We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Image of We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
Release Date: 
October 2, 2017
One World
Reviewed by: 

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with a sound mind and a broken heart, with great power and confessed pain, of America’s relationship to African Americans, of African Americans’ struggle to succeed against forceful unfairness and positive feedback loops of negative consequence, of African Americans’ successes in overcoming and outshining everything and all, and of ongoing undercurrents pulling to drag those people and those successes to drowning depth. This is a deeply insightful book—and one with perturbing problems.

Coates quotes W. E. B. DuBois to set the stage for his thesis, which is a continuation, expansion, and updating of what DuBois said at the destruction of the black advances during Reconstruction, commenting on South Carolina in particular, but about the South in general, “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government it was good Negro government.”

From that nugget of truth, Coates gives us eight essays, one written by him and published in The Atlantic during each year of the Obama administration, plus some extended and updated thoughts as introduction to each. In truth he gives us one per year, but not one from each year; there are two from 2009, one from 2011, two from 2012, and one each from 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Coates contends in his first essay that Barack Obama made it look as though all one had to do if one is black in America is to wear a suit, behave well, and expect success at least equal to white Americans. To Coates, that is not merely a problem and false, it ignores the rise of the base that lifted Donald Trump and his ignorant racist rants into the White House, a base that emerged from the identical roots that grew the vicious Jim Crow segregation in the South at the end of the 19th century.

To be sure, even given everything both Coates and Obama knew, Coates reveals in his intro to his final essay that they predicted to each other in conversations—as did most others, but they are not most others—that Donald Trump would not get elected. For two black men steeped in the knowledge of the prevalence of racism and retro thinking in America to miss the signs says that pretty much all of us were taken flat-footed by surprise.

Coates sees and analyzes and, in the end, expresses almost no hope, which is a pity, Trump victory notwithstanding. He is essentially saying—though likely he would evade a categorical inquiry—that the races simply need to live apart, since white people cannot seem to improve to the point of taking black people as equals, that white people fear the rise of the competent black person as much as they fear the presence of the black gangster. Where else does that leave us?

Coates helps whites with little direct experience in the black community understand the separation from standard binary white analysis of left/right politics in his exegesis of the Bill Cosby 2004 campaign to call out black leaders to accountability, to black youth to be accountable and presentable, and to stop blaming white America for their failures.

Coates explains that Cosby attempts to invoke the myth of the independent clean and respectable-to-itself black community, not in order to curry white favor but in order to stand proudly on its own. Coates does these flashbacks throughout his march forward through the eight Obama years.

Is Coates giving us a legitimate book or simply stitching together already published pieces with a bit of 20-20 hindsight? That will be up to each reader to decide. If you read The Atlantic and his pieces all along, the book might feel redundant, a bit like you’ve pretty much been there before.

Still, Coates is rigorous in his self-analysis and prefaces his Cosby piece with his acknowledgement that he paid scant attention to the mounting charges of rape that were being written about then by others. So his previous work is prefaced by self-critique and by circumstances in his own black life at the time.

Pacifists will not greatly agree with Coates, who valorizes Cosby when Cosby tells a packed hall of black men that the better days were when they put the children in the basement, grabbed a rifle, and said “By any means necessary.” Indeed, in his Cosby essay, Coates calls MLK’s philosophy “gauzy, all-inclusive.” It is hard for a close reader not to think, Ahem, seems like Cosby is rich with white money and MLK is dead from a white racist bullet. Cosby was talking to his safe audience—black men, while MLK risked and lost his life for his people in the heart of cracker Dixie.

This is not to claim Coates is not a critical thinker; he certainly is. He simply crosscuts his ethical claims in his own way, tries to consider multiple historical trends as their roots affect today’s movements, and is, in the end, an intellectually and emotionally by any means necessary to help black people analyst, commentator, and advocate.

When asked about white people in the wake of Trump’s ascension to power where to look for hope now, Coates completely dodges the question, claiming that it is “not his job” to give white people any hope.

Well, he’s a nationally and internationally known writer who accepts interviews so it actually is his job to at least answer questions as an analyst rather than as a churlish curmudgeon, though it is easy to sympathize with any black person who feels a profound sense of hopelessness in the current social ecology in America, one that is poisoned by far too many parts per million of racism in all it deplorable acts and expressions.

Coates seems to strive to achieve the delicate balance between the expected role of the angry black man with the sensitive critical thinker, leaning as necessary on his oft-mentioned influence from his Black Panther father—and in fact Coates writes the Black Panther comic stories for Marvel comics, not featuring much devotion to nonviolent de-escalation of conflict nor to “gauzy” inclusion.

Coates is monomial in his explanation of the sordid nature of the racially fraught understanding of who Barack Obama is and was to American whites who voted him into office, that is, that they were essentially voting for the white half.

He apparently comes to this conclusion for all or virtually all whites, possibly out of the understandable deep pain of watching the ugly resurgence of overt white supremacist racism that helped propel Trump into office. Of course, reality is far more complex.

There are many white Americans who viewed Obama without parsing out his white half, who supported him for his deliberate, statesmanlike, earnest, talented orator persona.

We can never know that number of such white Americans, though one might assume that some of them might be white parents of children deemed African American by U.S. society, that is, white parents who produced racially mixed children with black partners, lovers, spouses, or chance encounters. Some number of those white parents deeply love their children and are long past Coates’s categorizations. Those numbers are not insignificant; nine million Americans said in the 2010 census they were black and white racially mixed and most who study populations put the actual number far higher, since historically “a drop” of African blood made a person African.

We may be talking about more than 10–15 % of the white voting population. Coates leaves them out of his narrative, preferring the more lugubrious stereotype of the frothing racists. Again, given the hate-shock of the Trump-Dylann Roof-Steve Bannon grotesquerie, Coates is within his rights to be so focused on that aspect.

In his connecting present-day-looking-back narrative, Coates is as focused on memoir as he is on societal analysis. He gives us more of his life story, the quotidian of the many, the struggles of young parents to earn enough to feed and clothe their child and keep a roof overhead, and then the breakthrough writing gig at The Atlantic, suddenly launching them into material success and even notoriety.

Perhaps we are to feel glad at this American success story; certainly, for the millions who have experienced deprivation and desperation as young parents it is a happy surge to prosperity in his sidebar life story.

One of Coates's most important insights is his offering of two views of the success of Barack Obama followed by the success of Trump. In the first instance, he notes the voices who tentatively hoped that Obama's 2008 election augured a change, an evolutionary moment, a harbinger of a new era of improved appreciation for diversity, if not an endgame of post racialism.

But other voices unceremoniously flattened that rosy scenario simply saying that the country must really be in a serious and desperate mess to cause the white majority to vote for a black man.

Coates clearly subscribes to the latter view, drawing parallels to other periods of advancement during crises only to yield to yet more racist retrenchment once the crisis had been somewhat resolved.

For instance, the North allowed no black soldiers--until the bloody costs had them on the ropes, at which point blacks could serve and fight. But after the hopes of Reconstruction the resurgent racist exploitation, disenfranchisement and segregation became the federally unchallenged norm in the South. Other examples make his case quite cogent.

And now we see the overflowing basket of deplorables slashing throats in Portland, Oregon, running over nonviolent protesters at alt-right rallies in Charlottesville, and displaying swastikas and confederate battle flags in many locales. The Trump Effect is pervasive and polarizing, rolling back the rocks which seemed to have covered the most egregious reptilian representations of a brutal, mindless history of racial atrocity.

Coates writes unremittingly in favor of the Civil War and with alternating qualified respect and complete disrespect for those who commit to nonviolence, even those who engaged in the Civil Rights movement, which seems to be a manifestation of his parental influence.

Black Panthers were frequently dismissive of "Negroes" who would lower themselves to the practice of nonviolence, and Coates was raised by parents who shared that philosophy, so his glorification of the Civil War seems a bit zero-sum to the reader who is attempting objectivity and critical thinking.

To effectively wave off the demonstrable gains made by nonviolent action is simply and profoundly ahistorical, especially when, in some passages of his previously published pieces, he ambivalently credits nonviolent resistance with some gains.

Empiricism in the examination of nonviolence has taught us several lessons, all of which Coates ignores. One, nonviolence succeeds about twice as often as does violence. Two, nonviolent struggle is faster, on average. Three, and perhaps most obviously, the costs in blood and treasure are far less when nonviolent methods are used. Fourth, and what requires the deepest historical plumb, is that sustainable metrics of democracy, civil rights, and human rights more routinely follow a nonviolent victory than they do a violent victory. To date, this empiricism has only seriously studied maximal goal struggles--insurgencies meant to overthrow a government, evict an occupying force, or secede. I believe the record of subnational struggle would reveal an even stronger set of advantages for nonviolent v violent struggle. That Coates stains his analysis by ignoring all this is a pity.

In general, Coates does a remarkable job of contextualizing the black experience, contending African American viewpoints, and comes down on some perspective but carefully enumerates his own evolution, including serious adjustments in his perspective as events unfold.

While Coates critiques Barack Obama for his use of drone warfare, it is somewhat shocking that he adds, "particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints." Really? The Yemeni child, the Somali girl, the Syrian baby—they don't rise to the level of an American who is online recruiting jihadis? Why would Coates gratuitously add that?

Is the African American who slaughters other brown people excusable? Perhaps, but at the very least it needs a mention by one who is increasingly seen as the premier black public intellectual. Coates deserves his fame and fortune, but with that comes a vulnerability to critique when he hesitates to place blame where it belongs--or perhaps unknowingly presents something of a double standard himself, after rightly accusing white America of holding profoundly double standards.

At the same time, some of Coates's best work, most thought provoking and heart-rending is his examination of the results of the growing, nasty, lying, dirty-tricks racist opposition to a Barack Obama presidency, the winding terrible tale of which is the core value of his book.

For example, Coates interviews Shirley Sherrod, a civil rights leader and faithful practitioner of both nonviolence and community service, and one appointed to Obama's USDA, but who fell victim to lies about her attitudes, disinformation concocted by the racists who began to surface in response to—white bearded, sallow complexioned, patriarchal God in the sky-forbid—a black President.

That shameful story, in which a film clip was edited to make Sherrod say exactly the opposite of what the full film later revealed, had the Obama administration scramble to fire her fast rather than risk the racialization that the racists wanted. Sherrod was thrown under the bus to protect the presidency and that, to this reader, was white America's shame, not President Obama's. Coates does an amazingly sensitive treatment of her.

At the same time, Coates has reserved a large slice of the sensitive pie for himself quite personally, first about aspects of his life that were hard in poverty—understandable—but then about his life in success.

He complains, nearly whines, about what he regards as the unreasonable expectations imposed on him as a black public intellectual, expectations that he moves beyond kvetching and toward proposing some ideas for improvement. Perhaps his editors in his successful publishing world relate to such privileged protests, but it's hard for this reader to relate. Isn't that precisely his job, to make suggestions, even demands, for better ways to be?

For him to label activists as "public scolds" and then for him to reserve that right unto himself when he now earns his very handsome living almost forcibly convincing us of the problems and resenting it when we apparently hope for his notions of better alternatives—this is not so acceptable to some.

The reprinted essay “The Case for Reparations” (2014) is a magisterial work, a litany of egregious treatment of African Americans from colonial-era slavery through 20th century legal theft—really robbery, since the bad laws were ultimately backed by the armed agents of the state if it came to that. He makes the case, period.

What America owes to African Americans is morally overwhelming, only awaiting the law to overtake ethics—so we know not to hold our breath in this case. The evidence Coates summons in this piece is towering, enraging, and depressing, and reading it is a serious challenge to the pacifist.

As a white reader, I need to be uncompromisingly frank in my ignorance of what I would think or do if I were black. As an analyst from the field of social struggle, I know that nonviolent struggle is more likely to succeed and yet the violent, long-committed and long-permitted ghastly injustices prompt a familiar realization; I can analyze professionally but I cannot prescribe or advise until explicitly sought.

Coates may bridle at being regarded as an intellectual identified as focusing on the black experience but that, in this book, is exactly what he does, and little else. He piles on the evidence, makes many conclusions and assertions, and is a powerful intellect indeed, literally and figuratively colored by his experience, his upbringing, and his research.

Black people cannot know what misfortune is specifically due to racism and what is due to a background rate of bad luck experienced by anyone, unless empirical credible research testing is done, but the systematic theft, punctuated in Coates's essays by his interviews with those who have been in fact targeted and ripped off as part of a racist pattern, can begin to at least produce understanding among white readers of the tsunamic power of racist exploitation at virtually all fronts in U.S. history.

Coates cites The Autobiography of Malcolm X as influential and a source of his education. Young readers of all races can cite Coates in their futures.

He asserts, correctly, that only by at least engaging in a serious national discourse about reparations can America at last evolve and mature from its childish mythos to a nation embracing difficult discussions and potentially healing but hurtful truth and reconciliation.

And facing our history can be the bulwark against a vile repetition because we see it played out in new and more cunning ways even as we attempt in our lurching and desultory fashion to eliminate the worst of the old ways.

An example is the Wells Fargo proven targeting of black populations for subprime loans in the early 21st century that resulted in record home losses and evictions when unqualified black home buyers desperately signed on to loans that were unpayable with the slightest financial setback. With the 2008 recession that is exactly what happened, and the racism and outcomes were documented so dispositively that Wells Fargo had to settle for some $315 million.

What, Coates wonders, will America settle at for centuries of oppression and direct theft?

As Coates preps us in a few short pages for his seventh essay, some 62 pages on black America incarcerated, the reader is beginning to sense that reparations are in progress for Coates at least, paid to write the piece for The Atlantic and paid again to reprint it in a bestselling book made fat by the reprints, as his new writing is minimal by comparison. It happens in the arts, but primarily for musicians, not so much for writers.

Indeed, this feels at moments like a self-referential reissue of Ta-nehisi Coates’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1, with new liner notes. He is seriously double-dipping, perhaps relying on some combination of white guilt and unconditional black support to make it unremarkable, all observable factors in America, and justly so.

Coates is in some ways exploiting the exploiters. Fair enough. It just needs to be noted. And in that brief intro to his essay on incarcerated black America, he pines to write like James Baldwin, then tells us he intends to write like James Baldwin, and finally nearly begs us to compare him to James Baldwin. He fixates too much. I leave judgment on the outcome of this ambition to subjectively smarter minds. Coates is a great writer but he does not ascend to Baldwin’s stature by invoking him ad nauseam. Let the critics, the readers, figure it out sans redundant prompts, Mr. Coates.

If this reads ambivalent you are discerning my vacillating response to a book of churlish genius, adamantine sparkle set in an unremitting justifiable jeremiad of injury and suffering individually and collectively, presently and historically. Coates is weary of the costs of racism and the reader may be forgiven if s/he is in turn experiencing Complaint Fatigue and Injustice Overdose at this litany long before page 367.

In this book and in many interviews Coates seems to take some pleasure in underscoring his lack of hope. It is how he frames his summations of his life, his research into his essays, and his synoptic and predictive conclusions about America. One wonders if his relentless repetition of this is a cry for help or simply an African American version of a Ginsbergian howl.

The lamentations are righteous, and the reprinted essays focus, for the most part, on them. His seventh, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” was from 2015 and is a scorching damnation of the (oxymoron alert!) American criminal justice system.

Coates mustered the facts in the essay and I can validate them anecdotally from direct personal experience as a prisoner of conscience (anti-nuclear weapons nonviolent actions). In city jails in which I spent time the overwhelming majority of inmates are black and in the state system I was incarcerated in, Wisconsin’s, it seemed to me in the three prisons in which I served time, that the authorities may as well have just gone into African American neighborhoods in Milwaukee and elsewhere and rounded up vast numbers of black males between the ages of 18 and 35 and simply figured out what they might be doing that was convictable.

Literally, it seemed to me that in a state with an approximately six percent African American population that three-quarters of my fellow inmates were black. Many, perhaps most, were not convicted of a single violent act. This is bone-deep “of course” knowledge in the black community but revelatory to others—certainly much of The Atlantic readership.

Though Coates was raised radical by Black Panther parents he writes almost like a white guy about prison since he has been one clean hardworking guy, a family man not about to risk time behind the walls. So, for instance, he refers to “tickets” in prison, issued for inmate behavioral infractions, though inmates and guards would almost universally refer to these as “shots.” And I never heard anyone refer to a “bunkie,” just a “cellie.” Just sayin’. It’s not summer camp, Ta-Nehisi.

In the mid-1980s came directives vacating the judge’s discretionary evaluation of each case and replacing that custom with draconian and Procrustean mandatory sentence ranges that dramatically lengthened many terms in the fed Bureau of Prisons. This, coupled with the Reagan war on drugs was significant.

Coates devotes a paragraph to the mandatory minimum sentencing but chooses to blame Ted Kennedy and omit mention of the majority of rightwing members of Congress who colluded en masse with Reagan to make this policy lurch, an irritating convention of some black radicals who prefer to attack those they regard as tepid allies far more virulently than the overt enemies.

This shows an understandable yet unfortunate lack of rigor. Calling out poor votes is important but failure to note overwhelming rightwing racist consensus is seeing a few trees and missing the forest.

As a result of the mandatory minimums the BOP was soon quite crowded and many states followed suit. Missing in his piece was the role in many states of the correctional unions, frequently the largest collective bargaining and lobbying organizations in many states, all in favor of more incarceration, more inmates, longer sentences.

Coates does dwell on the infamies of slavery though in his root contextuals of black incarceration and rampant injustice, dramatic and yet at a significant remove. Quoting from the blatant racists of the 19th and early 20th century is helpful to a historical placement but seems like fish in a barrel since most of it is so well hashed and thrashed to all who have worried about these problems for years.

And his signal cases in which he attempts to elicit outrage against the criminal justice system do not sit well with many; how are readers supposed to work up a big sympathy for a fellow who shot a taxi driver point blank in the head, killing a working man? Stories of those imprisoned for nonviolent crimes would have gone much further. They are out there—or rather in there. Coates would have written a stronger piece by sleuthing out who they are, on the one hand, and examining the rare but real restorative justice programs that can turn around much of this dynamic.

Describing the riots that took place at the end of the 1955—1965 civil rights movement, Coates correctly names some of the sparks and some of the flammable social conditions but misses the larger narrative entirely; black people in the U.S. earned steady gains in that decade of nonviolence and all such advances screeched to a halt with the riots and the emergence of armed self-defense organizations, primarily the Black Panthers. Instead he praises the violence and waves off all admiration for the nonviolent resistance. Regardless of philosophy, this is not crack journalism.

Where Coates does show robust analysis is in his synthesis of many sources that can help him buttress his case, though his original knowledge-gathering is limited for the most part to his occasional interviews.

He is not an actual researcher too often, but rather a searcher for knowledge gathered by others that relates to the argument he makes—that is decent journalism. Little is original; Coates’s gift is in reassembling what others have done and reorganizing the findings as a part of his case.

At times Coates whips up a slippery slope and presents his extrapolative assumption as fact we should swallow whole. When, for instance, he excoriates Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a sexist in favor of domestic violence including rape, one’s jaw drops. Seriously?

That Moynihan was a sexist in his 1960s writing, in a profoundly sexist system, in a country that then regarded the ideal family as a breadwinning father and a stay-at-home nurturing mother, is undeniable. That he thus excused a husband raping his wife is an outrageous piece of calumny that somehow escaped the editors at The Atlantic.

This is a nonfiction book and really needed an index to enhance its utility. That is missing, and that is a pity. Yes, it’s popular literature, but it pretends to be a resource, which militates for such tools. Coates uses footnotes; the expectation of a good index is a legitimate concomitant. And the publisher needed a bit more proofreading; those of us in the resistance are not “resistors,” for instance. But these are obviously minor irritants only noted for the record.

Yes, it’s a book that seems mired in yesteryear, but some of the past is so recent and the gulf which yawns out to it is so vast, that I will offer one extended quote to show the urgency of it:

“Last spring, I went to the White House to meet the president for lunch. I arrived slightly early and sat in the waiting area. I was introduced to a deaf woman who worked as the president’s receptionist, a black woman who worked in the press office, a Muslim woman in a head scarf who work on the National Security Council, and Iranian American woman who worked as a personal aide to the president. This receiving party represented a healthy cross section of the people Donald Trump had been mocking.”  

That eyewitness report from the old White House should acutely clutch the sensibilities of any decent American. Coates imparts a yearning through this simple observation that is more fiercely piercing than any of his standard-issue moaning, the power of the witness. He was there then and tells us what the reality was, a masterstroke of journalism.

In his final essay he brings the most mature, complex, attuned analysis of race and gender, particularized and universalized self-knowledge, and authorship of one’s own specific identity that I have read in five decades of reading germinal works on these topics in America. Coates does so by his own inquisitiveness informed by Obama’s, a remarkable psychological feat.

This is a sharply probing, at times poetic, problematic volume. It made this reader think hard, give thanks, and get angry at many moments, mostly at what Coates correctly calls the plunder of racism—and occasionally at Coates himself.

As I read his final essay that included his account of Obama’s final October 2016 gathering of the African American illuminati—replete with Obama’s inimitable MC patter—my throat closed and my eyes stung; what have we lost?

My copy is certainly marked up, and I’ve already given away another copy to a dear young African American friend and budding scholar. Coates, a noveau member of the black intellectual peerage, deserves all his success; I hope he is able to handle it with the élan he shows us in many passages and not so much with annoying caviling that careens at the reader from time to time.

I hope I’ve noted his drawbacks for this particular reader in balance with my admiration for his devotion to lifting his own capacities, his family’s happiness and wellbeing, the future of black America, and the education of white America. Like my favorite politicians, I see the blemishes but I’d still vote for him.

Coates brings all circles and spirals into resolution and clarity in his epilog, an exegesis of candidate and White House-dweller Trump, and here is his most universally forceful work, drawing together disparate themes to give us an explanation and refutation worth the price of a new book.

The evolution and maturation of Coates as an analyst and journalist reaches its peak in this culmination, both nuanced and battering in its power and accuracy. Coates has arrived; it is an American duty and pleasure to let him carry us with him.