Race To The Bottom
Ta-Nehisi Coates recently appeared on The Daily Show to discuss the presidential election. Coates is a leading public intellectual on issues of race, though based on what he said, it's hard to understand why:
If I have to jump six feet to get the same thing that you have to jump two feet for--that's how racism works.
To be president, [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of out greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds...Donald Trump had to be rich and white. That was it. That's the difference.
This is nuts. I wasn't even going to write about it, figuring anyone could see the absurdity of his stance, but I noticed many seemed to think he was making a good point. (For instance, the headline of the piece I linked to is "Ta-Nehisi Coates Perfectly Explains How Racism Helped Donald Trump Win.")
First, let's look at Barack Obama. He was, by most standards, underqualified to be President. He'd been a community organizer, spent some time in the Illinois Senate, and then a couple years in the U.S. Senate. He had no executive experience. Compare him to George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon...just about anyone who's been elected President in modern times, and you'll see how meager his record and his accomplishments were.
As far as coming from our top educational institutions, the political world is lousy with Ivy Leaguers--there are too many of them, if anything. As for being a scholar, who gives a damn? Being a legal scholar helps you become a law professor, and maybe a judge, but isn't especially helpful or attractive in politics. The scholar's life (not that Obama led one--he was a lecturer in law, but didn't publish papers) is about spending time in musty libraries, not getting political experience.
Then there's this weird stuff about being able to talk to two different worlds. A lot of politicians can speak "classy" when they need to, and "down-home" when they need to. To claim Barack Obama is special because he can talk...what, "black" and "white"?...sounds pretty condescending.
Obama defeated John McCain and Mitt Romney (as well as Hillary Clinton, whom many on the left would later describe as the most qualified candidate ever for President). McCain had military experience, and, of course, was tortured for years as a prisoner of war. He served in the House of Representatives and spent decades in the Senate, chairing a number of committees. Mitt Romney (with a JD and MBA from Harvard--not that it matters) had a significant business career, notably managed a successful Olympics, and was a Republican governor of the blue state of Massachusetts.
But their qualifications and experience ultimately didn't matter. Voters only care so much about that stuff. Barack Obama won two terms because he was the right person at the right time--no one can become President without that. He ran a good campaign, and was a smart, charming candidate (not to mention someone who employed vicious tactics when necessary), but it also takes a lot of luck and good timing to win the office, and Obama had more than his share.
And yes, an important part of his political career was related to him being black. (I know he's half black and half white, but for simplicity's sake I'll call him black, as so many political commentators do.) It helped him--set him apart, made him more appealing--and I doubt very much he'd be President if he were white. In fact, with his far-left ideology (in his short time in the U.S. Senate, he had the most liberal voting record there), I don't know if he would have had any political career had he been white.
Now let's address the even more absurd part of Coates' argument, and look at Donald Trump. Coates says all he needed to be was rich and white. I think we can see, when it comes to presidents, Trump is an anomaly.
The normal candidate--of any race, ethnicity, sex, whatever--has political experience. The normal candidate doesn't say outrageous things on a regular basis, or tweet his personal feelings at three in the morning. The normal candidate is not Donald Trump. So to use him as an example of how easy politics is for white people makes no sense.
In any case, he wasn't just handed the nomination, he had to take down a huge GOP field--did Coates forget that? Most of them were more conventionally qualified, and most of them were white, so tell them that white politicians have it easier. (Many of his opponents were also highly educated--some were brilliant Ivy Leaguers who I'm sure could give Obama a run for his money. Who cares.) Trump won because, once again, he was in the right place as the right time.
And with the right message. He was saying things that resonated with many in the GOP, as well as disaffected Democrats. He was also saying something that the other Republicans not only didn't say, but often denounced. He had a message of economic populism, that both parties--the "elite," if you like--seemed to be fighting against. (This populism isn't a black/white thing, or even a left/right thing--Bernie Sanders, as much as he disagreed with Trump, tapped into some of the same feeling and almost took down Hillary Clinton.)
So, against all odds--considerably higher odds than Barack Obama's, I'd say--Trump somehow managed to become President. Mind you, it's not unique to have no political experience and be a popular Presidential candidate--Herman Cain and Ben Carson come to mind. (Wait a second--they're African-Americans--that's not supposed to be possible.) But they were flavors of the month, while Trump's campaign was enduring due to its substance, even if it was wrapped in what was to many, even his supporters, a distasteful package. And that's "the difference"--not that he was "rich and white."
PS I'm going to ignore that Coates apparently believes a white man defeating a white woman is a sign of racism. It's also not a sign of sexism, but that's for another post.
PPS Coates also believes it was "unique circumstances" that allowed Obama to be the first African-American president:
I think Barack Obama was born into a home not just to a white woman and white grandparents, but a white woman and white grandparents who shockingly told him it was okay that he was black and that he should not be ashamed of it and that he should in fact be proud of it.
Coates feels (according to the linked article) this "limited Obama's ability to fully understand the trauma of racism." Coates compared Obama's childhood to his own, where the experience with white people was often malevolent--this was simply not part of Obama's background.
So, according to Coates, Obama was able to succeed, and rise higher than any African-American ever, because he was (relatively) free of the trauma of racism. Okay, Ta-Nehisi, I'll take you at your word. If this is true, what do you think is a better strategy to help black people achieve more--dwell on the pain of the past, and obsess over bigotry, or move beyond it, and treat the world as if racism isn't a factor that explains almost everything?