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Q&A: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Reparations, Ignorant Journalism, and Whether He Talks to President Obama

David Shankbone/Creative Commons

Ta-Nehisi Coates's cover story in this month's Atlantic, 'The Case For Reparations,' is not merely a call for greater dialogue and conversation about America's racial history. It is also a detailed examination of the systematic and institutional ways in which this country's African-Americans have been mistreated over the past 150 years. The piece itself has caused a good deal of debate and discussion.

Coates has been with The Atlantic for many years, contributing both in print and online. Raised in Baltimore, and now residing in New York, he has written extensively on matters of race and politics. In conversation, Coates rarely interrupts and sometimes takes a moment to begin an answer, but when he starts speaking, his sentences arrive extremely rapidly. We talked over the phone this week about the best responses to his piece, the Donald Sterling controversy, and whether he has a relationship with President Obama.

IC: Has the reaction to your piece surprised you?

TNC: All of it, all of it. I’m shocked. Reparations is a very, very old idea, as I documented in the piece. The key to that was to try to say something different and bring some other ideas to the table. I thought I had that. Whether everybody would recognize that and feel the same way was not clear to me.

IC: Have there been any responses to the piece that you thought were particularly smart or made you think about anything you wrote differently?

TNC: The major thing in Damon Linker's response was: Can a country be patriotic and at the same time look at itself and say, "We have these flaws and deep, deep problems. Problems that are not ancillary or tangential but actually have to do with who we are as people, as a society and as a county." Damon engaged this argument, and of course he came out more pessimistic than I did. If there was a next step beyond this article it would be: to what extent do democratic states, period, have the ability to evolve to that level and be self-reflective?

IC: When you hear people say that we live in a democracy, do you object to that?

TNC: No, there is something to it. Abraham Lincoln is at Gettysburg giving the address, and he says, “Freedom does not perish from his Earth.” It’s not bull. It’s not like a campaign speech where someone is saying something rhetorical. We’ve got in the habit of not really understanding how freedom was in the 19th century, the idea of government of the people in the 19th century. America commits itself to that in theory. In theory. I don’t think you just sort of throw the U.S. in the cupboard with North Korea because it didn’t live up to that, especially before 1968. You look at a state like Mississippi where whole swathes of people couldn’t participate in political process. Alabama, places like that.

IC: I thought you were going to say that Nixon being elected was a sign of democracy, so I’m glad you didn’t go in that direction.

TNC: [Laughs] No.

IC: If the country is as fucked up as you say it is, doesn't that perhaps imply that the dialogue you recommend is not going to be productive?

TNC: The country in which reparations actually happen is a very different one than the one we live in. And, I try to imagine it happening in that country, not in the country we have now. If it actually passed, it would mean some critical mass of Congressmen decided this was important, and that would mean therefore that some critical mass of American citizens felt very differently than they feel right now. We have a democratic process and that’s important. I get this question all the time, “Should Obama support reparations?” and I think it’s exactly backwards. This should be a groundswell. Some sort of change of mind and heart among the citizenry. And I think things will follow from there. I’m not … I’ve been pessimistic about a lot of things, but the world in which we would actually have this dialogue —the world of HR-40 [a proposed House Bill to study reparations]—is a very different one than the one we live in right now.

IC: It seems that you’re optimistic that those conversations will come to the right conclusion, as you see it.

TNC: No no no no no. I’m not. Listen, information is not always the cure-all. People know things and have a remarkable capacity to act in their individual immediate interests all the time. It’s not clear to me if that’s the way, but it’s better than not knowing about history.

IC: Most of the piece is about history, not reparations. I was wondering, when you set out, had you been thinking about reparations and then you thought about this history, or you wanted to write this history and then at the end ...

TNC: I think they go together. In the 6 years leading up to this, I have been involved in quite a few dialogues with people whose responsibility it is to analyze and understand American politics. I can only be completely honest about this: in my estimation, knowledge of American history, among some of these people, is really, really lacking. Knowledge of history among people who depend on these analyses is equally lacking. My hope here is that there’ll be articles about this. This will be the foundation for some other folks who go forward and talk about what a plan of action might look like, to explore reparations from other angles, the criminal justice angle for instance. This should be a foundation, it shouldn’t be the end. This shouldn’t be definitive. 

IC: I don’t know if you talked about this with your editors, but did you ever think, “this needs to be more prescriptive, and I’m going to have to come with something more prescriptive"? You don't really call for much.

TNC: We talked about that. For me it was HR-40. One of the things I’ve said is that you could spend another 16,000 words laying out as you say the prescriptive aspect. I think people don’t understand how much that would actually take. I think this is a testament to how much economics—with no disparaging of economics—dominates our political writing at the moment. I would say as a journalist, I would envision travelling to other countries that have had to reckon with their past and see how they’ve done it: what worked, what didn’t work, finding characters that would tell the story of how that process was done. For me as a journalist, that’s another 16,000 words—that’s a piece that I’d write.

IC: There was one thing that jumped out to me in your long debate with Jonathan Chait. You two had this debate over progress. And he talks about the various things that represent progress, and you have this line, “when someone stabs you in the back and they pull the knife out halfway, how can you call that progress?” Do you know what I’m referring to?

TNC: Yeah that’s a Malcolm X quote.

IC: I’m giving you credit for it.

TNC: [Laughs] Okay.

IC: From your answer I got the idea that you were annoyed that writers and thinkers in the country—even liberal writers—are hooked on this narrative of progress. And that you were almost unwilling to concede Chait’s point about progress because you don’t like the fact that this narrative is so prevalent and seems to dominate the discourse about race. Am I at all correct?

TNC: I think it’s very hard to concede that it is not better today than it was in 1860. It is very very difficult to disagree with. That’s pretty easy. That’s not the real question though. I always say if I’m being assaulted and being beaten with a pipe, then a person stops assaulting me and i‘m on the ground bleeding, well that’s progress, the person stopped hitting me, that is progress. Is it enough progress, is it sufficient progress that people should jump up and down and congratulate themselves about?

Listen. There are two narratives here. There’s a narrative of progress. And there’s another narrative of the people actually suffering. I’m relieved that things are somewhat better. We have a lot of disturbing indicators. Some things that should change have not changed, but some things have actually gotten worse: There was no epic of mass incarceration in 1968 like there is now. It’s very very disturbing. It’s more disturbing if you consider it across the long sweep of American history and understand that the constant condition of black people in this country is the condition of unfreedom.

IC: How do you think about your role? Liberal journalists or writers are sometimes undermined by people saying that they are activists, rather than journalists. But does that apply to your work?

TNC: I don’t apply that to myself. Activists have their role, and I have mine. It probably is not a good idea for activists to say that it is very possible that white supremacy will be with us until the end of the country. An activist or a politician should not say that. This isn’t what activists say because activists go out and do things, and to do that you need some morale, some momentum, some sort of sense that folks can win. I’m a writer. My job is to look at things and to the extent I can try to honestly give some opinion of what I think. It’s not my job to cheer people up, it’s not my job to motivate people.

IC: Are there essayists or writers who you really admire?

TNC: The king is James Baldwin. Although he was also an activist. In terms of the present, I’m blanking on my girl’s name … At The New Yorker, writes on extinction.

IC: Oh, Elizabeth Kolbert?

TNC: Oh my god I love her! I love her. Arguably the finest journalist working today. Just a beautiful, beautiful writer. Gorgeous writer. And incredible reporter. She’s incredible.

IC: When the world ends, if there are people around, they’ll say she really called it.

TNC: James Fallows at our magazine is just my moral center who I often go to a lot just to think about things. As a straight argument person, Christopher Hitchens— some of his stuff is better than other stuff, but I just adore him. It feels really clichéd to say Orwell.

IC: Clichés are clichés for a reason.

TNC: For a reason. I have to say that a huge influence on my writing online has been Andrew Sullivan. Probably the biggest single influence on my online stuff.

IC: Let me ask you one thing: I thought it was fascinating to me the way the Atlantic sold your piece. You blogged that very unfortunate New Republic cover from 1996, almost 20 years ago, about welfare. [The cover has a black woman smoking and holding a child.] I hadn’t seen that, but I was shocked that that was appearing on newsstands 18 years ago. And I don’t think it would today. With your piece, I thought it was—well I don’t say ‘a sign of progress’—but I thought it was interesting that the case for reparations was sold directly. 

TNC: I think it was a sign of progress.

IC: My larger question: It definitely seems to me on the internet now, and in magazines like the one I work for and the one you work for, that there’s a much more active conversation about feminism and about race issues, and writers who are African-American, Hispanic, or women are much more upfront about putting their opinions out very forthrightly in a way that I feel has changed even in the 8 or 9 years since I started doing this.

TNC: I’ll say two things. I think a lot of that is the internet, the opening of voices of who can get in. But to tie that back to the cover 18 years ago—the thing to remember is that that cover came out when I was in college, and I was a reader of the New Republic, and I knew that that was where all the hot, young wannabe narrative journalists went. I knew that no black people worked at the New Republic. I also knew that the New Republic very much opined on quote-unquote "black issues" very often, in a fashion that struck me to be blunt and completely ill-informed and utterly ignorant. [Laughs]

IC: It's fine, keep going.

TNC: If you want to know the source of some of my motivation, it’s that. It strikes you to be a young person and watch people in general speak about you as though you’re not there. I came in with that very much in the back of my mind, and still in the back of my mind.

IC: In a lot of your writing I get the sense you’re reacting sometimes to the liberalism of your youth, because you think there was something too complacent about it?

TNC: Aren’t we all?

IC: And our parents of course.

TNC: Right. Specifically I’m reacting to what I just said, the idea people having a conversation as though you’re not in the room, with no curiosity about who you are about your humanity. Discussing you as a problem. Disease, an infection. That’s what comes across in that cover.

IC: I thought the Donald Sterling stuff was really interesting, but the thing that disturbed me about it … Here was this guy who's done all these things that were some of the more institutional types of racism that you describe in your story: housing discrimination, things like that, which he’d been accused of and had to settle over. And basically nobody gave a shit. The NBA didn’t give a shit. You had very very powerful African Americans involved in the league like Doc Rivers and Chris Paul who didn’t give a shit. And then the guy says one racist thing on his phone to his girlfriend and people flip out. And it’s good that people flipped out because what he did say was terrible, but it did seem to me to be an example of the more institutional stuff.

TNC: I think it’s about right, but I wonder how out of the ordinary that is in terms of deep-seated societal problems? I think people respond to spectacle. You had a spectacle. Housing discrimination is not sexy [Laughs].

IC: There’s been some stuff about Obama talking more openly about race lately. Do you, in terms of things he’s said, sense anything new or interesting?

TNC: Not necessarily new or interesting. It’s been awhile, but I thought his comments on the George Zimmerman verdict were pretty remarkable and were the kind of comments that only he could give. And I thought it took some courage that people don’t always take note of. I’m not one of the people that thinks the president should talk more about race or racism—I don’t know that’s the best use of his time or the best use of his role.

IC: Six years ago if I told you Obama was going to get elected or an African-American was going to be elected president, what’s different that what you may have expected?

TNC: Well 7 years ago I would have said it wasn’t going to happen. That’s the first thing. I definitely would have said it wasn’t going to happen.

IC: You didn’t see the Alan Keyes train coming in?

TNC: I do think it’s a good thing that there’s a black president, that there’s been one. I think people underestimate what imagination means. To put this a different way: for years there was no black president, there was an unbroken train of white male presidents, for all of our history. An African-American president must mean something. I’m a big believer in symbols for imagination. So I think it’s been a good thing.

IC: Do you get the sense that Obama is sort of engaged in reading and thinking about the type of issues you’re writing about?

TNC: Yes, yes, I think he’s deeply curious. I think he’s probably the best read president that we’ve had on issues affecting African Americans. And that’s not just strictly because he’s an African American president. This is a dude who when he had his syllabus for law school, I mean, you know, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, James Baldwin—all of these sorts of people. People that he taught. Barack Obama is not the just the first African American president. He’s the first president, as I’ve said before, that could ostensibly, with some credit, teach an African American studies course. And not just because he was president.

IC: Do you know if the president’s read the piece?

TNC: I don’t know. I hope so. Don’t know though.

IC: Have you met him? Do you see him ever?

TNC: I can’t comment on that. I’m not allowed to talk about that.

IC: Because I know he does meet with liberal journalists sometimes. 

TNC: Right, right.

IC: Alright, well I can see I’m not going to get this one out of you.

TNC: No. [Laughs]

This interview has been edited and condensed.