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

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the phenomenal Between the World and Me about the experience of being a black male in America. In this book he collects eight essays written for his blog at The Atlantic, one for each year of the Obama administration.

Though Coates was excited about the election of Obama, and talked with him at White House events, this book isn’t 100% supportive of Obama’s presidency. There are a fair number of African-Americans who feel the same way, from extremes of Cornell West to a milder disappointment from feeling left out of Obama’s agenda. Coates sits somewhere between, with a full understanding that some negatives came from Obama and some came from those who obsessed about him.

From the Obama side, the author includes Obama’s drift to Wall Street interests against what many thought would be more progressive values. Another was the event around the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the first year of the administration. You may remember that Gates, a black man on the Harvard faculty, returned to his Cambridge home and found the front door jammed. He and the driver who took him home tried to lever the door open, neighbors called police about a burglary, police arrived, and Gates was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct on his own porch by Sgt. James Crowley. The event became even more “newsworthy” when Obama, responding to a reporter question, said he thought the police “acted stupidly”. Eventually Obama invited both Gates and Crowley to sit down and have a beer with him on the White House lawn.

Coates points to a negative quirk in Obama’s makeup that allows him to believe that racial issues can be settled over a beer. However, Obama’s statement also caused others to escalate the event. He notes this also happened around the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Early on, the general reaction from left and right was that the shooting of Martin was a travesty. Zimmerman, the shooter, was arrested and it seemed certain that he would do extensive jail time. Then Obama made an extended statement on race including the statement that “if I had a son he’d look a lot like Trayvon.” Suddenly the right did a 180-degree turn on the issue even printing up targets with a black man wearing a hoodie.

Despite Coates’ disappointment with some parts of Obama’s eight years, he also sees that just the presence of Obama in the presidential race caused a fair share of people to express their true feelings about race. He points to Obama’s lower vote count in predominantly white precincts that voted for John Kerry four years earlier.

The title of the book, though it matches his feelings about the disappointments of the Obama years, comes from a statement made by Thomas E. Miller of South Carolina, one of five African-Americans elected to Congress during Reconstruction. The promises of Reconstruction fell apart a short time after Grant left office. By 1895 the South Carolina was making changes to its constitution to restrict voting rights so that the state wouldn’t become “Africanized”. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”