Ta-Nehisi Coates on White Supremacy and a Life of Struggle

This year’s top The Root 100 honoree reflects on his groundbreaking article, “The Case for Reparations,” and his belief that African Americans have accomplished much, despite overwhelming obstacles.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates and The Root’s managing editor, Lyne Pitts
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates and The Root’s managing editor, Lyne Pitts Tony Anderson for The Root

This year we selected writer Ta-Nehisi Coates as the top honoree on The Root 100, our annual list of influential and high-achieving African Americans. It was June when The Atlantic published his widely read and highly acclaimed cover article, “The Case for Reparations,” which “lays bare a compelling argument for the pecuniary redress of Africans brought to this country in chains and continually terrorized—socially, politically and economically.”

Coates sat down with The Roots managing editor, Lyne Pitts, to talk about the impact of his record-shattering article, which, he says, “way outdistanced my expectations.”

The Root: You called this article “The Case for Reparations.” So obviously you were making that case to someone. Who was it written for?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Well, this is tough to say, because I don’t want this to come off the wrong way. In general, when I write something like that, I’m writing for black people. But that shouldn’t mean that I don’t want other people to read it, or I don’t expect other people to read it.

But I think for those of us who find ourselves in majority-white spaces, we feel this need to slow things down and dumb things down and speak to people in a certain way. And I just try to write as though I were in a room full of African Americans. I don’t want to cut anything back.

And I think in the long run that that actually shows more respect for my white readers. Because the expectation is that they’re gonna be able to follow me, and that it’ll be OK, if I speak in my natural way or write as I naturally would, as though I were explaining it to people within my community. And those who are outside of my community will actually understand and can understand. And I truly, truly believe that.

TR: What did you want African Americans to know that we didn’t know?

TC: That our condition is not a mistake. That we don’t need to run around pretending, as though there’s some great mystery going on—it’s not. If an alien came to planet Earth and looked at the socioeconomic statistics for African Americans and then measured that against the history and the policies of this country, there would really be no surprises about who we are and where we are. And I think that’s important, because there are things that are not within our control in this country.

But there are some things that always get out of control, and one of those things is the level of stress that we put on ourselves. The feelings that we have about our position. The doubt—I don’t want to call it self-loathing—but the effect it has that we have somehow done something to ourselves, injured ourselves. And I just want to relieve that stress. There’s no need to walk around feeling—to be fooled into thinking—that somehow you’re insufficient as a human being. And that’s the condition that we find ourselves [in].

On the contrary, I have always said that, to be perfectly blunt, there’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix. And that’s what I believe, and I want black folk who read that piece to know, “You’re OK.” You know? That the conditions within the community are not OK, but as a human being, you’re OK.

TR: Because we can’t fix it?

TC: I think we’ve done the best we can; I think we’ve done the best we can. And that’s hard to take. And that’s even hard to say, because what it means is, like, saying that certain things are not in your control. But I think we kind of do have to say that, you know?

It’s very hard for me to look at African-American history and see people slouching. I don’t see that. I see people against great odds fighting against a power, a state that for most of its history has not operated with the interest of African Americans at its heart.

TR: At the same time that your article was published, the Huffington Post and YouGov did a poll (pdf), looking at how Americans feel about the issue of reparations. The majority of white Americans said Germany should pay for Holocaust survivors. A third of white Americans said the Japanese should get money for internment. But when it came to descendants of African-American slaves, 6 percent. What’s that about?

TC: It’s not about the money; I’ll tell you that. What it is is about the history. The problem with reparations, I think, for white Americans has never really been the money. It’s what giving the money signifies. And what it signifies is that America is not innocent, is not this city of total and complete nobility that we like to imagine. …

The wretched treatment meted out to African Americans, and the wretched treatment meted out to Native Americans, in the minds of most white people is almost separate from the core idea of what America is. America is this place of democracy, freedom, all these other values, and these other things were sort of just mistakes that happened along the road—as opposed to thinking of those mistakes as things that actually made all those other good things possible.