Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those people who always have something smart to say, because he’s actually really, really smart. Whether he’s reminding Americans that they elected the first white president or providing the cheat code for white liberals to explain to their kinfolk why they can’t say “nigger,” Coates is both quotable and relatable, a rare combination in public intellectuals.
A few weeks ago, he spoke to The Root about his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. The book is a collection of seminal essays he wrote during the Obama years with additional essays reassessing those thoughts now that the Obamas are gone. Almost like a director’s commentary, but a lot more interesting. We talked about American violence, Donald Trump and race, and what scares him about the future.
The Root: In your book We Were Eight Years in Power, you bring up this concept of “plunder” (to be robbed or taken advantage of by a large group). That the United States is “plunder,” that to be African American in this country is to be plundered. To be white is to be the plunderer. If this is true, does this essentially make the American experiment irredeemable?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, no; here’s why ... why can’t America admit to its crimes the way Germany deals with its conscience? Well, Germany killed—good God, a number of Jews in order to get to that point. What is redeemable? I think human society is a mess. They’re always a mess. And this is our mess.
TR: Do you see that bleeding into this idea that this story [of America] is a tragedy? Can the only joy be found in resisting that inevitable tragedy?
TC: Well, I think change and improvement is definitely a possibility. I’m of two minds. The first is, who can tell? You don’t know. [Laughter.] But there’s a part of me that thinks there’s a kind of death wish at work here. [Mutual laughter.]
The president of the United States is negotiating with a rogue nuclear power over Twitter! That’s scary shit—really scary. Powerful hurricanes are wiping out places in the Caribbean.
Huge swaths of people refuse to look at it for what it is. And have to lie to themselves, and say it’s not this, it’s not that. That’s scary, man. The wiser part of me says we don’t know how this ends. But there’s a part of me that says this can’t end well. If this [country] was just my personal life, like, writ small, I’d say I’m headed to a bad place.
TR: Right, I have concluded for a very long time that this is not sustainable!
TC: [Laughter.] It’s not sustainable ! We know that—this is NOT sustainable. I’mma steal that one! That’s what I’mma start saying: This is not sustainable. [Laughter.]
TR: I’ll be flattered.
TR: In the book, you talk about changes to your life professionally over the Obama years. Do you think he opened up the door for black Generation X writers and thinkers to get platforms? Do you feel an indebtedness to that?
TC: I don’t really feel indebted to him, because I don’t think it was like an intentional thing. But I think that definitely ... I have a great difficulty picturing my career taking the arc that it took if a black president wasn’t elected. That’s not because talent mystically appeared out of thin air. He opened it up; you had supply, but there was no real demand. I think he really accelerated that process.
TR: There was this demand to figure out this black man in the White House. Do you think the white pundit class is explaining this white man in the White House, Trump, as honestly and as vigorously as the black intelligentsia managed to do for Obama for eight years?
TC: I have to say initially, they were not, but increasingly it’s becoming untenable. [Laughs.] Unsustianable, as you say. [Laughs.] To continue this white, working-class analysis that people have been pulling out about how they feel. You have real political scientists now with actual data. That wasn’t true 20 years ago; people would just say how they feel.
There’s more information. That class of African Americans—you’re still at [MSNBC], I’m still at The Atlantic—it’s not like that class of people went away. There’s more of a counter now every time Trump goes Trump. This is about more than just coal country or Lena Dunham.
TR: One of the most interesting points of the book is how white supremacy fears “good Negro government.” It’s not the Kwame Kilpatricks of the world; it’s the Obamas that they fear. Yet I see these cities where African Americans are giving up their power—do you think “good Negro government,” is this something we can adopt or do you think it’s a lost concept?
TC: I was talking to someone a while back that was pretty high up in the Obama campaign, and he said to me, “We ran scared, and Hillary, they weren’t scared.” That always sticks with me. You can tell Obama ran scared. And I don’t mean paralyzed by fear; I mean, We gotta be on 10 constantly. We gotta always be on point. I think that’s kinda a very black thing. I think that we should not be misled into not thinking about the impact that has on the larger populace.
There are a group of people in this country who have a lot invested in being white—and being white is always based on some rendition of the nigger. Kwame Kilpatrick, they write him off as being the nigger. Niggers steal, niggers cheat. The way they write Marion Barry off. When you get blacks that don’t do that—and I want folks to understand, this can dip over into some ugly class stuff where it sounds like I’m endorsing this; I’m really not—when folks present themselves in a way that appeals to most middle-class bourgeois, that’s the moment when whiteness is at its most threatened. Because whiteness itself is based on a set of values they think they have a monopoly on.