Ta-Nehisi Coates Reflects on Obama's Place in History

Atlantic writer says he's one of our greatest presidents
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 14, 2016 6:59 PM CST

In the new Atlantic cover story, one of the nation's most prominent black voices provides a lengthy assessment of the nation's first black president. The 17,000-word piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates makes clear that Coates considers Obama a man worthy of high esteem. After noting that Obama's rise to national prominence began with his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Coates writes: "Over the next 12 years, I came to regard Obama as a skilled politician, a deeply moral human being, and one of the greatest presidents in American history." He adds that Obama was "the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen," able to connect to black people while not alienating white people. That was due in part to his own upbringing with a Kansas-born white mother. Obama recalls that in the 2008 race, he gave himself maybe a 25% chance of winning—but he never doubted his ability to win over white voters.

Why? "Obama was able to offer white America...something very few African Americans could—trust," writes Coates. But he adds that Obama had something of a blind spot here as well. As he tells NPR, he thinks the president "deeply underestimated the force of white supremacy in American life." In the Atlantic piece, he takes issue with Obama's "overriding trust in color-blind policy and his embrace of 'personal responsibility' rhetoric when speaking to African-Americans," which Coates views as insensitive to the realities of many black youth. But the overall tone is deep respect for what Obama was able to accomplish despite overt obstructionism. His "victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans," writes Coates. "But there is nothing 'mere' about symbols." Click to read the full piece. (Read more Longform stories.)

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