Ta-Nehisi Coates Unplugged

An extended discussion on war, Trump, Clinton, Sanders, liberals embracing neoconservatives, and the Black Panther comic series.

7/16/15, Baltimore, Md. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates in Baltimore City, Md on July 16, 2015. Gabriella Demczuk/ The New York Times
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates in Baltimore City, Md on July 16, 2015. Photo Illustration: The Intercept. (Photo: Gabriella Demczuk. Illustration: Dan Funderburgh.)

Donald Trump responds to the suffering of black and brown people in a radically different way than he does to that of white people. Puerto Ricans, in his mind, should have been grateful to him, and any Puerto Rican who complains is dirt. He can call John McCain a loser for getting shot down in Vietnam, but black athletes can’t exercise their First Amendment rights. Black athletes are sons of bitches, but the white shooter in Las Vegas is probably smart, according to Trump. This is a pattern that only the willfully ignorant can deny. And this isn’t just about Trump at home. He’s re-escalating the war in Afghanistan. He’s expanded a lethal spigot to Saudi Arabia to keep the bombs dropping on Yemen. He has eased the restrictions for the U.S. military on killing civilians. He’s considering authorizing increased CIA drone operations. And Trump is threatening to wipe North Korea, a country of 25 million people, off the map.

Book cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates' "We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy."

Book cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.”

Part of the horrors emanating from Trump involves style, and some involve substance. President Obama was a belligerent war president. So was Bill Clinton. So was George W. Bush. So is Donald Trump. Trump is not really taking the war positions he is because he’s Donald Trump. He’s doing what American presidents do, albeit with some tweaks and differences here and there. But Trump says things that are horrifying. He openly lies. He deliberately chooses to inflame situations. So how much of Trump is who he is and what he believes and how much of it is how he does it and how he speaks?

Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote an article about Trump that has sparked a lot of discussion and debate. The title alone is very provocative: “The First White President.” It’s a fascinating read and it addresses the ways in which the eight-year presidency of the first black president, Barack Obama, was seized on by Trump trying to make his way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the piece, Coates write, “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a ‘piece of ass.’”

Coates continues: “That is the point of white supremacy — to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible. Trump truly is something new — the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so, it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific — America’s first white president.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a new book that has just been released, it’s a collection of his writings, and it’s called, “We Were Eight Years in Power.”

Listen to the interview here:

Subscribe to the Intercepted podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and other platforms. New to podcasting? Click here.

Extended transcript:
Jeremy Scahill: So I’ll just start by welcoming you to Intercepted.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Thanks for having me.

JS: I know that you’re getting asked a lot about Donald Trump and you obviously have a very provocative title of this book and you also had a very provocative title in that Atlantic piece that you wrote. I want to start with a different tact. I want to ask you how you got interested in comics.

TNC: Well, I was in that age group. I can vaguely remember that horrible Fantastic Four cartoon that was on in the late 70s. I was born in ’75, so I would’ve been four, maybe five years old to see this. I remember that’s my first recollection of superheroes, and then I remember Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends so this was my intro to Marvel, basically. I had an older brother and they have like the X-Men guest-spotting on there and everything. And I had an older brother who collected comic books. And that seemed like the natural extension, I think Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was only on for like three seasons or whatever, and so it was the natural extension, that you could actually follow these people. And so I followed from him.

And what people have to remember is it’s so tough to imagine a world without internet and without cellphones, but that’s really what it was. And so, in that space, worlds, where you could get lost, was so much more important. You know, where TV was very different while we didn’t have cable TV, you know three or four channels. And so, there just wasn’t much to do besides, read, listen to music, whatever. And that was how I got into it and loved it. I still love it.

JS: Were you a collector?

TNC: Oh yeah. Big time. Yeah. In fact, when I went away to college, I left my collection with my mother and they were briefly lost and I was so upset. And I was trying not to be upset with my mom, it wasn’t my mom’s fault I had left them there. But I was heartbroken, but she found out and it was glorious. I was so, so happy. Yes, yes I was a collector.

JS: When you were when you were a kid did you ever contemplate; did you ever write your own comics?

TNC: No, I didn’t know what that looked like. And what that meant — I didn’t understand what a script was. I didn’t know, I think in my head I thought it’d be really cool to write comics but it was like, “How does that happen?” You know what I mean?

It’s like when people talk about going to college, and nobody in your family or anyone in the families around you has ever gone to college, you know? And again, this is like pre-Internet. You can’t Google, “How do I become a comic book writer?” Like that doesn’t fly, so I just I didn’t know a pathway.

JS: And how did you end up writing Black Panther?

TNC: Marvel just called me, I mean, I would write from time to time about comic books on The Atlantic and I would tweet about because I was a big nerd. And they just, they called me up and said, “Do you want to take a shot at this?”

JS: Was it, do you think that it was important that you did have a background in loving comics and reading them when you were writing it. I mean, did you have to like study a whole new way of writing?

TNC: I did, I did have to study a whole new way of writing. But, somewhere in my bones I knew — I felt, like I could feel it, like what a comic book was. I think that’s important.

But, yeah, it’s completely different, man. It’s so much last words like you just don’t have the space, to use words the way you do.

JS: How did you map out that universe in Black Panther? I mean did, did you physically use maps? Like, what was your process for writing that?

TNC: This is a great interview (laughs).

JS: I assume you mean that sarcastically.

TNC: No, I’m serious. I’m not being sarcastic at all.

JS: I’m really curious about that.

TNC: Yeah, no, no one ever asked me this. So, I’m dead serious. I learned how to use, damn it, who makes the PDF Reader? Adobe. So, I learned to use — can I not curse?

JS: You can, you can, you can say whatever you want!

TNC: So, I learned to use PDF draw from Adobe, I think it’s just Draw, whatever it’s called, it might even be Photoshop.

JS: So, you learned how to use a drawing application.

TNC: I’m sorry! It’s not important which one it was (laughs).

JS: Adobe!

TNC: Adobe!

JS: By Ta-Nehisi Coates.

TNC: Yes! Sponsored by. (laughs).

JS: There you go!

TNC: I learned how to use the drawing application and they have these great YouTube videos for how to make a fantasy map. So, yeah, I did, I just created a new map you know, for Wakanda. I thought a lot about what characters had been in a comic book before, and who I wanted to carry over and what their personalities should be like. How they would look. I was actually living in France that year when I first started working. So, I would just go to a cafe with a book and a pen and literally just let my mind wander and just sketch stuff out until I finally got characters, got to a story, and got some sense of the world. It was great fun.

JS: So, do you have unpublished backstories for various characters? I mean, how I think about in terms of when people write a script or when you talk to actors about preparing for a role, the actor, the director, the writer — they know much more about the characters than ever makes it into the — was it like that with doing this?

TNC: Yes, yes, yes, yes. I guess I had what you would, I guess what would be a treatment, well I had two of those. I had breakdowns for every comic book, at least what I thought it was going to be when I went to write the comic, but often it wasn’t that way. Yeah.

JS: What can you share that’s not in the comic book about any character?

TNC: Boy, you’re really putting me on the spot here. There’s one actually, that I’m thinking a lot about that I can’t actually tell you.

So, there’s a big plot that’s going on in the season I’m writing right now, where the gods are not in Wakanda. And I know when I set out to write it, I was going to be in a lot of conversation about where they were. And this is horrible because I can’t tell you where they are. But there’s a lot of conversation about where they were and what they meant. Like literally, the artist, Brian Stelfreeze, who worked on the first one, he drew out each of the gods. And they all have different priesthoods and different practices and, you know, differences between the gods of harvest, for instance, gods of war, gods of wisdom, and intellect, and science. And all of them do have different priesthoods. And I was hoping to be able to depict that. But none of that made it in. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough space. It’s sad, man.

JS: Is the editorial process of working with fiction, and specifically with comics, is it like worlds different from when you’re working with an editor?

TNC: It’s much looser. It’s incredible. I was shocked how loose it is. I mean over Marvel, man, people are editing a lot of books, they work hard, they work late hours. And so that can be frustrating sometimes in terms of say, getting copies at a comic book you wrote.

But it can be gratifying a sense that there’s a ton of independence. That if you want to just go design a new map for Wakanda, you can do that.

JS: And this is going to be a big box film, also.

TNC: Yeah, but it’s not me. It’s not me. There is a Black Panther coming out, film coming out in February.

JS: It has nothing to do with you.

TNC: It’s a character. But I don’t have any sort of creative input into it, you know.

JS: So they’re not like, cribbing any of your stuff for it.

TNC: They crib some of the art! They crib some of the art and some of the concepts. You know? But no, the story is, the story is all Ryan Coogler. I can’t wait to see it.

JS: I know Ryan well, also. When I was making our film, Dirty Wars, Ryan was working on his first feature film. And that guy is an amazing director. And he is a brilliant, brilliant guy.

TNC: Did you see Creed?

JS: Yeah, of course. It’s amazing, I don’t know if it was the best of the Rocky films, but it was definitely a contender for being the best.

TNC: So, I’m a little biased, because the Rocky films were always hard, and we’re coming up in the 80s, and obviously everybody fighting was black, and then there’s Rocky. And I felt like he made it okay for me to watch Rocky.

JS: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Were you rooting for Apollo Creed?

TNC: No, I couldn’t relate. I couldn’t relate.

JS: He’s not a relatable character.

TNC: It was like, I don’t know who this guy is. I don’t recognize this dude, because he doesn’t really — I mean, that’s not true. In later films, he did have an interior life. I don’t want to slam those films, you know what I mean? Especially when you start getting to Rocky 3. There’s more of an interior life. But then they killed him! You know what I mean? It’s like, come on man!

JS: Yeah, and what I thought was really low was, when Sylvester Stallone was at, I think it was at the Golden Globes, you know, he doesn’t mention Ryan Coogler, and then at the very end he’s like, “You know but there’s one person that I really have to mention because without him this wouldn’t have happened.” And he says, “And that’s Rocky Balboa.” He didn’t even mention Ryan Coogler.

TNC: Jeez.

JS: And didn’t even mention Ryan Coogler and I remember sitting there thinking like that, like what is, this is worse than forgetting to thank Mom at the Oscars. I mean you’re talking about the guy who directed this film.

TNC: Did he apologize? Did he apologize for that?

JS: I mean, maybe some PR person put out something. But I just remember watching that, jaw on the floor, you know. And I thought that Fruitvale Station, I thought that Ryan got snubbed on that too.

TNC: I can’t, I haven’t watched that film. I can’t watch it. One day I’ll get it up. I don’t have it right now to watch that film.

JS: I mean, I hear you. I hear you. Let’s turn now from the world of Black Panther to Orange President, to Trump.

I think a lot of the focus and I think a lot of people on social media, when your piece first came out, you know, on “The First White President,” I think there was a lot of people commenting on it that didn’t actually read it. That was the sense that I had in the kind of initial blast. I was just talking to Ai Wei Wei here, and he was saying that to him Donald Trump is, is only more of a kind of extroverted version of what we’ve seen from the United States presidency in general.

And I’m wondering if you see it that way or if you think that — I mean, clearly, we have a guy who is saying things and emboldening people that it’s sort of become like, you don’t really do that publicly if you hold political office. You have the Roy Moores of the world —

TNC: But he’s a profane version of what a real American attitude to the rest of the world actually is.

JS: Right, and that was his perception. This is a guy who hasn’t been in the United States for decades, he’s in China, he’s under assault there. That’s his perception. I’m just wondering what you think of that analysis.

TNC: I am ill qualified, but that feels true. I would never have thought of it like that. I just — it’s funny, even when the book ends, sort of with an international perspective. Because I think that one of the things when you’re in a group that’s oppressed, there’s a tendency sometimes to take comfort in that oppression. The idea that it makes you noble or exempts you from certain things, as opposed to seeing how maybe you’re tied to other folks’ oppression.

And, so, in this version of “The First White President,” there’s a part where I talk about to the rest of the world as Americans, maybe, black people are white too. Do you understand? Like, in the concept of whiteness, as power, as oppressive power. We are all actually kind part of this. You know? And so, hearing that: I’m not shocked. I’m not shocked, you know. That’s a fascinating concept. You just blew my mind.

JS: I mean you’re writing the Obama presidency was you know, they say, “a prophet is not someone that that sees the future but understands the times in which we live.” And I always felt reading your writing about Obama that it was kind of, it was so unusual because it felt like the kind of analysis that you would get years removed from the reality that we’re in.

But the sort of flip side of Obama on a policy level was that when it came down to the brass tacks, this was a guy engaged in initiating new wars, sustaining old wars, you know, filled with contradictions. I think a lot of people projected onto Obama who they wanted him to be when in reality a lot of his policies were sort of center or center right in the context of American politics.

But how do you reconcile that, the kind of minutia of what he did to build U.S. empire and the wars and all of that stuff, with his symbolic importance, but also who he was as president? It’s so different than for Trump. Does it matter?

TNC: Yeah, it does matter but I think you’re asking an important question. And I think, frankly, I am always called to that kind of reconciliation when I study any other president. How do I reconcile the fact that Lincoln, you know, ultimately led the war that emancipated four million enslaved African-Americans, and, at the same time, you know, very much held white supremacist attitudes, advocated the colonization of black people out of this country? How do I reconcile Lyndon Johnson, pioneer in terms of civil rights legislation and the Vietnam War? How do I reconcile Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his efforts in strengthening the social safety net yet doing that on the back of white supremacy in the south? It’s tough man, it’s tough.

You know, very interesting, I was in Chicago doing some reporting. Right? I was arguing with these guys you know, in the academy with a bunch of historians. I love arguing with historians.

And I said, “Obama is a great president.” And they go, “Ohhhh!” And they all get upset, right? And I said, “Well, you know, the question you have to ask is “by the scales of what the American presidency is, not he’s a great person, but in terms of what the American presidency is, he’s a great.” And, you know, we’re going back and forth, and I said, “Okay, so who’s a great president?” And one of the professors says, “Lyndon Johnson, without Vietnam.” (laughing) She was joking.

JS: She was trolling you. Real nice troll.

TNC: But one of the other guys said something really profound. I said, “Listen, you have to say what, you know, within an American context, given the populace we have given that we can’t elect a new people, what would be great.” And he said, guy said to me — he was a philosophy major, which I should I’ve known, he said, “I’m not invested in those categories. I reject the whole argument.” And I left thinking about that the whole night, like, maybe the presidency, and I haven’t fully fleshed this out, but maybe the presidency in terms of what it is, we shouldn’t think of people who have that job as great, ever. Like, it’s not possible to be great. Implicit in it are certain things that are not possible to salute. Are not possible to reconcile.

Obviously, I advocate participation in the democratic process, but maybe that should always be done with like, a kind of skepticism of any sort of, you know, rah rah rah, et cetera. It was actually sort of a profound point. I haven’t, as you can tell, fully decided what that meant. But it was a check. It definitely stopped me from calling him great. You know, it was an important check.

JS: I mean, it was interesting, when Obama was running first time, when he was running for president, you had to look for it because it wasn’t part of the stump speech. But Obama has had this incredible grasp of history in this country that generally is thought of like what Howard Zinn wrote about and not the kind of examples that a presidential candidate gives on the campaign trail.

He talked about, you know, the workers on trains in this country, the porters, and others and the strikes and the idea that some leaders were saying at the time in the 1940s, “you have to make me do it. You have to hold me accountable.”

And, you know, you always got this sense, I always got this sense that Obama —

TNC: Isn’t that myth, too? I think that quote is —

JS: Yes! But this is what I’m saying, this, the examples that Obama would give and this is what I’m getting at —

TNC: Right.

JS: The examples that Obama would give, had this kind of foundation to them that was different than, big mainstream political candidates typically would have had. But if you peel back the layers of them, they’re almost like a neo-liberal version of Howard Zinn, rather than like any attachment to a truly radical different idea.

TNC: Yeah, no I think in the book, the phrase I use, “conservative revolutionary,” by which I mean, the fact of a black president was revolutionary but he’s an establishmentarian. He’s conservative, clearly, you know, he believes in American institutions. He believes that America is and he would just say this unadulterated, a force for good in the world. He probably would have more nuance making that argument than George Bush would have if you sat down and had him talk about it. But he believes in — I’ll just say this — in the country in a way that I probably don’t.

The question I always have, though, is what is possible for an American president? And maybe that takes me back to the logic that I should have rejected in the first place, but where are our expectations for what it should be? And I’m not saying in terms of what should we protest and what should we not, which should we object to what should we not. But his foreign policy, specifically — were you surprised? I wasn’t really surprised.

JS: No, and, in fact, I mean I, but maybe. I mean you and I are from the same generation. I mean part of it was that I came of age or became an adult when Bill Clinton was president.

TNC: Right.

JS: And the first war that I covered was under Clinton. I was in Iraq in the 90s. I was in Yugoslavia in the 90s. And I think maybe because I ended up becoming a reporter, I didn’t really view Bush as this epic departure from Clinton. I mean clearly Iraq was a, you know, a mass killing on a mass scale, but Clinton was, you know, Noam Chomsky called it “the new military humanism,” you know he wrapped everything in humanitarian — you know, these cruise missiles that were raining down, it was for humanitarian purposes. But when you look at it, it’s a pretty consistent — here’s never been some huge circuit breaker.

TNC: Well he, he, Bush, especially after 9/11, had a vision of remaking the world. Now, obviously Clinton would rain down bombs on people, but the idea, for instance, of remaking Yugoslavia, you know, wasn’t present.

I think also those guys, I mean not to get too off subject, but I think they’re haunted by, I think they were haunted by Rwanda. I think that that looms large in a lot of peoples’ minds and process, the price of not intervening and what that could look like.

JS: Yeah, I mean no doubt about that. And you had the neoconservatives, I mean people throw that around a lot right, but these were people that spent the eight dark years of the Clinton era preparing a game plan for the day they took power.

TNC: Right.

JS: I’m wondering what you think of the kind of recent embrace of George Bush, but also people like Bill Kristol and David Frum and others, by kind of liberals or Democrats, et cetera, because of the Trump-Russia stuff.

TNC: It makes me uneasy. You know, it makes me uneasy because, I mean I guess on one level, you know, they are taking a somewhat courageous route in the sense that they’re not, simply — there are people who are clearly not doing this, like a Tucker Carlson or a Dan Nesters, who I actually believe know better. You know, and a judge turning it into a complete racket. So, I think we can at least say that.

But I don’t think it should obscure the fact that we have profound differences with folks. I just don’t think that should be missed or forgotten. I certainly don’t feel it.

JS: Yeah, I mean I struggle with this on a personal level, too, like is there any forgiveness that anyone should ever lend David Frum for writing the “axis of evil” speech.

TNC: Yeah, I mean, if, certainly, I mean — I probably could imagine some things he could — you know what it would require? “I was completely wrong about that. It led to a massive human humanitarian catastrophe and I just really, really shouldn’t have done it. And it will affect all the work I do going forward. I will always remember that.” I don’t think people should necessarily be banished from public life. But they need to be straight up, you know what I mean? They need to be really, really straight up about their mistakes and not act like this was some game of chess or something.

JS: I think you’re right on the money there. I hadn’t thought about it in the way you just put it, but I think that’s the biggest part of what I find offensive about the whole thing is that it’s like, “All is forgiven.” And it’s like a million people died in that war.

TNC: That’s right. That’s right.

JS: And it’s like, no I’m not going to just between you talking about the latest Russia shit.

TNC: No, no, no, but we just don’t see it. I keep talking about this piece because it really bugged me out, but Evan Osnos did this piece on North Korea in the New Yorker. And I think one of most effective things he was able to show — you know, North Korea is a totalitarian, authoritarian state — but they have a memory of the Korean War that Americans just have no idea about. You know Curtis Lemay raining down bombs. And that means something to them. And we just have no access to it. You know what I mean? And maybe some extent it was always this way, but in terms of, you know, the notion that what is wrong with Iraq is the number of American soldiers who died, that’s what was actually wrong with Iraq. That sort of perspective, it’s scary. You know, it’s scary.

JS: Well and you see with the take a knee protests, you know, the way that it’s now so far away from the original point that Colin Kaepernick and others were making, it’s been co-opted by some. Or it’s been characterized as an attack on the troops by others. But, it’s like, there’s a long history in this country of connecting the dots between what the American government says it is and what the American government does around the world. And we’re, you know, the Muhammad Ali quote about the Viet Cong, they never called me the n-word, and it’s like, nowadays, were called to some kind of bizarre superficial patriotism or else we’re against the troops. And it’s like what’s wrong with saying what the troops did is criminal. Them being sent there was criminal.

TNC: You can’t say that.

JS: Right, and especially, black men can’t say that even more.

TNC: And here’s the worst part. There was nothing he could have done. So, initially, people don’t remember this, he was actually sitting down on the bench, and that was thought to be disrespectful. He went and talked to a veteran, who apparently had some politics, and said, “Listen, I get it, you want to protest one thing. What might make this go better is if you took a knee.”

People forgot that taking a knee actually was the compromise. It was the attempt to show some level of respect, you know? There’s nothing he could have done differently that would have made this OK.

JS: We should have a split-screen, though, of Kaepernick or other people on their knee, although Kaepernick is not on a team right now, and like, any random white guys sitting on their couch with their feet up during the national anthem. Like, “That’s your respect for the national anthem.” I think it’s part because they are black men doing that.

TNC: No, that’s definitely it. And then there’s the entire labor politics of the NFL, which I think play into this. People do not think of those guys as workers, despite the fact they played basically play for free all through college, you know, bash their brains in, and, subject themselves to all sorts of illness and injury.

I mean, again, to the point of your brain, like literally, you know your brain being affected, go into a league in which you have, yeah, workers, who are making millions, but, effectively working for people who make billions, and then are told to be grateful. You know, where the owners, are not told to be grateful. They have all sorts of problems in terms of health care and once they get out of the league, after basically preparing their entire lives to do one thing and transitioning out is very hard for black men or black people in that position to make a case for themselves as actual workers. No one sees them that way. These are people who are lucky, who should be grateful. You know? I mean it’s obscene.

JS: Yeah and that is a lot of the pushback, that’s written by the thought pieces and that’s basically the point: Why should we have sympathy for any of these, you know, multimillionaires?

TNC: But they have sympathy for the owners.

JS: Right.

TNC: You know, I mean if you’re a billionaire, you know, no one sees, you know, Donald Trump as lucky, you know? I mean no one perceives Donald Trump as lucky, you know? I mean we see him as, you know, a really smart businessman.

JS: I want to ask you about reparations, but something you said about North Korea I think is relevant to this. You know, you were talking about how North Koreans still live with that memory of the U.S. role in destroying Korea and also in that war.

In the United States, when these shootings happen, like we saw in Las Vegas, immediately the Sean Hannitys of the world go to, “Oh, well look at Chicago. And they talk about the murder rates in Chicago and the guns that are in Chicago.” What’s interesting about all of this is, no one ever raises the psychological and economic impact that slavery continues to have to this day. Do you do you think that there is ever a time that we could have in our lifetime, where the political discussion of reparations would ever be on the table?

TNC: Yeah, no, no, no, no. I think what the important thing is to say what that would look like and then we can answer the question that way. Most of the time when people conceive of reparations, they conceive of like a judgment from the Supreme Court or Congress, you know, passing a bill to decide by the president. But I think much more likely to happen if this were to happen, would be a wave of small individual acts, of reparations. For instance, there was a reparations bill in the City Council in Chicago for police brutality. There have been reparations, I think it was in North Carolina when it was sterilizing women. I believe in Virginia, also, when they shut down the schools during a massive resistance to Brown vs. the Board.

I think what you would see is a growing consensus that in fact, you know, government and private business, you know, on all levels of society, you know, colluded to put black people in certain situations. As far as I’m concerned, to pilfer and plunder wealth from those communities. And it would be a series of much, much smaller things. I don’t think it would be one federal act.

Could you get to that in our lifetime? I don’t think so. I think the work of this, and I encourage people to think about this like it’s a multi-generational struggle. I think the work of this lifetime is to get people to at least acknowledge the case. You know, for there to be no doubt — one of the things I took a lot of heat over for “The Case for Reparations” was not outlining an actual plan. But that’s because people don’t believe the case. I mean the first thing is to get, actually, to people to admit, “Yes, you’re owed.” You know what I mean? And then maybe you can have a conversation about it, you know, how do we actually remedy that debt?

But I think that’s this generation’s work. I mean if we get by the end of my lifetime for people to say, “Yeah, you know, we really screwed you all.” I mean that would be serious, serious progress. If you think about affirmative action, the reparative claim is not part of affirmative action. That’s not a part of the argument. The argument is diversity, which I think is a very weak argument. But it’s a diversity argument that people default to. They don’t default to what everybody I think on some level implicitly knows: There’s a reason why we’re doing this, and a reason why we favor certain people. And if we could get to some explicit acknowledging of that in our lifetime? I mean, that would be big, man.

JS: I mean, the period of Reconstruction was just shy of eight years.

TNC: Yeah.

JS: And I know you’ve written extensively about this. Why do you think there isn’t more of a discussion about everything that stemmed from that. I was just interviewing the author of this great book, “The Color of Money,” about black banks, and it’s a fascinating book. But if you look at the percentage of wealth owned in this country by black people, it almost is the exact same as it was at the immediate end of the period of Reconstruction.

TNC: Right.

JS: Why do you think it is, I mean part of the answer obviously is who controls media, but like why don’t we talk more in this country about why certain areas of this country are the way that they are, with housing, with economics, with financial —

TNC: I think in the right place for Reconstruction, reunion, so there’s a way that people see the Civil War. And the historian James McPherson calls it the violent football game theory of the Civil War. There actually are no real principles at stake, where, you know Southern people acted honorably, Northern people acted honorably, they just had some sort of disagreement and then you know there was reunion. And, we’re sorry we had the Civil War.

And slavery is not included in that. Part of Reconstruction — I’m sorry, part of redemption, part of the period after Reconstruction and real reunification of the United States, was telling a story. Telling, not that story actually, telling the story of the violent football game. That the South didn’t have to feel bad about doing anything, the North didn’t have to feel bad about doing anything and expunging black people from the historical record. It is only within that generation of historians that came up in the 1960s, and a tradition of black historians who were basically completely ignored.

But in terms of, you know at mainstream universities where this case was recognized. It’s only within the lifetime of historians who are still living right now that people begin to see Reconstruction and Redemption after the Civil War for what it actually was.

And so, I think, if I can be an optimistic and hopeful, that the case is not yet filtered down. You know what I mean? It took a long time to build that myth. Immediately afterwards, the generals who fought with Robert E. Lee begin building this lost cause mythology, and it crescendos with, you know, “Birth of a Nation,” and “Gone with the Wind.” And people believe it.

Such to the point that HBO is announcing this show “Confederate,” and they still don’t understand what’s wrong. They just don’t, they don’t get it. They don’t get why that’s wrong. And to some extent, I’m forgiving.

It’s like when I heard Hillary Clinton during the campaign talk about how bad Reconstruction was and “if Lincoln was alive,” and the thing I had to remember, as wrong as that was — that was probably the logic when she went to school. That was, you know, probably — and I’m talking about like, in the college, into her college years. That was probably what she was taught because that was, you know, what the theory was. We just haven’t, we haven’t come out of the haze yet, man.

JS: We were just talking with, the other day, the historian Jeanne Theoharis, she has a book coming out in January about the sanitizing of the legacies of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and she also wrote a biography of Rosa Parks, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” that’s phenomenal.

You write about Malcolm X and I’m wondering what your assessment is of how Malcolm X appears in our discourse today and the way that he’s sort of referenced. He’s not often referenced in American politics, but in American culture, Malcolm X is often referenced. What’s your analysis of how of how he is generally remembered these days?

TNC: Obviously he’s been softened, I mean that’s very clear, and made accessible to a broad group of people. The question I wonder is, I feel like I’m always asking this question. It goes back to the question about you know Barack Obama and the presidency: What is like the alternative? Does this ultimately happen to any, sort of, you know, revolutionary figure. I mean you really can make the same case about Martin Luther King. I mean people have forgotten that from the highest, at the highest levels of government, King was harassed until the end of his days. They think like, him and Johnson, and Kennedy were all great friends, and they forget that they authorized the bugging and the harassment. And so, he’s been softened, too.

But if you’re going to have a national holiday for King, is this what societies do? Like, do they turn these revolutionary figures — like, do they have to soften them in order for them to gain the kind of acceptance that, you know, the people who follow him, black folks, actually want? You understand what I’m saying?

JS: Well in a bizarro world that’s sort of what happened with Obama at the beginning of his run. A lot of people projected onto him what they wanted him to be and I think that 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention was a very sophisticated piece of propaganda.

TNC: I hated that speech.

JS: No but it was a sophisticated piece of propaganda.

TNC: No, it was, it was.

JS: And every, even, his October 2002, speaking against the war, but I do think both black and white people.

TNC: I’m not against all wars.

JS: Right, right.

TNC: I’m only against stupid wars, yeah.

JS: Right, right.

TNC: And it’s interesting though, but that — but people would project onto him, “Oh, he’s the antiwar candidate” or people would project onto him from the right that he’s this socialist or that he’s a Maoist, or that his family cooked up — he was cooked up in a laboratory somewhere. But it’s a similar phenomenon that we’re, that’s happening with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but in a different realm. Right? Sanitizing them later. But with Obama, it was like, making him what we want him to be.

And so, the question I have, and I actually think it’s the same question for all three: What’s the alternative? My greatest failure as a journalist is that I think I’ve gone pretty deep on American society, but I don’t have comparisons across, in other societies. I mean are their other places where people have a realistic apprehension of their heroes? You know, where this is kind of sanitization doesn’t happen or is myth, or all of the problems of myth, like a necessary element, in order to make a society cohere in some sort of way, in order so that we aren’t all like out in the streets killing each other?

JS: What’s your answer thus far to your own question? What’s your best guess?

TNC: Jesus. I hope that it’s not necessary. My intuition is that it is. I know after my year in France, there was plenty of national myth there definitely. You know? But then I’m — I guess I’m conflicted on that, because, I think this is a country that says — that holds itself as the light of the world in terms of democracy, that believes that it’s ahead. You know? And so, I don’t know that the standard of — if that’s your logic, if that’s what you’re saying, you’re not just saying “We’re just one among.” You believe that you’re touched by God if that’s what you believe. Then I don’t know if that standard works. And certainly there’s a history of ideas, so it doesn’t mean that because all societies are this way that society necessarily has to be this way.

So, I don’t know. But I know in my work is in fact even in the times interviewing Obama when I would go and I would talk to him, I would always have to come home and face myself on that question: “Okay, Ta-Nehisi, but you have to articulate some other way within the constraints of what the American populace is, within the constraints of what America itself is.” You have to articulate some other vision and they weren’t policy points that I could say or things he did, specifically, like, “You could’ve done this, you could’ve done that.” But in a broader sense, in terms of what you’re talking about. I think you’re talking about something more global in terms of his policies. I don’t know man, I’ve got to tell you — I always had trouble with that. I always had trouble with that.

JS: What’s your impression in general of Bernie Sanders?

TNC: I think his race in 2016 was really, really important. I think actually having somebody in the race, in the primary, saying things that ten years ago people thought were unsayable in the Democratic party. Someone, you know, out and out, you know, especially you know in the wake of everything that happened in terms of you know, you know, the economy and the collapse and everything. Somebody out and out saying, “You know, these guys are villainous and they got away with something.” Somebody, you know, really saying that — somebody not just retreat to, you know, “too big to jail.”

I think, and I believe in that, even if you know, as a critique, we shouldn’t say, “Unless you have a plan.” I actually, I don’t believe that. I think ideas are actually important.

So, I was, encouraged and incredibly heartened that he was in the race. I voted for him in the primary. In terms of my politics, I’m certainly much closer to him than I was, to Hillary Clinton. I think he should have more black and brown people around him. Maybe he’s fixed that, I don’t know. But certainly, in the things I heard after the election, it’s —

And I just want to be clear: I don’t think he’s alone in this, right? I think this is actually across the liberal left spectrum. But you can’t say you’re ashamed of the Democratic Party’s ability to speak to the white working class and talk about how you’re from the white working class and then get on some kid who is talking about being a Latino, you’ve got to pick one. You’ve got to pick one. You can’t say it’s identity politics when these people do it, and not when you do it.

I don’t even think we should adopt that language, which is really, as far as I’m concerned, conservative, right-wing language. I know there’s a critique on that in terms of leftists, but I don’t think we should even be in the business of adopting that language.

I don’t know what’s in conflict about being in favor of single-payer health care. Being in favor of a much, much more robust social safety net. Being aggressively anti-war.

And frankly, saying you’re for reparations.

Now, I understand why he might not say that. Like, I got that! In terms of what I wrote, what bugged me was the complete hand-wavy aspect of it. From somebody who was so imaginative. You know, if we’re going to be imaginative about those things, be imaginative about these things, too!

In the 1970s, the incarceration rate in this country was roughly about the same as it was in all other westernized democracies. I guess somewhere between 100 or 200 per 100,000. The last time I checked we were at about 700 per 100,000.

How are we going to get back to normal? You’re going to have to say some things that are not sayable right now. You know what I mean? You are going to have to think in some sort of imaginative way. And when you say those things, it will not be missed that a lot of those people are black. That just won’t be missed. It’s not even missed when you make what looks like, sort of race-less or colorless or identity-less points without identity, that in fact a lot of black people will be helped. That is — there’s a reason why the ACA, you know, in Glenn Beck’s mouth became reparations. People see it. People see it! And so, I don’t think it’s a fight that can be gotten away from.

I know some folks feel like I’m either/or. I’m not either or, to the extent that I stress race. It’s because I think it’s the missing thing in that platform that’s got to be picked up and directly engaged.

JS: As we as we wrap up, your assessment of the Democratic Party as it is right now. I mean, we just had this race for DNC chair with Keith Ellison and Perez, and Perez was very much seen as the as the Clinton person and Ellison as the Sanders person. Several of the people whose names are being mentioned — Kamala Harris, Deval, others — are African-Americans but from a particularly privileged wing of the Democratic Party, in terms of how black people are represented within it. What’s your overall assessment of the Democratic Party and the people that are sort of being bandied about as like potential leaders or candidates?

TNC: You know, I don’t know. And I’ll tell you why. I didn’t think you’d have a black president in my lifetime and I didn’t think Trump was going to win. Now, I wasn’t totally shocked.

JS: So you’re saying we shouldn’t listen to anything you’re about to say.

TNC: No, no, that’s, before I got into it, I used to hate these people man that would stand up and act like wise men, and they knew everything and were telling you. I think I can identify some very interesting trend lines, especially, related to what I just said, you know, in terms of Senator Sanders.

It appears, really, really appears that it is now very difficult to out of a Democratic presidential primary fight without some sort of base in the black and brown community in this country, given the way, just the way the south is. You know, and the fact that the parties are so, you know, racially polarized. And so, yes, I think like whoever it is will have to have the ability to speak to those folks. You just will. It’s not even a question of should, I just I don’t think you can win without doing it. I don’t think that’s possible to get out of the Democratic Party at this point.

I think is interesting that it appears that, again, issues that you know once were verboten, and were not allowed to be talked about, actually, are out there. I’m watching, don’t hold me to this, this is just me, I’m now being — getting into my personal interest. I’m actually, I know you mentioned Kamala Harris and Deval Patrick. Two people I’m actually watching are Elizabeth Warren, and what’s his name.

JS: From where?

TNC: Used to be a comedian from Minnesota.

JS: Al Franken.

TNC: Al Franken. Yeah. I actually think they might be able to do both, and doing both shouldn’t be that hard.

JS: Well, to her credit, Kamala Harris has started to move more, and more, to the left.

TNC: She has.

JS: I mean, she’s staked out positions that, a year ago, she wouldn’t have staked out. It’s interesting.

TNC: Right. I think she sees it though. I think she sees she’s going to have to.

JS: Do you think, though, that the Democratic Party has outgrown its value at all? If Bernie had, of course, he would’ve gone down as the man who gave us Trump, either way, but he already he is blamed that way by a lot of Hillary Clinton voters.

TNC: I don’t see him that way.

JS: I know you don’t. I’m saying, that’s how Team Hillary presents it.

TNC: She says it in the book.

JS: Yeah, yeah, of course. But if Bernie Sanders had said, “You know what, this is too corporate of an agenda for me, it’s too soft on all of these things, I’m going to run an independent campaign, it would’ve shattered the Democratic Party.

TNC: It would’ve. It would’ve.

JS: Would it have been a bad thing?

TNC: Yeah.

JS: You think so.

TNC: I do, I do, I do.

JS: Trump won anyway, so.

TNC: Yeah, Trump won anyway. But, as I understand it, what happened was he realized too late that he could actually win. I think that’s what happened. I think initially you know there was some sense, “Listen, I don’t want to, you know,” to the country, I think his sense was, “I don’t want to injure anybody, I don’t want a Republican to win.” And then it became clear he actually had quite a bit of appeal. And that people were, you know, a lot of people actually holding their noses voting for Hillary.

I think that our system of government, in general, is limited. There was a great column about a week ago in The Times from Michelle Goldberg on the possibility of minority rule and that scares the hell out of me. I mean, I just, I mean take the Electoral College, take the ability, take the fact that we don’t have a national voting system, you know, which you have in other countries, that States can, you know, make their own laws and, you know, mess around with the districts. What scares me is — you know, I guess we’re already here! I mean, what am I saying? You know, what scares me is if we’re going to get there. But, where, you know, on a presidential level, you know, and I guess to some degree on a Senate level right now, you don’t really have the will of people actually being represented. That is a bad, bad scenario. That’s a really, really, really bad place to be.

What I’m trying to say is I think the whole set-up is really problematic and will increasingly become so, especially as the demographics of the country change, and you combine that with the systemic problems that were already there. I don’t know. I see trouble.

JS: Last two questions. First, what are you reading these days? I know you’re on tour. What are you reading, and what are you listening to?

TNC: I am reading Ron Chernow’s great Ulysses Grant biography. It’s excellent. Exceptional. I highly, highly recommend. It’s long, but that doesn’t even feel like, I think it’s one of the —

See, it’s interesting, you were just talking about reconciling? And Grant is an interesting guy because he was born into an abolitionist family. He marries, you know, into a slaveholding family. He goes off, and serves in the Mexican War, comes home, he’s dirt broke, can’t do anything, can’t make a living. And through his wife’s family, he inherits an enslaved African-America, and within a relatively brief period, I don’t know when, he goes to the courthouse and he says — he emancipates a slave.

And I was thinking the other day, this is like maybe the most heroic thing like I’ve seen somebody do in their private life, who, you know went on to become president. Because he was dirt broke and that was a lot of money he just sort of he — like, he didn’t say, “I want to be rid of this so I’m going to sell it. I’m going to sell this person.” I mean, he parted with that, I just — despite what I said about greatness, I love that dude. I love how he was completely underestimated. I love how people thought he was stupid when, in fact, he was, a great, you know, reader, you know, and ended up being a great writer, wrote arguably the best presidential memoirs. So, I’m really loving the book.

In terms of what I’m listening to, I’m listening to a ton of Marvin Gaye right now. I know that’s old but I’m listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye.

JS: All right, cool, and then the last question: Is Trump going to make it to the end of his term?

TNC: See, you’re trying to get me to be a prognosticator.

JS: No, I ask everybody this.

TNC: The honest answer is: I don’t know.

JS: I think he’ll either quit or have a heart attack if he doesn’t make it. I don’t think he’s going to be impeached. Too many big Macs or he quits.

TNC: I don’t see impeachment, but god, it’s looking like that dossier is actually true. Boy, that’s crazy.

JS: I mean, it’ll be interesting to see if he fires Muller.

TNC: Yeah. Right.

JS: That’s going to be a real tell.

TNC: Right. That’s clearly not above him.

JS: Well thank you very much, man, for joining us on Intercepted.

TNC: Thanks for having me.


Top image: A collage shows author Ta-Nehisi Coates and an Endpaper illustration.

Join The Conversation