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Book review: Ta-Nehisi Coates ‘We Were Eight Years In Power’

I grew up thinking racism would soon die out of its own accord—that it still existed in pockets but people were for the most part coming to their senses, that all the hard work of excising it from the American spirit had been taken care of by our brave civil rights forebears. The night of Obama’s election in 2008 seemed to validate this belief – a joyous, crowning moment to celebrate inclusiveness, that our country had made an important step beyond color lines and that soon the final scourge of racism would fizzle out into the emptiness.

But the ugliness that then sprouted up in resistance to Obama’s presidency had more than just a partisan character—it questioned his humanity, it tried to make him an “other:”non-American, Muslim, and regularly resorted to openly racist caricatures. Obama’s foreign policy legacy is centrist and hawkish; Obamacare was based on Republican ideas and tested by a Republican governor, but you’d never know that from the vitriolic Republican response to him and his policies. Combined with the still-extant racist “War on Drugs,” New York’s own racist “stop-and-frisk” policing, the enactment of voter-suppression laws in 17 states, not to mention the ongoing succession of police shootings of unarmed black civilians, it seems like racism was not only not going away of its own accord—it was growing and festering inside the body of America.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power is an excellently written, thoroughly researched, powerful and timely documentation of Obama’s presidency as it pertained to (mostly black-white) race relations. It’s divided into eight sections, each corresponding to a year of Obama’s tenure, each containing an article written at the time for The Atlantic as well as a contemporary re-appraisal and contextualization of the article.

It’s important to let Coates remind you that the Tea Party was white people who didn’t like having a black President, that Donald Trump got his political start “by peddling the racist myth that the president was not American,” that Trump spent his campaign “freely and liberally trafficking in misogyny, Islamophobia and xenophobia.” Trump is the virulent pustule of racism, elected on the premise of erasing Obama’s legacy, beyond which he seems to have no clear ideology. Trump won white women voters nationally by 9%, which for someone who was caught on tape boasting of sexual assault, who called his own daughter “a piece of ass” and who regularly employed misogynist slurs, is amazing. It speaks to how entrenched and emboldened racism is, as well as to how poorly Clinton campaigned.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the best, most vital writers alive. From Redlining to mass-incarceration to Michelle Obama growing up in the South Side of Chicago, he covers the topics with clear argumentation, solid factual underpinnings but also a vibrant personal voice. That he writes almost exclusively on race isn’t beside the point—it’s a festering abscess that has burst wide open in the last decade.

It’s hard to read this book and not get pissed off. Coates presents such a meticulous and eloquent chronicle of systemic racism in America, of how whenever it seems as though things are improving, in fact racist policies are transfigured and repackaged into new and equally agonizing ones.

Weirdly, Cornel West wrote a piece in the Guardian yesterday criticizing Coates’ book on race for not being about foreign policy, LBGT equality and socialism, which is like criticizing a duck for not being a squirrel. As a de facto socialist, it’s embarrassing to read a socialist’s account of an important work that so distantly misses the mark and clearly reflects mostly his own professional jealousy. In the article West calls Coates a “neoliberal” and claims he “fetishizes white supremacy,” which is is probably the most inflammatory, mean and grossly untrue thing he could say, especially considering there are clearly a lot of people out there who do actually fetishize white supremacy and somehow escape West’s ire. Richard Spencer himself positively re-tweeted West’s criticism of Coates, and you know something’s rotten when that happens. From the vagueness and the blatant incorrectness of most of his points, it seems unlikely that West actually read the book, and is probably mostly angry that Coates does not quote or reference him.

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