- Ta-Nehisi Coates
national correspondent at The Atlantic. He is author of the forthcoming book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. He received the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction for his previous book, Between the World and Me.
Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks to Democracy Now! in his first major interview since the inauguration of Donald Trump. Coates is the national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. His forthcoming book, out in October, is titled “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy”. He is the author of “Between the World and Me,” for which he received the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
AMY GOODMAN: From Pacifica, this is Democracy Now!
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: Two days after a Nazi sympathizer drove into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one person and injuring 19, President Trump finally condemns white supremacist violence. But what steps will the White House take to stop the growing violence? We’ll spend the hour with the acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his first major interview since the inauguration of President Trump.
TA-NEHISI COATES: I think one of the problems with the conversation around racism that I’ve tried to have, based on the book, I’ve tried to have around the country, is the notion that this somehow only endangers black people. But I’m here to tell you that it endangers all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates for the hour. All that and more, coming up.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m Juan González. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world.
We turn now to look at the fallout from Saturday’s violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer killed one anti-racist activist and injured more than a dozen others when he intentionally drove his car through a crowd of counterprotesters. On Monday, the driver of the car, James Fields, appeared in court for the first time.
President Trump initially failed to directly blame white supremacists for the bloodshed in Charlottesville, saying the violence was committed by, quote, “many sides.” On Monday, amidst growing street and corporate protest, Trump finally condemned the deadly white supremacist violence.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As I said on Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America. And as I have said many times before, no matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws. We all salute the same great flag. And we are all made by the same almighty god. We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans. Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Trump speaking on Monday. Meanwhile, Foreign Policy has revealed the existence of a recent FBI and Department of Homeland Security bulletin that concluded white supremacist groups were, quote, “responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016…more than any other domestic extremist movement,” unquote. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security report went on to state, quote, “Racial minorities have been the primary victims of [white supremacist] violence. The second most common victims were other Caucasians…and other white supremacists perceived as disloyal to the white supremacist extremism movement.”
AMY GOODMAN: Despite the FBI and Department of Homeland Security findings, the Trump administration recently cut funds to organizations dedicated to fighting right-wing violence.
Well, as the nation grapples with what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, we turn now to the best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. He’s the author of Between the World and Me, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and the author of the forthcoming book titled We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.
Ta-Nehisi, it’s great to spend this hour with you. I want to start by asking your response to what happened in Charlottesville and then to President Trump’s actions in response.
TA-NEHISI COATES: My response is that it’s predictable. You had eight years before President Trump, a situation where the opposition party basically ran in opposition to the president on a platform of thinly based racism. That doesn’t mean that the politicians themselves were outright racist, but when charges of birtherism came up, no one repudiated it. When the House majority leader at the time, John Boehner, claimed the president had never worked a real job, no one repudiated it. When Newt Gingrich called the president of the United States a “food stamp president,” no one repudiated it. And so you found yourself in a situation in the 2016 election where all of that hate and all of that racism had been stoked at the party’s base.
And so, the idea that President Trump—or that Donald Trump would then become president, that he would become the winning candidate, is not surprising at all. And that Trump himself, you know, who was the stoker of birtherism, who has this long history of racism himself, going back to the 1970s, when he was accused of housing discrimination, into the 1990s, when he called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were later exonerated, in the 1990s, when he claimed that he didn’t want black people counting his money at his casinos, that that person, that that figure, that political figure, would then use that same energy that was in the party to become president, and the reaction would be violence, is predictable. It’s lamentable, but it’s predictable. And no one should be surprised.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you, this Unite the Right rally and the resurgence now of white supremacists publicly throughout the country, largely in—under the symbolic protests against the taking down of these various Confederate monuments and statues around the country, your sense of how this—the saving of these Confederate statues becomes the rallying call of the supremacist movement?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, it makes sense. I mean, the Civil War was the most lethal war in American history. The casualties in the Civil War amount to more than all other wars—all other American wars combined. More people died in that war than World War II, World War I, Vietnam, etc. And that was a war for white supremacy. It was a war to erect a state in which the basis of it was the enslavement of black people. And so that, you know, these forces that I discussed, that really, you know, bubbled from the base of the Republican Party and that Trump nakedly activated, would then rally around the cause of the Confederacy makes complete sense.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, massive protests against white supremacists and the Trump administration continued nationwide on Monday, from the streets of North Carolina, where a crowd of activists toppled a Confederate statue in Durham, to the halls of Washington, where three separate corporate CEOs resigned from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council over his failure to quickly condemn the deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend. In Durham, the crowd of activists shouted “We are the revolution!” as a woman climbed up a ladder, looped a rope around the top of the Confederate Soldiers Monument in front of the old Durham County Courthouse and then pulled the statue to the ground as the crowd erupted in cheers.
PROTESTERS: We are the revolution! No cops, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.!
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Nashville, Tennessee, activists rallied against the bust of the Confederate Army General Nathan Bedford Forrest, putting a black cloth over his head, demanding the bust be removed from the Capitol. In Gainesville, Florida, workers removed a Confederate soldier’s statue from downtown, while officials in Baltimore, San Antonio, and Jacksonville, Florida, all said Monday they would take steps to remove Confederate statues from public spaces. Major protests were also held in Washington, D.C., in Naples, Florida, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where activists burned an effigy of a Nazi.
Still with us for the hour, best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the national correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of Between the World and Me, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, author of a forthcoming book, in October, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. And we are talking to him in his first major broadcast interview since President Trump was inaugurated.
This weekend, describe the groups, Ta-Nehisi, what they represent and the significance of President Trump taking two days to speak out against white supremacist violence.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I’m having a bit of difficulty, I guess, generating much outrage here. I don’t know what people expected. Given Donald Trump’s record, given that he has somebody in the White House right now advising him, you know, who was the publisher for Breitbart media. Breitbart media is named after the same gentleman who basically framed Shirley Sherrod during the Obama administration. Steve Bannon, who was the publisher, bragged about Breitbart being the platform for the alt-right. The alt-right is who was protesting. And so, the notion that Donald Trump, when he has, you know, folks who provided that platform right in his—in the White House, would come out and provide some sort of strong statement against white supremacy, I don’t know where that expectation comes from. He is who he said he was. You know, you can say a lot about Trump, but, you know, he didn’t hide it. He is exactly who he said he was. And so I think the expectation that he will morph into some strong opponent or foe of white supremacy, even the kind of blatant white supremacy you saw on display in Charlottesville, I think, is misguided.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Ta-Nehisi, I wanted to ask you, in that same vein, that he is who he said he—who he was during the campaign, he established a presidential advisory commission to look into the issues of voter integrity.
TA-NEHISI COATES: That’s right. That’s right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your—I’m wondering your reaction to what’s been going on now in terms of turning the entire political process of voting upside down by going after those who are already being disenfranchised.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, I mean, you know, not to be repetitive here, but again, I mean, it fits right along with what he said. And again, you know, because I think what happens is that people get too focused on Donald Trump and forget that what this comes out of is a long campaign, over—especially over the past 10 years or so, especially during the time when we had our first black president, where people sought to cast, A, the president as illegitimate, and that was basically accepted—you had a majority of the opposition party that believed the president was not a legitimate president—and then the notion of voter fraud was taken up across the party, by some of the same Republican politicians who are now coming out and denouncing Donald Trump.
They made Donald Trump. Donald Trump is not, you know, separate from it. You know, you can’t come out at the last minute, now that somebody has been killed, now that somebody is dead, and pretend that, you know, “Oh, we had no part in this.” This is the result of a process. Donald Trump did not appear by magic. And so, when you see him taking up this form on alleged voter fraud, going out and soliciting the names from various states of voters, it’s right in line not just with what Trump said, but with the rhetoric of the base and of many of the politicians in the Republican Party over the past eight to 10 years.
AMY GOODMAN: And your response to those who are focusing on the Confederate statues around the South right now and actually physically, as in Durham yesterday, taking them down?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I’m happy to see it. I think I’m happy to see them. I’m happy to see that sort of awareness. I came up in a period where a show like Dukes of Hazzard was on TV, and people just basically accepted the Confederate flag in a sort of way, even as African Americans knew deep in their heart there were something deeply wrong with that. It’s good to see, you know, that there’s some sort of mass movement moving in that direction. I will say that there is some danger if it simply stops at taking down statues. I think the basic problem—and I think, honestly, this country has proved to itself over and over again—is a real lack of understanding of what the Civil War was and what its consequences were and the fact that we live with it, you know, even today. And so, I just—you know, I support the removal of the statues, but I just want to make sure that we’re not skipping over a conversation, you know, by taking down symbols and saying, “OK, that’s nice. That’s over.”
AMY GOODMAN: One of those busts was the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And you wrote a piece about him, what, like in 2009, called “Nathan Bedford Forrest Has Beautiful Eyes.”
TA-NEHISI COATES: I did. So the piece was about—I don’t want people to think like it was just, you know, lauding Nathan Bedford Forrest. But it was about how we award a certain kind of romanticism to Confederate generals and why they’ve proven so illustrative, you know, over the past—really since the end of the Civil War and the movement for the Lost Cause. And so, there’s been this movement to award glamor and glory and a kind of cowboy mystique to Confederate generals and ignore the fact that people like Nathan Bedford Forrest, for instance, perpetrated the massacre at Fort Pillow, where he murdered, in cold blood, African-American soldiers, before the Civil War, was a slave trader, literally had what he called a “NegroMart,” where he vended black bodies. And people forget that. And instead what you get is the sort of swagger and glory and the mythology of the old Confederacy.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In your book that’s about to come out, one of the things you talk about is the fear that white America has of “good Negro government.” And you make references to the Civil War, as well, your—I guess it’s a theme that you’ve often raised, the lack of attention and study of the lessons of the Civil War. But at the same time, you also say that the Obama administration’s “good Negro government” also, in many ways, helped to feed white supremacy. Could you elaborate on that?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, sure. I mean, the book takes its title, We Were Eight Years in Power, from a gentleman who stood up in 1895, one of the black congressmen appointed during—or who won during Reconstruction, immediately after slavery. And as South Carolina was basically cementing the disenfranchisement of African Americans, he said, you know, “Listen, we were eight years in power.” And he listed all the great things that the African Americans, really, the multiracial government, you know, a tremendous experiment in democracy that followed the Civil War, had accomplished—you know, reforming—really, forming the first public school system, you know, reforming the penal system—just a list of governmental accomplishments that they had done. And he struggled to understand why folks would then perpetrate this act of disenfranchisement, given how much South Carolina had advanced during this period.
And the great W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out that the one thing white South Carolinians feared more than bad Negro government was good Negro government. It was precisely the fact of having made all of these accomplishments, because they ran counter to the ideas of white supremacy, that gave the disenfranchisement movement and the redeemers their fuel.
And I don’t think it was very different under President Barack Obama. I think it was, in fact, you know, his modesty. It was the lack of radicalism. It was the fact that he wasn’t out, you know, firebombing or, you know, throwing up the Black Power sign or doing such that made him so scary, because I think what folks ultimately fear is Africans—is kind of the ease with which African Americans could be integrated into the system, because it assaults the very ideas of white supremacy in the first place.
AMY GOODMAN: You write in your book, Ta-Nehisi, talking about Trump and leading the birther movement against President Obama, “After his cabal of conspiracy theorists forced President Obama to present his birth certificate, Trump then demanded the president’s college grades (offering $5 million to anyone who provided them), insisting [that] Obama was not intelligent enough to have graduated from an Ivy League college, and that his acclaimed memoir Dreams of My Father had been ghostwritten by a white man.” If you can talk about that push, from birtherism to what President Trump is doing today, and what you’d like to see him doing? One of the things he said yesterday is that he had met with his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who would be leading a federal investigation into what took place in Charlottesville. Does that give you any comfort, Ta-Nehisi?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. What I would like to see him doing is resigning and leaving the White House. I have no expectation for the president. I certainly have no expectation for—I mean, this is like where we are. We’re in a house of mirrors right now, where Jeff Sessions is the one who’s going to bring the white supremacists to justice—Jeff Sessions who was denied a federal courtship because, you know, it was thought that his proximity to the segregationists of Alabama was much too close. I have absolutely no faith, no more faith than one should have in foxes being appointed to guard the hen house.
We—and I say “we” as a country now. I say “we” as a country, because I put myself in that. We elected a president who openly courted and openly activated the forces of white supremacy in this country in order to become president. We now have to live with the consequences of that. And I just—I don’t see much changing, certainly not in the next four years. I expect more of this, not less.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And are you disappointed, to some degree, that President Obama has maintained relative silence since he left the presidency, I guess, following in the footsteps of George Bush, who basically receded from the public scene for quite some time?
TA-NEHISI COATES: No, because I don’t—I’m not convinced that would do anything. You know? I’m not convinced that would bring the country any closer together. I think, if anything, what he would do is he would provide more ammo to Donald Trump. What you have to understand is, Donald Trump’s very essence, his very identity, is the anti-Obama. You know, he doesn’t really have independent thought beyond the idea that if this country could have a black president, it must be able to have Donald Trump as its president. That’s his core and animating theory. I mean, there was a piece, I think, like just last week in BuzzFeed. It was talking about, you know, Trump’s foreign policy. And his basic deal is: “Is Obama for it? Well, I’m against it.” You know? And that’s not just Trump. That’s a substantial portion of Americans who also voted for Trump, who, obviously, you know, still, at least to some extent, share that point of view. So, I don’t know that—I don’t know that there’s any way around this. No one’s coming around the mountain to save us. We did something. You know, we handed over the nuclear codes. We handed over the safety of our entire country to somebody. And now we have to live with that.
AMY GOODMAN: In another incident on Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists were captured in a photo and also video beating 20-year-old African-American protester Deandre Harris, who’s a hip-hop artist and assistant special education teacher at an area high school. Harris later described the attack to the Los Angeles Times.
DEANDRE HARRIS: We was just all standing here, and then we was walking down as they were walking down. And then I think we got like right here, and they just rushed us.
REPORTER: Where’s here?
DEANDRE HARRIS: Yeah, like right here, in this open way right here.
REPORTER: So right in front of—the police station is right here.
DEANDRE HARRIS: I keep hearing all this chaos going around on me, and I feel myself getting hit. So I’m trying to get up and run, but I can’t. Every time I got up, I just lose consciousness and fall back out, ’til the last time I got to open my eyes, and I see all my friends there. And they pick me up and take me over there so I can get help. I was gashed in the head, broke my wrists, chipped my tooth, busted my lip, got a bunch of cuts and abrasions all on my knees and elbows. I got eight staples in my head.
AMY GOODMAN: He was beaten up very badly. They were hitting him, smashing him with sticks. Now, there’s been a lot of criticism of the Charlottesville Police Department, or overall law enforcement—I think they brought in something like a thousand officers for this—that they just stood there. And, I mean, he was right by a police station, but overall. And I was wondering your thoughts about this. And it also goes back to Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, named after two Confederate leaders, right? Jefferson Davis and—
TA-NEHISI COATES: Beauregard. Beauregard—Davis—Sessions, you’re right. Go ahead, sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: And as head of the—and, as attorney general, is leading the movement to stop the consent decrees that would see the Justice Department oversee cities like Ferguson and their police after the killing of Michael Brown.
TA-NEHISI COATES: It’s infuriating. I mean, it’s absolutely, absolutely infuriating. I mean, I just want to pick up where you just left off, and that is with Ferguson. And what one has to do to really understand the horror of the situation, you have to try to imagine black people in, say, Ferguson, showing up, some of them with guns, some of them dressed in militia outfits, some of them with shields, some of them with clubs. You have to try to imagine, and then having them brawl in the streets with counterprotesters. And you then have to try to imagine the police doing nothing. And I think that just fails the test. I just don’t think, you know, that there’s enough imagination to perceive that, you know, as a possibility.
I was watching those things in Charlottesville on Saturday, and I was amazed. I mean, I should not be amazed. I mean, it pretty much follows, you know, the basic theory. But it is just amazing to see, you know, the police absolutely do nothing, on the one hand, and then when you see all these other cases—you know, imagine if that was how black folks responded when Eric Garner had been choked to death. Imagine if that was how black folks responded to Tamir Rice, if we came out in guns and militia gear. I mean, does anyone think the police would just sort of stand back like that?
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn for a minute to some of the voices from the rally that took place this weekend after the terror in Charlottesville, where Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, activist, deeply committed to social and racial justice, was killed, as she was run over, hit by a car that had driven into the protesters, the counterprotesters against the white supremacists. Donald Trump was concerned, at that point, talked about violence on all sides. This was the sounds of protest outside his Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.
PROTESTERS: Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Donald Trump has got to go! Whose streets? Our streets!
DAVID BODEMER: My name is David Bodemer. I felt it was important to come out today and to come out every day and to oppose a president that condones white supremacy. He did not—it took him three days to denounce David Duke last year during his campaign. It’s very interesting that he made a big point in his campaign about naming radical Islamic terrorism, and also he made this huge show of denouncing MS-13, but he can’t come out and denounce white supremacy. I mean, that’s outrageous.
VICTORIA RICHTER: Victoria Richter, and I’m here because I’m very concerned about this administration. What’s going on is terrible. And what happened in Charlottesville, I thought that was part of United States history, not its current—but not what’s happening now. And it’s just disgraceful.
NICOLE SHIPPEN: I’m Nicole Shippen. I’m a professor of political science at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. Our students are very vulnerable, and we mostly have students of color. Most of them are immigrants. They’re from all over the world. And that’s what New York sort of stands for. Trump’s rhetoric and ideological claims really brought a lot of people out of the woodwork, people who used to be ashamed or could be shamed, and now they can come out, and they’re proud. And he was able to bring out a lot of those biases, a lot of those resentments.
JOHN VEGA: My name is John Vega. I am with Rise and Resist. The terror that I felt when I saw the burning torches, the pictures, and—I couldn’t actually believe that that was something that was happening this day and age. And then you’re thinking about—I was thinking about it, that a person was killed yesterday protesting Nazis in the United States. That clearly blew my mind, just that concept that what we fought for in World War II—we fought against the Nazis. Our grandfathers, our fathers, our grandmothers worked on World War II to stop this, and now we have to deal with that in 2017, that somebody is dying because of white supremacy and Nazism? That literally blows my mind. And I—it’s a hard thing to kind of shake.
PROTESTERS: We’ll be back, and we’ll be stronger! We’ll be back, and we’ll be stronger! We’ll be back, and we’ll be stronger!
AMY GOODMAN: So, those were the voices of dissent on Sunday, after the Charlottesville terror. Last night, as President Trump came home, first time since his inauguration, late last night, there were still a thousand people outside his residence. Now, that’s the grassroots response. And then there’s the corporate response, Juan.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes. Well, on Monday morning, the CEO of pharmaceutical giant Merck, Kenneth Frazier, who is African-American, resigned from the council, saying, quote, “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal,” unquote.
While it took President Trump two days to condemn the violence of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, it took him only an hour to attack Frazier for resigning, tweeting, quote, “Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council, he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” unquote.
The CEO of Intel and the CEO of Under Armour also resigned on Monday from the council in protest, even after Trump made his statement Monday.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, your sense of how these corporate executives now also bucking and saying, “We’re not—we’re not going to be part of this anymore”?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I mean, I guess it’s good to see, but, you know, again, I just go back to this: He is who we thought he was. This is not new for Donald Trump. Steve Bannon did not suddenly materialize in the White House. Donald Trump has a record. And so, I just—you know, maybe it’s just me, but I’m sort of amazed that people are sort of just, you know, throwing up their hands and saying, “I’m shocked that President Donald Trump, the foremost proponent of the racist birther myth, did not give an appropriate response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville.”
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you just referred to before, your response, what you think Trump should do? You said resign. Can you play this out? What would that look like if President Trump were to resign? And—
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, it’s hard for—yeah, it’s hard for me to advise about what he should do. But I think if he—you know, obviously, if he resigned, Mike Pence would become president. You might not still see these kind of overt displays and open displays of white supremacy. It would not shock me if the investigation into the voter rolls, that you talked about earlier, continued. Certainly, you know, at the state level, the sort of gerrymandering that’s been going on now for some time, to engineer these states so that, you know, black folks—you know, the power of votes is diluted, would certainly continue. I would expect that Jeff Sessions and his efforts to roll back the reforms on criminal justice would continue. I would expect no action, for instance, on the sprawling income inequality. I would expect the continued assault on Planned Parenthood to continue.
And so, you know, obviously, I’m not trying to defend Donald Trump here, but I think people really need to get that he did not come out of nowhere. You know, it’s nice to see that people, at this late hour, you know, are denouncing Trump. I mean, folks denounced Trump when he was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, you know, and a few months later some of those same people were still standing with him. You know, so I just—I don’t put much faith in it, because it’s not an individual in and of itself. It’s an entire system. It’s a political apparatus, you know, working all in concert. And so, I think if you were willing to stand with a president who bragged on tape, you know, again, about sexually assaulting someone, I don’t know why the line is now—I understand that somebody got killed, but I’m not sure why the line is here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to get back to a quote from your book that—when you’ve talked about the importance of those eight years when President Obama was in the White House, that you believe he was one of the greatest presidents in American history, that he was—quoting you, “He was phenomenal—the most agile interpreter and navigator of the color line I had ever seen. He had an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people.” This was one of the core—”This was the core of his 2004 keynote, and it marked his historic race speech during the 2008 campaign at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center—and blinded him to the appeal of Trump.” So his belief in the heart of white people, you feel, also blinded him to the dangers of a Trump. Could you expound on that?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Sure. There are certain qualities that are required to—that would be required to become the first African-American president. The office of the presidency is necessarily limited in a particular way. You represent all Americans. You represent all Americans in their, you know, most beautiful ambitions, and you represent all Americans in their moral limitations also. And so, but when we think about great presidents throughout history, when I think about my—you know, the presidents who I hold up—Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, you know, for instance—I can certainly find, you know, periods of moral limitation, periods where I feel like they didn’t do the right thing. Abraham Lincoln was a man who urged African Americans, late into the Civil War, to leave the country, to enroll in this scheme of colonization, to depart because white people would never accept them as Americans. You know, and at the same time, he was heroic enough to be, as my friend Jelani Cobb often says, shot in head in defense of white supremacy. So you’re talking about, you know, limits from the get-go.
And I think to be the first black person, to be the first African American to inhabit the Oval Office, you have to have a sense of white people that I would say most African Americans do not have. You have to—you would have to have a degree of trust, a degree of belief, in fact, I would go so far as to say, that we were past things like Charlottesville that we just saw this weekend. That was the only way I think somebody was going to be president. The catch is that at the same time that you extend that belief, it blinds you to what actually can happen and what actually can come out of it, like the election of a Donald Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi, as we begin to wrap up, I wanted to go to one of the stories that got so much attention, that you wrote, and that was “The Case for Reparations.” Interestingly, we had Wes Bellamy on before these mass protests and the white supremacist rally this weekend. He’s the vice mayor of Charlottesville, the only African-American city councilman, one of five. And he’s the one who was originally pushing for the statue of Robert E. Lee to come down. He couldn’t get that approved. And instead, though, he got something like an $8 million reparations fund to deal with equity in Charlottesville. And it was after that was passed that then they just moved ahead. Is that right, Juan? I mean, you were just with Wes Bellamy in Austin at a conference of progressive cities, where they said, “OK, we’re going to take that down, too.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, he was able to get the one final vote, a 3-2 vote on the council, to then agree to also take down the statue. But before that, the white councilmembers tried to placate him by agreeing to an equity fund for the black community in Charlottesville. It occurred to me this might be a potential, at the local level, at the municipal and state level, for politicians to begin demanding equity funds as a form of reparations, to beginning it from the ground up instead from the national government down.
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s where all this began in Charlottesville. And if you can comment on that issue, an issue that you were not originally for, reparations, and what it could look like today, as even today, after the terror attack, Wes Bellamy is on the air talking about how important it is, once all the media leaves, to talk about equity in the critical institutions of Charlottesville, that have remained, for so long in the past, separate and unequal.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, see, this is why I come on Democracy Now!, right? Because I just got informed, because I wasn’t—I actually was unaware of all of that.
But I think the story points to—you know, honestly, to two things. And the first thing is that if there were to be reparations in this country, I actually think it would happen like that. I think it would be a series of small local cases based on very, very specific claims. We think of reparations as this grand sort of action, you know, the Supreme Court passing judgment, for instance, that black folks are owed X number of billion or trillion dollars, or Congress perhaps passing a bill, signed by a president, and then, you know, there being this national reparations fund. It’s not so much that I’m against that, but I suspect what will actually happen, or what would actually happen, in terms of a practical thing, is you would see folks look into specific instances. Virginia, for instance, I believe, you know, had a reparations fund for African Americans who were denied access to public schools in the wake of the response to Brown v. The Board. The sterilization cases in North Carolina, where black women were sterilized, and there were reparations claims made on their behalf. The torture of African Americans in Chicago by Jon Burge, a gentleman who worked for the Chicago Police Department, a successful reparations claim was made there. I think you would more see it in that sort of way. And so, you know, I’m happy, A, to see that happening in Charlottesville, but I’m also happy that the gentleman there didn’t stop there. I think oftentimes people think, you know, “Well, if we win this, that means the end of all struggle, and we can go home and, you know, just relax and have a beer.” I’m happy to see that he continued.
AMY GOODMAN: Do these grassroots movements give you hope—
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —right now across the country?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes, they’re all we have. They’re all we have. They’re all we have. I smile when I see them. I’m happy to see them. They’re all we have right now.
AMY GOODMAN: And in the White House, you have Stephen Bannon. There’s questions whether he’ll remain, but of course there have been those questions for many months right now. You have Sebastian Gorka. You have Stephen Miller. These are well-known people who represent this white nationalist strain, this thread, where you have Stephen Miller, one of the advisers to President Trump, actually holding the White Press news briefing last week and saying perhaps the poem by Emma Lazarus, “Give me your tired, your poor,” should be removed—
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: —from the Statue of Liberty, that it shouldn’t have gone up there to begin with, it wasn’t a part of it originally.
TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right. I mean, these folks represent the worst in us. You know, they represent the worst in America. And again, I cannot emphasize that the path was laid by mainstream, acceptable politicians, who heard, you know, this birther business, who saw all of this, who heard people, you know, consistently lobbing racist attacks at the president, and did nothing and just stood aside. And so, you know, the idea that the party would then be taken over by a much more extreme or much more vocal sort of white supremacy is not shocking. If you did nothing, you know, if you didn’t speak up during the Obama era, when these claims of racism, when these charges of racism were being lobbed, if you just stood aside, you’re part of the problem, you’re part of how we got here, you know. And you don’t get off by, you know, after somebody’s been killed in Charlottesville, making a statement about white supremacy at this late hour, after the fruit has already come to alms.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Ta-Nehisi Coates, thanks so much for being with us. That does it for our show. His forthcoming book, We Were Eight Years in Power. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.