In his latest for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates posits that white identity politics forms the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency.
A history of the first African American White House, as Coates examines Obama’s successes and failures — and what came next.
“Our carceral state banishes American citizens to a gray wasteland far beyond the promises and protections the government grants its other citizens. Banishment continues long after one’s actual time behind bars has ended, making housing and employment hard to secure. And banishment was not simply a well-intended response to rising crime. It was the method by which we chose to address the problems that preoccupied [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan, problems resulting from ‘three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment.'”
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” An excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on what the Justice Department’s investigation revealed about Ferguson police. “The ‘focus on revenue’ was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue. Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates on learning a new language, scholastic culture, and the way we “border patrol” class and race.
Coates traces the history of slavery in America, in all its forms, and how reparations can signal “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal”:
We must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
His pregnant girlfriend’s father had abandoned her and her mother when she was young, and the writer is determined to prove to them that he’ll be a different kind of man and father:
“When Kenyatta was 2, her father walked out on his family. He never returned, but his ghost walks with Kenyatta and Camille, dredging up ancient issues of trust between black men and women. And so for their mutual protection, Camille has forged a secret pact with her daughter—it’s the two of them against the world. Nobody, especially not a man, can save them.
“I want to believe that I’ve given both Camille and Kenyatta reason to think differently about me. I don’t close down the clubs or run the streets. I have a passion for cooking and reading, which makes me a natural homebody. Most important, I love Kenyatta. And I also feel bound by her pain. Her father’s sin of abandonment, so common among black men, feels like some sort of burdensome family debt. On my honor, I’ll have that debt paid. But I want to do it as I see fit—without fanfare and pomp, without grandiose titles and pronouncements, without marriage.”
In the first four years as the first black president, Obama has largely avoided addressing race directly. Some historical context:
“Thus the myth of ‘twice as good’ that makes Barack Obama possible also smothers him. It holds that African Americans—enslaved, tortured, raped, discriminated against, and subjected to the most lethal homegrown terrorist movement in American history—feel no anger toward their tormentors. Of course, very little in our history argues that those who seek to tell bold truths about race will be rewarded. But it was Obama himself, as a presidential candidate in 2008, who called for such truths to be spoken. ‘Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,’ he said in his ‘More Perfect Union’ speech, which he delivered after a furor erupted over Reverend Wright’s ‘God Damn America’ remarks. And yet, since taking office, Obama has virtually ignored race.
“Whatever the political intelligence of this calculus, it has broad and deep consequences. The most obvious result is that it prevents Obama from directly addressing America’s racial history, or saying anything meaningful about present issues tinged by race, such as mass incarceration or the drug war. There have been calls for Obama to take a softer line on state-level legalization of marijuana or even to stand for legalization himself. Indeed, there is no small amount of inconsistency in our black president’s either ignoring or upholding harsh drug laws that every day injure the prospects of young black men—laws that could have ended his own, had he been of another social class and arrested for the marijuana use he openly discusses. But the intellectual argument doubles as the counterargument. If the fact of a black president is enough to racialize the wonkish world of health-care reform, what havoc would the Obama touch wreak upon the already racialized world of drug policy?”
In my study of African American history, the Civil War was always something of a sideshow. Just off center stage, it could be heard dimly behind the stories of Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King Jr., a shadow on the fringe. But three years ago, I picked up James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and found not a shadow, but the Big Bang that brought the ideas of the modern West to fruition. Our lofty notions of democracy, egalitarianism, and individual freedom were articulated by the Founders, but they were consecrated by the thousands of slaves fleeing to Union lines, some of them later returning to the land of their birth as nurses and soldiers. The first generation of the South’s postbellum black political leadership was largely supplied by this class.