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I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy for the first time. Published in 2017, the book is a compilation of essays Coates wrote while working for The Atlantic.
Coates is unwavering in his analysis of the United States, its racist history and legacy, and racism’s ongoing impact on our current moment. He uses this lens to examine the impact of racism on Obama’s presidency and how it gave us the Trump presidency. Why was Obama’s presidency, respectable and scandal-free as it was, met with such vitriol from white Americans while Trump’s presidency, with too many scandals to name, had such broad support from them?
To Coates, the answer is clear: Trump’s campaign and presidency were rooted in whiteness. He writes, “The symbolic power of Barack Obama’s presidency—that whiteness was no longer strong enough to prevent peons from taking up residence in the castle—assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fears in its adherents and beneficiaries. And it was that fear that gave the symbols Donald Trump deployed—the symbols of racism—enough potency to make him president.”
With such a daunting diagnosis, it’s hard to envision how anything could change. But Coates makes it clear that there might be a path forward. For things to change, he contends, white Americans must recognize the nation’s past and present racism and their own part in it. He reiterates this point across in multiple essays, that in order to address racism and to move forward with efforts like reparations, Americans must acknowledge and reckon with their past. It’s evident in Coates’ own definition of reparations. In “The Case for Reparations,” he writes, “Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely…Reparations beckon us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.”
Maybe this is why Coates’ is so careful in his discussion of hope in We Were Eight Years in Power, in many cases juxtaposing Obama’s optimism about America with his own more cynical view. Whiteness has been so foundational and its accompanying power so intoxicating that overcoming it seems almost insurmountable.
Coates concludes the book noting “it is not yet the end of history” and perhaps a more humane world is possible if white Americans could only name and exorcise the idol of whiteness and its role in this country’s history.