Obama’s Severe Limitations: The White-Racist Context

Atlantic magazine’s usually very sharp Ta-Nehisi Coates has a fine article this week laying out in some detail the limitations on blacks in politics, historically and today. And especially the major limits on what a black president can do in a racist society. For example,

The irony of President Barack Obama is best captured in his comments on the death of Trayvon Martin, and the ensuing fray. Obama has pitched his presidency as a monument to moderation. He peppers his speeches with nods to ideas originally held by conservatives. He routinely cites Ronald Reagan. He effusively praises the enduring wisdom of the American people, and believes that the height of insight lies in the town square. Despite his sloganeering for change and progress, Obama is a conservative revolutionary, and nowhere is his conservative character revealed more than in the very sphere where he holds singular gravity—race.

He adds the key point:

Part of that conservatism about race has been reflected in his reticence: for most of his term in office, Obama has declined to talk about the ways in which race complicates the American present and, in particular, his own presidency.

However President Obama occasionally transgresses his white-imposed boundaries, as when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Then President Obama ventured out of his restricted environment on racial matters and said something poignant, appropriate, and rather mild,

When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids, and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this, and that everybody pulls together—federal, state, and local—to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened … But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.

These rather accurate, normal, and mild comments got him a very large-scale attack from white conservatives, who made very clear that a black president did not have their permission to venture out even this far on U.S. racial matters. So, it is not surprising that Obama — who wished to be effective in policymaking and re-elected — has mostly not touched racial matters over the long years of his presidency.

Coates has this sharp interpretation of the negative reactions to Obama moving outside his racial-political “limits”:

The election of an African American to our highest political office was alleged to demonstrate a triumph of integration. But when President Obama addressed the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, he demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld. The larger effects of this withholding constrict Obama’s presidential potential in areas affected tangentially—or seemingly not at all—by race. Meanwhile, across the country, the community in which Obama is rooted sees this fraudulent equality, and quietly seethes. Obama’s first term has coincided with a strategy of massive resistance on the part of his Republican opposition in the House, and a record number of filibuster threats in the Senate. It would be nice if this were merely a reaction to Obama’s politics or his policies—if this resistance truly were, as it is generally described, merely one more sign of our growing “polarization” as a nation. But the greatest abiding challenge to Obama’s national political standing has always rested on the existential fact that if he had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin. As a candidate, Barack Obama understood this.

Twice as good, and half as black. That is, whites set the conditions under which limited racial “integration” can even take place, well into the 21st century. No post-racial US here.

Sadly, too, not even the usually on target and very sharp Coates is able to name, call out, and systematically analyze the white agents here, most especially the elite whites, as the principal actors creating the severely limited political and social environment in which Obama must daily operate. In this very perceptive quote, he does not once mention the white actors as such. He certainly implies them, and elsewhere in his sharp analysis a few Republicans are named for particular nasty racial incidents, but their individual and group racialized actions specifically as whites or white elites today are not named and assessed as such, or as part of our contemporary political and social system of white racial oppression.

Almost never in the media or scholarly writings do Elite whites, named as such and as the major white decisionmaking group, appear as contemporary actors in the subject position of key sentences that get at the particular contextual limitations that Obama faces, such as from the white elites (often operating out of a white racial frame) who control the mass media and elite political organizations — although they do periodically appear in other phrasing as the dominant group in society (as in this piece by Coates).

We have gone into more detail on these whites and our political system here.


  1. cordoba blue

    @ Mr Coates, “But when President Obama addressed the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, he demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black.”
    Well, if that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does. Eloquent. I actually did not know how our white congress would treat an African American president, when Mr Obama was elected. This is all new territory. Now I know. And it’s not something we should be proud of.
    Yes, he was elected, But then what? He’s treated like the kid who wants to walk into the new neighborhood clubhouse, and he’s battered with, “I guess you can join,,but don’t you ever forget the rules! And you have to give us half your baseball card collection too!” I’ve said it before and I’ll reiterate. Why President Obama wants this particular position is totally beyond me. It would destroy my ego to have to endure this kind of humiliation.
    I’ve also seen him on Youtube taking a verbal beating from one white or another, for one reason or another. Pick a reason, any reason, and he’s been admonished for it. And yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s because of “his policies”. He cannot escape punishment no matter what he does. Can’t believe the poor man wants to be re-elected.

  2. Jim

    Yes, this does say it all, or most of it, extremely well. Considering this, I continue to see Obama has being constrained by these racist and quasi-racist forces operating within the American social spheres rather covertly now, periodically coming out into the open when hamstringing our President, which is where the birther issue emanates from.
    Obama is a brilliant man, and he knows this, and although it may not affect Race much, he needs to get re-elected for the simple reason that Joe brings up earlier, the Supreme Court is the mouthpiece of the racialized white elites, and the President makes those appointments (imagine on this alone if Gore had become President – elected as he was).
    The reastionary right and its newly found voter suppression strategies must continue to be the critic and not the primary source of American political action.

  3. Obed Norman

    With his birther comment, Mitt Romney has confirmed that at the highest level of the GOP, this election is very significantly about race. President Barack Obama’s race is an issue for the GOP in this election. Barack Obama the man, repr
    esents a constant and painful rebuke to white supremacy. A rebuke that drives the base of the GOP literally out of their collective mind. This black man who is so obviously the superior of George Bush and Mitt Romney on every count. Superior as an orator, a scholar, a thinker, a statesman and manager of the economy. Superior in the esteem in which he is regarded internationally. Superior in temperament and disposition. In a comparison with any of the 43 white men who have held the Presidency of this nation, Barack Obama comes out at the top in most measures and near the top in many. In his person, his demeanor and his talents, Barack Obama embodies a total refutation of white supremacy. And this is the source of the great discomfort that the GOP base feels about President Obama. And it is into this animus and resentment that Romney tapped into with his endorsement of birtherism.

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