Author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates joined Larry Wilmore on Black on the Air to discuss politics and black culture. The two built on Coates’s October piece in The Atlantic in which he examined Trump’s position as “the first white president” and discussed how black Americans can evaluate Barack Obama’s time in office.
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
On Donald Trump, the First White President
Wilmore: I made this joke a year ago, but I'm giving you credit too. I said, “Man, last year Trump had white people going to the polls like they were voting for the first white president.”
Coates: You did? You made that joke?
Wilmore: I did make that joke, so [when I saw your book] I was like, "Oh my God, Ta-Nehisi has it in his book!" But Ta-Nehisi, are we wrong?
Coates: No, no! It's correct! I mean once you understand that whiteness is an idea, it's not your presence of lighter skin or blonde hair or a certain color eyes—[whiteness is] a decision that that matters. That that's a way to identify people. Then you understand that you can say, yes, there have been people who fit this physical description before, this phenotype before. But [Trump] mattered in a way that others did not because the dude before him was black.
That's the real driving point of it. This has never happened. [Where] the next guy was following somebody black and that he really pulled together his identity. [Trump is] going through this thing this week about whether he called these families, where somebody died, and what does he do? He immediately he goes back to Obama. “Well did Obama do it?” That's his identity.
Wilmore: I firmly feel that most elections, presidential elections I say, are more a reaction to the previous administration than they are a contest between two individuals. Including the last one. I thought Trump beat Obama, he didn't beat Hillary. I thought that's who he was running against.
Coates: Yeah. I have to tell you I think if he ran against Obama, Obama would have ran over him, actually.
Wilmore: Oh exactly. No, [Trump] beat [Obama] because [Obama] wasn't running, but that's who he was running against. In other words, it used to be, “It's the economy stupid,” but last year it was “It's the niggas, stupid.”
Coates: Yeah exactly. Totally.
Wilmore: It's this foreigner status that Obama was relegated to. That was the thing that offended me the most, [and it] started with this whole birtherism movement. Part of “Make America Great Again” is removing that foreign presence.
Coates: That's right. … [In] some of the earlier July Fourth celebrations, they would drive black people from the public square. Like it offended them that black people would try to participate or claim any sort of American status. And there's always been this sort of discomfort. Or the idea that we're not really a part of this [country], much less built it.
That [idea] came [through] in the birtherism piece, which I think people kind of relegated to a side phenomenon [at the time]. I think we can now say it was a lot bigger than people thought it was. I think sometimes it's hard to accept it, but it's quite clearly there.
Wilmore: I certainly don't think that the majority of white people in this country feel that way. I really do think it is a very strategic minority that was very consciously gone after [by the Trump campaign]. Like this was not accidental.
Coates: Right. No it's there. I was talking the other day and I actually said, “What do you think our kids are going to think about this?” You know like 50 years from now. And I said, “It's going to be tough to explain.”
How to Evaluate Obama’s Presidency
Wilmore: Where do you put Obama, in terms of his presidency? Do you think he was an effective president to help the problems that are going on in the black community? Like, for that issue?
Coates: I think he was as effective as probably anybody else who would've got elected.
Wilmore: Do you think the expectations were too high? Or not high enough? Or were they met?
Coates: It's hard to say because he was popular with black folk the entire time. I don't know that black folk were ever disappointed in him. I mean, I think there are certain black intellectuals who were disappointed in him. I was disappointed in how he talked sometimes.
Wilmore: Why were black intellectuals disappointed with Obama? People like Cornel West, I think, took issue with him.
Coates: I think there are two critiques. I think there's one critique that is more policy-based that says, “We are trying to make a more just world. We want X, Y, and Z, and we don't feel like you're moving fast enough on that.” For instance, I think there should be a public option because I think that would help black people in a particular way because we have a disproportionate number of the uninsured, and [Obama didn’t get that], so that's a critique, right?
Then, there was the, “I didn't get tickets to the inauguration” critique.
Wilmore: That's hilarious.
Coates: That's a different critique! And I think that was out there. I think that [was] definitely, definitely out there. I think there were people who felt that they weren't properly vetted.
Wilmore: That they weren't invited to the cookout.
Coates: They weren't invited to the cookout, yeah! And I think that that was a lot less legitimate. But I think that during my time, even when I had my critique, I always had to reconcile the fact that most black folks thought he was incredible, even if I found myself disagreeing with that feeling. Folks feel that way! It's a real thing, you know?
Wilmore: Were you disappointed in Obama? Where did you end up? Did you go through different stages?
Coates: I felt like I got what I voted for.
Wilmore: What were you voting for?
Coates: I was voting for the first black president of the United States of America, and I understood what that meant. I understood that meant that the majority of the electorate would not be black and would not come from my experience and that would be who he was serving. I understood that he would be hemmed in. And not even hemmed in. Just positionally, his politics would probably not be where mine were. I got that. I didn't vote expecting a revolution. That wasn't really what I thought. I did think that maybe there were some things that were now true of the country that I didn't know to be true.
Wilmore: Like what?
Coates: Well, I can remember being a child and thinking, “I can't even go to Idaho ’cause there ain't no black people.” You know what I mean? “I can't go to North Dakota. I can't go to Washington or Iowa.” And when he won Iowa I was like, “Jesus, man!” Even when he won the Democratic primary in certain states, I was like “Wow!” I know it's only Democrats but still, that's still white folks in those areas! I was shocked.
Wilmore: Do you think there's a black bubble that is out there, where many black [people] don't know that there are many, many whites who aren't feeling the way that you think that they're feeling?
Coates: I think what happens is that there's white folks, in the sense that we talked about them as a general thing, and then there are actual, individual white people. And I think that, given where the country was in 2007—given two failed wars, given what was going on in the economy—maybe it was underrated that there was some amount of flexibility among individual white people. And, I think that was ultimately a good thing, realizing that for me. It made the country feel a little more malleable to me, and I still take that by the way, like I still feel that way even now. There was just realizations that I had after that that I hadn't had.
Wilmore: Do you think his election says something about the current state of race relations, or does it say something else? ’Cause he was elected twice.
Coates: I do! He was! And you can't write that off. I think what it says is, if you are really, really talented; if you have matriculated from the highest, most recognized institutions in this country; and if you're really, really, really lucky, you might be president. I think it says something about individual black people, like what they can possibly achieve. It's like when Jackie Robinson integrates MLB, it doesn't mean that Major League Baseball's no longer racist. That's not what it means. But it means a particular kind of black person can play in Major League Baseball now.
Wilmore: Would you say that race relations are better than they were 30 years ago?
Coates: No, I wouldn't say that. I think there's a difference between when you talk about the fate of 40 million people versus what's possible for one person. And I think there's more possible for individual black people today. So in that area, I think it's better. In that one area, I think it's better.