EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
The last eight years have been an era of what I had thought future generations might look back on as an important political correction. For all that didn’t happen in retrospect, the era began with redemptive energy: There was hope, there was change, there was a rousing sense of public spirit and faith in public institutions. It had been a long slog under Bush the younger’s tenure, dominated as it was by the angry glare of Dick Cheney and the oddly cheerful grin of Donald Rumsfeld. But the election of 2008 changed all that. The new president, Barack Hussein Obama, was well-educated, well-spoken, congenial, and scandal-free; his wife was funny and whip-smart, his children beautiful and well-behaved. Their extended families were both racially diverse and ethnically inclusive. To so many, Obama’s presidency represented living proof of a newly forged “we”—an all-American identity that might now include African Americans at the highest levels of power. It was supposed to be the capstone to our national identity, the confirmation of our national mantra: With hard work and a good head, anyone can grow up to become president of these United States.
It was much too giddy a moment, of course. A kind of magical thinking overtook some, with ebullient declarations that we had achieved not only a historic milestone but had somehow been instantly transported to a “post-racial” nirvana. That giddiness tended to obscure or underestimate the deep resentments of another newly forged American identity—not merely angry conservatives or a dispossessed white working class, but the coordination of those who felt they were living under a state of siege, and who made race, gender, and ethnicity the scapegoats of their dispossession: radicalized elements within the Tea Party and a revitalized network of “alt-right” organizations. Those gathering storm clouds broke into the global consciousness with the election of Donald Trump. America toppled from the supposed heights of political correction to the dangerous depths of political reaction. I do not think that history is easily healed, but one can only hope. And the mere fact of the Obama presidency had given me hope that our nation might revisit and reconfigure some of its segregationist past by apprehending race as normal, even incidental, to the daily operations of the White House. I had hoped that the image of a figure as warm and mild-mannered, as polished and quick-thinking as Obama—a man who’d won the Nobel Peace Prize, who’d been president of the Harvard Law Review, who could sink a free throw, and who, with one hand, could catch a fly—might rework at least some of the stereotypes of the past. I had hoped that the insidious rhetorical habits of race might be reimagined, so that “the blacks” might not be spoken of as though many different people formed a single monolithic entity—and that individual names like “Willie Horton” would not be used to signify an imagined plurality of millions.
This was not to be. When Trayvon Martin was killed, the bubbling resentments used to justify his death at the hands of George Zimmerman presented an adjectival stroll down memory lane: Trayvon was alleged to be thuggish, brawny, brutish, bellicose, supernaturally strong, preternaturally predatory. That he was armed with nothing more than a packet of Skittles was quickly subsumed by the endlessly circulated logic of “better safe than sorry.” This habit of thought so overtook the racialized discourse of police/citizen encounters that there was no need for translation by the time of the 2016 presidential campaign, when Donald Trump Jr. tweeted an image of a huge container of Skittles. The legend read: “If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful?” This was a muddled reference to Trump Sr.’s rhetoric about the risks of allowing Syrian refugees into the country, but it could easily include all those demonized by his expansive executive nomination—from Muslims to migrants to Mexicans. And, of course, to Trayvon Martin.