Why Obama Can't Always Speak Freely About Race
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates says he noticed something about one of this year's major news stories. When Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, was killed by a white man in Florida, there was widespread dismay. And then President Obama spoke.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. And, you know, I think they are right to expect that all of us, as Americans, are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves; and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
That's what the president said early this year. And writing now, in The Atlantic, Coates charges it was only after the president's statement that the Trayvon Martin debate became intensely divisive. Conservative media outlets that had been concerned about Martin concluded, instead, that it was time to defend the shooter, George Zimmerman. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich asked if the president was more concerned about black people than white people. For Ta-Nehisi Coates, this episode underlines the reality that the nation's first black president cannot always get away with speaking freely about race. Coates joined us on the line from our New York bureau.
So what really changed when the president spoke in this example that you give?
TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, what I argue in the piece - and what I continue to believe - is power. Traditionally, African-Americans have used moral power; have tried cajoling, protest signs. And this is pretty much what you saw in the early days. If you listen to Barack Obama's statement, though, he's talking about using the investigative powers of the state. That is the big fear that I talk about; that Obama is not just another black person protesting, he's actually employing the power of the state.
INSKEEP: You're arguing that you think there are white people who are especially uncomfortable with that idea of a black person with the power to investigate - or order an investigation of a white person.
COATES: Yeah, I totally do. I think you see that in terms of the whole notion of Barack Obama being foreign; the idea that someone even named Barack Obama would not just represent the country, but that he would actually be our commander-in-chief. This is a different sort of power wielded by an African-American.
INSKEEP: Now, there's a lot of questions that your thesis raises, and maybe this is the first one: when you suggest that when President Obama speaks up on something, and a lot of people say that they're then against it, that there's something to do with race there. Isn't it actually just a partisan moment? The president says he's going to take this position, and so Republicans take the opposite position. They've done that for years.
COATES: Yeah, well, I thought about that quite a bit, actually. And I think the big rebuttal that you always hear, especially, is that Bill Clinton met the same sort of resistance when he put forth proposals. There were a lot of awful things said about Bill Clinton - and about his wife, particularly - when he was trying to pass health care. What was not said was that health care was reparations - Glenn Beck going on TV and saying that the president is a racist guy with a white mother; somehow, has something against the - quote-unquote, as Glenn Beck put it - "the white culture," against white people. I mean, what does this mean? What sort of dialogue is this? This is very, very different. And I think it's a lot more than just being a Democrat.
INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that because in the specific example of the Trayvon Martin case, one of the lines of conservative argument - or complaint - here is that actually, it was the president who politicized it. They put it on the president for bringing up race.
COATES: I think what Obama actually did that really pissed people off, was a recognition of history; the notion that - not just that he brought up race, but that race somehow was part of why Trayvon Martin ended up dead. And to think that, you don't necessarily have to believe that George Zimmerman was a bigot. You just have to believe that white people, and a young white person of Trayvon Martin's age, would not have been suspected of crime in the way Trayvon Martin was.
INSKEEP: Are you arguing that not very much has really changed about the racial dialogue, just because there's been the election of a black president?
COATES: No, I would never argue that. A lot has changed. A lot has changed. You know, the way to look at this - as far as I'm concerned - is the way progress happens historically. Two things can be true at the same time. We can say we took a great step forward; that we've come a long, long way in the last 50 years; and say that nevertheless, we still have a - you know, a longer way to go. And even - complicate it even more, and say that this progress that we've made gives us other problems that we didn't necessarily anticipate. No, I would never, never - under any circumstances - say that it didn't change anything.
INSKEEP: You, obviously, had a lot on your mind. This is a long article.
COATES: (LAUGHTER) I did.
INSKEEP: I got to the end of it, and it gets...
COATES: Congratulations. (LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: ...it gets - well, it gets more profound as it goes. And you make a remarkable admission about yourself.
INSKEEP: You tell a story that begins a little bit before 9/11, and you acknowledge that when 9/11 came, you didn't feel very much - you were - you didn't want anything to do with patriotism.
COATES: I did - I didn't. I think what the exact words are, when I heard about the deaths of the police and the firemen, I had something bordering on hatred for the police. And that came out of a friend of mine who had been killed by a police officer some - well, I guess about year or so earlier, and nothing had - had happened there. It's funny because I was advised by a couple of people who read that piece to actually take that out because it might distract. But what I wanted to put in context was the really, really raw feelings; the conflict that African-Americans feel when we try to assess, what is our relationship to our country?
I was a really, really young man when that happened, in my 20s. And one of the limitations that became clear to me in the years after 9/11 - as I read, you know, more of the journalism about what had happened, how people had died - is that individual lives matter. Individual policemen died; individual policemen with families, with kids, with wives, with husbands. That was a - you know, a way of looking at the world that I had to grow into, a humanism. I was not quite there as a 26-year-old man. I think I'm there now.
INSKEEP: Which is especially remarkable because you write in the article about how in previous decades, previous centuries in this country, citizenship was a white thing. Being part of America, fully part of America, was considered a white thing - at least, by white people. And it sounds like there was a moment in your life where you bought that, actually.
COATES: Yeah. Well - and I think like, that's the other side of it, right? So, I mean, there are two ways to look at this. You can take the rejection - understand - well, I don't want to be part of this, anyway. And that's a really conflicted place to be, as an African-American, because the fact of the matter is, all of your - you know, forbearers and forefathers, you know, helped make America what it is today. And so, you know, to some extent, what I came to believe was that it really wasn't mine even to reject; that I didn't even really have that right - that, you know, country is sort of like family. And you're born into it and you're, you know, very much charged with improving it.
INSKEEP: President Obama's election changed your view a little bit.
COATES: Oh, it did. It did. It did. You know, and it's not even so much that Obama won, but he won in places that I wrote off. You know, you - as an African-American, you feel like, well, you don't - you know, there's nothing in Iowa for you, you know; these places where there are very few black people - for you. And you - this is how, you know, a history of racism works. You then find yourself writing off broad swaths of people based on, frankly, what is ignorance. And so it really opened my eyes. It's something to see a black man - I don't care where he's from; from Hawaii, you know; biracial, whatever - but standing before an audience, you know, a majority - any majority-white audience; and seeing them saying yes, we are ready to hand over the launch codes to you. That was profound. It remains profound to me.
INSKEEP: Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic magazine, talking about his article "Fear of a Black President," which is in the latest edition. Thanks very much.
COATES: Thank you so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.