience. Some of the major injuries of black workers are also the injuries of all.

Social-democratic programs sound great and poll well, but they are hard to actually implement. Inconvenient practical problems arise, usually on the financing side. Higher taxes are a buzzkill. Race-specific remedies of any scale are harder still. Both should be pursued. Personally, I would fault both Clinton and Sanders for falling short in this respect. Hillary Clinton’s purported advantage over Sanders in this dimension was mostly hot air. She knew how to “say their names,” but she didn’t go much further than that.

Still, one shortfall of critiques along the lines of TNC is their failure to propose remedies that scale and that have any claim to political realism. Reparations founders on the latter count. These critiques attack progressive, class politics but provide little in the way of practical alternatives. They encourage defeatism.

TNC’s voice is strong. We might hope that his account, by shocking the conscience, acts like a gateway drug to a more constructive, activist political outlook.

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