After the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, which killed one person and injured dozens more, we spend the hour with award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates to understand the roots of this racial terror. His new book of essays about the Obama presidency has just been published, titled “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.”
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.