We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
One World (2017)
This remarkable book is a collection of essays about white privilege, Obama’s inability to live up to his campaign promises, and the role of his presidency in setting the stage for Donald Trump.
Coates’ approach to the topic of white privilege is largely historical. He traces the brutal reversal of Reconstruction reforms and re-institution of de facto slavery with Jim Crow laws; the Great Migration north of 6 million African Americans during the early 20th century; the deliberate exclusion of African Americans from New Deal programs such as Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and FHA (Federal Housing Administration) mortgage insurance; as well as the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of African Americans.
Coates has the best definition of white supremacy I have seen anywhere. In his words, white privilege is “banditry.”
“To be black in America is to be plundered. To be white is to execute and benefit from it.”
Coates gives numerous examples to justify this view: the exclusion of African Americans from wealth creation programs such as FHA and VA (Veterans Administration) mortgage loans, long time job discrimination and wage suppression, the recurrent decimation of prosperous Black communities via white race riots, predatory owner “contract” financing of home purchases, and predatory targeting of Blacks for subprime mortgagae they can’t repay.
My favorite essay is the one advocating for African American reparations, based on the argument that systematic exploitation of Blacks didn’t end with slavery but continues to the present day. As a precedent Coates cites the $7 billion (in today’s dollars) West Germany paid Israel in 1953 in compensation for Germany’s genocidal treatment of European Jews during World War II.
I find it hard to imagine reading a book whose title is a lie. “We”, if by that it is meant “black people”, were never in power; not for eight years or for 8 minutes. So I rely on reviews of this book to tell me what it is about. I see nothing about the promised Obama legacy here. I would like to know what Coates thinks the legacy of Obama is. I know what I think it is. Obama was white supremacy in blackface. Bush in blackface. Trump in blackface. It’s a legacy of shame. War, shame and the subversion of the aspirations of black Americans.
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Actually, nomad, the title is a quote from a Black official who participated in the post-Civil War Reconstruction government before it was dismantled.
In a nutshell, Coates feels the Obama legacy is Donald Trump. He has essentially the same view that you do about the Obama presidency being a legacy of shame,
Because it’s a book of essays on two disparate themes I found it quite difficult to review.
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So the title is not a lie. Its just misleading. Having never heard of the Reconstruction comment, I assumed that Coates was referring to the Obama administration. Somehow I still feel he is. He seems to have been a strong Obama advocate throughout his terms. Im surprised to hear he has essentially the same view of the Obama presidency as I. I wonder why he’s not, with all of his literary skills, writing essays condemning Obama? Or is he and I dont know it?
He writes for the Atlantic Monthly and I suspect most of the essays in the book appeared there first. The essays in the book have very little positive to say about Obama. Coates compares him to Bill Cosby with all his Pound Cake speeches blaming poor black people for problems that actually stem from racism and discrimination.
interesting. I think I have an incorrect image of Coates, having never read his essays. As I say, I was misled by the title. I continue to assume that the eight years is a quote Coates is using to allude to the Obama administration . Why else dig up this “obscure” old quote at this particular time, the end of the Obama presidency? I still dont know who the “We” refers to: the bankers who chose Obamas cabinet, Wall Street whom he bailed out, insurance companies and pharmaceutical industry that bribed him? The CIA, which created him, the MIC to whom he gave so much money? Israel to whom he gave so much money? Who is the “We” that was in power for eight years? Who is “we”?
On second thought, no. My impression of Coates is not incorrect. I had forgotten about Cornel West’s critique of Coates, a critique I entirely agree with. I ran across ihis while reviewing some old posts on my blog. Thought you might be interested in seeing it.
Good link, nomad, thanks. I think the neoliberal label on Coates fits nicely.
Descendants of slaves in Amerikkka will never get reparations. Of that I am certain because the whites here don’t even have a needle tip worth of shame over the fact that they are just as depraved, monstrous, barbaric, racist and bigoted as those they are descended from. When you look around, what has changed? Nothing. Descendants of slaves have been marching through the streets, wearing out the soles of their shoes for nothing because when you think about it, in what ways have we made strides and advancements? When there are more descendants of slaves locked behind prison walls than there were actual original slaves? People can write books about this shit until the cows come home. They can talk a good talk and even come up with words that say it all and yet when all is said and done, nothing has changed and it won’t. I’ll stick with fiction, I enjoy it more.
A collection of essays? Are they academic essays filled with facts that support a thesis or is a collection of op-eds.
Also form President Obama is a feminist – so if one writes about his legacy, they should consider him through that lens.
During the Obama Administration: Black women participation rate in the labor force was reported to be the highest it had been. Black women had access to primary health care and procedures for the first time as a group; – a record number of black women started businesses, while also becoming the most formally educated ethnic group – awarded undergraduate and graduate degrees by 2014 – Let us not forget the equal pay act.
These are just some of the accomplishments I collected for an essay supporting President Obama – and I also believe he was “Bush lite” … All this to say, I’m hesitant to read what men especially black men have to say about President Obama – he didn’t come here to champion their cause.
Pardon the typos missing words et al. I just responded with a draft of my thoughts.
You make some interesting points, Mel. To answer your question, the essays are more op-eds than academic – as I mention elsewhere, most were written for the Atlantic monthly. However Coates includes a number of facts and references the citations.
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Thank you. I thought some essays might be from the Atlantic but I didn’t want to assume. I used to read his work – and I realized that while he’s prolific, he leans towards being provocative. He knows a lot but omits info that would make him appear too thoughtful. I appreciate your book discussion. Thank you again.
To be honest, Shelby, I suspect Coates is writing for a white audience with a goal of educating them about white supremacy and how most of the comforts they enjoy stem from the ongoing exploitation of Black people.
Well, he can just save some trees because he ain’t getting through to those care more for their dogs than they ever will for descendants of slaves. Whites know where white privilege comes from and this Coates fellow doesn’t need to tell them that.