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With less than a month left in office, the discussion of Barack Obama’s legacy is in full swing. In next month’s Atlantic Magazine, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates explores what it meant for the country to be led by an African-American man for the last eight years. His cover story is called “My President Was Black: A History of the First African-American White House – And of What Came Next.” He traces the roots of Obama’s optimism on race relations, analyzes his relationship with the African-American community while in office and explains why he believes race was key to the election of Donald Trump
- Ta-Nehisi Coates National correspondent, The Atlantic; author of "Between the World and Me"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award last year for "Between the World and Me," a work that reached back through history to examine the realities of being black in America. In next month's Atlantic magazine, Coates explores what it meant to have an African American man lead the country for the last eight years. His cover story is titled "My President Was Black: A History of the First African American White House and of What Came Next."
MS. DIANE REHMHe joins us from NPR studios in New York. You are welcome to join the conversation. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Ta-Nehisi it's so good to see you, even if it's on Skype.
MR. TA-NEHISI COATESThanks for having me, Diane.
REHMOf course. And right off the bat, I'm going to read you three comments from our website. "He will be remembered as the Jackie Robinson of American politics. No matter how many times Republicans spit in his face, he remained steady and steadfast." Number two, "Obama has been absolutely horrible for blacks and race relations in general." And number three from Facebook, "Only half black. Why didn't that get mentioned?"
REHMSo now, I turn to you, Ta-Nehisi and let you comment on those things, all of which are wound up in your article.
COATESWell, I guess let's take it from the bottom. There is no such thing as full black. Not when it comes to African Americans. I mean, we can, you know, go even deeper and talk about the illusion of race itself, but there is no African American, or very, very few African Americans, you know, in this country that are 100 percent of direct African descent. I think the point with Barack Obama, you know, just to take the argument at its highest point is that his mother was, in fact, white.
COATESBut that is not, you know, particularly unique, you know, innovation. No one refers to, you know, Frederick Douglass as half black. No one refers to Booker T. Washington as half black. Nobody calls Bob Marley half black. Nobody calls Etta James half black. And so I always find it very, very interesting that only, you know, when you have a person who is in politics right now who exhibits a particular intelligence, a particular calm, a particular dignity, that we suddenly remember and decide that we want to call somebody only half black.
COATESI've always found that very, very interesting. And I think, above all, it's not what Barack Obama, himself, calls himself. He refers to himself as African American. That's how he calls himself. And so I think just out of respect for people, you should call them by the name by which they call themselves. If he referred to himself as the first half black president, then, you know, perhaps I would've, you know, not perhaps, I would've written a completely different headline.
REHMYou would have deferred to him.
COATESBut that's not -- yeah, I would defer to his own identification. If he called himself, you know, the first biracial president, I would have deferred to that, too, and, you know, referred him to that way. But it just seems out of basic respect that you refer to people out of the name, you know, by which they, you know, give themselves. And so that's all we did with that.
REHMAll right. And what about the notion that Obama has been, quoting from our website, "absolutely horrible for blacks and race relations in general"?
COATESWell, I think this term race relations is, itself, false. It implies some sort of -- and I'm assuming we're talking about black and white people in this country. It implies some sort of equality between black people and white people in this country as though we are just, you know, merely, you know, feuding cousins or feuding brothers or sisters or a wife and a husband who can't get along. In fact, there's a hierarchy at work here. Black people, throughout this country's history, and certainly today, if you look at any sort of socioeconomic indicator, exist at the bottom of that hierarchy.
COATESAnd so the notion that there's some sort of equal relationship or equal relations between blacks and whites and the mere presence of an African American could somehow affect, I think the very premise of the question is, in fact, deceptive. Barack Obama became president and just by his very existence, just by the fact of being black and existing at the top of the American government, certainly inflamed the imaginations and certainly inflamed the prejudices, the existing prejudices, I would argue, the preexisting prejudices of certain white voters in this country.
COATESBut that's not the fault of Barack Obama. That's the fault of preexisting conditions that were here, you know, longer than he was. And if merely by breathing, if merely by being black, if merely by identifying himself that way, you know, he inflames "race relations," that says more about this country than it does about Barack Obama.
REHMAnd what about the notion that he will be remembered as the Jackie Robinson of American politics who stood steadfast in the face of people, theoretically, spitting in his face?
COATESThat's probably the only one I agree with. But, you know, that's for good and for bad. You know, the piece argues that, in fact, much like Jackie Robinson, it wasn't enough for Jackie Robinson to be, you know, a great baseball player. When Branch Rickey recruited him to the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was looking for, you know, a certain, you know, sort of person who could, you know, stand in a particular way in the face of, you know, a mountain of insults.
COATESAnd certainly, there's that similarity between Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama.
REHMDo you believe, Ta-Nehisi, that the presence of a black man in the White House heightened racial disparities in this country?
COATESNo. No, no, no. I don't believe it did at all. I think what it did was made visible what -- that which was always there and that which was already there. It's a big, big, big difference. It's not like Barack Obama created that. And I think that's the implication when people say, you know, he made "race relations" worse, as though he did something. What he did was run for president and then win and then had the temerity to do what all other presidents do. And that, in and of itself, certainly brought out things that, as I said, have long been there.
COATESBut people speak as though this country does not have a long, lengthy history, you know, of exploitation of black folks and Barack Obama somehow brought out attitudes that made that exploitation possible in the first place, that he somehow invented those attitudes or something. No, no, I don't believe that at all.
REHMHow do you think his background translated politically?
COATESWell, I think, as I argue in the piece, the fact of being born in Hawaii, not merely the fact of being biracial, not merely the fact of having a white mother, but being born in Hawaii far from the fulcrum of Jim Crow and segregation at a point when the marriage between his mother and father was illegal in broad swaths of this country, at a point when his very conception -- and people need to get that, the very conception of Barack Obama was taboo. Being born far away from that, I think, gave him a unique set of experiences that later helped him when it became time to run for president.
COATESBarack Obama, as I argue in the piece, literally relates to white people. It's a very, very literal thing. And in an environment where the idea of him being a black, being a young black man, was not frowned upon. Not by his grandparents, not by his mother, and in large respect, not by the community that he was surrounded with. Had Barack Obama been conceived by a black man and a white woman and been born on the south side of Chicago, born in Harlem, born in Detroit, born in West Baltimore, I think, you know, his sense of the world would be very, very different and his interaction with politics would be very, very different.
REHMWhat about his grandparents, his white grandparents? To what extent were they totally accepting of him?
COATESWell, I mean, it's very interesting. I mean, in many cases, they were his conduit to black culture and black identity, you know, as I talk about Barack Obama going to see the University of Hawaii basketball team, it was his dad who took him to see that team. I talk about, to some extent, he talks about his relationship with the black writer, Frank Marshall Davis. That was a friend of his grandfather's. So it's very, very interesting. And then, there -- obviously, some negative experiences that happened also.
COATESFor instance, he talks about his grandmother being afraid of a black man who she perceived as harassing her. That happened, too. But I think it just gave him unique insights into -- both into black culture, but also into prejudice in a very, very intimate way and in such a way that very, very few black people, even biracial black people experience.
REHMAnd the fact that he did go to college. When he entered college, what was his opinion of himself and the people he was involved with?
COATESWell, he was social. He already had some sense that he wanted to have some sort of political involvement. Maybe not necessarily electoral politics, but wanted to have some sort of impact on the politics of the country. Got involved in the Free South Africa campaign. It was always very, very, very political, but I think was trying to figure out who he was, how he reconciled all the threads of his identity, not just being Hawaiian, not just being biracial, but having spent so much time abroad. He was trying to reconcile that.
REHMTa-Nehisi Coates, National Book Award-winning author of "Between the World and Me," and national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. His piece, "My President was Black," appears in next month's issue.
REHMAnd before we get back to our conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, I want to remind you that I am hosting a podcast that's going to begin in early 2017. You can find it by subscribing to "The Diane Rehm Show," on iTunes. You'll also be able to find all episodes at our website, drshow.org. And I hope you'll continue to follow us on Facebook and Twitter, where you can stay in touch with us and keep up to date on what we're working on. And Ta-Nehisi Coates has worked on an article called "My President Was Black" that appears in next month's issue of The Atlantic Magazine. And, Ta-Nehisi, let's talk about Obama's relationship with the African-American community while he's been in office. Because, at times, you've been very critical.
COATESYeah, I have. You know, I, you know, as I, you know, writing the article and as I've written, oh, I don't know over the past few years, you know, I did not particularly find, you know, his engagement was what we call respectability politics to be particularly engaging. And specifically, from the perspective of someone who was the head of state, you know, there's always this divide and this debate about, you know, African-Americans and, you know, the fate of African-Americans, whether, you know, who's responsible, who's not responsible, who needs to do what.
COATESAnd I think the way Barack Obama threaded that needle often was that he, you know, would say, as he put it, at both ends there needs to be some level of individual responsibility and some level of, you know, broader collective responsibility from the government. My perspective on this is that individual responsibility from African-Americans has never been lacking. That if you are a humanist, if you believe in the equality of all people, there really is no reason to suspect that, you know, some 40 million people are somehow less personally responsible or less, you know, I don't know, that they somehow take less responsibility for themselves than other people.
COATESIn fact, over the long history, it's quite clear the American state has not been very responsible to black people. And so that was my criticism. I, you know, I understand why, as president, you speak that way. But, as a writer, I have a different responsibility, you know, to sort of point out the contradictions and the problems in that thinking.
REHMBut he did make a very important speech on racism early on in his presidency.
COATESHe did. He did, he did, he did. You know, and this was, you know, when the Jeremiah Wright incident happened. But I think when, you know, and I don't -- I'm not of the mind of those who believe that somehow, had the president been more forthright in his talk about race and racism, that that would have affected much. I don't, you know, there's no real evidence. In fact, you know, to the contrary, I think that being forthright actually, you know, there's quite a bit of evidence that that served as an impediment, you know?
COATESBut when he did speak, you know, the constant inference, you know, for instance, going to Morehouse University where you have, you know, a group of young African-American men who've actually, you know, just graduated from college and, you know, talking about the need for personal responsibility. It just struck me as off. It just struck me as way, way off. And so it wasn't, you know, I wasn't necessarily calling for more. I guess, in some ways, I was calling for less.
COATESYou know? I think, you know, his legacy -- what will be much more important is what he actually did in terms of policy.
REHMIt's -- here's a comment from the website. The idea that President Obama aggressively inflamed race relations is insane to me. He's the most mild-mannered president we've had in my lifetime. If anything, that's his biggest flaw. Wrong quality for the time. This has been a painful process, but has cured liberals of their delusion that racism, both systematic and individual, were things of the past.
COATESYeah. You know, just to take that apart. I don't know that it's cured liberals. You know, you can definitely still get into a fight, you know, today, you know, arguing about the role of -- that racism played in the election. And I'm talking about among liberals, you still can -- racism, sexism, homophobe, however you want to put it. That's what that whole fight about identity politics is about right now.
COATESYou know, at the same time, I think the commenter is absolutely correct. Barack Obama was completely mild mannered. And I think, you now, the further we get away, you know, from this presidency -- we are about to see, over the next four years, the difference between someone being mild mannered and, you know, someone, you know, being completely, much to the detriment often, you know, over-the-top, you know, extroverted, if I may put it mildly myself. And so, you know, the notion that, you know, Barack Obama, who was, you know, often criticized as being professorial, you know, not being passionate, was somehow, you know, Malcolm X in the White House, or Huey Newton in the White -- it's just completely, completely ridiculous.
REHMDo you think that Barack Obama's manner contributed to people voting for precisely the opposite?
COATESI think the fact that he was black contributed to that. I do. I do think that. You know, I think that, you know, it's not a mistake that Donald Trump began his campaign with birtherism, you know, with this racist idea that the president was not a citizen of the United States. That's just not a mistake. I think there's a straight line, you know, from Sarah Palin calling the president, you know, a -- having shuck-and-jive foreign policies. He said, Newt Gingrich, calling the president a food-stamp president. You know, folks jumping up and saying, you lie, while he's addressing, you know, a joint session of Congress. People sending out cards, you know, with the First Family as apes, watermelons, talk show hosts, you know, writing books in which the First Lady is mocked eating ribs.
COATESAnd then you have, you know, the president-elect, you know, ultimately launching his campaign in racism. It's very, very hard to believe that that's a mistake, living in the country that we live. It's very, very hard to believe that all that was somehow incidental to the election of Donald Trump.
REHMBut clearly accepted by those who felt that Donald Trump was right and Barack Obama had no claim to the White House.
COATESYeah. And again, you know, I don't -- if you took the long view of this country's history, we tend to think the Civil Rights Movement was a long time ago, but it's within the living memory of a great deal, you know, of Americans, you know? Barack Obama himself was seven years old when Martin Luther King is shot. I mean, it wasn't that, you know, long ago.
COATESAnd so, you know, a notion -- the notion that this country, which, you know, had just, you know, as I said, within the living memory of many of its citizens, experienced a Civil Rights movement that Jim Crow, you know, that the vestiges of Jim Crow, that in fact the literal laws of Jim Crow are within the living memory of many Americans, it's not surprising that, you know, this was the reaction at all.
REHMHere's an email from Lily, who says, Obama has no historical link to African-American history. I think this is why some blacks have a problem with calling him the first African-American president. His history is not the same as that of black Americans.
COATESYeah. I just, I mean, I don't know any African-Americans who, you know, have a problem calling him the first black president. Maybe there are. I'm sure there are a few somewhere. But, you know, Barack Obama's approval rating in the African-American community right now is probably somewhere in the 90s. You're talking about somebody that both times he ran got, you know, upwards of 90 percent of the vote, was almost unanimous in the support he received, you know, from African-Americans. The notion that his journey was somehow different -- listen, all of our journeys, you know, are somehow, you know different.
COATESI didn't grow up in the church, for instance. The church is seen as one of the definitive institutions for black people in this country. You cannot understand African-American identity if you do not understand the black church in this country. I grew up completely estranged from it. You know, we all have our individual stories that are completely different, you know? If you go back, you know, through the history of African-Americans, there is no one, individual story for African-Americans. There are things that we have in common, linkages, you know, et cetera, you know.
COATESI can't play basketball, you know what I mean? I mean there are all sorts of things that people think of as common, you know, for black people, that when you go to any individual black person, they don't necessarily have.
REHMTa-Nehisi, how come you were estranged from the church?
COATESIt's because of my family. You know, I grew up under this, you know, with a very, very, you know, intelligent, questioning, skeptical mother and father, you know, who were skeptical of every, you know, little thing, including many of the traditions, you know, in the African-American community. I always joke with people, you know, not only did I not celebrate Christmas, I couldn't even celebrate Kwanzaa, you know? So, you know, even the radical traditions, you know, among African-Americans, you know, my dad and my mom questioned.
COATESSo I mean, you know, there are all sorts of ways. You know, people who grow up, for instance, Jehovah's Witness, you know what I mean, grow up with a very, very, very different experience of being black in this country.
REHMAll right. We've got a lot of callers. I want to open the phones. First, to Rick in Fairfax Station, Va. You're on the air.
RICKGood morning, folks. Ta-Nehisi, I wanted to know what your opinion was of when Mitch McConnell and the other Republicans said, at the beginning of the Obama presidency, that they were going to obstruct every law that he tried to pass. It seemed to me that it was treasonous, if not just in spirit then maybe even by the letter of the law. But it absolutely infuriated me. And my impression was, why are you obstructing the government? You shouldn't be working for the government if you're going to obstruct it. Just wanted your opinion on that. And thank you.
COATESYeah. I think that's a great question. I think it points to something that, you know, we're seeing, you know, actually right now and maybe we've seen over the past 20 years -- because some would take this back to, you know, when Bill Clinton was first elected -- and that is the violation of governmental norms. We, you know, there's nothing illegal necessarily, you know, in what Mitch McConnell said or did. But it is a violation of basic governing norms that you need for a democracy to work. It's not enough, if we have to just be governed by laws, which is to say the force of the state ultimately -- if that's the only legitimacy a government enjoys, then you won't have much of a government for long.
COATESAnd, you know, one of the, you know, striking features of, you know, the Obama presidency is in many ways the norms that, you know, that, you know, basically regulated how a president and a Congress, how a government itself should interact, we're basically discarding. You know, I mean, you're talking about, you know, not just in the case that you cite, but, you know, the fiscal cliff, debt ceiling, over and over basic norms that we had, you know, come to believe were true about how our government functions were discarded in the era of a first black president. I don't think that's a coincidence.
REHMDo you believe that Mitch McConnell said what he said, when he said it, because Barack Obama is black?
COATESNo. No, no, no, no. In fact, I think, had, you know, Hillary Clinton been the president, I think it's likely that he would have said the same thing. But that does not mean that racism has no impact on what's -- on what Mitch McConnell actually said. What we've seen since the Civil Rights Movement is basically the racialization and the political -- the racial polarization of the two parties. You can go, for instance, into the South and see a Republican Party that is almost entirely white at a local level. If you look at the base of the Republican Party and what it looks like compared to the base of the Democratic Party, that has an impact on how the people who represent those voters act and conduct themselves, you know, when they're doing business.
COATESAnd it certainly had an impact on how they conducted and did business with the first African-American president. It need not be that Mitch McConnell is himself racist. Mitch McConnell cannot -- may not well have a racist bone in his body. But certainly one can say that when you have an opposition party in which nearly half the people believe the president of the United States was not born in America, where nearly half the people believe the president of the United States is a Muslim, that has effects.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an email from Dan in Sacramento. Two things you say about Obama strike me as particularly poignant. In your interview on "The Daily Show" with Trevor Noah, you said you believe Obama underestimated the levels of white supremacy still in America. Did Obama's underestimate undercut his ability while in office to represent his symbolism?
COATESYes. Yes, it did. And I take no real joy in saying that. He was, you know -- and he said this in his interviews with me -- he was caught off-guard by this discarding of norms. I think somebody who held a slightly more skeptical view, you know, of American history, would not have been caught off-guard at all. Certainly, African-Americans were not surprised, you know...
REHMWhat you're saying is he was too trusting in the forward movement of history?
COATESYeah. I just feel like, you know, I prefer to say, I think he just was not skeptical or, like his view of American institutions. You know, Obama is often considered a pragmatist. But I think his view of how American institutions have functioned historically is actually not particularly pragmatic. I think it's a...
REHMWhat do you think it is?
COATESI think it's unduly optimistic. That's what I think. I think it's unduly optimistic.
COATESI hesitate to say naïve. And here's the reason why I hesitate to use the word naïve. Because the flip side of this -- and this is what I argue in the article -- that it took somebody who was that unduly optimistic to actually be elected president in the first place. And that, to me, is the real tragedy. Somebody with that kind of skeptical view of America and that sort of long, you know, historical view of America, probably would never have run for president. Certainly would not have taken it as an assumption that they could be elected. At the same time, sometime -- somebody with that view would not be shocked at all that the country responded the way it did and that the opposition party responded the way it did.
REHMSo now, move forward to Donald Trump.
REHMYou say you don't buy the idea that it was anger over globalization or economics. What was it?
COATESI mean, I'm sure that didn't help, you know? But, again, I mean, Donald Trump did not begin his campaign talking about globalization. The Tea Party Movement, which, you know, largely fed Donald Trump, did not begin as, you know, some sort of, you know, debate about trade, you know? What it began was on the trading floor of Chicago, we've seen, you know, the Genesis of it, you know, by a bunch of, you know, white capitalists who were upset, you know, about a mortgage program that would have helped a lot of actually African-Americans. Not totally African-Americans, but, you know, a lot of folks who had been victimized in the housing crisis.
COATESThroughout the Tea Party and throughout, you know, Obama's eight years, you saw over and over and over again, these references to race. People carrying confederate flags, people saying Obama, you know, supports white slavery. You know, just over and over and over and over again, it culminating in Trump. Who, as I said before, begins his campaign, you know, in birtherism. This cannot be merely dismissed as a mistake. It just can't. I mean, this moment when Hillary Clinton, you know, makes the political mistake of, you know, naming things as they are, you know, and saying, you know, Trump pulls half his support from a basket of deplorables.
COATESAnd then you go at the poll numbers, you know, and you see, like, you know, just huge numbers of Republican voters, you know, supporting, for instance, banning Muslims. Prejudice is not a mistake. Nationalism is not a mistake. You know, there's some order to some of this stuff.
REHMTa-Nehisi Coates. His article, "My President Was Black" appears in next month's issue of The Atlantic. Short break. Your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. An email from Tom, what infuriates me about some of the comments is that white people elected Barack Obama. African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the population.
COATESThat's true, but it's hard to imagine Barack Obama without African-American support. It's true that African-Americans only make up 13 percent of the population, but its voters are very much concentrated in the Democratic Party. So instance, you know -- so for instance, you know, you really can't imagine Barack Obama winning in South Carolina without African-American support. You can't imagine him winning in Virginia, Maryland, you know, places in the South, Mississippi, all along the East Coast. You can't imagine that primacy in 2008 playing out the way it did without African-Americans. It just wouldn't have been possible.
REHMAnd an email from Greg. Is Mr. Coates aware of the book "Strangers in their Own Land" and how Arlie Russell Hochschild describes whites seeing people of color getting a pass toward the American dream?
COATESYeah, I am aware of it. I haven't read it. It's on the list. It's been recommended by several people. You know, you know, in that sense, you know, you know, white voters and, you know, white citizens of this country are not speaking in way that's, you know, particularly original. It is a deeply ahistorical view that obviously, you know, ignores all the policy that was passed to advantage, you know, white people in this country, you know, over the long history of this country.
REHMAll right, let's take a call from Wayne in Jacksonville, Florida. Hi there, you're on the air.
WAYNEYes, I'm here. Can you hear me?
WAYNEOkay, I just want to first say, Diane, I'm a longtime listener, first-time caller. You are a treasure. I'm going to miss you.
WAYNEMr. Coates, I love your intellect. I've been following you. As an African-American, you know, fearful of this new administration with a young son, I wonder if you can offer some hope, you know, things for us to look forward to, you know, after Barack.
COATESNo, regrettably I cannot. I'm sorry about that. There -- I don't think there's going to be much to look forward to. I expect the next four years to be really, really hard. I expect a lot of good people to get hurt. I think this is going to be a tragedy for the country, and I think it's going to be a particular tragedy for the most vulnerable people, you know, in this country at large.
COATESIf anything, I would encourage looking to the past because for African-Americans, the long history of us being in this country since we, you know, were conceived here in 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived here, the long history, the threat that, you know, keeps us together, that links us to our ancestors, is struggle. This is not anything new for us at all. If anything, you know, we got it twisted during the past eight years and somehow, you know, thought that this was going to be, you know, a cakewalk into, you know, this grand multiracial, multicultural utopia.
COATESBut in fact we are descended from people, you know, who fought slavery for 250 years, who, you know, were born as slaves, died as slaves, had their children born as slaves, you know, folks like Ida B. Wells who fought all her life, you know, against lynching, you know, in the late 19th and early 20th century in this country, died, you know, without seeing that fight resolved. What we have is, you know, what our ancestors had, and that is the struggle.
COATESThis is what we've done from the day, you know, that we arrived here, and so it's nothing new. You know, if they could struggle under those sorts of, you know, desperate conditions, you know, so can we.
COATESTo the extent that I have any hope, you know, it's rooted in that.
REHMOkay, but looking ahead, you used the words hard. You said you're going to be hurt. Talk about what you mean specifically.
COATESWell I take the president-elect at his word. He ran on a campaign of, you know, of rolling back the Affordable Care Act. He ran on a campaign of spreading stop and frisk national. He ran on a campaign of barring, you know, Muslims, you know, from this country. He ran on a campaign of demonizing, you know, any sort of strictures or any sort of examination of the police departments of this country.
COATESHe ran with great animus towards the women of this country. You know, he's a person who was caught on tape, you know, bragging about sexual assault, who makes crude references to his own daughter. I don't -- you know, and I think people who are in vulnerable positions in this country, women, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, et cetera, should take the president-elect at his word.
COATESIt doesn't mean that he's going to be able to, you know, do everything, you know, he said, you know, he was going to do, but that won't be because he didn't want to do it, that'll be because, you know, there are things in place to prevent him from doing it. But the expectation should be that a lot of people are going to get hurt and that folks are going to have to fight it at every turn. I don't see, you know, any sort of, you know, sun coming out tomorrow, not, not with this, this president.
REHMVery interesting, a friend of mine wrote a beautiful Christmas letter, in which she expressed bafflement at the notion that Evangelical Christians, both black and white, would have voted for Donald Trump given what you just referred to, his crude sexual references to women, his talk about groping them. Why do you think that was?
COATESWell I can't -- you know, I would like to see some numbers on black Evangelical Christians. I'm not sure about what numbers that they -- they voted for Donald Trump.
REHMWhat about white Evangelical Christians?
COATESWell, I would say the operative word, I hate -- I hate talking like this, but I would say the operative, you know, phrase in that word is white. Being white in this country has always, you know, been important to, you know, white people, unfortunately. That's an unfortunate, you know, reality and by which I don't mean, you know, having blonde hair, having blue eyes being very important. I mean the hierarchical position of being white in this country, which has been determined by history and policy has always been important, as it is to any group of people that enjoy power. People with power like to hold on to power, and Donald Trump promised that, you know, the hierarchy, you know, would remain as it was and if anything would be rolled back to what it was before.
COATESIt was only a day ago that we heard, you know, you know, Bill O'Reilly, you know, go on his TV show and talk about how liberals wanted to, you know, destroy the white establishment in this country. People are speaking in very, very, very clear terms about this. And I think if we listen, we can actually hear, you know, what's meant, you know, and what's coming and that it should be taken seriously in this country.
REHMWhere do you think Donald Trump could go wrong?
COATESI don't know. I don't know. You know, I thought Donald Trump went wrong during the campaign several times, you know what I mean, and if anything, I should've been more skeptical. You know, I just talked about the president not being -- I should have been, you know, more skeptical and more wedded to, you know, my own sense of history in this country. And so I don't where -- where he can go wrong if we're speaking politically. There were plenty of times where I thought he was -- you know, when the tape came out, I thought that was it, you know, I was wrong.
REHMAll right, to Steve in Orlando, Florida, hi there.
STEVEHi Diane, thanks for taking my call. I appreciate it.
STEVEI've got a couple of related question for Ta-Nehisi, more on the personal level. I'm curious to know why he lived in France for a while and whether he found that helpful to be a place from which to observe the American scene. Or was he just living there because it was a nice place to live, which it is?
COATESOne of my great regrets, you know, I dropped out of college. I was never a particularly good student in school, in high school or in college, and one of my great regrets was that I never learned a foreign language. As anybody who's tried to learn a foreign language knows, it's extremely difficult to acquire a foreign language without some bit of immersion. And so my -- you know, what I wanted for myself, and actually for my son, too, you know, who studied French and is a lot better at it than I am, I wanted a year, I wanted a year where we lived in another country. You know, I wanted that for him. I wanted that for myself.
COATESAnd that was the main thing. I don't know that I saw America particularly different during that time, and it was always my intent to come back, you know. France is very nice. You know, New York is nice, too.
REHMWhat did you get from living in France?
COATESI got better at French. That's the main thing I got, and that sounds like a small thing, but it's actually a huge thing. When I say I got better at French, it means I got better, you know, at talking to a particular portion of the human rainbow. There were places that I could not go before, you know, and speak with people that now -- now I can. You know, and as, you know, as a writer, as a journalist, that's very, very, very important to me.
REHMSo you dropped out of college, you weren't a good student.
REHMWhat finally settled you into writing?
COATESWell I've been writing since I was a kid, you know, and so I'd always been writing. You know, if anything it became clear to me when I was, you know, about 20 years old, and I took my first in D.C., at Washington City Paper, you know, under David Carr, that I could actually make a living doing it, that this was actually a career path. And once I saw that, it was very, very hard to concentrate in school. It had always been hard, but it became much, much harder once I figured that out.
REHMHow did your parents feel about your dropping out of school?
COATESOh my God, they were horrified. They were absolutely horrified, more -- and I would say more than horrified, they were deeply, deeply afraid. And shortly after that, you know, my then girlfriend, my now wife, you know, we had a child shortly after that. So I think all of it just scared the hell out of them.
REHMScared the hell out of you.
COATESIt did, yeah.
REHMScared you into making sure you began writing seriously.
COATESI did. I mean, that was all I had. You know, I felt like that's what I had to offer the world. I was a writer, you know, and I was going to rise, and I was going to fall by that. I didn't have much else. There was not, you know, much else that I knew myself at that point in my life to be particularly good at. And so that was -- that was it, you know, and that hasn't changed.
COATESYou know, I write, and I -- you know, writing and family, that's pretty much it. You know, I don't know that I'm the best of friends in the world, you know what I mean. But I write, and my family, those are the two things that are important.
REHMAre you shocked at the kind of really outstanding attention you've received?
REHMAnd the glowing reviews you've received?
COATESThe attention. I mean, I'm really, really surprised. I'm becoming less surprised by it, but certainly, you know, over the past two years or so, I have had to adjust and adapt. I was not expecting -- you know when you're a writer, I've been writing for 20 years now, and when you're a writer, what you have to do is you have to adjust to failure. You have to adjust to writing things and no one reading it. That's really what you have to, you know, get to.
COATESAnd so I got to that place first, but I didn't realize that there's some amount of adjustment that has to be made when, you know, a lot of people are reading you, too.
REHMWhat kind of adjustment?
COATESOh people just looking at you. Everyone actually -- look at, they aren't just interested in the writing, that they're interested in your personal life, you know, and they want to know, you know, every little thing about you, that they come to regard the writing almost like as prophecy, that, you know, they think that it can, you know, tell them something.
COATESIt was only recently in my career that, no offense to the gentleman who called, you know, earlier, and I appreciate his question, you know, asking, you know, to offer some sort of hope. That was not a role that, you know, I occupied for the first 18 years of my career. People read or didn't read, and that was pretty much it.
COATESMore of them didn't who did.
REHMLet's take a call from Brian in Gilbert, Arizona. You're on the air.
BRIANHi Diane, thanks for taking my call.
BRIANI'm a -- I'm more of a -- like a Romney conservative, and I'm probably just as much scared as you guys are about Trump and unsure of what's going to happen. But I was wondering what you guys thought about the over 700 murders in Chicago and what role Obama and the Democrats have in that. And I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks.
REHMAll right, Ta-Nehisi?
COATESWell I think we all have a role in it. You know, my first book is a memoir, and it's about growing up in West Baltimore and, you know, growing up in the shadow of, you know, intimate neighbor-on-neighbor violence. You know, second book, "Between the World and Me," you know, most of the first section deals, you know, not with the Ku Klux Klan, but what it meant to grow up in a dangerous neighborhood.
COATESThere's a feature today in the New York Times, you know, about gang violence in Chicago, and so it -- that, you know, to me, is, you know, has always been, you know, something that was very, very present in my life and horrific. You know, I think the fact that this country, you know, and, you know, I have no problem, you know, saying as the caller said, Obama and the Democratic Party has not made it a higher priority, you know, has not yet succeeded, you know, in basically having a level of safety enjoyed by black people in this country that, you know, white people, enjoy in this country is one of the great failings.
COATESAnd when you talk about the kind of violence that you're seeing not just in Chicago because, you know, Chicago actually, it occupies too much. Chicago is not the most, you know, violent city, you know, in this country. You know, you can go to smaller places, like where I'm from, Baltimore, Detroit, you know, these kinds of, you know, smaller towns, Little Rock, that never, ever make the news, that are just incredibly, incredibly, incredibly violent places, you know, to grow up in.
COATESIn fact, you know, when you begin to ask yourself why that is, you have to look at how these neighborhoods are designed in the first place. What's the history of these neighborhoods? How did they, you know, come together? What's the access to firearms like? You know, when I was, you know, in France, this was one of the clarifying things.
COATESI went to, you know, many, many bad neighborhoods, you know, in what they call the banlieue, which is just where a lot of the public housing is, you know, for poor people around on the outskirts of the city, a lot of black people, a lot of Arab people living in those neighborhoods. They were considerably less lethal places because access to guns was much, much, much more limited than it is, you know, in this country here.
COATESYou know, so they had the problems with segregation that we've had.
COATESWhich are bad, but, you know, the access to guns and everything was not the same.
REHMTa-Nehisi, toward the end of your article you tell the story about finding your dad's FBI file. How did that happen? Why did he have an FBI file?
COATESWell my dad was in the Black Panther Party, and the Black Panther Party as well as, you know, many other, you know, civil rights and black power groups were harassed all through the -- I mean, you talk about having a skeptical view, you know, of American government and American norms, I mean, that's the sort of thing you get it from, when you're raised with that.
COATESMy dad had always, you know, said that he had thought that there was some level of, you know, FBI interference in his life, that they were tracking him to some extent, and I, you know, pretty much believed that to be true. But it just so happened on the last day that I was interviewing the president, and this was a week after Donald Trump had won, I was taping an interview of the show, "Finding Your Roots," and they had went and found a file.
COATESAnd they had, you know, all this information, which they then presented to me. I can't -- you know, it sounds melodramatic to state it as it was, but as I, you know, said in the piece, you know, this was an effort to incite other Black Panthers to kill my dad, not some far-off figure, you know, not some -- not Fred Hampton, not, you know, Malcolm X, not Martin Luther -- not somebody distant but actually my dad.
COATESThat will create a level of skepticism in you of American institutions, or it will confirm it, as it was already there, you know, from previous things that, you know, as I said my dad had always thought that, you know, that to be true. That will make you look at your country, you know, just slightly askance. It will -- you know, when you have, you know, someone like Donald Trump coming in, bringing people like Michael Flynn, bringing people like Jeff Sessions, you know, you -- it will, you know, make you view, you know, those sorts of events skeptically. It just has some effects.
REHMWell, I hope that your article keeps us all skeptical and watchful and active. Ta-Nehisi, I want to thank you so much for coming on to this next-to-the-last day of the Diane Rehm Show. It's been...
COATESThank you, Diane, it's an honor. It's always been an honor. Thank you for everything.
REHMAll right, Ta-Nehisi Coates, his article "My President Was Black" appears in next months' issue of The Atlantic. Thanks for listening, everybody, I'm Diane Rehm.
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