The past year has been an exceptional time for provocative, critical investigations of the deep-seated legacy of American racism. From Jordan Peele’s psychological thriller Get Out to Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, there’s been no shortage of cultural products to prompt necessary national soul-searching. For me, though, one of the most intriguing, and striking, of these products was the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay, “The First White President,” in no small part because of the cultural conversations it’s cracked wide open that have spurred us, or at least me, to drill down on and further refine our collective understanding of race.
In the essay, Coates, in a way, inverts the traditional attention paid to blackness and its cultural, political, and social implications, focusing, instead, on whiteness. For this reason alone, Coates’ piece, excerpted from his recently released book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, is fascinating, and the discussions it’s fueled since it was published in October have inspired me to return to it many times over.
The article shook the table. I’ve felt it’s vibrations not only at work, where I’ve gathered on multiple occasions with colleagues to discuss its merits, but also on Twitter, where it’s been met with either fire emojis or derision from social media pundits, and in the endless whataboutism of those readers who reject Coates’ primary claim—that whiteness was the thoroughbred that drew Donald Trump’s chariot to America’s highest political office, and that, too, played an insidious role in pre-Trump presidential campaigns.
How to explain these reactions? At least in part, there was significant hand-wringing because of Coates’ incessant invocation of a “bloody heirloom” to describe the inheritance of whiteness, a term that carries with it a very literal implication of individual responsibility: of having blood on one’s hands. Yet a reading in good faith, in addition to Coates’ own explanation in interviews, reveals something more complex than what some readers initially saw.
“I use these words: whiteness, white supremacy. And I always remind people, by which I do not refer to anything genetic or particular about having ancestry from Europe. That’s not what I’m talking about. That’s not what I’m talking about at all. I am ultimately talking about power,” Coates explained to Matt Thompson in an episode of Radio Atlantic, a podcast from The Atlantic. Coates isn’t speaking to a whiteness woven into DNA, to a genetic whiteness, which arguably doesn’t exist, but, rather, he’s investigating the social meaning—and, in Trump’s case, the political implications—of such racial inheritance.
Indeed, the mythical qualities race takes on in film (from The Defiant Ones to The Green Mile), society, and in our (limited) imaginations are constructs, yes, but they’re constructs that have real-world consequences. So much so, in fact, that Coates’ blockbuster piece struck with stinging salience. “These terms only have meaning when you cast it backwards,” Coates explained in the interview. He was retreating from the romanticized notion of oppression that treats the racially persecuted as sanctimonious by way of victimhood and the oppressor as flawed by virtue of whiteness. The legal institution of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction, the creation of a Jim Crow regime—these systems enforced, over and over again, the subjugation of a people who were not “black” when they were first sold by rival tribes on the African continent.
Coates reminds us that white supremacy isn’t something inherent, but, rather, a flame that needs constant re-kindling—a bloody heirloom handed down.James Baldwin, to whom Coates is often viewed as an analogue, told the Paris Review in 1984, “A writer has to take all of the risks of putting down what he sees. No one can tell him about that. No one can control that reality.” And, in “The First White President,” Coates painstakingly constructs and artistically deploys language to paint his perception of how an unlikely candidate clinched the U.S. presidency. To be sure, there are many elements that contributed to Trump’s election, and the influence of racism doesn’t negate the rest. But there’s value in exploring the most potent elements, such as white supremacy (attention to which isn’t the same as “empowering” whiteness), even if the artist’s portrait of the country reflects blemishes some people don’t necessarily want to see.