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Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Ideal Presidential Candidate Would Have “Greater Acknowledgment of History”

StoryFebruary 12, 2016
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Acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates made headlines this week when he said on Democracy Now! that he would be voting for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Coates had previously penned a widely read article criticizing the Vermont senator for saying he did not support reparations for slavery because it was too “divisive” an issue. But on Wednesday, Coates said he is voting for Senator Sanders anyway. After his appearance was picked up by news outlets, from CNN, MSNBC and BBC to The New York Times, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a follow-up for The Atlantic titled “Against Endorsements,” writing that his “answer has been characterized, in various places, as an 'endorsement,' a characterization that I’d object to. Despite my very obvious political biases, I’ve never felt it was really my job to get people to agree with me.” In Part 2 of our conversation with Coates, whose book “Between the World and Me” won the National Book Award, Coates elaborates on who he would like to see elected, and much more. “If I could have anything—you know, and this is across the board for any presidential candidate—I would have a greater acknowledgment of history in our policy and in our affairs,” Coates says. He also discusses the Black Lives Matter movement, Bill Cosby and the growing number of actors and filmmakers pushing for a boycott of the Oscars after no actors of color were nominated for a second year in a row.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates made headlines this week on Democracy Now! in newspapers around the world and on networks, when he said he’d be voting for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Coates had previously penned a widely read article criticizing the Vermont senator for saying he did not support reparations for slavery because it was too “divisive” an issue. But on Wednesday, Ta-Nehisi Coates told me he’s voting for Senator Sanders anyway.

TA-NEHISI COATES: One can say Senator Sanders should have more explicit antiracist policy within his racial justice platform, not just more general stuff, and still cast a vote for Senator Sanders and still feel that Senator Sanders is the best option that we have in the race. But just because that’s who you’re going to vote for doesn’t mean you then have to agree with everything they say.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you be voting for Senator Sanders?

TA-NEHISI COATES: I will be voting for Senator Sanders. I have tried to avoid this question, but, yes, I will be voting for Senator Sanders. I try to avoid that, because I want to write as a journalist—do you know what I mean?—and separate that from my role as, I don’t know, a private citizen. But I don’t think much is accomplished by ducking the question. Yes, I will vote for Senator Sanders. My son influenced me.

AMY GOODMAN: After Ta-Nehisi Coates’s appearance on Democracy Now! was picked up by news outlets, from CNN to MSNBC, to BBC, to The New York Times, to The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun and many other outlets, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a follow-up for The Atlantic titled “Against Endorsements.” He wrote he answered my question about his decision to vote for Sanders because, quote, “I’ve spent my career trying to get people to answer uncomfortable questions. Indeed, the entire reason I was on the show was to try to push liberals into directly addressing an uncomfortable issue that threatens their coalition. It seemed wrong, somehow, to ask others to step into their uncomfortable space and not do so myself,” he wrote.

Ta-Nehisi Coates also wrote, quote, “My answer has been characterized, in various places, as an 'endorsement,' a characterization that I’d object to. Despite my very obvious political biases, I’ve never felt it was really my job to get people to agree with me,” he said.

We turn now to Part 2 of my conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose book Between the World and Me won the National Book Award. He recently moved to Paris with his wife and his son Samori. In Part 2 of our conversation, I asked Ta-Nehisi what it’s like to live in France.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know, to be honest, I have to tell you, the biggest influence that it’s had on me, I mean, just in terms of what we talked about in terms of Senator Sanders, to be in a country which has much greater social protections than we have here, a much stronger safety net than we have here, and to meet with black people over there, to meet with, you know, Maghrébin people over there, and to see that even with all of those—you know, that expansive safety net that they have that’s so much stronger than ours, it hasn’t cured racism. You know? Not only has it not cured racism, in many ways, you know, folks are struggling with the vocabulary of how to talk about it. You know, maybe curing racism is too high of a bar. But to see that it actually remains an issue, that the idea of identity across Western Europe—in fact, not just in France, across Western Europe, in Germany, because, you know, when you see these sort of issues with the, quote-unquote, “refugee crisis” and everything, it’s actually the same thing. It’s very, very much the same thing—a continent that is becoming browner and struggling with the idea of who’s going to actually be protected by these safety nets. I’m really early in the process of learning about this. But it’s very, very clear that the United States is not necessarily different, you know, in terms of the issues it’s dealing with.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we were just in Paris for the U.N. climate summit, and it was right after the attacks of November 13th—


AMY GOODMAN: —the state of emergency that was imposed, no protests and everything. And then immediately the authorities started raiding homes, businesses, mosques, thousands of them. The treatment of the Arab community in France?

TA-NEHISI COATES: It is brazen. You know, it’s tremendously, tremendously brazen. The minister of justice over there, Christine Taubira, just resigned because they are passing a law to strip you of your citizenship, you know, should you be convicted of a terrorist act. It is—you know, one of the cases I tried to make in the book was this notion that—you know, the idea that racism necessarily follows from race is in fact backwards—people decide to do something, there’s a relationship that exists, and then people are cast in a certain way. And I have to tell you, you know, again, just being at the beginnings of seeing this, just being at the start of experiencing it, I really feel like I can see it there.

You know, France has a particular relationship with its colonies—its past colonies. It has a particular relationship with Algeria. It has a particular relationship with West Africa. And that casts so much about how folks see each other. You know, so when I’m somewhere and I speak in my horrible French accent, you know, which automatically signals I’m an American, you know, the reaction is very, very different. You know, the way I’m treated is very, very different. What I’m saying is it’s a result of a system that’s already in place, beliefs that are there. It’s not just a matter of looking at somebody and deciding you don’t like them.

AMY GOODMAN: The recommendation on your book is by Toni Morrison: If you’re going to read one book, read this. And she talks about the hole that was left when James Baldwin died, and she feels that has now been filled by you, Ta-Nehisi. And, of course, James Baldwin also went to France. What is it about France?

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know, I have no idea. That’s the one—you know, I can speak about how Baldwin influenced me in terms of just his bravery, his courage, you know, in terms of him really being willing to go out on the edge, you know, the ledge, in terms of his political imagination. I can speak about him as a beautiful, beautiful writer and a beautiful craftsman of sentences. But in terms of France, it’s very, very hard. And I think it’s because I went through a different route. You know, I went through a more family route. My wife fell in love with the country, really wanted the family to spend more time there. And so, it wasn’t, in that sense—you know, certainly in Between the World and Me, but in that specific sense, I wasn’t so much chasing Baldwin; however, you know, I may have a different answer in 10 years, because maybe there’s something about that that’s working on a larger level. I just—I don’t particularly see it right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is it like? If you could say a little more about what it’s like to look at the United States from France, particularly these elections? I mean, you’re not getting the same 24-hour—


AMY GOODMAN: —cable network—


AMY GOODMAN: —inundation.


AMY GOODMAN: One of the classic images just in the last 24 hours, you had Chris Christie at a town hall in New Hampshire, and they actually play a clip of this. It’s not usually substance; it’s all polls. And a woman says, “I don’t know who I’m going to vote for. I’d like to vote for you. But I need to know what you’re going to do about Social Security.” And he gets down on his knee to beg her to vote.


AMY GOODMAN: So, at the point where he gets down on his knee to say, “Please, I want your vote,” before he answers the question, that’s when they cut away. And they don’t talk about his answer to what he’s going to do about Social Security.


AMY GOODMAN: They talk about the kneeling part.


AMY GOODMAN: And we never know the content—


AMY GOODMAN: —of what these people actually stand for.


AMY GOODMAN: But you have—so, how do you absorb what’s happening there?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, in some respects, what it makes you realize is how little actual information is being conveyed, because, you’re right, you know, I don’t have the same sort of inundation anymore. And I think maybe I’m a better person for it. You know, just being able to look away for a little while, I think, has been really, really, really good. I am not surprised that, you know, you ultimately don’t get the content answer in that situation. But for me, for my own personal health, I think following this—I went through this in '08 a little too closely—too much can actually be unhealthy. So I'm happy to have something else to do.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you a clip of Hillary Clinton, also at the Iowa—


AMY GOODMAN: —Black and Brown Presidential Forum last month, when they were asked about reparations.


AMY GOODMAN: She was asked by an audience member about what the term “white privilege” meant to her.

HILLARY CLINTON: It is hard when you’re swimming in the ocean to know exactly what’s happening around you, so much as it is when you’re standing on the shore perhaps watching. For me, you know, look, I was born white, middle-class in the middle of America. I went to good public schools. I had a very strong supportive family. I had a lot of great experiences growing up. I went to a wonderful college. I went to law school. I never really knew what was or wasn’t part of the privilege. I just knew that I was a lucky person and that being lucky was in part related to who I am, where I’m from and the opportunities I had.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Ta-Nehisi, to what Hillary Clinton said?

TA-NEHISI COATES: That’s about right. That’s about right. I think she was trying her best there. I think what is notably absent from that answer is history. It is not simply that Hillary Clinton had fairer skin and, you know, lighter hair, and therefore certain things were conferred upon her. Systems were in place. Long, ancient historical systems were in place to make her, as she said, lucky in the first place. If I could have anything—you know, and this is across the board for any presidential candidate—I would have a greater acknowledgment of history in our policy and in our affairs. And I don’t mean, you know, a dry historical lecture. But it could have taken 30 seconds for her to maybe explain why she was a little luckier than other folks. It’s not that hard to understand. It’s not that hard to know. I’m not familiar particularly with Hillary Clinton’s neighborhood, but I wish people were a little bit more curious about what we call privilege and about why it’s there. Black people in this country have no choice but to be curious. We have to know. I wish folks would do a little bit more investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, the issue, overall, in this country around the discussion of race, do you feel—how do you feel the Black Lives Matter movement has changed things? Very interestingly, we had a debate yesterday between Madeleine Kunin, the former Vermont governor, who’s for Hillary Clinton; Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP, who’s now come out for Bernie Sanders; as well, Darnell Moore, who is with Black Lives Matter in New York, and they have decided, as a network, not to endorse a candidate. But they’ve certainly played a role—


AMY GOODMAN: —as they’ve interrupted forum, demanded answers from presidential candidates. They’re really helping to shape this debate.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, they are. They are. I mean, you know, if you want tangible evidence of that, New York City, where we live, you know, for whatever you think of this, has decided to change certain policies in terms of how it records officer encounters and violence that officers inflict on people. That’s a real thing that’s actually happened. This debate about body cameras, you know, would not be up there. There’s this push to have greater funding. That’s a direct result of the kind of attention that Black Lives Matter has brought to the issue. So they’ve had a literal tangible policy impact across the board. And, you know, I have to say, even my position on Senator Sanders in terms of reparations, they saw some things before I saw them. You know, I think—I didn’t write this, you know, and I wouldn’t have written this, but like a lot of other people, when I saw the interrupting of his platform, I didn’t quite get it, I didn’t quite understand it. And it was only in the course of, you know, working on the stuff that I’ve worked on in the past few weeks related to Senator Sanders that I came to understand in greater detail their frustrations.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by the pushback that you got after writing this piece?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, a little bit. A little bit, I was. But it’s been a great opportunity, you know? I have been extremely, extremely fortunate, in the sense that I feel like I’ve been saying the same sort of caliber of things for the past 10, 15 years now, but I have been lucky enough to get a platform at The Atlantic that makes people pay attention to things that, were I writing in other well-respected platforms that may be a little to the left, the same amount of attention would not be granted. And so, yeah, I was a little surprised, but I plan to take as much advantage of it as I can to push this conversation about racism and white supremacy as close as I can to the forefront. That’s why I’m here.

AMY GOODMAN: So let me ask you about two other issues. One is Bill Cosby. On Tuesday, Kanye West took to Twitter to defend Bill Cosby, who’s been accused of sexually assaulting and drugging over 50 women. West tweeted an all-caps, three-word message, that’s since generated much social media debate. Those words: ”BILL COSBY INNOCENT.” So, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you wrote an article called “Bill Cosby and His Enablers”—


AMY GOODMAN: “Even victims of discrimination can look away from—and thereby enable—other forms of violence.” Lay out your article for us.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I mean, we’ve seen numerous celebrities, African-American celebrities, and to some extent, you know, a relatively large amount of people within the African-American community who automatically disbelieve this. And what folks will tell you is there is a long history of American forces conspiring against African Americans, and that’s certainly true. You know, you can look at the history of Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, whoever. Nevertheless, nevertheless, you know, that can’t be an explanation for not applying one’s critical faculties. And racism is not the sole power vector at work in the United States of America, just like, you know, as I was making the case with Senator Sanders, class is not the sole power vector at work in the United States of America. And so, when you have over 40, 50 women coming forth, a lot of them with stories that are remarkably similar about what happens to them, it takes some sort of—I don’t—particular mindset to say, “Oh, no, all of them are lying. All of them are in conspiracy.” And I think that is related directly to that other power vector of sexism, which has historically been very, very, very strong. You know? And so I think that that can’t be ignored. And the fact that somebody has a boot on your neck, the fact that you, too, are a member of an oppressed class, does not mean that you, too, can’t, in some sense, cooperate with the oppression of other people.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, many of the women are African-American.

TA-NEHISI COATES: And that’s true. And that’s true. That’s exactly true, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, looking at this country from your perch in Paris right now, but also being here, the whole issue of the Oscars that are coming up, the Academy Awards, a growing number of actors and filmmakers pushing for a boycott of the Oscars after no actors of color were nominated for a second year in a row—in no category—supporting actress/actor, best actor/actress and director—was there an African American named. While movies about African Americans, like Straight Outta Compton and Creed, received nominations, they went to the white writers of Straight Outta Compton and white actor Sylvester Stallone for Creed. The African-American directors and nonwhite actors were excluded. Director Spike Lee, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, actor Will Smith—who actually starred in Concussion, was not given an Oscar nod—and others have said they plan to skip the Oscars. Last month, Spike Lee appeared on Good Morning America.

SPIKE LEE: I have never used the word “boycott.” All I said was my wife, my beautiful wife Tonya, we’re not coming. That’s it. Then I gave the reasons. So I’ve never used the word “boycott.” I never have said to anybody—it’s like, do you. We’re not coming, not going. This whole Academy thing is a misdirection play.


SPIKE LEE: We’re chasing the guy down the field; he doesn’t even have the ball. The other guy is high-stepping in the end zone. So, this goes—it goes further than the Academy Awards. It has to go back to the gatekeepers.


SPIKE LEE: Yes, the people who have the greenlight vote. Have you seen Hamilton yet?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I have seen Hamilton. Unbelievable.

SPIKE LEE: You know the song, “You’ve Got to Be in the Room”?


SPIKE LEE: We’re not in the room. We are not in the room. The executives, when they have these greenlight meetings, quarterly, where they look at the scripts, they look at who’s in it, and they decide what we’re making, what we’re not making.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How about your own experience? You get—you make your movies. Do you feel like you’ve been snubbed, like you haven’t had a fair hearing?

SPIKE LEE: What won best film 1989?

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I don’t know, actually.

SPIKE LEE: Driving Miss F-in’ Daisy.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And which film did you have in 1989?

SPIKE LEE: Do the Right Thing. That film is being taught in colleges, schools, all—no one’s watching this Driving Miss Daisy now. So it also shows you that the work is what’s important, because that’s the stuff that’s going to stand for years, not an award, not whether it be a Grammy, a Tony or whatnot.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So, even if you don’t get the Oscar, there is some success, but there’s still a huge problem in the whole studio system.

SPIKE LEE: From top to bottom.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Spike Lee being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC. We were at Sundance. We interviewed Dawn Porter, the documentarian, Stanley Nelson; they’re both supporting a boycott. Spike Lee’s just not going. Your response to all of this?

TA-NEHISI COATES: [inaudible] actually, there’s a lot of wisdom in all of that. You know, I—this is personal; this is not, you know, a grand political statement. I appreciate the not using the terminology “boycott” and going for the “Listen, do you. I’m staying home. Just out of, you know, personal pride, I’m just going to stay home. I just don’t have to stand for that.” And I think he’s exactly right, because what he was pointing to, when he was talking about being in the room, was systemic issues. In other words, by the time you get to an—and, you know, you begin to see formulas across the whole—the entire system in terms of racism. And one of the things is, people shout, and everybody gets upset by the time you get to the end result, which in this case is the Oscars. But what Spike is saying is there’s like five other things that happen before that.

AMY GOODMAN: Acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. To see Part 1 of our conversation with the author of Between the World and Me, the National Book Award winner, you can go to our website at

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