Ta-Nehisi Coates on the unfair expectation that one black president could undo inequality
2017-10-12 22:25:25

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now some perspective on the presidency of Barack Obama and the election of Donald Trump.(1)

Hari Sreenivasan has this latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.(2)

HARI SREENIVASAN: Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election was historic for many reasons,(3)

but, for all the firsts, the eight years of the Obama administration also fueled a backlash that strengthened many of the political and social divisions within the country.(4)

Now comes some perspective on those years.(5)

“We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” is a collection of essays from National Book Award winner and national correspondent for “The Atlantic” magazine Ta-Nehisi Coates.(6)

He joins me now. So, let’s start with one of the things you talked about in the epilogue. You called Trump first white president.(7)

And from the president’s responses to Charlottesville, to the NFL protests, to his word choice in responding after Maria, how do you process all that?(8)

TA-NEHISI COATES, Author, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy”: Well, it’s really predictable, as far as I could see.(9)

When I use that title for the president, it’s not to identify any physical feature, you know, hair, eye color or fairness of skin or anything like that.(10)

Obviously, we have had plenty of presidents that checked white on their census form.(11)

But the difference with President Trump is that he was able to make the identity and the entire program of a black president, who preceded him, central to his own identity and his own program.(12)

Birtherism, for instance, is where his political campaign began. In addition to that, if you look at some of the data in terms of who his base is, what his base believes,(13)

I think he’s pretty much living out exactly what the core of his base actually asks for. So, I wasn’t particularly surprised by that.(14)

HARI SREENIVASAN: You had an essay, and part of one of the essays in here is kind of the limits on — the limits that existed on the Obama presidency.(15)

Are there any limits that exist on the Trump presidency?(16)

TA-NEHISI COATES: That is a great question. I haven’t seen them yet. I haven’t seen them.(17)

I’m sure there’s something he could do that would be completely unacceptable.(18)

But I have to say, you know, being caught on tape bragging about, you know, grabbing, molesting, sexually assaulting a woman, I think a lot of people thought that was a limit.(19)

You know, I think there have been several things that have happened.(20)

And I think one of the scary things about this moment right now is, is that those moments are slowly — or, immediately, you know, quickly broken down.(21)

What happens for the next president and the president after that? What is the message about norms for the presidency after this?(22)

HARI SREENIVASAN: You say eight years in power is part of it, and then the American tragedy is another part.(23)

When you look at the statistics for black Americans, they didn’t necessarily prosper under Obama.(24)


HARI SREENIVASAN: Black middle-class wealth is staggeringly low. Black homeownership is at record lows.(26)

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. I have no sort of defense of Obama on that score.(27)

And I think one of the things he — like, when I think about credit, the big thing I think about actually is the criminal justice system.(28)

I think, at the end of his term, even though there are folks who would say — and I think they’re pretty much right — that he waited to the end to use his power of clemency,(29)

he granted clemency to more folks in federal prison than all of his predecessors combined, some ridiculous number of people.(30)

The ability to see disturbances in Ferguson, and have the Justice Department actually go down there and investigate those disturbances and produce reports, that’s something that’s sorely missing now.(31)

You’re correct, though. He didn’t get to the deeper set of problems. And I’m kind of mixed on whether it’s fair to hold him to account.(32)

We have a wealth gap in this country between black and white of about — for every nickel an African-American family has, a white family has a dollar.(33)

That is a huge, huge chasm. Perhaps he could have done more to close that.(34)

HARI SREENIVASAN: I ask that partly because there is this sort of almost kind of a meme that says, well, the first black president existed. Black families should be doing pretty well.(35)

And even now, there is almost a tying in to kind of celebrity exceptionalism.(36)

We just saw, even after the NFL, the comments of these athletes, they should be so lucky as to have the privilege to earn these millions of dollars.(37)

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right. Well, there’s a lot there.(38)

The first thing that I would say is that that situation that I just outlined for African-Americans, where you have a 1-20 ratio in terms of wealth, that didn’t come from one white president.(39)

That’s the succession of several white presidents over the course of centuries.(40)

That’s how we got there. It wasn’t the act of just one. And so the expectation that one would undo it, I think, is a bit unfair.(41)

In regards to the celebrity exceptionalism of the NFL athletes, what’s so amazing about that is, this is — nobody feels the same way about the owners.(42)

It’s presumed that the owners, who are billionaires to the athletes’ millionaires, earn their money, but the players should be grateful for their millions.(43)

And I don’t really understand that. It’s not presumed that they actually worked for anything, you know? And so it’s a very, very different standard being that is applied there.(44)

HARI SREENIVASAN: We see really, even in just these eight years, we see your writing style evolve.(45)


HARI SREENIVASAN: And, probably, you saw that evolve.(47)

Is it also strange to recognize now that, given that you are a published author, you have had these essays,(48)

that people kind of forget about your lean years that you introduce us to in the early part of the book?(49)

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, nobody knew. So I can forgive people for forgetting.(50)

I think, like, what is difficult is those lean years are the core of my identity. I have been writing now for 21 years.(51)

And the majority of that time was spent in lean years. And so that’s, like, how I see myself.(52)

But it’s very clear that, when I go into that world, that other people don’t see that. And it’s probably unfair to expect them to see that.(53)

But, for me, like, I have difficulty seeing what they see. I guess I should say that.(54)

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, you have got a Black Panther comic series. You have got a screenplay, some sort of secret novel you’re working on.(55)

HARI SREENIVASAN: I just — I wonder, is your gaze elsewhere? Are you thinking about the world now as critically as you might have been in the last eight years?(56)

TA-NEHISI COATES: I don’t think I am, to be honest with you, Hari, to be straight with you. I don’t think I am.(57)

This was a — these last eight years, it was the culmination of a long journey that really started for me in West Baltimore, where I looked at, you know, my neighbors and my family, and saw how they were living.(58)

And then I would cut on the TV and see how the broader country represented itself and see how different it was.(59)

And I always wondered why. And I think I have some pretty good answers now.(60)

And I guess I probably have a set of questions now that either need to be answered in other forms or about other things totally.(61)

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Ta-Nehisi Coates from “Atlantic” magazine.(62)

The book is called, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.” Thanks for joining us, Hari.(63)

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thanks so much.(64)

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