Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book a bitter lament that deserves to be heard

This past weekend, the president of the United States berated professional football and basketball players because they refused to bend the knee, even as they were willing to take one. Tuesday, the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, decried America’s censorious campus culture, but conferred a heckler’s veto upon Donald Trump, and demanded that NFL pay obeisance to the president.

Despite or because of Barack Obama’s White House tenure, race is once again foursquare at the center of our nation’s political debate. The Civil War’s battlefields still smolder.

Enter The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates with “We Were Eight Years in Power,” a collection of Coates’ essays that chronicle his impressions of America and Obama’s eight years in office. Not surprisingly, the book is a bitter lament, one that takes its title from a speech given in 1895 by Thomas Miller, a South Carolina Congressman and African-American, who spoke of the world that once was Reconstruction. In Miller’s words, “We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions … we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon a road to recovery.”

For Coates, there is a direct line from Miller to Obama, just as there is a path from the end of Reconstruction to Jim Crow to Trump’s election last November. Coates overstates, but needs to be heard, and “We Were Eight Years” is a book that deserves to be read.

Coates is cavalier in branding those who voted for both Obama and Trump as racists, in dismissing liberal critics who implore the Democrats to reach out to white voters, and in absolving himself of any need to suggest a practicable roadmap to 270 electoral votes.

Coates tackles the African-American Story, shares pieces of his own biography, and offers his take on where America is in the Age of Trump. Building on his prior “Between the World and Me,” the author lets us know that he is an atheist, and that his father was a Vietnam veteran who, having been radicalized during the war, joins the Black Panthers and is then targeted by an FBI smear campaign. Suffice to say, Coates comes by his grudges organically.

The author marvels at Obama’s ability to straddle the cultural divide, and its role in sending Obama to the White House. As Coates framed it, “He talked to white people in a new language – as though he actually trusted them … he had somehow balanced that language with the South Side” of Chicago. To be clear, Coates shows little of that same trust or optimism, observing that despite Obama’s election, “it’s Malcolm X’s America.”

“We Were Eight Years” meticulously chronicles the premise of white primacy as part of America’s fabric, even as it stands ever so much at odds with the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that all men are created equal, a line penned by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder himself. That contradiction has lived with us since the beginning. In addition to the Constitution and its three-fifths compromise, Coates quotes the Naturalization Act of 1790, which bestowed automatic citizenship on “All free white persons” who swear allegiance, and “resided in the United States for one whole year.”

But, it is Trump and his supporters who earn the lion’s share of Coates ire. Although Coates is on target on the first count, he misses the mark on the second. Coates is dead-on in chronicling Trump’s history of race-baiting. From Trump calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, five minority youths ultimately acquitted of rape charges after examination of DNA evidence subsequent to their initial convictions, to his unleashing birtherism upon the Republic and referring to black athletes as SOBs, the race-card has been a consistent component of Trump’s political DNA.

Still, Coates is cavalier in branding those who voted for both Obama and Trump as racists, in dismissing liberal critics, such as Columbia’s Mark Lilla who implore the Democratic Party to reach out to white voters who are not college graduates, and in absolving himself of any need to suggest a practicable roadmap to 270 electoral votes. It is here that Coates is at his weakest, forgetting that politics is supposed to be about the art of the possible.

Lost in Coates’ telling is a tale that emerged during the 2008 fall campaign of a canvasser who knocked a door in Western Pennsylvania, who crudely learned that the household would be voting for Barack Obama. As reported by FiveThirtyEight, a canvasser approached a homemaker in Pennsylvania’s God and Guns Country, and inquired as to whom she would be voting for. In response, the husband yelled to his wife “We’re votin’ for the African-American!”—except he didn’t say African-American. Hateful speech, absolutely. But, also testament to America’s promise.

Also, Coates elides America’s ObamaCare journey.  While acknowledging that African-America disproportionately benefited from the Affordable Care Act, Coates fails to discuss Obama’s unmet guaranty that people could keep their doctors and their insurance. Likewise, Coates ignores the fact that the ACA remains an unearned benefit. Unlike Social Security, ObamaCare is divorced from work, and that means that it looks like welfare redux. Until now.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession and the passing of seven years, the ACA has garnered approval that it lacked when it first passed. Only 12 percent of Americans support the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, while former president Obama finally enjoys approval across the political spectrum, and is far better liked than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton on their best days.

While history may not always come with an upward arc, it is also not in constant retrograde. With this in mind, “We Were Eight Years” tells Coates’ story of dining in the White House and covering Washington, but not having witnessed the Promised Land. Sadness is there, but so are many attainments.

Lloyd Green was staff secretary to the George H.W. Bush campaign’s Middle East Policy Group in 1988 and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.