Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, a MacArthur fellow and one of the nation's foremost essayists on race, culture and politics. In 2015, Coates published Between the World and Me, an open letter to his son that won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
In this interview, he speaks at length about America's tortured history with race relations, how that history affected the presidency of Barack Obama and how it helps explain the election of Donald Trump.
"There's one America that at least can count the idea of having a black man lead the country," says Coates. "And that's significant. That was not always true. And then there is an equally prevalent and virulent and problematic America that really wants to see life go back to the 1950s."
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Jim Gilmore on Sept. 29, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Well, I think being biracial was certainly not enough to make--or being mixed or having white parents, however you want to put it, was certainly not enough to make one believe that a black person could be president or a bridge could even be constructed. The thing you have to understand about African Americans is, the notion of biraciality is not particularly new to black people. We've had a lot of experience, and actually more experience with it than white people. That's not because black people are any more open than white people; that's because the facts of slavery made that the case.
Frederick Douglass was biracial, for instance. Booker T. Washington was biracial. Malcolm X's mother was biracial. We have those stories all throughout history. Etta James, you know. ... It's very, very difficult to get away from when you're black. And the experience for black people is that the "biraciality of these people" did not save them. Perhaps it made racism a little easier, but it's hard to evidence that, you know, that they were [not] treated--pardon my English, pardon my swearing--as niggers.
There was a great feeling that Barack Obama, no matter who his mother was, no matter who his grandparents were, would be treated like a nigger. I think it's not too much for me to say that the average white person, and probably average black person, if seeing Barack Obama on the street, would not automatically guess that he had white parents. In fact, to the contrary, there are people who are significantly lighter, and you know, with less curly head than Barack Obama, who don't have white parents. So I'm skeptical, and I was skeptical at the time, that in and of itself having direct white ancestry offered one benefits in terms of reaching across.
What was much, much more important, much, much more important, was the relationship Barack Obama had with his white mother and his white grandparents, which was a relatively close one. It is very, very rare in American life for black people--and I say biracial or not--to have the first white people they know treat them with fundamental decency and to be that close on top of it. This is not a common thing.
I think what that allowed for was a level of optimism and a level of faith in then-candidate Obama, in the broader country. The basic demographics of the country make it such that, if you are to be president, you have to have some amount of faith in white people, because white people are the majority of the electorate. It's just the way it is.
I think that might be a little more difficult to conjure up for other folks, and for Barack Obama, it was familiar in a way that I don't know that it's necessarily familiar to other black folks.
... I thought it was a very, very important speech. I think a more timid politician would have been tempted to completely step away from it. It was a very, very hard moment, because the fact of the matter is, it's very hard to be black in America and not have some sort of the claims to the kind of views that Rev. Wright espoused. Those views aren't--at least my perspective was, and is, that those views are not views born of nothing. You know, it just is not just a kind of hatefulness that's just snatched out of the air.
I think what the president tried to do is communicate that they were grounded in very, very real experiences of that generation. I don't know how well people heard him. Even all these years later, some eight years later, I don't know how well it was heard. But I thought it was his attempt to give some grounding and some context to Rev. Wright's comments, and at the same time also obviously separate himself and say very clearly where he was as compared to that.
... I think to the black community, what it obviously meant was that the highest offices of governance and decision making in America were, in fact, open to black people. That has not been true for the majority of American history, so that, I think, was a huge, huge deal. We, in our day to day, in the pop culture, there's so many negative or one might say mixed representations of ourselves, and the images are limited. You know, they're limited to entertainment; they're limited to sports. And to have the possibility for the next eight years to have the view, the leading image of black people in this country or a black family to be one that appears to be whole and wholesome and respectable and without scandals, this is not a small thing to folks. The opportunity to not be embarrassed, to feel proud when you look and see yourself, these are not small things to black people.
The reaction from the white people, I think, was varied. The one I'm probably most interested in--it's not the total reaction, but it's the one I'm most interested in--is this kind of ... impulse that immediately came out of it, when people saw that we did have a black president and were scared as hell. I think that is one of the key factors in understanding why you ended up with the Tea Party. I think it was an extremely key factor with how you ended up in a situation where some eight years later and you have a man who believes in racist conspiracy theories as a Republican Party's nominee. It's a reaction to the fact of having a black president.
I don't know. That I don't know. You would have to ask him. What I would say is, I think he was surprised. I suspect he was surprised by the intensity and reaction to what seemed pretty obvious. That you would effectively arrest a senior citizen with a cane because he was breaking into his own house or because you didn't like how he sassed you seemed pretty stupid, seemed pretty stupid. And the idea that you can't state the obvious when it comes to black people, I think that was probably a little surprising.
Probably so. It probably did. But he talked about it. He continued to talk about it all through the rest of his presidency. I'm not one of those people who think he deducted. I think he talked about it quite a bit. I think talking is a little overrated, though. You know, [there are] some things that you can't talk your way out of.
It says, as a politician, there's nothing to be gained by pointing out the racism of your opponents. You're in a majority-white country. It's just cold, clear politics. Even if that's what you think is the case, what are you actually going to gain by stating that? The first black president of the United States. There simply isn't much upside in calling it that.
I think it's a mixture of both. I think a lot of it actually is sincere, you know. But you are a black person representing, and your constituency is majority white. That means that on some level, you cannot always speak as your most deepest self. You have to speak on some level to people who maybe think you were born in Kenya. That's the fact of it. That's what politics is, you know, is a direct mismatch between who he is, who his identity is, to what his identity is, [to] the larger country that he represents.
Yeah, I think it's amazing. I think people have no idea the amount of vitriol you must get as a black president. And I think his ability to maintain and just stay calm is tremendous.
It says there's a strong constituency in this country for racism, to put it bluntly. It says that there is a relatively troubling large--maybe not the majority, but a troublingly large number of white people who have the inability to accept the humanity and the citizenship of black people by the same standards that they accept the humanity and citizenship of other people.
The leading presidential candidate for the opposition party right now got there by opposing the right of citizenship to the first black president. This is not a mistake. He didn't get there speaking abstractly about states' rights. He didn't get there speaking abstractly about other theories of government. No, the notion was, this guy is not to be believed; he can't possibly be believed. It is not a mistake that that was the message that was taken against the first African American president.
Trayvon Martin was a child, a young man. He had gone to stay with his father in a gated community. He was not a gangster. The notion that somehow he had initiated a fight with a guy for no reason and tried to kill him, which is what you basically have to believe, without provocation, that he had threatened the guy and said, "You gonna die," just does not accord with the reality of what I think most people know, without knowing about it. [That he] just suddenly turned into a killer does not accord with the notion of most folks in terms of how human beings react.
If someone told that story to someone else, some high school kid, you know, just happened, without provocation to, you know, leap on me and decide that he was going to kill me, and told me, "You're going to die," that would raise some brows.
And what happened with Trayvon, it's not so much that George Zimmerman was declared innocent. It is that, for literally days, no one arrested him. It's very hard to imagine where I grew up in West Baltimore that happening and nobody getting arrested. It's just difficult to imagine that world.
That incident is significant because it gave root [to the] Black Lives Matter movement, literally the idea that black life matters, that you have to enforce the law when it comes to black folks. And I think all of us who have children felt that deep, deep, deep, and that could have been our kid. You know, that's exactly what could have happened.
The president is a black dude. I mean, he's a black dude from Hawaii, but he's a black dude, you know. And I think it's very easy to forget that, you know what I mean? ... So, on some level, he has some sort of familiarity with that. He understands the kind of fear that has typically, for centuries, pervaded the notions of black malehood. I think like a lot of other black folks, when he saw that, he was horrified. ...
Well, I think the president's view is this: that the situation of African Americans in this country has two dimensions. The first dimension is, obviously, the history and the vestiges of white supremacy and racism in this country. But the second portion of that is the fact that black folks need to behave in such a way or need to conduct themselves in such a way as though they're trying to get out. I think in his estimation, from time to time, we don't.
The message he's delivered is one that addresses certainly at least vestiges of racism combined with a message of personal responsibility. I don't just disagree with him; I think it's ultimately doing a failure. I think African Americans are human beings, and I think in any population of human beings, you will find people who work exceptionally hard, you'll find people who don't work much at all, and you will find people who are pretty average and pretty ordinary.
There's very little evidence--I've never seen this demonstrated to me--that what separates black people and white people is effort. I don't even know how you would distinguish that. But I have reams and reams of evidence that I could put before you about redlining, about public health, about wealth, about home buying just across the board, where I can show you the differentiation that can directly attribute it to policy.
Culture and issues of workers, this is a lot harder to actually get your hands on, you know what I mean? It's much, much harder to prove, at any one moment, that one black family is somehow more lazy or, as we would say in the community, more trifle than any other white family. What we do know about America, though, is that if you have money, and you have resources, and you have privilege, you can be as lazy as you want. I have been fortunate enough now in my lifetime to see plenty of lazy, rich white people, but nobody cares. That's part of having it. They have the right to be lazy. They're no better than anybody else.
What's different is their situation, and the situation that black people occupy is directly tied to policy. It's not a failure of work ethic. For 250 years in this country, black people had the strongest work ethic of anybody. They had to, because they were enslaved, and somebody would have whipped them within an inch of their life if they did not.
What did that get us? What it got us was more policy that guaranteed that your efforts would not be rewarded in the same ways that other people's efforts would be.
Well, because he's the president of the United States, I didn't have much expectation that he would speak about institutional racism. I understand. I get it. I get it. That's not his job; that's my job. It's my job to be unvarnished and to speak as I'm speaking right now. That's my job. That's not the job of somebody whose time in office literally depends on the goodwill of white people. And I'm not saying that in a critical way, I'm telling you. If you're going to run for national office, that's going to be true. If you're going to be a governor, if you're going to be a senator, you know what I mean; if you're going to be president, that's what the political system is.
So it's not a critique of that. That's just what the fact of the matter is. I think what he did not have to do, and my disagreement, is that I think he did not have to add the extra part about the work ethic and the culture and the personal responsibility. I just see no evidence that black people are any less personally responsible than anybody else. ...
I think the harm of doing it is that it perpetrates a lie. The part where I think black people themselves are very, very invested in, the difference between us and them, is that we don't do certain things, and that's not the difference between us and them. It's hard to accept that. It's hard, because a, it means that there are certain things that are out of your control, and that is antithetical to the American creed, that there's anything out of the individual's control.
What I'm arguing, in fact, is a lot about our situation that is actually not in our control, you know. And to say that, and then have to say to people on top of that, "But yet you still have to get up and do X, Y, and Z every day, even though you might not get the rewards that you're due," that's hard. That's hard to say.
Well, the thing to understand about Ferguson is that Ferguson was effectively a kleptocracy. Literally, that was the form of government that was in effect there. ... I have a Justice Department report behind me that actually substantiates that. What the Justice Department report actually said was that the police department, through policy, was effectively looting the black community. They were enforcing rules and regulations that were trifling things, like walking in the middle of the street and giving people egregious tickets, adding egregious fines to those tickets, treating the citizenry with blatant and abject racism. ...
And this was a system of government [where] they were taking these fines and using that to pay for the entire system of government. Black people in Ferguson were being systemically robbed and plundered and pillaged. That's the context of everything. So when you have a situation where Michael Brown is killed, and people are insisting on a narrative that happened, and it might not have happened that way, do you understand, it might not have happened that way.
What's important is, they don't trust anything the police say. They don't trust the police because the way the police function in their community is as plunderers and robbers of the state. I mean, that's like what the policy was. That's why they're there, to write you tickets, to get you summonses, to tack on court fees, all sorts of things. Put the brutality aside. Put all of that aside. Put the violence aside. That's your interaction with them, you know. Why would a police department have any credibility or any legitimacy with you all then?
Well, actually, I thought in Ferguson he was pretty good. I didn't fault him on Ferguson at all. Actually, I think the response to Ferguson is one of the very, very positive effects of having an African American president. And I'll put that very simply. Obama appointed as the head of the Justice Department Eric Holder, and Eric Holder made a very deliberate decision to go down there a, and investigate the killing, and then at the same time to look at the actual context of that. So I think that was actually a very positive effect. And what they did outline was systemic racism. They were very, very clear about that. So I thought that was a very positive thing.
That I can't quantify that, because I do think Obama cares about this independent of anything, and I think that's a genuine sort of feeling. I do think, though, in general, what Black Lives Matter did was it actually probably made it easier for him to act, because it drew the eyes of the nation toward something.
... I think people need to be a little careful about that, because Obama didn't create the racism. Obama did what any other American citizen has the right to do, and people reacted to that in a racist manner. I think that's what happened. That's definitely true. But there's nothing he did. It's not even his presence. It's the fact that they're racist. He succeeded at running a presidential campaign, something that scores of Americans before him have also succeeded in that. And some people--not a small amount of people--decided to react to that in a racist fashion. I think that's what happened.
No, no, no, there's no irony at all. We have always, throughout our history, had individual black people who achieved way, way more than most white people will ever achieve, and certainly most black people will ever achieve. Racism is not an individual, specific evil. It is broad; it is systemic; it attacks large groups of people at the same time. I'm sitting here in this interview with you right now. I think I've probably been fortunate enough to see more of the world, to garner more accolades, than the vast majority of black people who I grew up with, probably 99.9 percent of all black folks that I grew up with.
Does that mean that they were not subject to racism? Does that mean that I was not subject to racism? Or does it mean that there were certain factors in my life that made it easier for me to endure that? Or does it mean that there were certain points in my life when I actually just got lucky, you know? There's no irony in it at all. Any individual at any particular time can rise up to achieve.
Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery and became a free person. There was no irony in that. And the fact that the vast majority of black people in this country were enslaved, there was none. Individuals achieve all the time. That makes no sort of statement on the broad mass.
Well, it's probably not the same America. There's one America that at least can count the idea of having a black man lead the country, and that's significant; that was not always true. And then there is an equally prevalent and virulent and problematic America that really wants to see life go back to the 1950s, ... even if they don't say it, and all of what that means--not just part of what that means, but wants all of that back. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.
There was a portion of the country, in 1865, that had decided that slavery, enslavement, was a scourge upon the country, and there was another one that attempted to raise an entire republic rooted in slavery. In the 1960s, there was a part of America that was beginning to see the really, really violent face of white supremacy, and then there was another that would have defended it to the hilt, to the end of the day. So I think it's well within the confines and the rooms of history.
I think the celebration was deserved. It's a big deal. It's a big, big deal. Listen, if you say every president before Obama has been a white male, and that's significant, ... then it must then necessarily be true that, when that pattern is broken, it is also significant, and it's also a statement. I think it's very, very important to not downplay that. No, it's a big thing. It wasn't the end of the road, you know what I mean? It wasn't the end of all struggle, but it was a significant step.
Because white supremacy is a very, very powerful force in American history. It's one of the most powerful forces in America. You have to understand: This is the flag of a treasonous army. This is a flag of people who attempted to, as I said, to create a republic rooted in slavery. This is not my words. You can go and look at the Declaration of Secession, and you look at why South Carolina said they seceded, and slavery is right the Declaration of Secession. The same for several of the other states that seceded. This is not hard to know. It's not hard to fathom or find out.
But people just don't want to accept it. They just don't want to accept that their ancestors did that, and they don't want to accept the force that it has in their public life today, so much so that it took the slaughter of human beings at prayer in a historic church to get them to say: "You know what? Maybe it's time to stop this." I mean, you are really foregone if it takes a terrorist act, a blatant terrorist act, for you to say: "You know what? Maybe we need to make some different decisions."
You know, I didn't really see an evolution. I think he is who he was, you know. I think he was, at that moment, who he had always been. I think he rose to the occasion, and he very, very much rose to the occasion. I think in general he's risen to the occasion with things like that, that have happened. It's a great speech. It's a great speech.
I don't think it's changed. I think maybe certain things have been resolved, and he can now turn his attention to other things. But I don't know how constricted he was early on. I know that's a popular, ongoing theory, that he was constricted. I think it might be true that--Obama is, you know, my experience is that there's no flamethrower underneath him. There's no guy who's sitting there, who goes into his office, and when nobody's looking, you know, hurls fireballs at white people. I just don't think that's who he is temperamentally, so I think he's actually been pretty true and committed. I think he's been pretty consistent, actually.
I don't share that, and I disagree with them. ... But I think walking the line as a black person and being the first black president is an incredibly hard task. I think it's incredibly, incredibly, incredibly difficult, and I think history will reflect really, really well on how he carried that burden.
No, I don't think it's true at all, but I understand why a politician--and again, I'm not being derogatory when I say a politician; it's what the job is. I mean, that's the speech you have to give, or that's the speech people want you to give. When your job literally is to get--see, your market is America. That's your market. You're trying to get America to buy into you. I'm not trying to get America to buy into me. ... He can't give the speeches I give, you know, and I certainly can't give the talks he gives. The articles I write are very, very different. It's two different tasks. Obama's task is to assemble a coalition of people who support him. And whether that's true--and I don't think it's true. I think we have very, very good evidence and statistics to say it's not true, that there are two different Americas, but people want it to be true. They want it to be true. And on some level, you have to speak to their aspirations, their desires.
He feels like the arc of history bends toward justice, and I feel like chaos is the law of the universe. You just don't know what's going to happen. Something unexpectedly beautiful might happen, but very often, something unexpectedly terrible happens, and I don't think it necessarily befits human beings to ever lose sight of that. Tragedy is just around the corner, and I want to live my life aware of that.
Well, it says that his life experiences have led him to believe that, and all his reading has led him to believe that. I think the important thing about Obama is he's a Christian, too. That's basically a Christian view of the world--certainly a black Christian view of the world. It's pretty consistent.
Well, he comes right out of white America. He is all of the ancient resentments and all the ancient hatred around gender roles, around, as you said, our immigration, which really reflects a kind of insecure notion of identity, certainly around racism, and anti-black racism specifically.
You see, Donald Trump didn't just start as a birther. It didn't start there. It started with being sued in the 1970s for discriminating against black people. It continued in through the 1990s when this dude was calling for death [for the] accused rapists of the Central Park jogger. It ultimately turned out that they actually didn't do it, you see. In his world they would have been killed.
... It's not a mistake that one of this country's major political parties, when faced with people who maybe I don't agree with politically but clearly have some experience in governance and know something, who decide, "No, no, we don't want you guys; we want the most explicit racist and bigot; that's what we want," I mean, whether he wins or not, that is a deep, deep statement on the powerful forces of white supremacy in this country. That should not be diminished that we have to face that they're there. It doesn't mean it can't be beaten; it doesn't mean it's always going to be this way. I think Obama's election presents the possibility that it might not. But it's a powerful, powerful force in our lives.
Well, I think whether Trump is elected or not, someone will pick up on the fact that someone a lot more savvier could tap into the same veins of resentment that he did and do it a lot better. I think this will be with us for a little while, whether Trump wins or not.
Those are not really poles that I function on. In other words, it is not a question of optimism versus pessimism for me. It's a question, as I said before, of chaos. I don't know where we're going. I don't know. There are reasons to be hopeful, certainly, like, you know, having just had this era of a black president, and then there are reasons to be deeply, deeply worried. But none of us really know what's going to happen. No one knows, and I think we have to be open to that.
I do. I do. There's a lot positive in Black Lives Matter. At the very least, they have drawn the kind of brutality that all of us who are black always knew happened front and center in the national conversation. You can't avoid it now; you just can't avoid it. And they forced that, so I think that's a positive.
No, no, I don't think the formation of Black Lives Matter under the first black president is in and of itself a criticism. As a counterargument, in fact, [is] that Obama is what made it possible, that actually the presence of a first black president raises expectation and makes people much more sensitive to certain things, like his very presence puts certain conversations on the table that may have been easier to sweep under the rug. But honestly, I think what actually happened was a coincidence. I think it's the fact of technology, more than anything that's pushing Black Lives Matter.
Who can tell? Who can tell? I don't know. I don't know. We'll see. History moves in all sorts of ways. In the immediate 10 or 20 years after enslavement, things were relatively good for black people in the South, and then they became much worse, and we plunged into almost a century-long era of domestic terrorism and "slavery lite," actually, you know, through serfdom and Jim Crow. Who can tell? Who can tell?
I think he's probably one of the smartest people I've ever been around. The first time I met Barack Obama I was at, I think I could say this, an off-the-record press conversation, and he took questions about the Middle East; he took questions about the environment; he took questions about China; he took questions about race. And he was on top of it all the way through. He was sharp. He was sharp all the way through. He was deeply, deeply impressive. I don't know that we'll have another president, at least in my lifetime, who is a star for this intellectual, and just as thorough in his own thinking things through and trying to debate and figure stuff out. Deliberative is the word I think of, and actually wise. Great deal of wisdom. I don't think people see it now, but I think we were really, really lucky. And I think people will begin to see it over the next two, three, four, five, 10 years.
I think it will treat him kindly. Not to turn this into any sort of tournament of presidents or anything, but he's top five, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, he's right up there. I think, ultimately, he'll be the "greatest ever" conversations, because people will begin to appreciate how difficult it is. People don't get it. It's very hard being black in this country. But to be black and have that much power and be a power base rooted in people who historically, through the long history of this country, have actively tried to oppress you--you know, the civil rights movement wasn't that long ago. There are people alive right now who were around. It's right there. It's right there with us. And I don't think people understand the difficulty of it.
And it's very important that I say--you know, because I do have my criticism, and I stand by them; I stand by them. But in no way does that mean it's easy. In no way does it mean that anybody could have done it. I think being president is probably pretty hard in and of itself. I think being the first black president necessarily has to be much harder, and I think people will begin to appreciate that over the years.