We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Obama was born into a country where laws barring his very conception - let alone his ascendancy to the presidency - had long stood in force. A black president would always be a contradiction for a government that, throughout most of its history, had oppressed black people. The attempt to resolve this contradiction through Obama - a black man with deep roots in the white world - was remarkable. The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, My President was Black

Before President Barack Hussein Obama, the first black president, all of his predecessors were white, but this was the status quo, not the ticket they ran on. It was, as written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "the passive power of whiteness" that permitted them to their rankings in the military, their scholarship, their political ascendancy. Alternatively, Coates posits in his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, that Donald Trump is America's first white president - a man who ran on this ticket of white supremacy and little else as a direct reaction to America's first black president before him.

One strain of African American thought holds that it is a violent black recklessness - the black gangster, the black rioter - that strikes the ultimate terror in white America. Perhaps it does, in the most individual sense. But in the collective sense, what this country really fears is black respectability, Good Negro Government... When it becomes clear that Good Negro Government might, in any way, empower actual Negroes over actual whites, then the fear sets in, the affirmative-action charges begin, the birtherism emerges... I think the old fear of Good Negro Government has much explanatory power for what might seem a shocking turn - the election of Donald Trump.
— Ta-Nehsisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power

One very recent example of this - aside from, or building on, the election of Trump - is the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia weeks ago. This event led to the removal of a number of Confederate statues across the U.S., and brought forth some frustrated commentary from white Americans whose ancestry was rooted in Confederate states. These outspoken Americans saw these statues' removals as an assault on American history; they failed to acknowledge that the Civil War was, above all else, based on the right of the Confederate people to enslave what they deemed to be an inferior race. (John Oliver does this conversation great justice here.)

Coates discusses the civil war, in addition to a number of other topics, in his latest book, which brings together a collection of eight essays he wrote for The Atlantic during Obama's presidency. Each one builds a stronger evidence base for Coates's overall theory that Trump as president is a consequence of the racist origins of this country through time immemorial. Following the Civil War, we saw Jim Crow laws in the South and housing fraud and mass imprisonment in the North as solutions to keep white people in power and build an ever-wider gap between blacks and whites in terms of upward mobility and economic prosperity.

Coates also contrasts Obama against other black figures in recent history like Malcolm X and Harold Washington, who were angrier or deemed more aggressive during their lifetimes than Obama's conservative, rather scandal-free presidency, indicating Obama's more even-natured temperament as a crucial contributor to the 'Good Negro Government' Coates believes most incited fear in white Americans.

And, note that I did not say poor white Americans. It was, in fact, white people in every income bracket that voted more for Trump than Hillary Clinton in the latest election. Poor white Americans implied that it could have been both a class and a race issue, but, with polls revealed, we now know the truth - the majority of all white Americans, no matter their income, voted for Trump. And, while "every Trump voter is most certainly not a white supremacist, just as every white person in the Jim Crow South was not a white supremacist..., Every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one."

The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president - and made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power

Obama was victorious in 2008 because he rallied people not by identity politics, but on the promise of hope. He acknowledged all American people - immigrants, the poor, the rich, sons and daughters of Confederate soldiers and sons and daughters of slaves - as the true citizens of his democracy. It is rare that I feel called to action after reading a book, but Coates, while far from optimistic, reminds us of the dream so many of us found possible in Obama, and encourages me to believe in humanity again. That does not mean it will not take work, and there are hundreds of years of history that must be addressed, reparations that should be accounted for and hope that should be invested in all of us - as black and white, as men and women, as Americans and citizens and, above all, as humankind. White supremacy has reigned for a long time in the United States, for as long as it has existed, but America, Lady Liberty, comes with a certain chaos that can make the impossible possible. Even if the American story is a tragic one, it is one in which we must participate.

And I knew that a man who could not countenance such a thing in his America [Trump as president] has been responsible for the only time in my life when I felt, as the first lady had once said, proud of my country, and I knew that it was his very lack of countenance, his incredible faith, his improbable trust in his countrymen, that had made that feeling possible. The feeing was that little black boy touching the president’s hair. It was watching Obama on the campaign trail, always expecting the worst and amazed that the worst never happened. It was how I’d felt seeing Barack and Michelle during the inauguration, the car slow-dragging down Pennsylvania Avenue, the crowd cheering, and then the two of them rising up out of the limo, rising up from fear, smiling, waving, defying despair, defying history, defying gravity.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, My President was Black