Since the publication of “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates has become one of the nation’s most visible and influential African American public intellectuals. Scholars as well as liberal (and even a number of conservative) pundits have hailed Coates for his courage, passion, and insights into the history of American “race relations.” Arguing that disparities in income, wealth, and incarceration are generated by a transhistorical racism stretching back to the colonial era, Coates rejects solutions based on broad economic redistribution. He advocates, instead, for policies targeting blacks exclusively — such as reparations — as the only feasible means of closing the material divide between African Americans and whites.
Coates’s rise to prominence during Obama’s second term was, at least in part, an expression of a broadly shared disillusionment with post-racialism. While pundits, Democratic functionaries, and a stratum of middle-class African American professionals celebrated the election of the nation’s first black president as a transformative moment in American race relations, Obama’s presidency did little to directly address racial disparities. Moreover, the Tea Party and Birther movements as well as President Trump’s normalization of white nationalism made clear that racial prejudice was still alive and kicking. In this context, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s calls for reparations and his related embrace of a racial ontology — the view that race/racism is a fundamental determinant of human life operating independently of social relations — provided what many would see as a satisfying and sober alternative to post-racialism.
At its core, post-racialism is a reactionary fantasy. Obama’s version of it presumed that since the victories of the modern Civil Rights Movement had swept aside the formal racial impediments to black equality, lingering inequality had less to do with extant prejudice than slow economic growth, racism’s historic legacy, and the cultural deficiencies of poor African Americans themselves. Despite rhetorical nods at deindustrialization, however, President Obama — like Presidents Johnson, Carter, and Clinton before him — was little concerned with the effects of structural economic inequality. Thus, rather than demonstrating liberals’ historic failure to appreciate the distinctiveness of black poverty, as Coates claims, post-racialism is in step with postwar liberalism’s tendency to treat racial inequities as if they exist in a world apart from the economic processes that generate them. Coates’s conceptualization of racism as the engine of history not only blinds him to this fact, but his commitment to racial ontology is every bit as conservative and counterproductive as the post-racialism he despises.
Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates — the very emblem of post-racialism along with its most popular critic — have thus taken up complementary roles. To be sure, Obama and Coates lay claim to two diametrically opposed visions of race. While Obama’s post-racialism traces lingering inequities, at least in part, to the cultural deficiencies of the black and brown poor themselves, Coates attributes racial disparities to an inexorable white prejudice.
Whether the culprit is African Americans’ cultural pathologies or whites’ ingrained contempt for blacks, each of these frameworks divorces what we tend to think of as racial inequality from the political economy. Both Obama and Coates abstract African American poverty from the economic and social policies that have, indeed, impacted blacks disproportionately — including the decline of the trade union movement and the retrenchment of the public sector — even if their impetuses often have little or nothing to do with race. Rather than providing policy prescriptions that might redress the material sources of racial disparities, then, the race reductionism that informed Obama’s post-racialism and informs Coates’s reparations agenda aids and abets a liberal politics that has been complicit in decades-long wage stagnation and the widening material gulf that separates the nation’s haves from its have-nots, whatever their race.
Race and Modern Liberalism
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s major works on race and American politics — “The Case for Reparations,” “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” “My President Was Black,” and “The First White President”— contend that liberal social policy has failed African Americans since the New Deal because progressives have tended to view “racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality.” 1 According to Coates, the New Deal enshrined into law a system of entrenched inequities, via discriminatory Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage policies, that plundered black bodies and engendered ghettoization; the Johnson administration ignored the urgings of Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan to forge a War on Poverty centered on the distinctiveness of black poverty, thereby paving the way for mass incarceration; affirmative action’s promise to close the material divide between blacks and whites remains unfulfilled, thanks to its scattered focus on diversity and inclusion; and Obama’s predilection for “universal” programs — such as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), expansion of Pell Grants, and the Earned Income Tax Credit — failed to ignite a progressive, class-based coalition capable of staving off a racist, populist Trump political insurgency.
Coates’s characterizations are not entirely without merit. As has been well documented by historians and social scientists, discrimination in FHA mortgage policy undercut black Americans’ capacity both to accumulate wealth and to weather the withering blows of deindustrialization. The War on Poverty did fail to address the root causes of black poverty, and this failure has certainly contributed to contemporary disparities in incarceration rates. Affirmative action has, indeed, proved incapable of redressing income inequality and disparities in employment. And there is little doubt that the Obama administration’s tepid response to the financial crisis — along with Hillary Clinton’s many flaws as a presidential candidate — helped pave the way for the faux-populist Trump presidency.
On some level, then, it is not surprising that scholars and journalists alike have lauded Coates for bringing a number of crucial issues to the attention of a broad readership. But if Coates merits recognition for introducing the ill effects of specific policies to a popular audience, his insistence that race is a force that operates independently from political economy leads him to the erroneous conclusion that modern liberalism’s failures are owed to a refusal to acknowledge that racism is a distinct evil that warrants its own solutions. Contrary to Coates’s characterization of US history, postwar liberalism was actually typified by a tendency to divorce race from class. Coates’s fundamental claim is, therefore, incorrect. Still, in light of Coates’s broad popularity and influence, it is worthwhile to explore the inadequacies of his analysis of the New Deal, the War on Poverty, affirmative action, and President Obama if only because Coates’s appeal offers insights into the problems with post-post-racial liberal discourse about race and inequality.
Coates’s critique of the New Deal centers on two of its most well-documented deficiencies: the exclusion of disproportionately black agricultural workers from coverage under the Social Security Act (1935) and the explicit exclusion of blacks from Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA) mortgage policies. According to Coates, these examples highlight the limitations of universalism, while demonstrating a history of white plunder of black bodies. The realities, however, are far more complicated.
As Coates correctly notes, exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from Social Security coverage placed 65 percent of African American workers beyond the reach of the SSA’s old-age retirement coverage in 1935. Drawing on the work of political scientist Ira Katznelson, Coates ultimately attributes the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers — “jobs heavily occupied by blacks”— from the Social Security Act to southern Democrats’ desire to infuse Jim Crow into federal policy. Though there is little doubt that southern Democrats argued passionately against extension of Title I Social Security benefits to African Americans, the contention that racism was the principal impetus behind the SSA’s exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers is hard to defend.
The most obvious problem with the claim is that it ignores the fact that the majority of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, mixed farm laborers, and domestic workers in the early 1930s were white. According to the 1933 labor census, roughly 11.4 million whites were employed as farm laborers and domestic workers, compared with 3.5 million blacks. This meant that the SSA’s farm and domestic exemptions excluded 27 percent of all white workers. To be sure, blacks — who were just 10 percent of the total population — were overrepresented among exempted workers, comprising 23 percent of such individuals. Whites, however, accounted for 74 percent of all workers excluded from SSA coverage. 2
The SSA’s exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers reflected a convergence of political and economic issues. Shaped partly by concerns centered on revenue collection and administration, the Social Security Act initially extended coverage only to workers employed in commerce and industry. As a result, nearly a dozen fields — including many occupations employing few African Americans — were excluded from the SSA’s purview. Opposition from employers likewise shaped the parameters of coverage. Plantation owners perceived federal welfare benefits for farm workers as a threat to their managerial prerogatives. Some proprietors already provided in-kind benefits to loyal workers that were tied to their productivity. SSA coverage would necessarily undermine these incentive mechanisms. 3
More to the point, many farm owners rejected SSA coverage for themselves. In fact, the American Farm Bureau (AFB), the largest agricultural lobbying group of the day, opposed Social Security coverage not only for farm laborers, but it had successfully lobbied to exempt farm owners from coverage for nearly two decades. The AFB perceived the payroll tax as an encumbrance on business that promised no tangible rewards for proprietors. 4
While it is safe to assume that most southern farm owners in the 1930s were racist, the fact that farm-owning proprietors generally opposed SSA coverage for farm laborers — black and white alike — as well as for themselves makes clear that their motives owed less to the “original sin of racism” than a desire to keep their labor costs down and retain control over the operation of their farms. To be sure, Jim Crow buttressed the system of debt peonage that made the sharecropping system a palatable alternative to slavery for planters. But the wholesale disfranchisement of African Americans that had undercut the Populist insurgency of the last decade of the nineteenth century facilitated the expansion of a sharecropping system that, unlike slavery, exploited both black and white farm laborers.
Though FHA and VA mortgage policies are perhaps the clearest expression of what is often referred to as “institutional racism,” Coates’s discussion of the effects of FHA and VA mortgage policies is similarly reductionist.
In just a few decades, FHA and VA mortgages (established in 1934 and 1944, respectively) would transform a nation of renters into a nation of homeowners. In a nutshell, the FHA and the VA insured mortgages against default, encouraging banks to offer homeowners long-term, low-interest loans, with little money down. This in turn led to the transformation of conventional mortgages — loans not insured by the federal government — which followed federal guidelines. The federal government’s transformation of the mortgage industry ultimately made homeownership a reality for millions of working-class and middle-class white Americans in the years following the New Deal. Blacks, however, were excluded from these programs — first by formal policy and then by institutional practice — until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
African Americans’ exclusion from federal mortgage programs led many blacks to purchase homes on “contract” from predatory real estate entrepreneurs. Contract sellers not only retained ownership of the home until buyers had satisfied all of their obligations, but sellers generally inflated home values, charged exorbitant interest rates, and levied stiff penalties — including immediate foreclosure and forfeiture of equity — for late payments. Drawing from the work of historian Beryl Satter and his own interviews with longtime residents of North Lawndale, Coates authors a vivid account of the financial damage inflicted upon the victims of contract selling as well as the destructive legacy of redlining on the West Side of Chicago. Coates proffers few insights, however, into the broader dynamics shaping residential segregation. His tendency to characterize issues such as contract selling, redlining, and white flight as simply further iterations of whites’ plunder of black bodies belies the contingency of racist attitudes and discriminatory behavior. Indeed, by attributing housing discrimination simply to whites’ primordial prejudice —as Coates does when he compares the motives of homeowners with slaveholders or describes white flight as a contagion — Coates is free to ignore the complex political-economic underpinnings of housing discrimination. 5
To understand the genesis of racially stratified housing markets, there are two matters that merit particular consideration. First, Democratic and Republican administrations in the 1940s and 1950s used housing policy to nurture what would eventually be known as the Keynesian consensus. As the Great Depression was not a distant memory, policymakers looked to spur a construction boom that might stimulate macroeconomic growth. To assuage the real estate and banking industries’ apprehensions about the federal government’s expanding role in the nation’s economy, policymakers championed the emerging housing markets not as the contrivances of federal largesse that they were, but as the release of free market forces. 6 Second, policymakers likewise sold homeownership to America’s well-unionized postwar workforce as a passport into the middle class. As historian Robert Self has argued, homeownership and suburbanization thus functioned to defuse labor militancy, which had reached its apex in the mid-1940s, by encouraging workers to identify with the ownership class. 7
Though Coates sees housing discrimination as evidence of the limits of New Deal-era universalism, the postwar push for homeownership and suburbanization was actually illustrative of the shift away from the New Deal’s social-democratic promise. In fact, as postwar policymakers and business interests identified homeownership as a vehicle for both fostering confidence in Keynesianism and dampening working-class labor militancy, they reified housing segregation via free market ideology. Drawing from the “market imperative” ideology pioneered by Progressive Era realtors, planners, and housing economists, FHA guidelines identified nonwhites as a threat to property values. The federal government did not invent housing discrimination; however, by transforming best business practices into national policy, FHA guidelines eliminated any ambiguity about blacks’ impact on local property values. Since a neighborhood’s racial composition influenced home appraisals, white homeowners resisted integration via race-restrictive covenants, zoning, and organized violence, or they relocated to far-flung suburbs as black neighborhoods inched ever closer not simply because they did not like African Americans, but because they wanted to protect their investment. 8
Understanding residential segregation in the context of housing markets places housing discrimination where it belongs, squarely in the realm of human contrivance. Contract selling was horribly exploitative. But since the evil at work here is the product of growth politics and entrepreneurialism rather than mysticism, the victims could come in many forms. Just as contract sellers fleeced black homeowners denied access to long-term mortgages, real estate entrepreneurs known as blockbusters capitalized on the vulnerabilities and fears racially tiered housing markets engendered or reinforced in white homeowners. Blockbusters purchased homes in white neighborhoods, which they then rented or sold on contract to African Americans. Because mortgage underwriting policy identified nonwhites as a drag on property values, blockbusters were able to rake in tidy profits by purchasing homes from panicked whites — desperate to sell before plummeting home prices wiped out all of their equity — and then gouging black renters and contract buyers.
This is not to suggest that blacks and whites were equally disadvantaged by racially stratified housing markets; they were not. The point is that Coates’s narrow focus on disparities, which is a reflection on his commitment to racial ontology, leads him to misidentify the sources of the very inequities with which he is concerned. Indeed, if one considers the broad effects of both the Social Security Act’s exemptions and federal housing policy, then the disparities that Coates adduces to demonstrate racism’s triumph over universalism are more accurately understood as evidence of the limits of New Dealers’ commitment to regulating labor and housing markets. The SSA and FHA exemplified two different models of government stewardship of the nation’s economy — the regulatory and compensatory states; nevertheless, both reflected New Dealers’ need to accommodate capital and not any socialist desire to suppress it.
Coates’s commitment to treating racism and economic exploitation as discrete forces likewise contributes to his misdiagnosis of the deficiencies of the War on Poverty, leading him to an ironic, ahistorical assessment of affirmative action’s limitations. Coates contends that the Johnson administration ignored Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s urgings to pursue an anti-poverty agenda that reflected the distinctiveness of African American poverty. In fact, the War on Poverty actually drew heavily from Moynihan’s playbook. To be sure, Moynihan became a scorned critic of the War on Poverty’s expansion of social services like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Nevertheless, the Johnson administration and the president’s Council of Economic Advisors — much like Moynihan — did, indeed, attribute the high rates of black poverty in the early 1960s to the unique challenges African Americans faced in the form of racial discrimination and blacks’ related soft and hard skills deficits. This is why programs like Job Corps and Community Action Programs emphasized provision of job training and cultural tutelage to impoverished minority youth rather than public works.
The Department of Defense’s Project 100,000 — which lowered Army entrance requirements to increase the number of black men in the military during the Vietnam era — likewise bore the influence of the only policy proposal implied by the Moynihan Report. Specifically, The Negro Family suggested that military service would insulate black men from the emasculating effects of racism and matriarchy, leading its author to lament the fact that African Americans’ poor performance on the Army IQ test reduced their share of military personnel. And while the Moynihan Report did not explicitly propose Project 100,000, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara cited Moynihan as one of his inspirations. 9
Policymakers were not inured to the hobbling effects of historic or even contemporary racism on blacks’ economic prospects. The Johnson administration thus conceived of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — the legislative basis for affirmative action — as crucial to the War on Poverty. Though Coates contends that affirmative action’s focus on diversity has undercut its efficacy, he ignores the fact that diversity originated as a defensive response to the blows dealt to affirmative action by Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke (1978) and the Reagan administration. Coates is, of course, correct to suggest that affirmative action has failed to close the material divide between blacks and whites. 10 However, the problem with Title VII is not its failure to target the specific conditions in black America. The problem with Title VII is that it failed to address the principal causes of racial disparities in the 1960s — automation and deindustrialization. In other words, affirmative action directly reflected the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ commitment to the view that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.”
In the early 1960s, many civil rights leaders were clear that antidiscrimination policies alone were incapable of closing the economic divide separating blacks and whites. Though Coates claims that A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin — the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — gave up their demands for race-specific remedies to black poverty when confronted with the Johnson administration’s preference for class-oriented anti-poverty measures, Coates’s characterization actually misrepresents both sides. 11 Simply put, the black organizers of 1963 rally identified social-democratic policies as essential to redressing racial disparities in employment, income, housing, and wealth, while the liberal white president opted for prescriptions that presumed the distinctiveness of black poverty and ignored the structural transformation of the economy. Indeed, even as Randolph declared his support for a fair employment practices act at the March on Washington, he stated plainly that antidiscrimination alone would do African Americans little good in the face of “profit-geared automation” that was destroying “the jobs of millions of workers black and white.” Randolph and Rustin thus identified public works, full-employment policies, and a minimum-wage hike as essential to closing the racial economic gap. 12 CORE’s James Farmer, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, and even the National Urban League’s Whitney Young echoed Randolph and Rustin’s call in 1963, as each of the above lent his support to a comprehensive antidiscrimination bill called S-1937. In contrast to Title VII, S-1937 included job training and public-works provisions. S-1937 acknowledged that racial discrimination was one of the contributors to black poverty. However, the bill’s sponsors were clear that, because automation had begun to eliminate the low-skilled, unionized jobs that had served as many whites’ entre to the middle class in the 1940s and 1950s, any serious effort to redress black poverty required public-works employment as well as targeted job training. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination and the 16th St Baptist Church bombing, the Johnson administration and Congress coalesced around the far less ambitious Title VII, leaving S-1937 to wither in committee. 13
Expediency’s contribution to its passage notwithstanding, Title VII reflected the Johnson administration’s disregard for the implications of the structural transformation of the American economy — from manufacturing to high tech and service — for African Americans. The Johnson administration eschewed Randolph and Rustin’s calls for public-works programs and instead attempted to “raise all ships” via tax and spend policy — commercial Keynesianism. Thus, rather than pursuing a redistributive anti-poverty agenda that would have directly addressed the material sources of racial disparities, the Johnson administration pursued a growth oriented anti-poverty agenda that was a precursor to trickle-down. This is ultimately why Randolph and Rustin proposed the Freedom Budget for All — a call for a series of redistributive economic initiatives that could hardly be considered a race-specific agenda.
The Johnson administration’s decision to divorce black poverty from political economy — its failure to consider the effects of automation, deindustrialization, and the decline in the number of low-skilled unionized jobs on blacks — ensured that most African Americans would not benefit fully from the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, if one considers the Great Society’s failure to eliminate “Negro poverty” in the context of the US economy’s postindustrial footing, then the inadequacies of the Johnson administration’s analysis are as transparent as Randolph and Rustin’s prescience.
Because Coates’s commitment to racial ontology shrouds the complex forces shaping African American life in a densely packed fog of black suffering and white plunder, he has difficulty making sense of the War on Poverty and affirmative action. Coates thus gives only a few passing waves at deindustrialization, despite its disproportionate impact on black Americans. In fact, Coates mentions deindustrialization fewer than half-a-dozen times in the more than 200 pages that comprise “The Case for Reparations” and Coates’s subsequent cases for reparations — “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” and “My President Was Black.” Needless to say, he makes many more references to the “body,” “bodies,” and “plunder” in these essays. 14
Worse yet, Coates bristles at the suggestion that racial disparities should be viewed through the lens of political economy. When Senator Bernie Sanders dismissed reparations as politically infeasible, arguing instead that African Americans would be better served by universal health care, a return to taxpayer-funded (“free”) public higher education, a reinvigorated labor movement, revitalization of the public sector, a living wage, and employment programs targeting impoverished communities, Coates not only questioned Sanders’s bona fides as a progressive but also characterized Sanders as a coward. Coates, moreover, dismissed Sanders’s observation that the single-identity-group focus of reparations created no basis on which to build a political coalition, claiming that Sanders’s social-democratic politics were no less divisive than reparations. 15 Coates, of course, has never provided compelling historical precedents for reparations. Indeed, “The Case for Reparations” offers only two examples of successful bids for such recompense, neither of which — as I will elaborate on below — has any relevance to African Americans today.
Given Coates’s mischaracterization of Randolph and Rustin’s response to Johnson’s proposed War on Poverty, it is not surprising that his critique of Sanders ignored the fact that the Vermont senator’s platform not only overlapped the March on Washington’s demands, but looked a lot like Randolph and Rustin’s Freedom Budget. The parallels between Sanders’s proposals and the Freedom Budget reflect, in part, the prescience of Randolph and Rustin’s assessment of the implications of deindustrialization and the more recent retreat of the public sector for blacks.
The decline of unionized manufacturing work has devastated black and brown blue-collar communities in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Oakland, St. Louis, and Coates’s hometown of Baltimore. Though urban renewal helped some cities, notably Chicago, transition from manufacturing to global corporate cities, low-skilled workers benefited little from this iteration of growth politics. Indeed, the departure of unionized blue-collar jobs contributed to upticks in poverty and attendant social problems such as crime and family dissolution in communities whose residents lacked the skills for more attractive jobs in the postindustrial economy. At the same time, the War on Crime followed by the decades-long War on Drugs would, by the early 1990s, result in the United States incarcerating more of its citizens than any other nation. Today, African Americans account for 40 percent of the America’s inmate population, followed closely by whites. But while the militarization of law enforcement and draconian sentencing for drug offenses have contributed greatly to the growth in America’s prison population, here too, bipartisan indifference to structural sources of economic inequality and the related embrace of Moynihan’s contention that the poor, black or otherwise, could develop a distinctive culture that was impervious to external influence is also relevant.
The correlation between economic inequality and both violent and nonviolent crime has been well documented. However, poverty and neoliberal retrenchment have contributed to mass incarceration in other ways that are often obscured by a tendency to focus on racial disparities alone. While racism certainly plays a role in sentencing disparities, according to political scientist Marie Gottschalk, a perpetrator’s class background appears to exert greater influence over incarceration rates than race. Incarceration disparities in states with comparatively poor white populations, for example, are less pronounced than in states with more affluent white populations. Likewise, racial disparities tend to be greater in states that reserve incarceration for individuals convicted of the most serious crimes, such as drug and violent offenses — the types of crimes that are more commonly committed by poor people and, by extension, blacks. 16 Since African Americans are overrepresented among the poor, budget cuts to state public defenders’ offices further contribute to incarceration disparities. The decline in funding to state indigent legal services has led to a system in which 95 percent of criminal cases are settled by plea bargain. 17 Finally, mass incarceration has functioned as a dystopian accommodation to many of the problems wrought by deindustrialization and public-sector retrenchment. Large prisons not only “house” the reserve army of unemployed and — thanks to the stigma of a felony conviction — unemployable workers, but jails and penitentiaries have become major employers, particularly in rural communities. Indeed, penal Keynesianism is the lifeblood of towns like Forrest City, AR, Susanville, CA, and Marion, IL. 18
The bottom line is that because blacks have borne a disproportionate share of the damage inflicted on working people by deindustrialization and the subsequent neoliberal economic consensus, African Americans would have benefited disproportionately from Sanders’s platform despite the absence of the reparations “brand.” And while Coates claimed that Sanders’s dismissal of his signature issue revealed the Vermont Senator’s ignorance of “the argument” for reparations, Sanders understood something that Coates refuses to acknowledge. The 64 percent of Americans who happen to be white will not tax themselves for a welfare program that they cannot, by design, benefit from irrespective of the righteousness of the cause. Righteousness was not the basis for the movements that opened opportunities to black Americans. Emancipation and even Reconstruction were produced by a convergence of interests among disparate constituencies —African Americans, abolitionists, business, small freeholders, and northern laborers — united under the banner of free labor. The Civil Rights Movement and its legislative victories — including affirmative action and the War on Poverty — were the product of a consensus created by the New Deal that presumed the appropriateness of government intervention in private affairs for the public good, the broad repudiation of scientific racism following World War II, and the political vulnerabilities Jim Crow created for the United States during the Cold War. To be sure, Reconstruction, the New Deal, the War on Poverty, and even the Civil Rights Movement failed to redress all of the challenges confronting blacks. But the limitations of each of these movements reflected political constraints imposed on them, in large part, by capital.
None of this is to suggest that the elimination of economic inequality would bring about an immediate end to racism. Since the eighteenth century, Americans have viewed inequities through the lens of one formal racial ideology or another. Given racism’s cultural imprint, it is safe to assume that if we were somehow able to end economic inequality next Tuesday, racial prejudice would not likely disappear on its own by next Wednesday. I am not making a case against affirmative action or other racially targeted programs. But since racial disparities in SSA coverage, access to homeownership, unemployment, and mass incarceration were or are wed to state deference to capitalist market imperatives, it is difficult to imagine how we could eliminate racial disparities without addressing economic inequality. Indeed, the War on Poverty and Title VII failed to eliminate economic disparities, precisely because the Johnson administration disregarded the influence of broader economic forces on black poverty. It is likewise difficult to imagine how one could build a political coalition for a program that sought to insulate a single minority group — whose population, in contrast to investment bankers, is overrepresented among the nation’s impoverished — from capitalism’s harshest conclusions. Should employers have been required to pay into Social Security for the 23 percent of farm laborers, personal servants, and domestics who happened to be black, but exempted from payroll tax for the 74 percent of such workers who happened to be white? Should we fund legal services at a level that fulfills the Sixth Amendment’s promise for the 40 percent of inmates who are black, but not for the 39 percent of inmates who are white? 19 Or should the nation pay reparations to African Americans who were, indeed, fleeced by contract sellers, but ignore those whites who sold their homes at a loss to predatory blockbusters?
Coates’s treatment of race as a force distinct from class allows him to avoid considering such issues. And as his reflections on Obama make clear, Coates does not simply reject the notion that race is an ascriptive category intended to denote political-economic standing — Coates actually sees race as a metaphysical force.
Obama’s Metaphysical Blackness and Mythological Progressive-Universalism
“My President Was Black” echoes many of his earlier criticisms of Obama; nevertheless, the essay reveals Coates’s affection for Obama. Indeed, Coates’s reflections on the former president not only hint at his admiration for Obama’s intellect, charisma, and savviness as a politician, but Coates manages to convey a feeling of kinship with the nation’s first black president. What is striking about the bond that Coates feels with Obama, however, is that it is rooted in a retrograde discourse centered on cultural authenticity.
Having been raised by his relatively prosperous white mother and grandparents in Hawaii, Obama had an atypical childhood characterized by lack of want and whites who loved and nurtured him. Though Coates concedes that Obama knew the sting of discrimination, he asserts “the kinds of traumas that marked African Americans of [Obama’s] generation — beatings at the hands of racist police, being herded into poor schools, grinding out a life in a tenement building — were mostly abstract for him.” Instead, Obama “was gifted with a well-stamped passport and admittance to elite private schools — all of which spoke of other identities, other lives, and other worlds where the color line was neither determinative nor especially relevant.” Despite having the opportunity to grow “into a raceless cosmopolitan,” however, Obama made what Coates describes as an admirable choice to be a part of the black community — taking his first steps down this path on the basketball court. 20
Anyone who has actually seen Obama should have some difficulty conceiving how he might have lived a life as a “raceless cosmopolitan.” This assertion ultimately reflects Coates’s conflation of both culture and class with race. He praises Obama for his decision to “download black culture” via the game of basketball, and for his willingness to pay a price “for living black, for hosting Common, for brushing dirt off his shoulder during the primaries, for marrying a woman who looked like Michelle Obama.” 21 For Coates, then, Obama’s blackness is derived not from legal or cultural frameworks that classify people with his parentage as black; Obama’s blackness is wed to his embrace of specific consumer tastes, dating choices, idiomatic expressions, and, ultimately, swag.
To be sure, Coates sees the aforementioned markers of racial authenticity as outgrowths of a common experience. But African Americans whose experiences deviate from what Coates sees as “the black experience” are not really black. Indeed, while Coates lauds Obama for his decision to embrace black culture, he describes the former president as less black than another African American Chicago politician, Mayor Harold Washington, because Obama’s experiences do not conform to Coates’s view of “the black experience.” And while there is little doubt that Obama’s childhood paralleled that of few other black Americans, in his memoir Between the World and Me, Coates likewise describes the upscale African Americans in the Prince George’s County of his youth — a community that is not so unusual — as essentially less black than his peers in West Baltimore. 22
Coates’s cultural nationalism leads him to view the variety of African American experiences through a lens that can pick up little more than gradations of blackness. Consequently, Coates not only misidentifies the root problems with Obama’s policy agenda, but he looks past the ways that Obama used the language of racial authenticity and inclusiveness to mask an agenda that could hardly be described as progressive.
Coates’s approbation of Obama’s decision to embrace “black culture” functions as a kind of backhanded compliment. Specifically, Coates claims that Obama’s atypical experience with whites — the fact that he was raised by his nurturing white mother and grandparents — imbued him with misguided optimism about white racism. Obama, according to Coates, attributes racism to ignorance, or what Coates refers to as “white innocence.” Consequently, Obama rejected race-specific remedies to disparities such as reparations, in favor of a combination of “universal programs” that African Americans would benefit from disproportionately, an aggressive nondiscrimination agenda, and initiatives intended to promote personal responsibility among minority youth such as My Brother’s Keeper.
Though Coates reports that Obama was not opposed to the idea of a black man’s Marshall Plan, Obama argued that the absence of political will for such a program meant that the better course of action was, as Coates describes it, “to get the country to rally behind a robust liberal agenda and build on the enormous progress that’s been made toward getting white Americans to accept nondiscrimination as a basic operating premise.” According to Coates, however, Trump’s surprise win over Hillary Clinton reveals not only the failure of Obama’s class-centered vision to foster interracial solidarity, but Trumpism is also illustrative of Obama’s naïveté about the force of white supremacy. 23
Though I share Coates’s view that the Obama administration helped pave the way for Trump, the claim that Obama naively pursued a progressive agenda centered on universal programs that was doomed to fail because of white racism rests on sandy ground. First, the three examples of universal programs that Obama cites and that Coates accepts as such are not what social scientists or policymakers generally classify as “universal” programs; rather, the ACA, Pell Grants, and EITC are means-tested programs. Universal programs benefit working people across class lines. Means-tested programs, by contrast, target lower-income Americans. Perhaps innocent of the relevant policy nomenclature, Coates accepts the formulation and thus treats as “universal” programs that are not race-specific. By itself, this use of “universal” might appear to be nothing more than a shorthand. In the context of his critique of Obama, however, Coates’s failure to consider the distinction between means-tested programs and universal programs reveals an analytical blind spot. Since the intended beneficiaries of the above programs represent a fairly narrow segment of society, the ACA, Pell Grants, and EITC were not likely to generate a groundswell of electoral support.
Second, Coates’s contention that Trumpism is indicative of the failure of progressive, class-based policies to overcome racism imputes a progressivism to Obama’s domestic agenda that was not there. Obama’s push to expand Pell Grants and EITC coverage was not likely to ignite the political imagination of even the programs’ beneficiaries, partly because these initiatives have been around since the 1970s. And while the ACA was Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, Obamacare — whose implementation has still left more than 25 million Americans without any kind of health insurance — is a far cry from a comprehensive national health care program like single payer.
Rather than advancing a progressive agenda targeting the working and middle classes, Obama’s economic vision — like Bill Clinton’s before him — dashed the hopes of many working people for earning more than pocket change. While union members turned out for Obama in 2008 and 2012, President Obama did little to earn their support. Presidential candidate Obama courted unions with the promise of signing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and health care reform into law. EFCA would have made it easier for workers to unionize by making card check national law, brushing aside a major barrier to unionization established by Taft-Hartley (1947). Union leaders assured their members that the election of Obama along with an enlarged Democratic majority in the Senate ensured that EFCA would become law; however, Obama, after months of temporizing, officially pulled his support for the bill a little more than a year into his first term. Obama would, of course, follow through on his pledge for health care legislation, but rather than helping unionists, the Affordable Care Act undermined them. 24 Inspired by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and Republican governor Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts Health Care Act, the ACA threatened to bankrupt union health care funds via a $63 tax imposed on each trade unionist’s insurance policy. The revenue generated from the so-called Cadillac tax financed subsidies for private, for-profit insurance companies, intended to offset the expense associated with the extension of coverage to individuals with preexisting conditions. Unions’ nonprofit insurance plans, however, were denied these subsidies. 25
Obama would also go on to champion the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which he hailed as “the most progressive trade deal in history.” Though Obama claimed that the TPP would enhance national security and strengthen workers’ rights and environmental regulations, it would have granted more than 9,000 foreign corporations the right to circumvent regulations pertaining to labor, food and drug safety, and the environment. In other words, the TPP would have undermined democratic governance. The TPP would have also increased the US trade deficit, resulting in the further erosion of America’s manufacturing sector and an estimated loss of more than 320,000 manufacturing jobs a year. 26
Union leaders lobbied Obama to use his bully pulpit to press for EFCA, amend the ACA, and reject the TPP, warning the Obama administration that its failure to look out for an important Democratic constituency might result in electoral backlash. As Unite Here’s Donald “D” Taylor remarked in response to the administration’s refusal to amend the ACA: “you can’t just order people to do stuff. If their health plan gets wrecked, why would they then go campaign for the folks responsible for wrecking their health care?” 27 Obama ignored their entreaties. In fact, even as the Sanders and Trump insurgencies demonstrated bipartisan circumspection about free trade policies — a reality that ultimately pushed centrist Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to reject the TPP — a tone-deaf Obama continued to stump for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
By attributing Trump’s presidential victory simply to a racist backlash against Obama, Coates elides the implications of Obama’s policies for those who rejected the third Obama term promised by Clinton. To be sure, Trump’s campaign and presidency have emboldened the so-called alt-right. Former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan turned neo-Nazi activist David Duke’s explicit affirmation of this fact the morning that neo-Nazi James Fields murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, VA, only confirmed the obvious. 28 Still, the GOP has been the preferred party of organized white supremacists since Reagan — if not Nixon. So while Trump has animated an element that has long been wed to Republicans for both ideological and opportunistic reasons, he did not escort them to the Grand Old Party.
Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College and, by extension, the election because she failed to win key counties in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that Obama had carried in 2008 and 2012. If one reflects on the full implications of this fact, it is hard to imagine that racism would have been the principal reason that whites who had voted for the nation’s first black president would have decided, four to eight years later, to vote for its most crassly racist president in recent memory.
It seems more likely that the voters Trump flipped did so because they were disillusioned with Obama’s failure to advance a policy agenda that they believed benefited them. The three counties in Pennsylvania — Erie, Northampton, and Luzerne — that Trump flipped were largely blue collar. Likewise, the dozen counties Obama carried that Clinton lost in Michigan included the Detroit suburb of Macomb, and the lower-middle-class swing counties of Calhoun and Monroe. And in Wisconsin, the nearly two dozen counties Trump flipped included a few with the highest unemployment rates in the state — Sawyer, Forest, and Adams. 29 Clinton’s flaws as a candidate only exacerbated this problem. Her promise of a hybrid third Clinton-Obama term would have been of cold comfort to those with bitter memories of NAFTA, Obama’s betrayal on EFCA, and the ACA. And while Clinton reversed her position on the TPP, did anyone actually believe her — especially after she tapped Senator Tim Kaine, who supported both so-called right to work legislation and the TPP?
Given that Trump not only won a higher share of the black vote than either Romney or McCain but also performed nearly as well with black voters as George W. Bush in 2000, some African Americans may have also had bitter memories about NAFTA, EFCA, and the ACA, while those who sat out or cast protest ballots may likewise have recalled the Omnibus Crime Act, Ricky Ray Rector, and maybe even HOPE VI and welfare reform.
None of this is to deny that many white Trump voters — not just the Nazis — harbor noxious views about race. Treating race as if it exists in a world apart from class, however, deprives those of us who would like to live in a more egalitarian society the ability to distinguish between committed ideologues — like Nazis and Klansmen — and reflexive racists who might be won over via platforms based on common interest. Just a few months after President Trump’s inauguration, Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel argued in the Nation that fear of racial diversity trumped class anxiety as a motive among voters who flipped from Obama to Trump. The authors ultimately suggest that class is no longer a meaningful political category, noting that despite the fact that Democrats continue to advance progressive economic policies, non-college-educated whites trended for Trump while upscale blacks trended for Hillary Clinton. 30 As I discuss above, however, few unionists would argue that Democrats have advanced a progressive economic agenda in more than a generation. More to the point, the authors ignore the fact that “diversity” has long been synonymous with affirmative action, which conservatives have successfully — though largely disingenuously — equated with quotas and, by extension, white displacement. To whatever extent it is fair to cast fear of diversity as merely a cultural or identity issue, then, is owed largely to the fact that liberals — initially with some prodding from conservatives — have embraced a social-justice discourse centered on inclusion and acceptance of group distinctiveness as an alternative to platforms centered on economic equality. This is an approach that civil rights leaders like Randolph and Rustin anticipated would not only leave most African Americans behind, but it would foster the kind of racial animus that concerns Coates as well as McElwee and McDaniel.
The Underclass, Post-racialism, and Neoliberalism
If Coates’s characterization of the progressive implications of President Obama’s economic agenda misses the mark altogether, his critique of Obama’s emphasis on personal responsibility is better. However, his commitment to black cultural distinctiveness ensures that Coates is only able to graze the central problem.
In recent years, Coates has been one of the more visible critics of what he calls “respectability politics.” Coates is, on the whole, appropriately critical of Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which he notes proceeds from the erroneous assumption that African American youth can brush aside the obstacles in their path by simply acting right. Coates is likewise appropriately critical of Obama’s admonitions to poor blacks — like in his Father’s Day address — to watch less TV, stop eating Popeye’s for breakfast, and stop “blaming white people for their problems.” Drawing from Obama’s own words, Coates attributes the former president’s naïve commitment to “respectability politics” to his atypical upbringing. Obama explained to Coates that the commonplace assumption among blacks, “that white people would not treat me right or give me an opportunity or judge me [other than] on the basis of merit” was less “embedded in my psyche than it is, say, with Michelle.” 31 This experience, according to Coates, not only fueled Obama’s commitment to the race-neutral, means-tested initiatives that he described as “universal” programs, but it has imbued the former president with a misguided faith in individual solutions to societal problems.
Coates’s frustration with personal-responsibility ideology gives voice to a long-standing problem in discourse about inequality. Still, his formulation is inadequate. While Obama’s personal experiences with the decent, professional-class whites who raised him may have informed his particular take on this issue, black politicians, scholars, and commentators who have been raised by black parents — including Jesse Jackson, Cory Booker, William Julius Wilson, Roland S. Martin, Oprah Winfrey, and a list that could probably fill a phonebook of a Midwestern town — have espoused the same rhetoric. The problem here, then, is not reducible to Obama’s loving white mother and grandparents. In fact, if one views Obama’s commitment to personal-responsibility ideology in its broader political and historical context, it becomes clear that —whatever his upbringing’s contribution — Obama’s emphasis on individual solutions to structural problems is the product of underclass ideology.
Though the term “underclass” was coined in the 1960s, it did not become part of popular use until the 1980s. Underclass ideology traced poverty to the specific cultural traits of the poor themselves. Extrapolating from anthropologist Oscar Lewis’s culture of poverty thesis, proponents of underclass ideology alleged that 10-20 percent of the urban black and Latino poor were in the grip of a debilitating dysfunctional culture. Some proponents of the concept, like Charles Murray, argued that the War on Poverty’s expansion of social services compounded the problem by fostering a culture of welfare dependency and a host of related antisocial behaviors — drug and alcohol dependency, promiscuity, a disregard for education, and criminal activity — among poor minorities. The underclass concept meshed with Reagan’s unambiguous repudiation of the idea that democratic governments should intervene in private affairs for the public good. 32 Indeed, it is no coincidence that Reagan’s pro-welfare reform quip “we waged a war on poverty [in the sixties], and poverty won” echoed a central theme of Charles Murray’s Losing Ground. While the broad coalition of Americans who embraced universal programs (entitlements) as a citizenship right forestalled the neoliberal assault on Social Security and Medicare, no such breadth of support existed for the poor, disproportionately black and brown, beneficiaries of the War on Poverty’s and even the Nixon administration’s means-tested and targeted programs. Reagan thus set his sights on dismantling jobs programs like the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), social services like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and, of course, affirmative action. Underclass ideology was pivotal to this front of the Reagan revolution, as it provided the respectable source material for racist tropes like “the welfare queen.”
By the early 1990s, underclass ideology would become bipartisan consensus. In the late 1980s, black sociologist William J. Wilson, a self-identified social democrat, helped remove the taint of racism from the underclass concept. In fact, Wilson would play a pivotal role in rehabilitating Moynihan. Wilson claimed the backlash to the Moynihan report made liberals reluctant to acknowledge the cultural consequences of concentrated poverty, leading them to cede crucial political ground to conservatives. Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) thus set out to generate support for a progressive anti-poverty agenda via resurrection and update of Moynihan’s culture of poverty thesis. 33 Unfortunately, the election of centrist-Democratic President Bill Clinton, would reveal the inadequacy of Wilson’s strategy. Bill Clinton’s 1992 platform left little doubt that the Democratic Party of the 1990s owed more to Reagan than Roosevelt or Johnson. Clinton — who carried a copy of The Truly Disadvantaged with him on the campaign trail — echoed Wilson’s concerns about crime, welfare dependency, and the prevalence of female-headed households in ghetto communities. Citing Wilson, Clinton was careful to attribute the root causes of ghetto underclass behavior to deindustrialization. 34 But instead of pursuing a legislative agenda centered on bolstering the manufacturing sector or promoting unionization, President Clinton jailed the underclass via the Omnibus Crime Act (1994), limited their access to federal financial assistance via the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1996), and razed their homes via HOPE VI (1998). If the Keynesian consensus produced an inadequate War on Poverty, the neoliberal consensus sparked a war on the poor themselves.
Though Coates recites the oft-repeated claim that Moynihan’s advocacy of benign neglect in the Nixon years and his 1994 remarks about poor blacks’ speciation are evidence of Moynihan’s post-backlash conversion, this contention erroneously treats Moynihan’s shift from optimist to pessimist as if it were a transformation of his conceptual framework. The Negro Family proceeded from the explicit view that sustained poverty could generate a self-perpetuating culture that would foil any government effort to eliminate poverty. In the 1960s, this notion —which equated culture with race — was contested. By the time that Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, however, underclass ideology had become hegemonic. In fact, even as underclass ideology was at the heart of the Bush administration’s and New Orleans city officials’ formal rationale for shuttering New Orleans’s public housing projects, the term “underclass” was scarcely used, as poor black and brown people had now become synonymous with dysfunction.
By 2008, “serious” black Democratic and Republican politicians — biracial or not — reflexively traded in underclass narratives. Barack Obama, however, did so with a finesse and polish that political commentators and fellow Democrats alike believed augured a transformative post-racial era of American politics. Indeed, Obama’s election promised to harmonize political discourse on racial and economic inequality, as his presidential campaign and presidency would further legitimate underclass ideology’s project of racializing economic inequality via attribution of poverty to the dysfunctional culture of the minority poor themselves rather than political economy. Obama’s contribution would take two forms. First, like a long line of Democrats before him, Obama would emphasize — albeit with quick nods to institutional racism and a soupçon of compassion — the impact of ghetto residents’ dysfunctional behavior on contemporary disparities as a pretext for stressing individual solutions to structural problems.
In his breakthrough 2004 DNC keynote, for example, Obama expressed compassion for implicitly white blue-collar workers devastated by the offshoring of unionized jobs, sympathized with hardworking Americans who could not afford necessary prescription drugs, and empathized with suburban voters who objected to their taxes going to welfare or wasteful military projects. By contrast, Obama’s reflections on implicitly black “inner-city” residents stressed the need for African Americans to extricate themselves from dysfunction. “Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn.” Obama continued: “they know parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” 35
Though Obama’s chastisement of “inner-city” residents could be read as a counter to Reagan’s welfare queen, “A More Perfect Union” — Obama’s much lauded March 2008 race speech — made clear that his admonitions were capitulations to the racist underclass trope. Delivered on the heels of the Reverend Wright controversy, Obama’s speech was intended to both sever his association with the “militant” minister and position Obama as a healer of racial wounds. To this end, Obama would paint a vivid landscape of transgenerational black social pathologies. Specifically, Obama would attribute Wright’s indefensible sermon — damning America for its history of racism in conspiratorial terms — to the psychic scars of wounds inflicted in the Jim Crow era. Obama claimed that many black men and women of Wright’s generation were trapped in a loop of traumas long since passed. While Jim Crow had been defeated during the 1960s, its traumatic legacy could be observed in America’s inner cities today. After making fleeting references to the long-term consequences of discriminatory mortgage policy and the dearth of employment opportunities for young black men, Obama would turn his attention to contemporary black dysfunctionality. Rather than stressing the material impact of poverty and unemployment on family dissolution, for example, Obama insinuated the shame felt by those black men who were inadequate providers was a major contributor to the erosion of the African American family. From there Obama went on to imply his support for Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform act, asserting “that welfare policies had for many years” undermined African American family formation. Obama continued with an acknowledgement that declining support for social services had contributed to the challenges confronting urban black communities. But rather than critiquing the neoliberal consensus that was at the heart of the decades-long retreat of the public sector, Obama asserted a link between the atrophy of social services and a self-perpetuating “cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continues to haunt us.” 36
Obama’s 2008 Father’s Day remarks before the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago read from much the same playbook. After reciting the litany of inner-city social problems — high rates of teen pregnancy, female-headed households, poverty and unemployment, crime, school dropouts, and incarceration — Obama once again delivered a short paragraph acknowledging that gun control along with increased funding for education, social services, law enforcement, and job-training programs might alleviate some of these problems. Obama then dedicated the next twenty-two paragraphs to lecturing African American fathers about the importance of personal responsibility, arguing that the failure of too many black men to instill values of excellence, empathy, hope, and self-reliance in their children was a key contributor to ghetto social malaise. 37
Obama’s disposition to scold inner-city minorities did not entirely preclude the helping hand of government. However, when combined with his Jedi-mind-trick-like assertion — like in his 2004 DNC address — that inner-city residents did not expect government to solve all of their problems, Obama’s embrace of underclass ideology signaled to Democrats and even conservatives that he, like Bill Clinton before him, had little interest in redressing the material roots of inequality.
The second contribution Obama’s post-racial presidency made to the ongoing project to divorce racial inequality from class inequality came in the form of his race and his biography. While Bill and Hillary Clinton’s whiteness left them, or any other nonblack president or presidential candidate, vulnerable to pushback from a reliable Democratic constituency, Obama’s actual blackness and his related “performance of blackness” insulated his accounts of African American social pathology and related calls for personal responsibility from the charge of racism. To be clear, I am not questioning Obama’s racial “authenticity.” To the contrary, since race is an ascriptive category, Obama is unquestionably black, in my view, irrespective of his personal predilections or behavior. But in order for Obama to be an effective post-racial champion of personal responsibility, his biography had to read like the underclass version of a Horatio Alger novel. This would require that Obama project what “blackness” had come to mean in the popular conscience. In other words, America had to accept Obama as a man who could have easily become “a statistic,” a stereotype, but managed to extricate himself from the tangle of pathologies that ensnared so many of his brothers and sisters. We had to see Obama as yet another black man who had struggled with frustration and anger, who had experimented with drugs, and who had been unsure of the value of formal education because he had been abandoned by his irresponsible black father and raised by his (white) single mother and (white) grandparents. We had to believe that Obama had the strength of character to overcome the odds and go on to earn degrees from two Ivy League universities and ultimately became the first black US president.
Obama did not lie about his background. However, Obama frequently pitched his biography at a level of abstraction that blurred the line between his truth and the mythical “Cousin Pookie.” Indeed, the details of Obama’s biography reveal the importance of class privilege to his success. Obama’s parents did not meet in high school or even “at the club” — they met in college. Obama’s father did abandon him and his mother — not because he was ashamed of his meager wages or because he had to do a bid in a state or federal penitentiary, but to attend graduate school at Harvard. Obama’s mother surely experienced financial struggles, but she would go on to earn advanced degrees after remarrying a well-educated and prosperous Indonesian businessman. Obama’s grandparents did help raise him, but they were solidly middle class or better. Obama may have had some doubts about the value of formal education as a young man, but he struggled with them in one of Hawaii’s most prestigious prep schools. And sure, Obama smoked weed while he was in prep school and college, but good luck finding a white graduate of an expensive liberal arts college or Ivy League University who did not experiment with drugs or alcohol as an undergraduate.
The particulars of Obama’s compelling biography should have undercut the sway of his underclass-inflected Horatio Alger success story. The abstract biographical sketch was, however, crucial to his star power as it not only made Obama the multicultural exemplar of the classic American success story, but it conferred to him the authority to admonish poor African Americans for their alleged cultural deficiencies. Indeed, the enthusiasm that Democrats and pundits like Senator John Kerry, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Bai, and conservative David Brooks expressed for him during the 2008 presidential campaign, made clear that Obama’s willingness to use his alleged moral authority to chastise black voters was a major source of the appeal of his post-racial presidency. 38
Since Obama’s class privilege could have left him open to questions about his racial authenticity with far too many African Americans — even if both of his parents had been black — his biographical sketch offered some cover with black voters. 39 There was, of course, no way to finesse the fact that Obama was a biracial man who grew up in Hawaii, which meant the sketch alone could not suffice. Obama’s efforts to position himself as a post-racial president thus required that he perform blackness. In other words, what Coates characterizes as Obama’s laudable decision to pay the price for living as a black man is better understood as Obama draping himself in tropes of “the black experience.” To have the kind of political career Obama wanted, he needed to join Trinity United Church of Christ, and he, as Coates put it, needed to marry a black woman who looked like Michelle. This is also why it was savvy of Obama to hang out with Common, Jay-Z and Beyoncé (three famous, “authentically black” rich people), and to “brush dirt off his shoulder” while the cameras were rolling. Had Obama failed to appreciate the fact that, at this point, far too many Americans conflate culture with race, black voters might have noticed — long before George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin murder trial — that the nation’s first black president had campaigned on a pledge to accommodate them to a Bill Clinton-like neoliberal agenda that would do little to redress the kind of material issues, such as poverty and unemployment, that disproportionately impacted African Americans.
Indeed, the combination of Obama’s use of the underclass metaphor and his actual and “performed” blackness, gave him a comparatively free hand with which to craft an agenda intended to right a listing American economy, absent the kinds of redistributive policies — like revitalization of the public sector, support for unionization, opposition to free trade, mortgage relief, etc. — that blacks would have benefited from disproportionately precisely because they are overrepresented among neoliberalism’s victims. To be sure, people who identify as “African American activists” — as opposed to, let’s say, those who might identify as black union organizers — are far more likely to make demands for issues such as mortgage relief in terms that center on racial grievance rather than economic inequality. This is one of the reasons that liberals, and even many conservatives, found the prospect of an Obama presidency appealing.
When Obama took office in January 2009, the nation’s economy was a wreck. If President Bush’s efforts to stimulate economic growth via policies designed to swell the ranks of homeowners created a housing bubble, President Clinton’s repeal of Glass-Steagall ensured that when Bush’s bubble burst its effects would ripple through the entire economy. Many Americans hoped that the high-minded Obama would respond to the crisis by drawing from the New Dealers’ playbook. Unfortunately, he would not. Obama did follow through on measures intended to stabilize the US economy. But while the banking and auto-industry bailouts and the stimulus package surely stemmed the bleeding and saved many jobs, they did not address the structural issues that were the root causes of decades of depressed wages. In fact, in contrast to the Roosevelt administration, the Obama administration eschewed labor and housing market reforms that might have shored up the nation’s precarious working and middle classes while opening pathways to the middle class for the working poor and unemployed. Unions, as I have already discussed, did not receive the support Obama had promised.
Though Obama had earmarked $100 billion of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) for mortgage relief, by the end of his second term only $21 billion of these funds had been released. Consequently, fewer than 1 million of the 4 million mortgage modifications Obama had promised had been completed by President Trump’s election. Even the stimulus package was inadequate for the crisis at hand. In fact, economist Paul Krugman had warned as early as January 2009 that the $787 billion stimulus provided by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) would surely help, but in taking such a conservative approach — not only was the package too small, according to Krugman, but 40 percent of the stimulus took the form of tax cuts — Obama would fail to stimulate meaningful economic growth and thus squander a political opportunity. Specifically, Krugman feared that the Right would cast an anemic recovery generated by a stimulus that was only large enough to arrest the economic slide but was too small to reduce unemployment and boost consumer purchasing power as yet another example of the failure of big government. 40
Just shy of a month into Obama’s first term, the call by CNBC’s Rick Santelli for a Tea Party movement — delivered on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange — would mark the realization of Krugman’s fears. Though the Tea Party’s roots stretched back to the 1990s, the Koch Brothers’ funded “movement” capitalized on the economic and racial anxieties of conservative voters. The Tea Party’s anti-tax, small-government agenda may not have been formally racist, but well before anyone imagined that Americans were willing to elect a black president, conservatives had succeeded in equating big government, high taxes, welfare, and Democrats with an approach to governance that benefited irresponsible African Americans and poor people at the expense of the implicitly white, sober middle class. Santelli’s condemnation of Obama’s mortgage-relief program as a boon to profligate losers financed at the expense of responsible, hardworking Americans thus only hinted at a conservative racial backlash. Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann, however, had no compunction about casting the financial meltdown in explicitly racial terms. 41
The combination of the Tea Party movement’s racist subtext, the Birther movement’s racist text, George Zimmerman’s shocking acquittal, and a seemingly interminable stream of video footage of police officers murdering or assaulting unarmed, disproportionately black, people literally broadcast the absurdity of post-racialism. Moreover, since Obama’s presidency would produce few material benefits for most blacks, the limitations of his symbolic racial victory became clearer even to African Americans who had initially accepted him as role-model-in-chief. Indeed, both because poverty rates were on an upward swing when Obama took office and because the Obama administration did little to redress the structural sources of economic inequality, the percentage of African Americans living in poverty was actually higher when Obama left office than when he assumed it. The cumulative effects of the racially inflected political backlash to America’s first black president along with perpetual disparities in the criminal justice system and in the nation’s poverty and unemployment rates led many African Americans and even some whites to conclude that Obama’s conciliatory post-racialism was not just naïve but it ignored entrenched, structural racism.
Reparations, Racial Ontology, and Neoliberal Benign Neglect
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s influence among liberals is among the clearest expressions of the breadth of disillusionment many Americans felt in the post-post-racial era. While Coates’s career as an essayist dates back to the late 1990s, the 2014 publication of “The Case for Reparations” catapulted him to stardom. His reparations essay and his subsequent major works stand in sharp contrast to the post-racial promise of the Obama presidency. Whereas post-racialism proceeded from the view that the victories of the Civil Rights Movement had swept aside the major barriers to racial equality for those willing to take advantage of the opportunities before them, Coates’s essays presume that racism is embedded in the very structure of American society. Slavery, Jim Crow, FHA mortgage discrimination, disparities in wealth and employment, and mass incarceration are all, in Coates’s view, evidence of a systemic racism that has excluded blacks from the promise of American liberty since the nation’s founding.
As I have already discussed, Coates’s historical and political analyses are inadequate. His contention that racism has prevented universal programs from distributing rewards equitably to blacks and whites obscures the economic imperatives undergirding racial discrimination in housing and labor markets. Coates’s critiques of the New Deal, the War on Poverty, and President Obama likewise fail to distinguish between conservative growth politics and progressive redistributive politics. To be sure, Coates has authored a number of impassioned pleas for reparations centered on visceral accounts of black suffering from slavery through the start of the Trump administration. The particular mechanisms that drive the forms of disadvantage that blacks confront in one era as compared with another, however, are of little concern to him.
What is perhaps most striking about Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” is that it is not really a case for reparations at all. Coates presents only two historical precedents for reparations. The first example is the case of former slave Belinda Royall who, in 1783, successfully petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for financial support for herself and her infirmed daughter. As Coates makes clear, the state legislature ultimately decreed that Royall would be paid a monthly pension from the estate of Isaac Royall, Belinda’s loyalist former master. The second example Coates cites is Germany’s restitution to Holocaust survivors and Israel. Since 1953, Germany has paid about $90 billion in reparations to victims of the Holocaust and Israel. Coates observes that Germany’s restitution payments to Israel helped shore up the fledgling Jewish state by financing vital infrastructure projects. Although Coates holds up the Royall case and Holocaust restitution as evidence of reparations’ viability, he eschews exploration of the politics undergirding these examples.
Coates’s discussion of the Royall case, for example, does not mention that her entreaty was steeped in the language of republican virtue and patriarchal obligation, as the former slave detailed her vulnerability as an aged woman who, having only recently been manumitted, possessed neither husband nor property. Likewise, despite the fact that Belinda Royall’s successful petition for recompense was granted the very same year that the Massachusetts high court declared slavery unconstitutional (1783), Coates gives no consideration to the fact that the Royall judgement was illustrative of a wave of antislavery sentiment — triggered by the democratic impulses that informed America’s war for independence — that swept across New England and the mid-Atlantic states during and immediately following the Revolution. And while Coates mentions that Royall’s former master had been a loyalist, he does not reflect on how this might have influenced the Royall act. Indeed, a judgement for Belinda Royall was as much an indictment of a traitor to the Revolution as it was a repudiation of slavery.
Likewise, Coates lauds the Federal Republic of Germany’s (FRG) decision to make restitution to both victims of Nazi genocide and the newly formed Jewish state, but curiously offers no material explanation for West Germany’s motives. Prior to the 1952 Luxembourg Agreement, conquered nations had paid restitution to their wartime adversaries — i.e., nation-states. The FRG’s decision to make restitution to Israel — which was founded three years after the Third Reich’s defeat — and to individual victims of Nazi atrocities, then, was a bold departure from precedent. Even if we assume Coates’s contention that reparations helped “launch Germany’s reckoning with itself” is accurate, the FRG agreed to make restitution because it was under political pressure to distance itself from Nazi atrocities. Nazi Germany had not only attempted to exterminate racial groups and other populations that the regime had deemed threatening or unfit, but the Third Reich had engaged in an expansionist war against nations that were to become West Germany’s Cold War allies. In 1949, the year the FRG was established, many leaders in Europe and the United States were circumspect about the reemergence of a German state in the west. Western allies thus compelled the FRG to make restitution to Holocaust victims as a condition for both its full sovereignty and the end of West Germany’s occupation. So when the Israeli government broached the topic of Holocaust restitution, the FRG was in a particularly vulnerable position. West Germany made restitution to Jewish victims of the Holocaust and Israel, then, not simply because it was the “right thing to do,” but reparations constituted a partial down payment on the fledgling FRG’s independence. 42
The details of these two cases make clear that they fail as precedents for African American reparations. Not only is there no contemporary equivalent to the political antislavery movement that had informed the Royall act, but — in contrast to Belinda Royall — the more than 40 million blacks in the United States cannot expect restitution from traitors to the nation’s independence. Likewise, in contrast to postwar Germany, the US is the world’s dominant ideological, financial, and military power. The nations with which we have warred over the past few decades are, thus, in no position to pressure the US — indirectly or directly — to make restitution to African Americans. Because Coates’s ontological commitment to race can only permit a politics of moral pleading, the specific material and ideological issues that inform political decisions are inconsequential. The only details that matter to him are the grievance and the justness of the cause. 43 Coates’s narrow focus on the righteousness of these cases ultimately allows him to insinuate parallels between them and the case for African American reparations in the absence of a material basis for comparison. And since reparations presumes that whites’ pathological commitment to white-skin privilege precludes political alliances — short lived or otherwise — based on mutual interest, Coates’s case for recompense has to center on special pleading.
But pleading is not politics and Coates’s case for reparations is not a blueprint for a feasible political movement. If, as Coates argues, the white working and middle classes are so racist that they elected Donald Trump to erase the allegedly progressive economic agenda implemented by the nation’s first (neoliberal) black president, then why would they support reparations — a program from which they could never benefit? While Coates may believe that moral suasion is the engine of political change, the historical record makes clear that coalitions built on mutual interest, rather than the kind of altruistic noblesse oblige reparations would require, have been essential to blacks’ material advancement. Reparations’ appeal, however, is not rooted in its feasibility. This is why the absence of historical precedent for Coates’s formal case for reparations is ultimately beside the point. Whatever Coates’s intent, the appeal of his work is owed, in large part, to reparations’ political infeasibility. Indeed, “The Case for Reparations” and all of Coates’s subsequent related essays are less calls to arms to end racial disparities, than a case for a national conversation about race — albeit under a different name.
At its most ambitious, Coates’s formal case for reparations is merely a call for moving Representative John Conyers’s H.R. 40 out of committee — where it has languished, in one form or another, since 1989 — to debate on the floor of the House of Representatives. Coates’s reflections on H.R. 40 make clear that he is willing to settle for far less than material redress. Conyers’s bill does not outline a schedule for restitution, but simply calls for exploration of the feasibility of reparations. Still, Coates contends that moving the bill out of committee alone will pay dividends for both blacks and whites. Describing reparations as “the full acceptance of our collective biography — the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely,” Coates implies that material compensation may not be a necessary fix for black suffering. “Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate — the kind that H.R. 40 proposes,” he says, “we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion.…” Insinuating that the exercise alone has the potential to check racism’s eternal sway, Coates asserts “the recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie.” 44
Coates’s penchant for substituting metaphor for analysis is more than mere rhetorical flourish. His reliance on moralistic abstractions not only allows him to skirt the political challenges that would confront a movement centered on material compensation for African Americans alone, but it accommodates bipartisan indifference to the damaging effects of neoliberal economic and social welfare policies on disproportionately black and brown working people. Leaving little doubt that his case for reparations owes more to Dr Phil or perhaps even the Rite of Exorcism than the Freedom Budget, Coates concludes his discussion of Conyers’s H.R. 40 by declaring: “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.” 45
Whereas Obama’s soaring post-racialism licensed the continuation of liberal indifference to the plight of economically marginal people via underclass metaphors, Coates’s post-post-racial commitment to racial ontology signs off on white liberal hand-wringing and public displays of guilt as alternatives to practicable solutions to disparities. To be sure, this is not Coates’s formal intent, even if the words on the page imply that Coates might find a racial Festivus to be an acceptable alternative to material compensation. But because reparations is a political dead end, Coates is offering white liberals — and even a stratum of conservatives — who are either self-consciously or reflexively committed to neoliberal orthodoxies, absolution via public testimony to their privilege and their so-called racial sins.
The combination of Coates’s apparent sincerity and his racial militancy help to obscure reparations’ conservatism. Its militant trappings notwithstanding, reparations — a project that presumes the realness of race (the permanency of racism) and the sanctity of private property — is a fundamentally reactionary political program. Coates is no less fond of tales of black pathology than Obama, even if Coates chooses to admonish whites instead of poor blacks. Indeed, Coates’s accounts of the material “plunder” of black bodies are often wed to the psychological trauma inflicted on African Americans — from the fear-fueled beatings he received at the hands of his father to the hypermasculine bravado that he inaccurately describes as a uniquely black, male, street code. 46 Commentators ranging from Michelle Alexander to David Brooks thus frequently remark on the anger and frustration that permeates Coates’s prose, as Coates both voices and personifies black alienation. It should go without saying that many black Americans, myself among them, are justifiably frustrated about disparities, the rise of a much emboldened far right, and liberals’ failure to deliver on promises to ameliorate inequality. But by embracing a framework that presumes that African Americans are frustrated by an eternal white racism, abstracted from political economy, Coates paints a picture of perpetual black alienation that reinforces — his sincerity and good intentions notwithstanding — the underclass framework that has contributed to liberals’ and conservatives’ failure to redress structural sources of inequality. 47
Moreover, Coates’s disposition to dismiss those who identify social-democratic policies as the most feasible and effective vehicle through which to bolster African Americans’ material standing reveals his own, ironic, commitment to bourgeois politics. While he offers his white, white-collar, cosmopolitan readers absolution, Coates legitimates contempt for the white working class. As I have already discussed, Coates’s contention that Trump’s strong showing with working-class whites in the 2016 presidential election revealed the depth of working-class whites’ commitment to white-skin privilege and the futility of interracial working-class politics, imputes an economic progressivism to Obama and the Clintons that was not there. But by attributing Hillary Clinton’s loss, in part, to a pathologically racist white working class that regularly votes against its own economic interests, Coates legitimates a neoliberal agenda embraced by the Clintons, Obama, and the DNC — that has come to treat identity politics as the realpolitik alternative to a progressive, truly universal, economic program promising tangible rewards for working people. Indeed, during the 2016 Presidential primary, both Coates and the Clinton campaign chastened Senator Sanders and his supporters for allegedly deflecting attention from structural racism.
If one reflects on Hillary Clinton’s attachments to underclass-fueled rationales for the Omnibus Crime Act, Clinton and her surrogates’ criticisms of Sanders and his supporters were transparently disingenuous. The motives behind Coates’s criticisms, by contrast, seem to stem, at least in part, from his belief that a politics centered on workers’ rights is necessarily antagonistic to policies like affirmative action. As I have argued elsewhere, however, the groundwork for affirmative action, whatever its limitations, was laid by the New Deal. The National Labor Relations Act (1935) established a precedent for government intervention into the employer-employee relationship for the public good. Just as the right to collective bargaining constituted an exception to “liberty of contract,” so, too, does antidiscrimination legislation. 48
The parameters and function of even targeted programs are necessarily shaped by their broader political and ideological context. Coates’s commitment to racial ontology, however, precludes any serious attempt to either ground racism in the material world or to historicize liberal policy prescriptions beyond their failure to redress disparities. But if the endgame is to address the economic disadvantages that blacks face and, by extension, the attendant social problems that afflict lower-income black and brown communities disproportionately, it is difficult to see how the neoliberal consensus — which is antagonistic to the notion of government intervention for the public good — could engender targeted initiatives that benefit poor and working-class blacks rather than elites. Indeed, it is no coincidence that affirmative action’s focus shifted from material redress to diversity at the dawn of American neoliberalism. It is likewise no coincidence that in an era in which neoliberalism has become hegemonic, social justice has come to merge with entrepreneurialism — producing a “progressive” politics that not only casts charter schools, NGOs, and sundry internet startups as alternatives to state action, but lionizes black/brown businesspeople (including the occasional rap and R&B mogul) as the new generation of civil rights leaders.
Reparations’ repudiation of post-racialism’s absurd claim that the principal obstacles confronting blacks in the twenty-first century are poor blacks’ social pathology and middle-class blacks’ anachronistic cynicism is not without value. When articulated by the nation’s first “authentically” black president, post-racialism legitimated the Democratic commitment to neoliberal economic and social welfare policies that promised poor blacks few, if any, material rewards and middle-class blacks a seat at a shrinking table. Coates’s instincts about the limitations of personal responsibility ideology, then, are basically correct. Unfortunately, the benefits derived from Coates’s critique of post-racialism’s basic tenets are more than offset by the problems engendered by his commitment to ontological racism. Specifically, Coates’s insistence that race operates independently of economic exploitation not only obscures the cause of these inequities, but his mystification of race permits no tangible solutions. I will take a moment to dabble in the mystic’s trade to channel the spirit of Phaedra Parks and bluntly state that everybody knows that reparations ain’t gonna happen — certainly Coates’s white readers know this. But consider what that means. Coates identifies reparations as the only fix for the racial inequities he traces to an ineradicable racism. Since reparations is not a feasible politics, Coates’s fatalism about racism — his good intentions notwithstanding — licenses perpetual inequality. Simply put, if white racists will always be with us, as Coates suggests, then poor blacks will always be with us too.
Postwar liberal orthodoxies have failed to redress racial disparities. The culprit, however, is not the sway of a metaphysical racism, but rather the roots of contemporary disparities can be traced to far more comprehensible forces such as: the tensions within the New Deal between the regulatory and compensatory state models and the related mid-century tensions between institutional and commercial Keynesians; the contrasting influences of the New Deal and the Cold War on the parameters of liberal discourse about race and inequality; and neoliberalism’s rise from the ashes of the Keynesian consensus. In other words, the problem is not, as Coates insists, that liberals have long attempted to redress black poverty by reducing racism to class exploitation, resulting in universal policies that focus on economic sources of inequality as an alternative to addressing racism. Indeed, since the 1960s, liberal policymakers have generally ignored the impact on African Americans of issues such as deindustrialization, the decline of the union movement, and retreat of the public sector. Whereas the Keynesian consensus still allowed liberals of the 1960s and 1970s to pursue anti-poverty policies centered on the expansion of social services and even state-centered regulation of employer-employee relations via affirmative action, the neoliberal consensus ensured that centrist-Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would pursue agendas that chipped away at the public-good framework that established the rights and protections that have benefitted disproportionately black, poor, and working-class Americans at the very same time they either championed or personified diversity.
In this context, Coates’s insistence that so-called racial issues exist in a world apart from economic issues is not a critique of postwar liberalism, but it is, at best, a call for continuing along the same path that has failed most black Americans since the Johnson administration. At worst, it is a call for no more than ritualized acknowledgment of white privilege and black suffering.
Racial ideology does, indeed, inform how we perceive people and their place in the pecking order, as is its purpose. Racism, thus, influences inequities. It does so, however, within a larger political-economic framework. Efforts to redress racial disparities that do not consider the work that race does in American labor and housing markets will be doomed to fail, just as they have since the War on Poverty. So, while it is unlikely that Coates set out to be neoliberalism’s most visible black emissary of the post-post-racial era, his insistence that we must treat race as a force that exists independently of capitalism has, ironically, earned him this accolade.