Top 10 Takeaways From Ta-Nehisi Coates Interview On Reparations And The ‘Obama Decade’

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Written by Dana Sanchez
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The U.S. exists due to slavery and will never be free of it — “it’s in the bones” — says journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates in an interview on reparations and the Obama decade. Coates testifies about reparations for the descendants of slaves during a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee, June 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais). President Barack Obama speaks during his farewell address at McCormick Place in Chicago, Jan. 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations” forced Americans to look in the mirror and think about slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining in ways that many of them had never done before. “White America was finally shown itself,” wrote Zak Cheney-Rice in New York Magazine’s Intelligencer.

The reparations essay prompted a congressional hearing where Coates testified on June 19. Coates, 44, won a National Book Award for his 2015 book, “Between the World and Me“, and a MacArthur “genius” grant. More recently, he’s been writing fiction including a Black Panther series and a Captain America series for Marvel comics. His celebrated first novel, “The Water Dancer” is about an enslaved man with supernatural powers in antebellum Virginia. 

During an interview with New York Magazine Intelligencer, Cheney-Rice asked Coates, “Can you envision a scenario where reparations is (a) formally studied, (b) agreed upon as a thing that should be done, (c) paid out, and (d) ends up actually being enough to remedy the harms that that’s meant to address?”

Coates responded: “The scenario that you just outlined I would argue is not reparations. That’s a bribe.”

Here are 10 takeaways from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ interview on reparations and the “Obama Decade”.

Despite raising reparations to the point of serious policy proposal, Coates doesn’t see his role as one of activist

Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations” is credited with bringing reparations to the level of serious policy proposal. He testified before Congress on the topic and has had one-on-one conversations about reparations with Former President Barack Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren before she was a presidential candidate.

“In terms of other candidates, I like the fact that I don’t really want to be the kind of person that’s consulted by candidates,” Coates said. “I didn’t want to (testify before Congress). I feel like I speak through the literature. At that point, I felt like I was stepping more into an activist role, and it’s not a space I really want to be in. But at the same time, I felt like so many Black folks in the past have sacrificed for me to even have the privilege of saying I didn’t want to be in that role that I kind of had to.”

Reparations shouldn’t be a question of money but an attempt to alter how we remember the past

“It’s so crucial that (reparations) not just be a question of the money but it actually be a question of some sort of attempt to alter how we remember the past,” Coates said. “If that goal were accomplished, you would not have a critical mass of Americans and white Americans wanting to wash their hands of it… My hope would be there would be a profound reimagining not just of the African-American past and what was done to African-Americans in America and thus the American past in itself, but our responsibilities and how we deal with people in general.”

U.S. would not exist without slavery and will never be free of it: ‘It’s in the bones’

In the same way that Europe isn’t free of anti-Semitism after struggling with it for millennia, Coates said white supremacy is “likely to be with us through the rest of this country’s history.”

Coates says he objects to the presumption that the U.S. will someday be free of racism.

“What fucking right does America, or even us who are doing the work here in America, have to presume that we most certainly will be free someday of racism? That’s what I object to,” Coates said. “Because I think you deeply understate the challenge that’s faced. This is a country that would not exist without slavery.
“It’s in the bones … It’s in the economies, it’s in the cultures, it’s in the politics, it’s everywhere. So, just to stick with this example of anti-Semitism, note that the greatest crime of anti-Semitism happened almost 2,000 years into the history of it. So I don’t think that it’s crazy to say that when you’re looking at our country, for some 250 years, a quarter of a millennia, it tolerated the enslavement of people. It tolerated the doctrines that justified that enslavement. It tolerated the culture, it tolerated the politics. Then what followed was an era of pogroms, of Jim Crow, of massacres, of death, of robbery, of raping. And what followed that? An era of mass incarceration where we built the largest prison state ever known to man and we built it on the basis of racism and white supremacy. Dude, this is huge.”

The 2010s are Obama’s era

“It’s Obama’s decade, unquestionably,” Coates said. “I think the force of a Black president was such a historic and seismic event that everything … just was touched by it. It’s really like if I had to pick a singular thing that defined the decade, it would probably be the thing that happened before the 2010s, and that was his election.”

The start of the decade also marked the rise of the tea party, with Obama losing his losing the House majority. “We get this electoral manifestation of right-wing backlash for the first time,” Coates said.

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The Republican Party is a white party

“It’s the party of a white majority that greatly fears becoming a white minority,” Coates said. “As much as the tea-party movement in 2010 is just a line of demarcation, you have the current president’s invocation of birtherism, and birtherism is little more than telling the first Black president, ‘Go back to Africa.’

“It’s not a mistake that throughout Obama’s presidency, you could poll the Republican Party and find anywhere from half to a solid majority of people who actually were birtherists. That’s not accidental. Racism is and was core to what the Republican Party is, which is not to say it has no manifestation and no effect in the Democratic Party.”

People underestimate the power of Obama as a symbol

“There’s Obama as a mythical figure, the symbolic aspect of what he is … symbols are really, really important,” Coates said. “It actually was quietly really important that while Barack Obama never disguised the fact that he was biracial, he identified as a Black man.

“He was really clear about that … I think that was really inspiring to a lot of Black people and a lot of white people. … one should not underestimate the power of Obama as a symbol of the first Black president … People forget that Obama is immensely popular with Black people, like probably the most popular person maybe after his wife… There’s something in Black folks that they feel good about when they see him. And there probably is a critical mass of white people who feel good maybe for other reasons but feel good themselves.”

Obama helped the resurgent interest in Black cultural products

Coates identified what he thinks are some of the most important, impactful and memorable cultural products of this decade. “Black people have shown that you can make money off of Black things,” he said. These include:

  • Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 novel, “Salvage the Bones,” which tells the story of Esch, who is 15 and pregnant, and her poverty-stricken family as they prepare for and live through Hurricane Katrina in the town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.
  • Hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar ‘s albums “Good Kid M.A.A.D City.”
  • “Creed”, the sequel to the Rocky film series, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, who later made “Black Panther.”  “Absolutely marvelous film. … it takes a white myth that was, let’s just say, problematic, and it heals,” Coates said.
  • “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson’s epic nonfiction book on the migration of Black Americans from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West. “I always felt like it was the spiritual mother of ‘The Case for Reparations’,” Coates said. “What it did was focus on that class of strivers, as opposed to how most books about Black people focus on the Black poor.”

The 2020 Democratic candidates lack Obama’s oratorical skills

Coates said he does not support Joe Biden for president, “but I totally understand why most Black people do.

“I totally understand why the person that’s running second to him in a lot of places is Bernie Sanders. It’s not a mistake. The other thing too is people forget that Obama was just a damn good politician. No disrespect, but what we got? Three candidates? Do any of them have the oratorical skills that Barack had?
“The notion that you’re just going to show up and be Black and we’re going to follow — it just don’t work like that. The larger populace is sort of amazed that Kamala Harris or Cory Booker hasn’t captured more of the Black imagination and Black folks in polls, but it’s not that amazing. Barack Obama is just a unique dude, man … I think a lot of Black folks are banking on the white candidate, which may not be wrong.”

Black support for Trump is overstated

Trump held a November event in Atlanta where he promised to fight for every Black vote. He was ridiculed but there’s some evidence Democrats have lost ground with Black voters, Vox reported. This is the percentage of Black voters who voted for the Republican presidential candidate in past elections, according to the Roper Center at Cornell:
1996: 12%
2000: 9%
2004: 11%
2008: 4%
2012: 6%
2016: 8% 

“Meanwhile, white people are voting for a dude who bragged openly about sexual assaults,” Coates said. “Trump basically got a majority of every single white demographic you could think of. Majority of every economic cross-section of white people. We’re having this debate about two or three points among Black people. But it’s normal for white people to support the dude that thinks foreign policies should be done by tweet. Nobody goes to white people and says, ‘What in the hell is wrong with y’all?'”

Coates has become a lot more discerning about when he talks

Coates withdrew from both social media and nonfiction writing to focus on writing for Marvel comics — a childhood dream of his — and his novel, “The Water Dancer”.

Here’s what he said about leaving Twitter: “I realized that people were, like, eating off of me. So every time I would write a piece … there’d be like 50 op-eds to what I wrote. I was like, Damn, people are really eating off of this. And then it would be a click economy on Twitter.”

Leaving Twitter was hard, Coates said, because he liked it. “But the world kind of changed for me, and it became one in which I had to be a lot more careful about what I said and what I did and that’s OK.”