Author Says Race Shouldn't Matter In Burris Case Senate Democrats say they will refuse any appointee sent by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Roland Burris, a former state attorney general, was picked to fill the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. Burris would be the chamber's only black member. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a contributor to The Atlantic magazine, tells Steve Inskeep race doesn't have to be the No. 1 issue in the discussion.
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Author Says Race Shouldn't Matter In Burris Case

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Author Says Race Shouldn't Matter In Burris Case

Author Says Race Shouldn't Matter In Burris Case

Author Says Race Shouldn't Matter In Burris Case

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Senate Democrats say they will refuse any appointee sent by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Roland Burris, a former state attorney general, was picked to fill the seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. Burris would be the chamber's only black member. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a contributor to The Atlantic magazine, tells Steve Inskeep race doesn't have to be the No. 1 issue in the discussion.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

OK. You heard the opinion that an African-American should fill that Senate seat. The people making that argument include Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush of Chicago. Rush says it's important to have African-Americans in the Senate, and he says efforts to keep Roland Burris out remind him of the country's history of segregation.

(Soundbite of CBS broadcast)

Representative BOBBY RUSH (Democrat, Illinois): And you have officials standing in the doorway of schoolchildren. You know, I'm talking about all of us back in 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas. I'm talking about George Wallace, Bull Connor. And I'm sure that the U.S. Senate don't want to see themselves placed in the same position.

INSKEEP: That's the view of Congressman Bobby Rush, speaking on CBS. We'll get a different view this morning from Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for The Atlantic Monthly. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TA-NEHISI COATES (Blogger and Writer, The Atlantic): Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: How much does it matter that this is a black man trying to get into the Senate, which right now has upwards of 90 white people?

Mr. COATES: It matters. But there's this thing we do where we think an African-American in the Senate somehow personifies all African-Americans, and that's necessarily a step forward for all African-Americans. What I would rather see is some discussion about policy. How will this specifically help African-Americans? It's quite likely it may well be that somebody who isn't African-American may be better for African-Americans in Illinois and overall better for people in the state. So, I understand why it's in the mix. I obviously firmly disagree with Bobby Rush making that the top consideration. That didn't necessarily have to be so.

INSKEEP: Although, Rush can push back and say, look, you're going to have 99 white people in the Senate. Shouldn't you have one black person? Couldn't you have one percent African-Americans in this very important body?

Mr. COATES: Yeah, you should. But there are two things. First of all, in probably about half the states in America, you just aren't going to have a black senator. I don't necessarily think that there should be a black senator from North Dakota, from South Dakota, from Idaho. Now, having said that, there are plenty of states where you could have a black senator from possibly someplace like Maryland, New Jersey, maybe New York. And if African-Americans - if we're really concerned about that, I would hope that we would organize, we would get the funds together, we would do what I suggested on my blog the other day, an African-American version of Emily's List.

INSKEEP: Oh, Emily's List. That is the organization that raises money to encourage the election of women to high office.

Mr. COATES: Yes. And if this is our issue, if this is Bobby Rush's issue, then he should go out and organize and make the case that African-Americans should do that and not say that the only way we can do it is through a governor who has been accused of selling a Senate seat and a governor who only weeks ago Burris and Rush themselves were condemning.

INSKEEP: Well, now it sounds like there's two sides to this. One would be positive from the point of view of an African-American who wants to run for Senate. You're saying, hey, there may be more opportunities here than anybody is giving you credit for.

Mr. COATES: Yes.

INSKEEP: The other side of it seems to be that someone like Congressman Bobby Rush cannot, as you put it, play the race card so easily and say people are being pushed down because they're black. Obviously there's a black man who was able to make it through whatever barriers there were.

Mr. COATES: And I think for African-Americans both sides, I really don't see the downside. I would have - for the record, I would have disagreed with this even if Barack Obama had not won. I think that sort of ham-fisted argument when you're dealing with a governor who is accused of selling a Senate seat, it's the worst possible way you would want for an African-American to get into the Senate.

We have to compete on the field that we're given, and that's not to say that we shouldn't be arguing about matters of race, that we shouldn't be trying to push this country forward in terms of matters of race. But at the same time, you have to go out and compete. There's a time to try to even the playing field, and then there's a time to try to just go out there and run the ball.

INSKEEP: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer for The Atlantic Monthly. Thanks very much.

Mr. COATES: Thank you for having me.

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