On the most recent episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of the books The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, and, now, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. In the course of these books and his work as a national correspondent at the Atlantic, Coates has become the most well-known commentator and writer on racial issues in America.
Below is an edited transcript of the show. In it, we discuss the costs of writing off your fellow citizens as “deplorable,” why he chose journalism over activism, and how Trump is both uniquely dangerous and a predictable consequence of American racism.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: You are obviously at a different level of fame now than on previous book tours. What has this one been like, and has the way people responded to you been different?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, it’s been more people than with Between the World and Me. I generally am not a huge book-tour person. I tend to be a pretty home/family person. It is more people, which is great, because it means more people actually reading the work. But there is always this tension with me, where I’m really happy that folks are engaging, and I really enjoy talking to people about the work, but at the same time, it is this lack of intimacy. I mean, the crowds have been—I guess I am going to sound like a huge asshole because there have been really huge crowds, and I am going to complain about that fact.
It’s a different experience than when you are in a small bookstore and 25 people show up.
That’s right. I went on tour for the paperback of The Beautiful Struggle in 2009 and did a reading in San Francisco and like 25 people showed up, and it was the best reading in my mind I ever gave.
My colleague Jamelle Bouie wrote in a review of your book that you’ve become a symbol as well as a writer. Are worried or cognizant of what it would mean that you are in this different position as a writer, and what it means for your writing, if anything?
Yeah, I was aware of that. Between the World and Me was an education on that—the job of a writer, the challenge was the writing. And that’s still the challenge, but at this point in my career, who knows what it will be five years from now, even two years from now. But there are extra challenges: You become something to a group of people, and that is vaguely linked to your writing, but it’s not exactly linked to your writing. And that’s a weird thing.
What else is it linked to?
It’s linked to the politics of the time. It’s linked to whatever need people have among themselves. It is linked to, frankly, the petty jealousies of other writers, and other scholars, and other academics. You can write the same thing—I know because I did it—and when nobody’s watching, or when a relatively small group of people are watching, they interact one way with the work. And then when large numbers of people start watching, people begin interacting with the fact that large numbers of people are actually watching the work, as opposed to just the work itself. That just creates a totally, totally different layer.
Do you find that frustrating or invigorating in some way?
I found it incredibly frustrating after Between the World and Me. I find it less frustrating now. I still find it frustrating sometimes … I’m shrinking away from even saying this. If you’re a writer, and you become famous, you don’t control your name. You don’t control it. It really is so much out of your hands, and I guess that’s true of any piece of writing once it’s published, but it really is true to a larger level for me right now. And I’m going to stress this, at this point, because things change; people decide they’re interested in other things. I’ve been writing for 20 years now. In the past four years or so, a tremendous shift happened. I think before that, as a writer, like any other writer, what you’re trying to prepare yourself for is to expend all the energy that you have and put all your passion into a piece for no one to care. And the big challenge of writing is being OK with that. But you don’t prepare yourself for people to care, for the opposite. [Laughs.] But that requires some preparation.
It’s interesting what you said about not having your name. There is this sort of final step that some writers like George Orwell or Franz Kafka go to, where their names literally get appropriated for—
Yeah, yeah. And we’re not at that yet, but it would be like when Between the World and Me came out, I would put on Saturday Night Live and be watching some skit, and it would show up. That book became a buzzword for a certain kind of white person. I found that enormously frustrating, because Between the World and Me emerged out of me trying to process the murder of a friend of mine. It then became this whole other conversation about it, where it was like leave aside whether this book is good or bad, leave aside whether this book does what it claims to be trying to do. What’s up with white people reading this book? [Laughs.] What’s up with that?
As a white person who read the book, I see what you’re saying, but don’t you sort of want white people to read the book and—
No, exactly. I never was like, “White people, don’t read my book.” What is the alternative? Maybe they’re out there, but I have yet to meet a writer who—even with the problems I’ve laid out—says, “Yeah, yeah, I don’t want to reach more people.”
There’s a piece in the book where I look at that essay, written long ago by Adolph Reed, and it’s a huge critique of Cornel West and the public intellectuals that were around at that time. It’s basically critiquing the role of interpreter for white people—the black writer who interprets for white people. I think there’s a lot that’s really important in that piece, in terms of writing from a particular place, that you’re not performing. But, at the same time, what black writer of any note is not on some level interpreting for white people, just because of the demographics? That critique itself was published, not in the Amsterdam News, but in the Village Voice. The majority of people reading that critique of interpreting are white, and they themselves are getting an interpretation of a black public intellectual, Cornel West, by another one.
So it’s sort of like: What is the world in which you aim for a larger audience, in a country where you hail from a minority experience, and most of the readers are not white? What is that?
I wanted to read you one line of this Melvin Rogers review of your book in the Boston Review, where he says:
Coates appears simply to invert U.S. exceptionalism, replacing it with the equally fatalistic idea that the United States is fundamentally broken. In a world where the good or bad is fated to happen, faith and hope have no foothold. This ultimately weakens our resolve and undermines our ability to take seriously the idea of, quote, an American experiment.
That quote sort of nicely summarized what has been a general critique from a bunch of people that you’re, essentially, too pessimistic about change in America.
That’s so weird. It’s not my job to strengthen anybody’s resolve to take anything about this country seriously. I’m a writer. I’m a writer.
I don’t know anything about “fundamentally broken,” but there’s a fundamental problem at the heart of this country. But that doesn’t make this country particularly original. I haven’t studied as many states as I would like to, but I’m pretty sure, from my travels and the ones I have studied, it’s not unusual to have a premise on which a state is founded and to have deep problems in that premise that continue to recur in that state’s history and actually threaten its existence all the way through. So I don’t find America particularly remarkable in that sense. I don’t find America uniquely evil or anything like that. I’m an American, so I write about America, and race has a place in that. I don’t know how to respond to that.
I totally agree it’s not your job to say we’re making progress here or we’re making progress there—
You know what, Isaac, it’s not even that. In what world is it the job of writers, historians, intellectuals, students of politics, history, sociology, anthropology, et cetera, et cetera, to strengthen the resolve of the nation?
Put aside whether it’s your job or not. (I agree that it’s not your job.) The critique itself, I think, is that some people want to say America is exceptional, and we’re this great nation, and by basically saying that progress is so hard or impossible, you’re sort of inverting that and saying American is special because it’s so fucked up in some way.
Right, and that’s what I’m saying. That’s the inversion. The inversion would be America is exceptionally fucked up.
Hard to argue with that now.
Yeah. But no, I would never say that. I would never say America is exceptionally fucked up.
I spent a year abroad in France. I get back to France as much as I can. I love France. I love the culture. I adore it. But, I love it and adore it the way I love and adore the South in America. You understand what I’m saying? I recognize that there’s something particularly—if we’re going to use this word—broken there. For instance, their ability to look at people who aren’t white, frankly, and come from previous colonies and accept them as actual French people. I see that. That’s a very, very real thing.
I don’t think America is uniquely fucked up. I’m pretty sure if I spent any period of time in any state, I would eventually begin to see the fault lines. I don’t know where the exceptional part comes from.
You say that you don’t specifically have a role to say, “Things are gonna be OK” or whatever bromides people want you to offer. It does seem to me—correct me if you think this is wrong—that you think you do have a role in saying, whatever is literally true about poverty figures among African Americans, or the end of segregation, or whatever it is, that talking about progress is insufficient.
Nah, how I would think about it is like this: I feel like I come from a community wherein we have our own ways of articulating and thinking about the world, and thinking about politics in America, and thinking about our place in America. That is, or has been for a long period of time, in conflict with the larger narrative. So much so that you could begin to feel like you’re crazy. For instance, you take “The Case for Reparations,” the feeling that I think a large number of black people have in relation to this country is they’ve been robbed. Even if they can’t really articulate the how and the why, I think that they feel it.
I feel like, more than anything, my job is to say to black folks who lived as I did, who came up as I did, “You’re not wrong. You’re not crazy. What you’re seeing is real, and here’s the report, here’s the research, here’s the science.” To make it part of and as respectable as anything else in the broader dialogue and conversation of American politics. And in many ways, to make it even more respectable than, say, folks who claim the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.
It’s been interesting to watch you wrestle with Trump as a figure because I think that, for a lot of people, it’s sort of a dividing line between highlighting the ways in which he’s unique and uniquely awful (and came after our first black president and why that is) and saying that part of his ideology has been a through line of American history.
You can have certain tendencies that result in a particularly unique fuck-up. [Laughs.] I think the tendencies that would make a Donald Trump possible have always been there and have been there for a very, very, very long time. The things that would threaten the possibility of a Donald Trump, but you change one variable, and that I think in this case was the election of an African American president, and you get a Donald Trump. That’s the way I reconcile it. In other words, I do think as a figure, he actually is unique; there hasn’t been a president like Donald Trump before. But I think the tendencies were undergirded.
For instance, the idea of birtherism, which is rooted in the old idea that black people aren’t actually citizens of the United States of America. A lot of the insults and the way people saw Obama were not particularly new. “Food stamp president”—that’s rooted in old ideas about black people. But the fact the actual thing actually happened really was unique. I think this was new.
How do you feel about it 10 months in versus during the campaign?
Oh, man, same ways I felt about it when it happened. I thought this was a disaster. I thought it was an absolute, absolute disaster. I thought that—
You don’t think he’s growing in office?
[Laughs.] I mean, it deepened, if anything. As I mentioned earlier, the thing with his chief of staff, I feel that’s pretty much in line with how he ran.
I want to ask about journalism. In our industry, 10 years ago, the type of articles that are being written about race—
OK, that’s true.
—at Slate, at the Atlantic, at the New Yorker would not have appeared 10 years ago.
That may not mean a ton in the scheme of things, but I’m wondering … how important do you think that is or noticeable?
I think it is important. I’m somebody who was in college during the ’90s and read a lot of the New Republic. Not all of it, but read it quite a bit. Read the Atlantic, read the New Yorker, read those sorts of political journals where I write today, and the bandwidth of what you can say about the black experience in this country was pretty narrow. And it’s clear that that’s opened up quite a bit. I would say that some of the stronger writers—I’d put Jamelle [Bouie] in here, I’d put Jelani Cobb in here, I’d put Nikole Hannah-Jones in here—are people who I don’t know that they could have existed 20 years ago.
I think that’s the result of two things. I think that is the work that academics, particularly historians, started putting in who came of age during the civil rights movement bearing fruit. You have journalists who are really familiar with that work, and cite that work, and know that work, and that gives them a foundation and gravitas, a basis to talk and argue and write. And the second thing is really the destruction of gatekeepers and gatekeeping as a function in media. Those two things together, probably with some other factors, but those two things specifically I think it really opened up what you can say.
It would be very interesting to look at other groups—are there arguments that are made, for instance around gender, that were not there 20 years ago, or LGBT issues, which we didn’t even call that back then, that have opened up? I don’t know. But certainly, in terms of the realm of black folks, white supremacy, race, racism, whatever, yes, it’s definitely a more open space.
In terms of the gay rights movement and the success it had politically both in changing laws and changing minds, do you think that there are any lessons there for the African American struggle for equality?
Nah, not really, not really. That’s obviously no disrespect to the LGBTQ struggle in this country. I don’t think this is the popular opinion of Black Lives Matter, but I actually think they’ve been tremendously effective. It doesn’t look effective to people, but I remember a time—and really come from a community—where things like Ferguson would happen, and the attorney general did not go show up and say, “We’re gonna launch an investigation of the entire police department here.” That really was not the response. Their ability to get people to focus and look and see, and through the advance of technology, to get large numbers of white people to really view police brutality as an actual thing that happens. I’m not an activist, but I don’t really see much in terms of what needs to be improved on. I think what happens a lot of times with activism is people push, push, push, push, and every once in a while, a generation runs into a situation where the doors open. And they push through. But those are the rare moments. And the moments before that, people are just pushing up against a wall. And nothing feels like it’s changing.
But, it seems to be saying at least that something, in terms of Black Lives Matter, in your mind, has changed or is changing underneath our feet.
I’m not so sure. I think technology changed. I think you had Twitter. I think you had the camera phone. Much as I think, like during the civil rights movement, I don’t know that the leaders of the civil rights movement were any more ingenious than the people who came before them. But I do know that the technology around media changed big time, so that you could actually see folks being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and that was a particular thing. The politics at the time were different because you had a Cold War, and folks had to think about how this footage of Freedom Riders, buses being bombed out, et cetera—how that was playing internationally, what it was saying about the country to the rest of the world. Had the leaders changed? I don’t know. I’m not so sure.
So, what’s the advice if someone says, “I wanna become an activist. Why should I do it?”
I probably wouldn’t answer that question. I probably would direct them to other activists. [Laughs.] I’m a writer. I’m not an activist. I almost physically recoil at the idea of being one. You know what I mean. I’m so not angled that way at all, like I would like to—
So if a kid comes up to you, family friend or something, and says, “I want to make the world a better place. I want to go into activism for civil rights causes.” I assume you don’t tell them, “Don’t waste your time”?
No, I tell them they should think about what is the thing that really, really interests them, that they really love. Outside of politics and the impact they want to have in the world, what’s the thing that makes them individually, specifically happy. It does no good for me to tell you to go study civil rights law if you’re not actually really, really, deeply interested in the law. So, I tell them to figure out what that is and to try to direct in such a way that reflects their desire to make the world a better place.
I love writing. I love writing independent of the politics and the things I tackle. I love the actual nitty-gritty nuts-and-bolts of it. I think I would be doing it, even if there were a different political situation. But having found that love, I had to figure out how to make that engage with the politics of the country.
What did you make, at the time and in hindsight, of when Hillary Clinton made her “deplorables” remark?
I thought she was right. I thought that the numbers were on her side. I thought she was very, very, clearly correct. When she says half of Trump’s supporters are X, Y, and Z, I thought there were pretty good polling numbers to show that.
I thought that was the moment, more than any moment—and maybe other people would debate with me on this—where the media was just so hypocritical in how it dealt with her. You can’t, on the one hand, dog this person and tell them, “You’re always lying. You’re never being straight-up. You’re never giving a really truthful impression of yourself.” Maybe not lying, but, “You’re always guarded. You’re always calculating.” And then the person speaks to you on their truth, and you say, “Aha, that was a huge political mistake.”
It was just that sort of bankrupt, amoral political analysis that folks do, this kind of horse race bullshit. It’s the pinnacle of bullshit, horse race analysis. It was a really, really depressing moment. If you want to have an argument about, “Yeah, you can say that, but the Democratic Party has XYZ,” fine, let’s have that conversation. But this sort of, How’s it gonna play, she made a misstep, da-da-da-da-da, after you said it was a misstep to be guarded. Which is it? It’s a strong argument for politicians not listening to these people.
The question that I’ve been wrestling with is: We have a country where however many percentage of people are very, very racist. I don’t think Hillary’s estimate was off. We are living in a country where 46 percent of people voted for a racist, or 46 percent of people who voted voted for a racist. At one level, part of me wants to say, “Well, they’re all racists because they voted for a racist, and most of them don’t care that he’s a racist, even though it’s blatantly obvious.” At another level—I’m saying this not as a writer, because I think a writer’s job is to say what you think and whatever, but just as a fellow citizen—it’s really hard to engage with people when you feel like they’re racist. It makes me scared and worried about American democracy, because my impulse is to say, “These people are all racist. Screw them.” But, I also think that you can’t really make a society that way, even if it’s true. I was just wondering if you think about that and what you make of it.
I do, and I don’t actually think that they’re all racist, screw them. I feel like a disturbing number of them actually are racist. I feel like a larger number actually are willing to overlook racism. But my deep-seated suspicion is that this is the same as it ever was. That the rabid racists, let’s say, in the Jim Crow South were not the majority. There’s a critical mass of rabid racists. There are people who are kind of racist. And then there are people who just sort of go along.
In that sense, this doesn’t feel different to me necessarily. It doesn’t really require, for me, much in the way of mental gymnastics to see somebody vote for Obama and then voting for Trump. That is not as confusing to me as the question is often posed as. It doesn’t mean you’re openly racist; it just means that having a president of the United States who is openly racist is not an immediate disqualifier to you. That is a sad statement, but again, taking this conversation back where it started, I don’t know that it makes America particularly unique in terms of its disturbing number of citizens holding views that we would call deplorable.
I know a lot of people have written and thought about this, but it does really feel like we’re living in two different worlds, and it’s very hard to conceive of a way in which we can get through to people. I do think race is at the heart of a lot of it.
I do too. One of the things that I keep in mind, though, is most people did not vote for Donald Trump. And the second thing is that maybe it’s just the virtue of chance, the importance of chance. Maybe there’s no James Comey letter. If you run that election on a different day. If you run it at a different time. It was a really, really close election. From my perspective, the force of white supremacy cannot be taken out of any sort of equation to understand Donald Trump’s election. Does it mean you necessarily have to get Donald Trump? No, I don’t think it means that. It doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to Trumps, either.