Writer Ta-Ne­hisi Coates on the lost hope of the Obama years

Ta-Ne­hisi Coates’s elo­quent polemics on black life in Amer­ica earned him fame and the ad­mi­ra­tion of Barack Obama. Here he talks about the rise of white supremacy – and why all of us should have seen Trump com­ing


Ta-Ne­hisi Coates is short on sleep. He did five in­ter­views yes­ter­day to pro­mote his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An Amer­i­can

Tragedy . To­day there was an­other at 7am, then surgery “to get a lit­tle thing re­moved” from his neck. As his tall frame ap­pears in the door­way of an of­fice at his New York pub­lisher, a bandage is vis­i­ble above the col­lar of his blue suit jacket.

Coates is friendly but fa­tigued and yawns sev­eral times dur­ing the course of our con­ver­sa­tion. Some ques­tions an­i­mate him and he digs deep with ev­i­dent pas­sion; oth­ers elicit a brief “I don’t know”. The in­ter­view doesn’t al­ways flow. But even on an off- day, Coates, 42, is more com­pelling than al­most any other pub­lic voice about the state we’re in. The New York

Times de­scribed him as “the pre­em­i­nent black pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual of his gen­er­a­tion”. The nov­el­ist Toni Mor­ri­son com­pared him to James Bald­win. He emerged as the equiv­a­lent of poet lau­re­ate dur­ing Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency, chron­i­cling the spirit of the age. If any­thing, the ad­vent of Trump has pushed his stock higher. Coates ad­mits it is “tremen­dously ir­ri­tat­ing” to be in con­stant de­mand by the me­dia, as if he is sole spokesman for African Amer­i­can affairs.

But he does have much to say about Trump and the di­vided states of Amer­ica. His book is a col­lec­tion of eight es­says he pub­lished dur­ing Obama’s eight years in of­fice plus new ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing an epi­logue en­ti­tled “The First White Pres­i­dent”, in which he con­tends that Trump’s abil­ity to tap the an­cient well of racism was not in­ci­den­tal but fun­da­men­tal to his elec­tion win. Many peo­ple have called Trump a racist or white su­prem­a­cist, but Coates has the rare abil­ity to ex­press it in clear prose that com­bines his­tor­i­cal schol­ar­ship with per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing black in to­day’s Amer­ica.

Hal­ifu Osumare, di­rec­tor of African Amer­i­can and African Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, says: “Ta-Ne­hisi Coates has done his home­work, in­clud­ing much sel­f­re­flec­tion. He clearly knows his lit­er­ary fore­run­ners – [Richard] Wright, Bald­win and Mor­ri­son, yet he speaks as a 21st-cen­tury writer. He elo­quently con­flates the per­sonal, po­lit­i­cal and the ex­is­ten­tial, while telling it like it is.”

Cer­tainly, in con­trast with other com­men­ta­tors, Coates has no qualms about stat­ing that the White House is oc­cu­pied by a white su­prem­a­cist (a term he does not ap­ply to other Repub­li­cans, such as Ge­orge HW Bush or Ge­orge W Bush). He lays out ev­i­dence that Trump, de­spite his up­bring­ing in lib­eral New York, has a long his­tory of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. There was the 1973 fed­eral law­suit against him and his fa­ther for al­leged bias against black peo­ple seek­ing to rent at Trump hous­ing devel­op­ments in New York. Trump took out ads in four daily news­pa­pers call­ing for the rein­tro­duc­tion of the death penalty in 1989 af­ter five African Amer­i­can and Latino teenagers were ac­cused of rap­ing a white woman in Cen­tral Park. Even af­ter the five were cleared by DNA ev­i­dence, he con­tin­ued to in­sist: “They ad­mit­ted they were guilty.”

He was once quoted as say­ing: “Black guys count­ing my money! I hate it. The only kind of peo­ple I want count­ing my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes ev­ery day.” More re­cently, Trump was a lead­ing pro­po­nent of the “birther” move­ment, push­ing the con­spir­acy the­ory that Obama was not born in the US and there­fore an il­le­git­i­mate pres­i­dent. While run­ning for pres­i­dent, he said that a judge of Mex­i­can her­itage would be un­fair to him in a court case be­cause he was a “hater” and a “Mex­i­can”. In one in­ter­view, Trump re­fused to con­demn the Ku Klux Klan (he sub­se­quently blamed a faulty ear­piece).

In his epi­logue, Coates writes: “To Trump, white­ness is nei­ther no­tional nor sym­bolic, but the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not sin­gu­lar. But whereas his fore­bears car­ried white­ness like an an­ces­tral tal­is­man, Trump cracked the glow­ing amulet open, re­leas­ing its el­dritch en­er­gies.”

Since then, there has been a white su­prem­a­cist march in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, in which a civil rights pro­tester was killed, prompt­ing Trump’s com­ment that there were “very fine peo­ple on both sides”. To­day, Coates adds the pres­i­dent’s visit to hur­ri­cane-hit Puerto Rico to Trump’s charge sheet: “Just yes­ter­day, he goes to

a part of the United States that’s been devastated by a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter and throws toi­let pa­per out to the crowd like they’re peas­ants or some­thing. There are peo­ple in this coun­try who will not be happy un­til Don­ald Trump is lit­er­ally ex­e­cut­ing a lynch­ing be­fore they’ll use that term [white su­prem­a­cist]. I’m not go­ing to play around; let’s call things what they are.”

Last month Trump was at it again, con­demn­ing Amer­i­can foot­ball play­ers who “take the knee” dur­ing the na­tional an­them to make a state­ment against racial in­jus­tice. Throw­ing red meat to his base at a rally in Alabama, he called on team own­ers to fire them and to say: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.” The protest was started last year by Colin Kaeper­nick of San Fran­cisco 49ers. Coates re­flects: “Kaeper­nick’s protest has been very suc­cess­ful. I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate the fact that he’s been giv­ing away money to or­gan­i­sa­tions; he pledged to give away a mil­lion dol­lars and he’s been do­ing it.”

But Trump used his fa­mil­iar tac­tics to di­vert and dis­tract, kick­ing up bit­ter di­vi­sions around the an­them, the mil­i­tary, how much sports­men earn, the mean­ing of pa­tri­o­tism and, of course, him­self. Amid the me­dia storm, it was easy to for­get what the orig­i­nal protest was about. “The po­lice bru­tal­ity el­e­ment has been lost, but I think that is a dan­ger that all protests face,” Coates says. “At some point, you’re al­ways co-opted, suc­cess­ful protests es­pe­cially. It hap­pened in the civil rights move­ment. Peo­ple for­get that the 1963 march [on Wash­ing­ton] was for jobs: that some­how got lost, and it be­came this warm, fuzzy thing [now best known for Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech].”

The no­tion that all these is­sues would be re­solved by Obama was al­ways fan­ci­ful. Even so, Coates was swept up in the eu­pho­ria with mil­lions of oth­ers in 2008 when the US elected its first black pres­i­dent. Had the na­tion – whose found­ing fa­thers were slave own­ers, and where to­day African Amer­i­cans are in­car­cer­ated at more than five times the rate of whites – truly changed? Coates ad­mits he took his eye off the ball. The racial backlash was com­ing.

“The sym­bolic power of Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency – that white­ness was no longer strong enough to pre­vent pe­ons tak­ing up res­i­dence in the cas­tle – as­saulted the most deeply rooted no­tions of white supremacy and in­stilled fear in its ad­her­ents and ben­e­fi­cia­ries,” he writes. “And it was that fear that gave the sym­bols Don­ald Trump de­ployed – the sym­bols of racism – enough po­tency to make him pres­i­dent, and thus put him in po­si­tion to in­jure the world.”

Trump did not come out of nowhere; he was the log­i­cal con­clu­sion of years of racial dog whis­tles from the Repub­li­can party, which has sought to sup­press the black vote through spu­ri­ous claims of crack­ing down on fraud. Coates re­counts: “Through­out his eight years in of­fice, Barack Obama en­dured a cam­paign of il­le­git­i­macy waged ei­ther by plu­ral­i­ties or ma­jori­ties of the Repub­li­can party. Don­ald Trump rooted his can­di­dacy in that cam­paign. It’s fairly ob­vi­ous.

“His first real foray out again as a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date was into birthism [Trump began ques­tion­ing Obama’s birth­place in TV in­ter­views in 2011], and a lot of peo­ple dis­missed birthism as just some­thing cranks do and we don’t have to deal with. That was a huge mis­take: it un­der­rated the long tra­di­tion of deny­ing black peo­ple their cit­i­zen­ship and ba­sic rights. That was what this was pig­gy­back­ing off of, so it’s not a mis­take that he started there and then be­came pres­i­dent at all.”

Coates does not make the claim that all 63 mil­lion peo­ple who voted for Trump are white su­prem­a­cists; but they were, he points out, will­ing to hand the gov­ern­ment over to one. It was an as­ton­ish­ingly reck­less act. Coates’s book is a wake-up call to white Amer­ica, a hold­ing to ac­count. “So this ques­tion, is ev­ery­one who voted for Trump a racist? This misses the point. Did ev­ery­one in Nazi Ger­many be­lieve all the stereo­types about Jews? Of course not. It’s be­side the point.

“When France de­ported its Jews, did ev­ery­one in France be­lieve all this stuff ? No, but that’s be­side the point. Look­ing the other way has con­se­quences and you might not be a racist or a white su­prem­a­cist or a bigot, but if you voted for Trump, you looked the other way, you said it’s fine to have that in the White House, and a sub­stan­tial num­ber of Amer­i­cans felt that way. That’s a state­ment.”

Coates also takes is­sue with the me­dia’s ob­ses­sion with the white work­ing class as a bloc that turned its back on Democrats and de­fected to Trump. His book challenges politi­cians and jour­nal­ists who make earnest de­fences of Trump-vot­ing com­mu­ni­ties as “good peo­ple” not mo­ti­vated by big­otry. Count­less ar­ti­cles and books such as Hill­billy El­egy by JD Vance, a me­moir about grow­ing up in the white un­der­class, have been stud­ied as key to un­der­stand­ing the de­spair of small towns left be­hind by glob­al­i­sa­tion. Are they miss­ing the point? Is class sec­ondary to race?

“It’s not like most work­ing-class peo­ple voted for Don­ald Trump; they did not,” Coates says. “Most white work­ing-class peo­ple voted for Don­ald Trump and the through line that you find is white­ness, not class and not gen­der. It’s not like he only got men; he got a ma­jor­ity of white women too. So if you look at cat­e­gories of white peo­ple you find Trump be­ing dom­i­nant among them, in part be­cause of the ap­peal he made, but also in part be­cause the Repub­li­can party has ef­fec­tively be­come in this coun­try the party of white peo­ple.

“What’s hap­pen­ing is the white work­ing class is be­ing used as a kind of sign­post tool… There is some ef­fort not just to ab­solve white work­ing peo­ple, but to ab­solve white­ness be­cause here’s the deal: ‘Oh, it’s fine that white work­ing-class peo­ple and white poor peo­ple voted for Don­ald Trump be­cause over the past 30 years they’ve had un­met ex­pec­ta­tions. And it’s also fine that rich white peo­ple voted for Don­ald Trump be­cause of tax cuts.’ Come on: every­body gets off the hook.”

And yet many sen­a­tors, in­clud­ing Bernie San­ders, whom Coates sup­ported in the Demo­cratic pri­mary, Al Franken and El­iz­a­beth War­ren have ar­gued that a gen­er­a­tion of eco­nomic stag­na­tion is real, fu­elling anger that led some vot­ers to throw a gre­nade at the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment. Mid­dle- and work­ing-class par­ents are frus­trated that their chil­dren will not have the same op­por­tu­ni­ties they did. Trump’s de­feated op­po­nent Hil­lary Clin­ton writes in her new me­moir: “Af­ter study­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion, De Toc­queville wrote that re­volts tend to start not in places where con­di­tions are worst, but in places where ex­pec­ta­tions are most un­met.”

To that, Coates re­sponds: “Those ex­pec­ta­tions are built on be­ing white. Peo­ple say that as though it’s in­di­vis­i­ble from the idea of race. You want to talk about un­met ex­pec­ta­tions?

‘A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple in this coun­try have tol­er­ance for big­otry. No one can act like they didn’t know’

Black folks have been deal­ing with that since we got here, so the no­tion that, ‘My child isn’t go­ing to have it as good as me, so that there­fore gives me the right to vote for some­one who con­ducts diplo­macy with a rogue nu­clear state via Twit­ter’ – that don’t work. Bot­tom line is, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple in this coun­try have tol­er­ance for big­otry. No one, I don’t think, can act like they didn’t know. You know I think [Trump’s racist] com­ments were well re­ported and Amer­ica just de­cided it was OK.”

When white vot­ers make bad de­ci­sions, Coates ar­gues, ex­cuses are made; when black vot­ers do it, they get the blame. Coates re­calls how the elec­tion of Mar­ion Barry as mayor of the Dis­trict of Columbia [later to be caught on cam­era smok­ing crack co­caine] prompted ar­ti­cles sug­gest­ing peo­ple in the dis­trict should lose the right to vote. “So there’s all this kind of rope that’s given, all these ex­cuses al­lowed when you’re white in this coun­try. But if black peo­ple acted that civi­cally ir­re­spon­si­bly, that rope would not be awarded.

“Like you take the opi­oid cri­sis and all of the com­pas­sion that’s doled out in the rhetoric? Where was that dur­ing the crack epi­demic in the 1980s? I re­mem­ber it well. I was in a city where that was go­ing on. Where was all that com­pas­sion? Black peo­ple aren’t wor­thy of that. That’s a story that can be cre­ated for white peo­ple be­cause they’re white, but we don’t get that sort of com­pas­sion.”

Democrats are said to be torn be­tween an em­pha­sis on eco­nomic jus­tice that aims to win back Trump vot­ers and an em­pha­sis on racial jus­tice that will en­er­gise its lib­eral base. Asked about the fu­ture di­rec­tion of the party, Coates is hes­i­tant: “I don’t know. I shouldn’t an­swer that.” But af­ter a pause, he weighs in: “Here’s one thing. I don’t think they can get away from talk­ing about race be­cause of the way things are aligned. You’ve got to get to a state like South Carolina or Ge­or­gia: these states have large num­bers of black and brown vot­ers.”

Coates grew up in Bal­ti­more, where Fran­cis Scott Key wrote The Star Span­gled Ban­ner and the first res­i­den­tial racial seg­re­ga­tion law in any US city was en­acted. More re­cently, it was fa­mous for David Si­mon’s crime drama The Wire. “I had very lit­tle in­ter­ac­tion with white peo­ple as a kid,” Coates re­calls. “I think about what my world looked like as a child, a place that felt fear­ful, vi­o­lent, then I’d put on the TV and I’d see that that was not the coun­try at least as it ad­ver­tised it­self. That struck me and I al­ways wanted to know why, what was the dif­fer­ence, why was my house not like Family

Ties? That mo­ti­vated a great deal of my work from the time I was young.”

His fa­ther, Paul Coates, was a Viet­nam war vet­eran, Black Pan­ther and vo­ra­cious col­lec­tor of books about the his­tory of black strug­gle. Paul Coates had seven chil­dren by four women and was an in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­spir­ing fa­ther who also ad­min­is­tered beat­ings. Coates has de­scribed him with af­fec­tion as “a prac­tis­ing fas­cist, man­dat­ing books and ban­ning reli­gion”. The reli­gion ban worked – Coates is an athe­ist – and so did the books, even­tu­ally. In Fe­bru­ary 2007, Coates, then 31, had just lost his third job in seven years and was try­ing to stay off wel­fare. He writes: “I’d felt like a fail­ure all my life – stum­bling out of mid­dle school, kicked out of high school, drop­ping out of col­lege... ‘Col­lege dropout’ means some­thing dif­fer­ent when you’re black. Col­lege is of­ten thought of as the line be­tween the power to se­cure your­self and your family, and the power of some­one else se­cur­ing you in a prison or grave.”

Mar­ried with a young child, he pos­sessed in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity and the gift of a word­smith. He pro­duced an es­say about Bill Cosby that caught at­ten­tion and led to a re­la­tion­ship with the At­lantic magazine, where he is now a na­tional cor­re­spon­dent. His as­cent co­in­cided with Obama’s and a new world of pos­si­bil­i­ties. “It was as if I had spent my years jig­gling a key into the wrong lock. The lock was changed. The doors swung open, and we did not know how to act.”

Coates made a splash with a 2014 ar­ti­cle for the At­lantic ar­gu­ing that the US should pay African Amer­i­cans repa­ra­tions for slav­ery. Then, a year later, came Be­tween the World and

Me , a ru­mi­na­tion on black life and white supremacy, ad­dressed to his teenage son in a let­ter form that evoked Bald­win’s The Fire Next Time . It ar­gued that the “de­struc­tion of black bod­ies” is not sim­ply a re­cur­ring theme of Amer­i­can his­tory but its cen­tral premise. It won the Na­tional Book Award in non­fic­tion, sold 1.5m copies around the world and has been trans­lated into 19 lan­guages.

As his star rose, Coates was in­vited to the White House. He got to spend time with Obama, whose fun­da­men­tal op­ti­mism in Amer­ica had con­vinced him that Trump could not win. He says: “He was tremen­dously in­tel­li­gent, one of the smartest peo­ple I’d ever talked to, and he was smart in many ways. I met him a few times: one was with a bunch of jour­nal­ists and he had the abil­ity to ad­dress each jour­nal­ist in their spe­cific area in a very learned way. I thought he was bril­liant.”

He reck­ons “in the main” Obama lived up to the im­pos­si­bly high ex­pec­ta­tions of his pres­i­dency. “He had an in­cred­i­ble tightrope to walk and it’s dif­fi­cult, man. You’re the first black pres­i­dent and you’ve got to rep­re­sent a com­mu­nity, then speak to a larger coun­try at the same time. If he was more radical he wouldn’t have been pres­i­dent. That’s what I’ve come around to: who he was was what the coun­try wanted at that time. He can’t be me; not that he should want to be. But it’s a very dif­fer­ent call­ing.”

In­deed, Coates sees him­self as a writer – in­clud­ing of a comic-book series star­ring su­per­hero the Black Pan­ther – rather than an ac­tivist or po­ten­tial politi­cian. “That’s what I’m sup­posed to be do­ing be­cause it’s what calls to me and it’s what I’m good at, what I ex­cel at. I don’t re­ally ex­cel at this other stuff. I’m not a per­son who’s go­ing to say what­ever I have to say to get a coali­tion to­gether, which is what you have to do in pol­i­tics. I’m a writer.”

To­wards the end of the in­ter­view, the ques­tions be­come longer and Coates’s an­swers be­come shorter. He is prob­a­bly re­lieved when it’s over, though he is too po­lite to say so.

Later he is busy tweet­ing links to ar­ti­cles about gun vi­o­lence, nu­clear war and earth­quakes, jok­ingly chid­ing their au­thors for of­fer­ing no hope. It is a charge with which he is all too fa­mil­iar. “Our story is a tragedy,” he writes in We Were Eight Years in Power. “I know it sounds odd, but that be­lief does not de­press me. It fo­cuses me. Af­ter all, I am an athe­ist and thus do not be­lieve any­thing, even a strongly held be­lief, is des­tiny... The worst re­ally is pos­si­ble. My aim is never to be caught, as the rap­pers say, act­ing like it can’t hap­pen. And my am­bi­tion is to write both in de­fi­ance of tragedy and in blind­ness of its pos­si­bil­ity, to keep scream­ing into the waves – just as my an­ces­tors did.”

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Ne­hisi Coates is out now, pub­lished by Hamish Hamil­ton (£16.99). To or­der a copy for £14.44, go to guardian­book­shop. com or call 0330 333 6846


Clock­wise from top: Amer­i­can foot­ballers were last month con­demned by Trump for ‘tak­ing the knee’ dur­ing the na­tional an­them; Barack Obama bids farewell to the White House in Jan­uary 2017; Trump in Puerto Rico two weeks af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria hit the is­land.

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