Coates and Obama

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been releasing transcripts of his interview with President Barack Obama from October—before Trump won. The most recent transcript is depressing.

Coates presses Obama on reparations. Obama answers that reparations is “a high-class problem,” echoing the critique of Adolph Reed and others who argue that reparations represents the class politics of the professional managerial class.

But then Obama’s answer to Coates’s question about Wells Fargo—and its systematic criminal defrauding of black home-purchasers before the 2008 crash—shows the limits of Obama’s liberal creed.

In the first half of this interview, Obama argues for a three-pronged approach to closing the racial wealth gap: universalist anti-poverty policies, community responsibility and uplift, and “vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination laws.” Obama returns to this third idea as a counter to Coates’s concern that, without reparations and collective recognition of racial wrongs, the country will continue to find ways to plunder the black community, in this case through its large financial institutions, i.e., banks.

Here’s what Obama says:

Well, this is why the antidiscrimination principle being enforced is important. Because it won’t stop if some of the underlying biases aren’t challenged and surfaced. And that in and of itself creates backlash and denial. This is what I mean when I say better is hard. Just making sure that right now folks aren’t being ripped off—that’s a challenge. I remember when I was in Chicago and data started coming out that when black folks walk into an auto dealership, and women, too, to some degree, they are automatically given higher quotes, worse deals. And this was just documented extensively across auto dealerships around the country. There was a tax being imposed on black folks. By collecting that data, you can construct policies to combat that. And that’s potentially thousands of dollars in people’s pockets that are being taken away right now. But it’s hard to do. It requires an effective government agency, and data collection, and pushing, and shoving, and litigation until finally you start getting new norms and new practices.

This is boilerplate postwar technocratic liberalism stripped of any New Deal-era visceral anger against the plutocratic class. In response to mortgage banks exploiting and defrauding poor, vulnerable populations, Obama advocates “data collection,” “litigation,” and “new norms.”

Hell, Obama’s DOJ didn’t even bother with litigation against the big banks, as David Dayen reminded us in his response to Coates’s big cover story on Obama, based on these interviews, that he wrote for the Atlantic. Instead, we bailed them out, didn’t compensate the thousands of families foreclosed upon who lost their life savings (who may have voted for Trump in large number), empowered the same mortgage lenders to continue exploiting the same populations, and we may be headed for another real estate bubble. The 2008 crash, lest we forget, wiped out black wealth.

But I expected this from Obama. He’s been this guy his entire presidency. He somehow believes the antidiscrimination principle can build “a lasting consensus.” As much as he likes to discuss “political strategy,” and condescendingly castigate activists for what he depicts as childish ineffectual antics, Obama has no sense of political friends and enemies. He asserts the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats theory of politics—where no one will lose, not even the banks. This is pure fantasy and, frankly, dangerous, because, as Dayen notes in his piece, Obama fails to recognize his own power—and the power of his office and of politics to mobilize masses of people to fight for change. Instead, he wants to assert new norms and wait for change to happen—and if doesn’t, then he is blameless because he tried and the country simply isn’t ready.

Coates might have challenged Obama on these points, but he didn’t. Instead, he wondered whether Obama was “too close to power” to effect change. Coates doesn’t want power.

Obama nailed Coates’s program—or lack of it—when he said this:

Sometimes I wonder how much of these debates have to do with the desire, the legitimate desire, for that history to be recognized. Because there is a psychic power to the recognition that is not satisfied with a universal program, it’s not satisfied by the Affordable Care Act, or an expansion of Pell grants, or an expansion of the earned-income tax credit. It doesn’t speak to the hurt, and the sense of injustice, and the self-doubt that arises out of the fact that we’re behind now, and it makes us sometimes feel as if there must be something wrong with us, unless you’re able to see the history and say, “It’s amazing we got this far given what we went through.” So part of, I think, the argument sometimes that I’ve had with folks who are much more interested in sort of race-specific programs is less an argument about what is practically achievable and sometimes maybe more an argument of “We want society to see what’s happened, and internalize it, and answer it in demonstrable ways.” And those impulses I very much understand, but my hope would be that, as we’re moving through the world right now, we’re able to get that psychological or emotional peace by seeing very concretely our kids doing better and being more hopeful and having greater opportunities.

Here, Obama sounds almost materialist. But it’s a deceptive materialism. It’s a parry to the reparations claim. Instead, Obama offers the usual menu of liberal piecemeal programs—the ACA, EITC, Pell Grants—which he mistakenly calls universalist. They’re not universalist—they’re means-tested. They’re just not “race-specific,” as he puts it. (A universalist policy would be single-payer health insurance. Universalist policies require aggressive state intervention in the market on behalf of ordinary people, not large financial institutions in the name of economic “stability.”)

Coates says he’s worried that without taking “responsibility for our history,” Wells Fargo will continue to plunder the black community. It’s simply amazing to me that an accomplished public intellectual thinks that reparations is the best legislative route to curtail the abusive practices of a hyper-capitalist bank that preys on poor, working-class people of whom a disproportionate number are black.

No, we need vigorous prosecution of criminal lenders and we need to socialize housing and other services, like banking, as much as possible. You don’t give Quicken Loans a history lesson. You use the power of the state to squeeze their profits and offer a better, more secure, more just alternative to poor people who must rely on such financial predators to survive. (Like postal banking.) You run them out of business, you tax their profits, you break up big banks, you enforce the laws against deceptive lending and fraud, you give people a minimum income—a legitimate alternative to “choosing” their own plunder.

Instead of articulating “new norms,” you mobilize the masses and you use the state to fight—not merely persuade—entrenched power (the banks, in this case) to protect and improve the livelihoods of ordinary people.

Reading this transcript between two highly intelligent people—one the president, the other the country’s preeminent public intellectual—depressingly sums up the strategic rot at the center of liberal-progressive politics today. No wonder we keep losing.

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