Ta-Nehisi Coates Talks About His Latest Book, The Civil War And White Supremacy During Miami Visit
Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the leading voices on race and the enduring legacy of racism in America.
He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes on social issues, politics and culture.
Coates was recently in Miami for a community chat, sponsored by the Miami Book Fair and led by WLRN reporter Nadege Green. Here are some highlights of their exchanges:
WLRN: How does the civil war help us really understand racial dynamics today?
COATES: I claim that you really can’t understand black people, you can’t understand American history if you can’t understand why those 800,000 people died. When I talk about the civil war, I sometimes get people who say, “Well, my great-great-grandfather, you know, he didn’t have slaves, but he fought for the Confederation, so it can’t be slavery. ‘
Your great-great-grandfather may not have owned slaves, but I assure you, he wanted to have slaves. He didn’t want to own slaves because he’s a uniquely bad person. If I had been him at that point and I would have been white and had lived in a society in which he lived, I would have wanted the slaves too. Do you know why? Because slaves were like [you] accumulated wealth. That was accepted. In South Carolina you just couldn’t be rich or your own slaves. It just didn’t happen.
So if you don’t just look at the people who died in the Civil War – if you look at the terrorism immediately following, if you look at the failure of reconstruction, if you look at Jim Crow, if you look at the rise of The Klan first in 1862 and then in the 1920s and then again in the 1960s, if you look at how the New Deal excludes black people, if you look at all the racist episodes, I’d argue to the point of mass incarceration – you see the aftershocks of the civil war.
And so we went from the first black president to what you coined: “The first white president”. What does that mean?
One of the most important things about the idea of white in this country is that it always depends on a group. And mostly it comes down to black people.
It defines itself against someone else. What is Donald Trump without Barack Obama? People think that bigotry and white supremacy are a side course. It is not. It’s the central thing. If you took it away, you couldn’t possibly have Trump.
Here in South Florida I find, especially when we talk about race, injustice or inequality, it is mostly rejected: “But we are diverse. This is Latin America’s backyard. People from all over Latin America live here. There are people from the Caribbean everywhere. African Americans are here. ‘So it’s always “we are diverse”.
Is demographics important? Does diversity cure the underlying problem of racism?
It’s important, but no. We now have the idea in this country that – people keep saying this – by 2050 the majority will be the minority and much of it will disappear. Just because you have demographics on your side again, the myth of what America says to itself is revisited. You know this story of fairness, and you know XY Z. I mean, I don’t know how many blacks expected Donald Trump to win, but I know that a lot of them weren’t surprised that whites would because it did it is not so from the character of the whites as a construction, as a people who maintain power.
One way to make this comparison is evident in this post [Harvey] Weinstein moment: I was shocked – many of my friends weren’t. Because they know they know the character of men as a construction capable of doing certain things.
If you’re black in this country, you know. You have spent your time studying the behavior of white people en masse towards black people. You just know and are not surprised.
Unsurprisingly, the lines may be drawn differently. And even if they are drawn in the same way as people who play around with the machinery of democracy to ensure that white supremacy remains a powerful force in American politics.