Just a few months before the end of his final term in office, U.S. President Barack Obama invited Ta-Nehisi Coates to the White House for lunch. The two had met many times over the years – one was the leader of the free world, the other was the most renowned black journalist in America – and often got into heated debates, drawing deeply from their differing perspectives on race and power.
But that day, they agreed on one thing: There was no way that their fellow Americans would "return to the old form" and elect the likes of Donald Trump as their president. Mr. Coates, the award-winning author of Between the World and Me and a correspondent for The Atlantic, looks back on that moment now – and laments that both men lost sight of the fact that "the best can happen to you one moment, and the worst can happen to your country in the next."
He kept close watch during Mr. Obama's two terms in office, observing that the man, his family and his administration, "were a walking advertisement for the ease with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics and myth."
"And that," he added, "was always the problem."
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mr. Coates argues, most Americans aren't afraid of the stereotype of black criminality or recklessness. What scares them is the high-achieving, exceptional black population. With a so-called "Good Negro" like Mr. Obama as president, whites came to fear that black and other racialized people were being dangerously empowered, and that what was needed was an aggressive course correction: Donald Trump.
Mr. Coates's latest release, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, is a collection of articles published during the Obama presidency, each prefaced with a new personal essay. In a Canadian exclusive, he spoke to The Globe and Mail about the first black president, the Obama successor he refers to as America's "first white president," and how a study of history makes it impossible to be optimistic about race relations in his country.
You don't mince words about Donald Trump: You say his ideology is white supremacy. What do you mean by that?
You have a gentleman who during the nineties called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were eventually found innocent. Who was quoted as saying he didn't want black guys counting his money – only guys with yarmulkes. You have somebody who believes that a [Hispanic] judge can't fairly hear a case because he's "a Mexican." You have a guy who installs in the White House a gentleman who used to publish, and now has gone back to publishing, a website that is a platform for the alt-right – that's just another name for white supremacy. I think it's fair to call that person a white supremacist. That's not merely being conservative. That's not merely wanting to cut taxes. That's not a different view of the state's relationship to the individual. That's white supremacy.
In your mind, what's the dividing line between Trump supporters who are avowed white supremacists and those who aren't but who still cast a ballot for him?
There are people he appeals to very directly on that – maybe 30, 40 per cent or so. And the rest did not believe that being a white supremacist doesn't disqualify you from going into the White House. Trump has made a number of bigoted statements. Clearly a substantial portion of this country who are not bigoted themselves, who are not white supremacists themselves, thought it was okay and permissible to offer the most powerful office in the world to somebody with a long career of doing that. One shouldn't take comfort in the fact that those folks aren't white supremacists any more than one should take comfort in the fact that a section of people in Nazi Germany were not avowed Nazis. That doesn't get you out of the mess.
In making sense of the election, a lot of Democrats made the focus the working class. Why do you think they were so reluctant to address the role of race in what played out?
Because a lot of the people doing the analysis are in fact implicated in Trump getting elected. If you do the math, the through-line for Donald Trump's election is those folks that identify as white. White is the only category where you can see across class from poor people to working people to middle-class people to wealthy, elite people, women, men, college educated, not college educated, all going for Donald Trump. That is remarkable and it deserves some degree of focus.
You make note of the way Obama's success came from his ability to speak to white people in a way that was soothing, that it was important for him to preserve white innocence – there was never any blaming happening. Tell me about that.
I think, given his background – not merely being biracial, but growing up in a family in which the people that loved him and accepted him as black were white, I think that gave him a slightly different perspective than most African-Americans, even most biracial African-Americans, actually have. Obama related to white America intimately in a very, very direct way. He would go into people's homes when he was campaigning and he would see his grandparents in a way that I might not have seen my grandparents in those moments. I think that gave him an ability to speak in a way that I certainly had not heard from black politicians.
You grew up in segregated Baltimore. And you write about how you didn't have a sense of race consciousness in the beginning because everyone around you was black. How did this affect how you viewed whiteness?
I think it gave me a degree of confidence in terms of being on equal footing. I knew black people who were much smarter than I was and for whatever reason did not have the opportunities that I had. I was very confident in the abilities of my community. I also wasn't directly exposed to the stereotypes – I was exposed through TV and popular culture. Not by teachers, not by people around me. The first time I was called [the n-word] I was in another country as a fully grown adult. I didn't have certain traumas. I obviously don't support segregation, but I think it shielded me from a lot of stuff.
And how has that been different for your 17-year-old son?
His experience is totally different. New York is a lot more diverse, a lot more integrated. And it's a different time – people are aware of things, at least in his school. There's a dialogue, a vocabulary that wasn't available when I was a child.
A lot of people saw Obama's presidency as a postracial turn for America. But you point out this wasn't just a black man, this was one of the most exceptional black men. It reminds me of this thing Fran Lebowitz said – Americans will have equality only "when dopey black people get into Harvard because their chair-endowing grandfathers went there." Do you see that happening in your son's life?
Nah, probably not. But she's right. That's equality. Equality would be the ability to have a black Donald Trump in this country, which most people know could never happen. It's mediocrity. It's not the most exceptional and most deserving succeeding, it's the ability to be mediocre and still succeed. In the case of Trump: to be truly baleful and still succeed.
People want you to be the guy who has the solution to the race problem in America. Or at least they want you to promise that things will get better. But that's not your thing. You say resistance must be its own reward.
It's the only way for me to make sense of the generations and generations of black people in this country who struggled and died and did not see their dreams realized in their lifetime. Those people's lives have to have some sort of worth. My life has to have meaning.
You point out that people like Martin Luther King, Jr. were seen as hugely unpopular criminal radicals in their time. How do you think the founders of Black Lives Matter will be remembered? Or people like Colin Kaepernick?
The same way we remember Muhammad Ali, remember John Carlos and Tommie Smith. It's an historical process. People object to them in the moment, but 20, 30 years from now, when people start looking at the videos and the killings of black people and they see that the response to a man who simply sought to take a knee was to drive him out of the league and deprive him of his livelihood and his ability to support his family through something he'd been training for his whole life, it will look hideous.
A word you use to describe every phase of black Americans' relationship with the state and society is "plunder." There was slavery, there was redlining. What about now? What does plunder look like in 2017?
It looks like the lawsuit that Wells Fargo ended up having to settle in 2009 where they were selling [high-interest subprime] ghetto loans to "mud people" as they described them. It looks like mass incarceration where you have historic numbers of black men pulled out of their communities and jailed to give jobs in prisons in communities far, far away. It really looks like the NFL, where people are playing a game in which they're destroying their brains, literally – in college football, basically playing for free while people make millions off of their bodies. If you step out of line in any sort of way once you get into the pros like Colin Kaepernick did, they'll just drive you right out.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Dakshana Bascaramurty is The Globe and Mail's national race and ethnicity reporter.