Ta-Nehisi Coates
Credit: Montes Bradley/Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who is interested in wresting with how race and politics intermingle in this country should definitely watch these two segments from Chris Hayes’s interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Overall, these two had a fascinating conversation. But I’d like to highlight two things that stood out to me.

First of all, Coates did an even better job of describing what his intentions were in writing the article in which he defined Trump as the first white president. Here’s the money quote from the article:

Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger.

A study of the history of race demonstrates that Coates is right. The whole concept was “invented as a folk idea, not the product of scientific research or discovery.” Race was mainly used to differentiate what we now call “white people” from everyone else. In that way, being white primarily means, as Coates suggests,  “not being a n****er.” Here is how he explained it to Hayes:

Whiteness has to come from a certain place, and throughout American history what it’s come from is the negation of blackness—the idea of not being a n****r…We’ve had white presidents before, but we’ve never had a president who so much defined himself by the president before him, who just so happens to be our first black president. My argument  in the piece is, in fact, that you can’t have the idea of a white president without having a black president before him, much as you can’t have a white American in this country without a black America.

The other part of the conversation I’d like to highlight comes towards the end when Hayes asks Coates to respond to the reality that things are pretty bleak right now for white working class Americans. Here is his response:

Even within our language, when we say something like “white working class people are suffering x,y, and z, implicit in that is that white people shouldn’t be going through that—something about being white should somehow make you immune to that…There are a number of writers who get something out of that fact. It gives them a kind of moral high ground—a relationship to a victim that they don’t have with black people…I don’t ever want to allow my insistence that folks focus on the force of white supremacy to elide the fact of any group anywhere suffering. But I also don’t want to endorse the notion that whiteness should somehow give you immunity to the kind of suffering that black people have been enduring since we got here in 1619.

The power of what Coates is doing in both his written piece and this interview is that he is putting aside the attempt to explain black people to white people, which is what a lot of African Americans try to do. Instead, he’s holding up a mirror to white American and saying, “this is what we see when we look at you.” That makes us uncomfortable because what we see in that mirror isn’t very attractive. And so a lot of writers respond by saying, “I mostly agree with Coates, but…” In that sense, they miss the point, as Jonathan Odell defined it:

The emphasis is not getting it right, just on getting it: You have to step out of the “right or wrong” dilemma. The point is not to agree or debate, or to win, but to understand.

I’m not saying that Coates is some kind of god we need to defer to on everything. But he is particularly gifted at being able to articulate what whiteness looks like from a black perspective. I believe that what he is passionately attempting to do is engage in what Martin Buber called an “I and thou” relationship on race—which is one of the most significant ways we begin to understand ourselves.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.