Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates: 'My President Was Black'
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates was probably always planning on writing a big piece around this time of year, a big-picture philosophical analysis about what it meant for this country to be led by a black president for eight years and what that president's legacy would be. After the election of Donald Trump, that legacy was no longer secure and Ta-Nehisi Coates started thinking about the Obama years in a different way. His new piece in The Atlantic is called "My President Was Black: A History Of The First African-American White House And Of What Came Next." Coates told me that in some ways Barack Obama was naive about the role race would play in his presidency and the election of Donald Trump.
TA-NEHISI COATES: I think President Obama deeply underestimated the force of white supremacy in American life. I want to be really, really clear about this. It doesn't mean that everyone or even the majority of people who voted for Donald Trump are racist or white supremacists or anything like that. But what it means is that it's not a mistake that Trump began his campaign with birthersism (ph).
That's not an accident that he didn't begin with, say, trade or jobs or anything, that he actually began by otherizing (ph) the first African-American president of the United States. And from that, you know, went on to, you know, otherize Muslims, otherize Latinos, otherize women (laughter), you know, that he built out from that. And it can be true that a unique, you know, individual like Barack Obama can succeed in spite of that and still be the case that that force is quite, quite strong.
MARTIN: Is his misreading, as you say, of the power of certain racist tendencies in our culture, how much of that had to do with who Barack Obama is at his core? You say he is an unfailing optimist.
COATES: Yeah, I think there's a sort of, you know, very thin way of reading this that says, well, Barack Obama is biracial thus that gives him some understanding of both white America and black America, but that's not really it. What it is is that Barack Obama was raised by a white mother and two white grandparents who, A, told him he was black and that there was nothing wrong with being black. He grew up in Hawaii, far, far removed from the most, you know, sort of violent, you know, tendencies of Jim Crow and segregation. He wasn't directly exposed to that. He was untraumatized.
And so that gave him a kind of optimism, an ability to see things, you know, and frankly, an ability to trust, you know, in his fellow, you know, white countrymen in a way that I, for instance, you know, and the vast majority of black people I know never really could. The same time I think that ultimately led him to underestimate some of the difficulties that he would face.
MARTIN: Was the big achievement just winning the White House?
COATES: No. That was an achievement, but as an African-American, I think the symbolism is in how he conducted himself. The symbolism was in - and this sounds really, really small, but it's actually big for African-Americans - the symbolism was not in being an embarrassment, but to being a figure that folks were actually proud of.
MARTIN: At the same time, you've been critical of the president.
COATES: I have, yes.
MARTIN: In particular in how he has directed what you could describe as patronizing remarks to African-American communities.
COATES: Yeah, I think so. I think so. You know, part of that is ordinary African-Americans, you know, you come out of your house and you see the conditions in your neighborhood and you see, you know, folks in your neighborhood doing certain things that, you know, are irresponsible. You know, the thing I always think about, you get up early in the morning to go to work and there's, you know, some dude outside drinking and you come home and the same dude is outside drinking hanging on the corner. And then this engenders a level of anger I think and, you know, and a level of shame, you know.
My mom used to tell me, you know - I can't use this phrase on the radio - but basically don't be one of those dudes hanging on the corner. And I think the president adopted some of that same language, but took it into the White House. And I think, like, there's a crucial difference between being, you know, Joe Schmo in the neighborhood and being the head, you know, of the government that, you know, in many ways is largely responsible for those conditions in the first place.
MARTIN: According to the most recent exit polling, 8 percent of African-Americans voted for Donald Trump. For those African-Americans who voted for Donald Trump, were they disavowing the presidency of Barack Obama and his legacy?
COATES: I don't know, but I would flip this the other way and say over 90 percent of African-Americans voted against Donald Trump. Any time you have, you know, upwards of 90 percent of a demographic voting against somebody, that's a statement.
MARTIN: What was your most recent conversation with Barack Obama like?
COATES: It was a week after Donald Trump had won. And initially he was still optimistic. He felt that things would be OK ultimately. And I have to tell you, this is the area where, you know, I see, you know, some degree of contradiction. I mean, the president, you know, at one point when he was campaigning said (laughter) I believe that Donald Trump was not qualified to run a 7-Eleven. I don't know how you bridge that contradiction, but I felt that he was sincere. It didn't feel like a line to me. You know, it felt like him reverting back to what was in his bones and that's, you know, optimism and a deep belief in, you know, American institutions and the American people.
MARTIN: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His cover story "My President Was Black" is out today. Ta-Nehisi, thanks so much.
COATES: Thanks so much for having me.
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