Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent article in the Atlantic — “The First White President” is a devastating and image-shattering look at how President Trump is truly the first white President. While I highly recommend reading it in its entirety, I will briefly summarize its arguments here: Trump is half as qualified as his predecessor, has time and again shown a level of overt bigotry, racism, and misogyny previously unheard of for the office, and generally, really has no business running a country. And yet, he is president, the power of white supremacy exemplified. Coates chastises many of the left, from Sanders, the talking heads, and even Obama, for failing to call Trump’s ascendency what it truly is — the power of “whiteness.” Rather than identify the ingrained racial undertones that empowered Trump, many of the pundits on the left blamed the Democratic party’s inability to appeal to the “working class,” thus blaming economic rather than racial strain. Not so, Coates argues, as minority working-class voters were not driven into Trump’s arms due to “economic” issues, they saw racism for what it was — the force propelling Trump to the White House and a move by white America to strip away Obama’s legacy.
Of course, Coates’s view is not without detractors. At least two commentators, George Packer in the Atlantic and Ryan Cooper in The Week, have published responses to Coates, pointing out that there are some logical gaps in Coates’s treatise. Jason D. Hill, a professor of philosophy at DePaul University even wrote a highly critical response to Coates’ general themes.
Packer and Cooper mainly pointed out that the factors that got Trump into office are not so easily distilled to racism alone, and that Coates arguably falls prey to the same fallacy that he accuses the left of — willful blindness. Women voted for Trump in significant numbers despite the general misogyny he leveled against them and Hillary both prior to and during the campaign. In other words, people can readily overlook horrible things like racism and misogyny when it suits their interests, even if some groups such as blacks and Latinos seem less likely to do so.
While I can agree with the critics that the issue may not be so easily paired down to exclusively race, Coates’s critique nevertheless left me shaken in its wake. Regardless of where you pinpoint the exact nature and truth of Trump’s victory, you are hardpressed to deny that race played no part at all, even the critics admit as much. But more importantly, and more to Coates’s point, the structures of race and supremacy, even after 400 years, still hold a great deal of power over the most powerful office in the world. The America that elected Barack Obama is still the same that replaced him with Trump. We were naive in thinking that the bastions of hate and fear, fed over centuries, had suddenly crumbled with the election of the nation’s first black president. And this is what Trump stands for — a privileged symbol of white supremacy that could quickly and easily replace the prior image and legacy of hope.
I was left with a sinking feeling in my depths after reading Coates. I had been among those who had wanted to believe that we had arrived at a place in our history where obvious bids towards racial and ethnic divides would make someone unelectable. Namely, that hatred could not stand as a party platform. I was wrong. The America that we all live in has grown on the blood of saints, slaves, and sinners, and history is not so easily forgotten. I also had bought, in part, the stories brought forth on the left that people were driven to Trump because of economic disparities. That they just differed from their counterparts on the other side of the aisle on who is to blame for the country’s problems. Regardless of how precisely accurate that premise is, the Balrog of racism has not been defeated. He still stands on the bridge challenging our passage in a great and terrible fury.
In reading and reflecting on Coates’s writing, I felt something I had not felt since last November. Despair. Coates does not continue weaving his thoughts into a way forward. I immediately consumed a number of his other articles, interviews, and even his book Between the World and Me. All in search of a path forward. His book, written for his young son, detailing the ongoing struggle of blacks to obtain control over their own “bodies” from their oppressors, is beautiful and haunting, but again, leaves a certain, empty despair. Indeed, even after publishing this most recent article, Coates himself has said in interviews that he doesn’t see a way forward. He sees no way of slaying the demon. He leaves us without hope.
And here, unlike the Dude, I cannot abide. There is always hope, even if it is only granular and readily tramped underfoot. This is not vanity, Polly-Annish-ness, or ignorance speaking. It is a well-informed and powerful idea that, to paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend towards justice. While it is undeniable that Trump’s power is rooted, at least in part, in the supremacy of whiteness, it is no less true that it had to come in response to a previously unheard-of reality — a black president.
While Obama’s election did not suddenly rectify 400 years of the unspeakable, it does show a willingness in enough of us, a majority, that we can forge ahead towards something closer to equality. And this is where I fundamentally disagree with Coates, not necessarily in substance but in conclusion — Trump’s election is not a showing of racism and white supremacy’s strength. Rather, it is its last resurgence in the death throes of its slow demise. It is a showing of its erosion, however slow. They say it themselves — “Make America Great Again” necessarily implying that they have lost something.
In 2016, for the first time in our history, just over half (50.2 percent) of the babies born in the U.S. belonged to people of color. If the estimates hold, sometime around 2050, whites will no longer be the majority in the country. These children are being born into a world fundamentally different from those their parents were. One where, even if he had to work twice as hard as his white predecessors, a black man could and did become president of the most powerful country in the world. Twice.
In the same manner, the children already present have had the opportunity to see what racism and bigotry look like personified at the highest levels of government. Because of the nearly-global and unfiltered availability of information, these young people have seen and experienced for themselves the evils hate perpetrates and perpetuates. They do so in ways that their parents could not have experienced it in the era predating the internet. Trump offers, maybe for the first time in modern America, a figurehead, and an outspoken one at that, for white supremacy. And by extension, Trump has shown all of it, in bold technicolor, to the one demographic most easily and likely influenced — our youth.
These painful lessons of their parents, siblings, and friends will inevitably drive them away from Trump’s version of America in search of their own. Just like minority voters were driven away from him in the present. It is my hope, and possibly the only one I can cling to, that these young people who are staring into the true darkness of racism and hatred will one day choose instead to help bend America’s moral bow towards justice.
Maybe it is not Coates’s responsibility to offer hope. Maybe his strength lies in rooting out the problem and leaving it to the rest of us to face. Indeed, the first step towards fixing much of anything is the admission of the problem’s existence. I can certainly hope for and wish that Coates would direct his powerful abilities of insight and analysis towards solutions and not only problems but in the end, I can ask no more of him than he has already given.
I am not as well-written or read as Coates and do not pretend to be his intellectual equal. But to all those who are listening and are sinking in the despair personified in this current administration — hold onto hope. This America, however tainted and misguided it has been throughout its history, is still worth fighting for. We have a great moral debt that we will hopefully one day address with willing hearts and minds. There will be no quick resolution to centuries of oppression and there will be no ground gained without pain and frustration. But there is no other choice, no other way than forward. Forward to face the Balrog. Trump’s ascendancy is not an end, but hopefully a beginning, not a showing of power but a desperate clawing at it as it slips away. For the sake of those behind us and before us, we must continue, and continue to hope.