Barack Obama has inspired a coterie of black writers who have largely foregone reportage and robust interrogation for a kind of anger management, in an apparent attempt to reassure African-Americans that, despite losing more of their wealth than at any time in history, everything is swell.
WASHINGTON (Analysis) — Shortly after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of murder for the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager, the celebrated African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic Monthly:
I think the jury basically got it right. The only real eyewitness to the death of Trayvon Martin was the man who killed him. At no point did I think that the state proved second degree murder. I also never thought they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted recklessly. They had no ability to counter his basic narrative, because there were no other eyewitnesses.”
As a work of reportage or critical inquiry, Coates’ article was an abysmal failure. But as agitprop — or a defense of the nation’s first black president, who failed to indict a single white, law-enforcement officer or vigilante for federal civil rights violations during his eight years in the White House — it was a stunning success. Had he asked, most any trial lawyer would’ve told Coates that, all things considered, the absence of witnesses to a homicide is not a particularly big hurdle to winning a courtroom conviction, just as videotape of the encounter — see, e.g., Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Rodney King — is no guarantor.
In fact, what many in the legal community found curious is that prosecutors — who filed charges against Zimmerman only after six weeks of pressure from African-American protesters nationwide — bungled their case so badly that it struck some as intentional. In a law review article for Boston College, the legal scholar Mark Brodin sardonically encased the word “prosecution” in quotes in explaining that the state “committed the most inexplicable strategic and evidentiary blunders of a type that experienced prosecutors would very likely not commit in a more earnest [writer’s emphasis] effort to convict.”
Of the prosecution’s many missteps, Brodin wrote that the most damning might’ve been the failure to “to convey to the trial jury this simple narrative of racial profiling and stalking by a vigilante not acting under color of law.”
This, Brodin wrote, could’ve been accomplished simply by emphasizing Zimmerman’s previous complaints of black youths in the neighborhood and his defiance of a dispatcher’s repeated order for him to stand down in accosting an unarmed, 158-pound boy.
Mark K. Spencer — a former deputy chief prosecutor for the Washington suburb of Prince George’s County, and now a law-enforcement executive in Maryland — told MintPress that Martin’s recorded conversation at the time of the incident demonstrated his state-of-mind, and showed Zimmerman to be the aggressor. Moreover, he said, the law requires that anyone claiming self-defense (which is essentially what Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground law expands upon) must first retreat or assume a defensive posture before exercising deadly force. There is no evidence that Zimmerman did so.
“The jury verdict was wrong,” Spencer said, “and Mr. Coates is also wrong because … he is an apologist for this sort of racist violence.”
Black Orientalism in Obama’s wake
In the decade since he stepped onto the national stage, Barack Obama has inspired a coterie of black writers like Coates who have largely foregone reportage and robust interrogation for a kind of anger management, in an apparent attempt to lower the public’s expectations of the 44th president — and to reassure African-Americans especially that, despite losing more of their wealth than at any time in history, everything is swell. In his groundbreaking 1978 book, Orientalism, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said posited that the West has historically sought to qualify its imperialism by assigning men of science and letters the exercise of shifting the blame for colonialism from the colonizer to the colonized.
Said named this brand of racist pseudoscience for the unfortunate term coined by the West to describe the Arab world to its East — Orientalism — and dated its practice as far back as France’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, when Napoleon encouraged artists, writers, and anthropologists to re-imagine the Nile’s inhabitants, or to Orientalize the Orient.
Of the famed French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s depiction of a 19th-century dancer, Said writes:
Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her. He was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed him not only to possess (her) physically but to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was ‘typically Oriental.’”
A measure of Obama’s legacy is his expansion of the Orientalist equation, from white people writing about people of color for white people, to black people parroting white people writing about people of color for white people. Consider, for example, that both the New Yorker’s William Jelani Cobb and the writer Pennell Joseph have noted a historical continuity between Obama and Malcolm X. Similarly, in his 2011 biography, Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, Thomas Chatterton-Williams attributes much of America’s urban deficits and pathology to rap music. Michael Eric Dyson excoriates darker-skinned blacks for their rebuke of successful, lighter-skinned blacks like Steph Curry. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson praised Obama’s deal to disarm a hostile Iranian government that was closing in on the manufacture of nuclear missiles.
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Writing of internecine rancor at the the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Slate magazine’s political columnist Jamelle Bouie predicted victory for Team Hillary, “because the Democratic Party is largely unified behind Clinton, in part because the party is unified behind Barack Obama, her most consequential booster.” Of Sanders supporters, he continued:
For as much as they say they want a progressive path for the future of the country—a ‘political revolution,’ as it were — are they willing to enter any coalition to achieve it? Is there anything Clinton (or Sanders or Warren) can say or do to attract their support? Are they here to win, or are they here to perform?”
What connects these narratives is that all of the writers are black, and all of their arguments are patently ridiculous. Malcolm X repeatedly denounced U.S. militarism, imperialism, and its exploitation of people of color; in his last year on the job, the Obama Administration dropped an average of 72 bombs daily on Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya, despite promising to reduce the country’s military footprints. While there is no evidence linking hip-hop to social ills in black neighborhoods, there is a strong correlation between unemployment and declining marriage rates and increases in crime and juvenile delinquency. Dyson fails to identify a single black person who is critical of Steph Curry or any other “successful” black person with a lighter complexion, nor does he mention even once a culture of rape by white settlers that birthed — quite literally — a New World of racial categories never before seen. Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. And you needn’t be a Marxist to understand that the Democratic Party is enthralled with their big-money, Wall Street donors.
These clumsy polemics and misrepresentations are a legacy of the nation’s first black president, who was handpicked by the elites to fend off the knavish mob pounding on the gate as the economy began to slow to a crawl in 2008. Coates and today’s stable of African-American writers do not chronicle the black experience so much as repudiate it, their every utterance part of a literary journal of black respectability politics or, better yet, a declassified dossier of tribal dysfunction.
To be sure, this kind of Vichy journalism is not new: Janet Cooke concocted her 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning account of an eight-year-old heroin addict to win favor with her white Washington Post editors, including Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee; and Cynthia Tucker, a columnist with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution won a Pulitzer Prize in part for her description of the mostly black and poor people who sought refuge from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ Superdome as “bestial.”
But since Obama’s election in 2008, the roster of black journalists trafficking in narratives in which history is inert, class is unspeakable, racism exists only inasmuch as it vexes Obama, and no injustice is so grave that it cannot be resolved by black folks pulling up their pants, has sprouted like weeds.
The class warfare behind black Orientalism
Why would African-Americans traffic in such seditious caricatures, particularly at a moment when dehumanizing stereotypes conspire with wrenching austerity policies to produce material circumstances not altogether dissimilar from 1930s Germany?
I was first confronted with the notion of black Orientalists when I read a fawning 2005 New York Times profile of Harvard Economist Roland J. Fryer, whose research explores genetics as a critical factor in racial disparities in intelligence. That no such disparities exist did little to discourage former New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein from hiring the African-American Fryer as a six-figure consultant to help untangle the student achievement gap.
To be sure, financial remuneration partly explains the phenomena of the black Orientalist but, more than that, the defection of the black middle class is grounded in the twilight of the American Century, and the post-industrial epoch that the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci referred to as the interregnum in which the “old is dying, and the new cannot be born.”
This was also the case a century ago, when a precarious new economy and social order were beginning to take shape and mobs of alienated white youths terrorized the country in waves — climaxing in 1919, when racial violence washed over the country like a foamy, heaving sea.
Atlanta’s black unwashed rescued the city’s black elite from marauding white mobs in 1906, dutifully patrolling segregated neighborhoods with pistols and shotguns a-ready.
When the smoke cleared — Karen Ferguson wrote in her book, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta — Atlanta’s Urban League sought to reassure their white patrons of their fealty by organizing neighborhood clubs to teach “better housekeeping” practices to black maids and washerwomen. The domestics complied initially, listening intently to lectures on cleanliness and punctuality. But when, they began to wonder, would the forum address the subject of pay raises for making an extra effort? Told that no pay raises would be forthcoming, the black domestics bolted, giving their Urban League sisters the side-eye as they left.
In Ferguson’s book, black Atlanta professionals wrote to New Deal bureaucrats to offer their services as race interlocutors in an effort to “help the Negro masses to adjust themselves to the type of world in which they must live.”
The problem is that the Negro masses had no intention of living in such an immutable world and — in the days, months and years following the Scottsboro Boys arrest — began to join Communists, and other working-class white allies to set that world on fire, turning bad jobs into good ones, democratizing the state, and creating the singular achievement of the Industrial Age: the American middle class.
More than anything, black Orientalism is a product of widening class fissures in the U.S. and of the Empire’s twilight, which Obama himself was tasked with managing. In his constant invocation of the overwhelming power of white supremacy historically, Coates and his peers fail to account for the laboring classes’ cycle of resistance, triumph, and reversal — replayed endlessly as if on loop.
Quite telling in the reportage of the black Orientalist is the absence of a class analysis. Seldom seen as well are on-the-ground interviews with the black working class. Nor is there much mention of the Palestinians, who have supported African independence movements with more passion than any nation save Cuba, and as a result have been thoroughly punished by the Empire’s errand boy, Obama. The reason is that the black Orientalist views African-Americans as a thoroughly defeated people, and the black elite as a kind of advance squadron trapped behind enemy lines — its reportage a kind of Morse code tapped out daily on fiber-optic cables to warn the rear encampments that they are hopelessly outgunned:
But Coates and the black middle class writ large would be wise to revisit the words of an African American named William H. Crogman, who, in the days following the 1906 Atlanta riots, wrote a letter to a northern white liberal crediting the black proletariat (and even lumpenproletariat) for coming to the defense of the black elites who lived in an aspirational neighborhood known as Dark Town.
“Here we have worked and prayed and tried to make good men and women of our colored population, and at our very doorstep the whites kill these good men,” wrote Crogman, who would go on to become president of Clark College. “But the lawless element in our population, the element we have condemned, fights back, and it is to these people that we owe our lives.”
Top Photo | President Barack Obama talks with his personal aide Reggie Love, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, and Director of Political Affairs Patrick Gaspard, aboard Marine One. Aug. 9, 2010. (Pete Souza/White House)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”