The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has spent a lot of time with President Barack Obama over the past eight years. This culminated in Coates’ powerful farewell elegy, “My President Was Black.” Although it’s slated for the January/February print version of the magazine, Coates posted it online in mid-December.
Here’s the audio version of the article, but we warn you that it may move you to tears.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates then followed up by posting the first and second in a series of interviews with the outgoing president. In both of these interviews, Barack Obama talks about how Fox News and blowhard radio host Rush Limbaugh influenced how vast swathes of people in America perceive him.
In their first chat, Barack Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates:
‘In 2008 I was never subjected to the kind of concentrated vilification of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the whole conservative-media ecosystem, and so as a consequence, even for my first two years as a senator [of Illinois] I was polling at 70 percent.’
Alas for the president and those who voted for him, that didn’t last. It didn’t take long for Fox News’ and Rush Limbaugh’s audiences to start viewing him through a racial prism in which he takes away white people’s money, hands it to black people, coddles criminals, and threatens to take our guns away.
‘[T]hey weren’t seeing some image of me as trying to take away their stuff and give it to black people, and coddle criminals, and all the stereotypes of not just African American politicians but liberal politicians. You started to see that kind of prism being established towards the end of the 2008 race, particularly once Sarah Palin was the nominee. And obviously almost immediately after I was elected, it was deployed in full force. And it had an impact in terms of how a large portion of white voters would see me.’
Watching the creation of this Bizarro-World version of himself gave Barack Obama an unwelcome lesson on racial politics in America.
‘And what that speaks to—and this is something I still strongly believe—is that the suspicion between races, the way it can manifest itself in politics, in part comes out of people’s daily interactions and the fact that we’re segregated by communities, and by schools, and our churches, and people’s memories passed down through generations.’
After all, look around while you’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment, working out at the gym, or eating in a restaurant: Fox News is almost always on at least one of the televisions.
In the second interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barack Obama talks about how people on both the Right and on the Left have started seeing this Bizarro-World Obama as the real him.
‘[O]ne of the things that you come pretty early on to understand in this job, and you start figuring out even during the course of the campaign, is that there’s Barack Obama the person and there’s Barack Obama the symbol, or the office holder, or what people are seeing on television, or just a representative of power. And so when people criticize or respond negatively to me, usually they’re responding to this character that they’re seeing on TV called Barack Obama, or to the office of the presidency and the White House and what that represents.’
So how does the president deal with this? He tries not to take it personally and reminds himself that — much of the time — people are responding to Obama the character, not him.
‘And so you don’t take it personally. You understand that if people are angry that somehow the government is failing, then they are going to look to the guy who represents government. And that applies, by the way, even to some of the folks who are now Trump supporters. They’re responding to a fictional character named Barack Obama who they see on Fox News or who they hear about through Rush Limbaugh.’
In an interview with The PBS News Hour‘s Judy Woodruff, Ta-Nehisi Coates explains that Barack Obama was able to get elected as senator in Illinois and then president because of his unique background. Because he grew up in Hawaii — far from Jim Crow’s ground zero — with a white mother and white grandparents, Obama identifies as black but doesn’t carry much of the trauma.
Unfortunately, what PBS describes as Barack Obama’s “rare optimism” about race in America may have led to the myopic policies towards black Americans, on which Ta-Nehisi Coates has often criticized him. Coates also notes it may have been what caused him to underestimate Donald Trump.
Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about Barack Obama’s background on PBS.
Featured image: Video screen grab via The PBS Newshour.