In an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “My President was Black” describing ex-president Barack Obama, he stated that “he appealed to a belief in innocence — in particular, a white innocence – that ascribed the country’s historical errors more to misunderstanding and the work of a small cabal than to any deliberate malevolence or widespread racism. America was good. America was great.”
While Coates appreciates the nobility of the sentiment and describes the nurturing forces in Obama’s life that led to his outlook, in fact, Coates’ own perspectives are much more closely aligned with those of Charles Mills as reflected in his scholarly examination of epistemology, knowledge, ignorance, and race in his work The Racial Contract. Mills’ concept of “white ignorance” does provide an intellectual framework and background for Coates’ views on the phenomenon of the Obama presidency as well as shedding light on the nature of knowledge itself.
Mills begins his chapter on white ignorance by stating that ignorance is usually thought of as a passive opposite of knowledge. He then challenges the reader to imagine ignorance as “militant, aggressive, not at all confined to the illiterate and uneducated but propagating at the highest levels of the land, indeed presenting itself unblushingly as knowledge” (13). He borrows from Linda Martin Alcoff in believing that mainstream epistemology concerns a society which seems to be composed exclusively of white males (15). Concepts such as exploitation, hegemony, and domination do not spring up in this philosophy nor is there in it a cognitive examination of the legacy of white supremacy. Thus, Mills arrives at his concept of white ignorance which is linked to white supremacy.
Mills seeks to shine a light on a contractarianism that ignored racial subordination. He feels formulating an epistemology of ignorance is a prerequisite to formulating one that offers genuine knowledge (16). Mills believes epistemology, although it began as a very individualistic framework, can still maintain its assumptions when viewed socially. Mills uses the term ignorance to include both the absence of true belief and false belief. He is concerned with the distribution of error (including massive error) and the spread of misinformation in society. Mills takes a shot at U.S. political culture being thought of as basically inclusive and egalitarian—he sees in American society sexism, racism, patriarchy, and white supremacy being not the exception but the norm.
Mills’ theme then is that for ignorance, white racism and domination play a critical causal role (20). He admits that when indirect causation and diminishing degrees of influence are considered in a situation, it may be tricky to explicitly pin down which kinds of not-knowing can be labeled as white ignorance. On the other hand, he does feel that white ignorance includes both direct, overt racism as well as indirectly for someone who develops erroneous beliefs such as thinking that African-Americans had equal opportunities to whites after the abolition of slavery in the U.S. (21).
This misperception for Mills occurs due to the social suppression of pertinent knowledge and need not always be linked to bad faith. He believes that for a social epistemologist, de facto white supremacy is more important than de jure white supremacy. Mills also believes in moral ignorance, not just factual ignorance but incorrect convictions about the rights and wrongs of moral situations. A key point here is that Mills desires this outlook to be taken at the societal level, with a focus on the examination of pervasive social patterns of mistaken moral reasoning. It is worth noting that Mills believes that there are whites who because of their circumstances or histories can overcome white ignorance. The goal Mills believes is to try and comprehend how social structures support flawed cognitive processes, how to remove oneself from them personally, and how to challenge them in the cognitive realm.
Regarding the background of white ignorance, Mills understands that ethnocentricity is common to all peoples. However, it is with Europe’s ascent to global dominance that the European conception of their group serving as the constitutive norm became dominant. In fact, it became viewed as an impregnable framework—one which seemed both supported by the facts, and then shaped the actual perception of the facts (25). Along with this, the impact of language enters the picture. Mills makes an example of the word “savage” when he brings up the example of Thomas Jefferson castigating the “merciless Indian savages” in the Declaration of Independence. To those listening and reading Jefferson at the time, there is no contradiction between that statement and the concept of men being equal because savages are not men (26).
There is another insidious quality about not just white ignorance and similar manifestations of ignorance that links directly to knowledge—that being the erasure of history. He makes the point that because Germany lost in World War II, the Holocaust is remembered. But what about some of the defeated in history: the Tasmanians, the Pequots, to a degree the Armenians, and also the Congolese under the murderous regime of Belgium’s King Leopold? In the United States, the Indian wars have been downplayed, and with regard to slavery, there has been a sanitizing of the most horrendous aspects of it. In its place is something Mills calls the “magnolia myth” of caring white aristocrats and “happy singing darkies”—a good example being the Bette Davis movie Jezebel.
When history itself is lost, how can there not be ignorance?
Returning to Coates article “My President was Black”, the subtitle reads “A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next.” I believe it is “what came next” (Trump) that is the impetus for the article being written and aligned Coates’ now altered perceptions more closely with the white ignorance concept of Mills. The author knew the Obama’s and felt that while there could be possibly another African-American president, there would never be one with the intellect and bearing of Obama not to mention the elegant complement of former first lady Michelle Obama—“the ultimate credit to the race” (Coates). For Coates, the line of 43 white male presidents communicated the message that the office was off-limits to African Americans and that Obama’s election communicated that the prohibition had been removed. Coates speaks of the importance of symbols and in line with Mills he states “Whiteness in America is a different symbol—a badge of adventure.”
Coates remembers the rumors that were created to slur the Obama presidency—Obama gave free cell phones to welfare recipients, canceled the National Day of Prayer, refused to sign certificates for Eagle Scouts, and faked his attendance at Columbia University. Of course, there was always Trump’s birther movement questioning Obama’s birthplace. It is not difficult to picture Mills filing these instances in the white ignorance box and firmly in the overt racism subsection.
Coates emphasizes Obama’s intrinsic optimism and constant faith in the ultimate wisdom of the American people. For Obama, there were no different categories of Americans, only “the United States of America.” Obama did not believe Trump could possibly win. Per Coates, Obama had a deep sincere connection to black people, all the while never doubting white people—and it was this that blinded him to the appeal of Trump.
The author did write some critical articles about Obama in his second term concerning his overriding trust in his color-blind policy and his lectures to African-Americans to take personal responsibility for their lives and straighten up. For Coates, those lectures did not convey any sensitivity to the inner turmoil experienced by blacks who were raised and still lived in poor, rough surroundings. Obama was fortunate, however. He was the product of an African father and a white mother, and the mother and her family were supportive of his father and even encouraged Barack to connect to black culture. He was always encouraged intellectually. Of course, Obama’s upbringing was clearly atypical of African-Americans in general. The types of traumas that involved blacks of his generation such as poor schools, beatings by racial police, and living a life in tenement buildings were abstractions to Obama. The lack of such things in Obama’s background is a foundation for his optimism.
There is one section in Coates’ article that is right out of the Mills playbook and it concerns campaign messages of our ex-white presidents. Take Lincoln and “all men are created equal”—which glosses over the near-extermination of Indians and the enslavement of blacks. Then there is FDR and “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—yet for African-Americans with the Ku Klux Klan still riding high there was quite a bit to fear. Then Reagan’s “morning again in America”, yet it didn’t seem so sunny in Watts, Newark, and Detroit. These pronouncements represent Mills’ idea of indirect racism about misperceptions concerning what is actually occurring, which still belong in Mills’ white ignorance box. Coates believes that Obama’s belief in white innocence was necessary for his political survival, but that in order “to reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased.” Again this belongs with Mills’ examples of convenient erasures of history, and again knowledge suffers as a result.
Coates understands that an African American president would always be not just an anomaly but a contradiction for a government that throughout most of its existence had repressed black people. That Obama, with his major connections to the white world, was able to answer this contradiction was amazing for Coates. Yet the price paid was massive and the political world it ushered in, “unthinkable”. Yet, I have a feeling that for Mills, it is not all that unthinkable—it is white ignorance in all its manifestations.
Coates refers to the Trump campaign as being so saturated in misogyny, open bigotry, blatant corruption, and chaos, that before the election, the idea that he could win was absurd. “This was America.” Yet the results beg the question: what is America? Skipping over chaos and corruption and without trying to become too political, consider what is being talked about now by commentators—fake news and blatant disregard for the truth. Going beyond even white ignorance, what are the accumulative effects of deliberate and constant falsehoods on knowledge itself?
What is America for blacks now? Coates’ analysis is that the American ghettos are the result of public policy decisions, the manipulating of real-estate zoning maps, the expanded powers given to prosecutors, and the increased amount of money being delegated for prisons. This all comes after a 250 year period of slavery. These are negative investments and as a consequence, blacks rank at the bottom of almost every American significant socioeconomic measure.
Coates wonders how history will regard a country so proud of its egalitarian traditions was so quickly “brought to the brink of fascism.” He believes the eight-year campaign of blatant racism directed at Obama paved the way for it. This is white ignorance writ large.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “My President was Black”. The Atlantic.January/February 2017 issue. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/01/my-president-was-black/508793/. Accessed 10 March 2018.
Mills, Charles. The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press. 1997
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Previously Published on LinkedIn shared with author’s permission