Stephen Colbert was crestfallen.
The late-night talk show host had just asked Ta-Nehisi Coates if Coates, who has become the go-to person for insights on the messy state of America’s race relations, believed there was a reason for Americans to be optimistic about race relations going forward, to which Coates tersely and unemotionally responded, “No.”
For the final two minutes during the October interview that took place on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on CBS, that cryptic response hung over the conversation, and at the end Colbert told Coates, “I hope you’re wrong.”
There was so much more to be unpacked there that wasn’t, but fortunately I was able to catch up to the MacArthur Fellow for a Saturday morning phone conversation. Also his latest book, “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” which takes a look at the Obama presidency, provided an avenue to pepper him with questions on the culture, including Cornel West’s out-of-the-blue criticism of him shortly after the release of 2015’s “Between the World and Me,” which garnered a National Book Award for non-fiction.
John Mitchell: Colbert didn’t really care to further pursue your response to his question. Can you elaborate here?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: “We just elected an open white supremacist. You just had a Black president, a guy who was basically allowed in because the world as falling apart. The American economy was falling apart, you had two wars, and that was enough in this era apparently to give a Black person a chance [to become president], and we immediately followed that with a dude who is wholly unqualified to be president even if he weren’t openly a white supremacist.
“I don’t know what one is supposed to take from that except that we’re in trouble, we’re in serious trouble. As for the interview, it is not my job to make people feel better about their lives.”
JM: Is there no Donald Trump without an Obama?
TC: “Without the reaction to Obama there is no Trump. Obama didn’t do anything except be Black and run for president and folks felt a type of way about that and so here we are. I think it’s pretty clear that without that reaction, Trump would not be president.
“But this is quite unprecedented in the sense that you’ve never had an American president who had never held a political office and had never had a position in the military. People forget that it was only eight years ago that people were saying Obama is unqualified. Now you look at this and it looks crazy, but this is ok. That really is the big thing with white supremacy. You just get more rope. You can get away with more. And that is obviously the case here.”
JM: What was it about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy that failed to galvanize Black voters?
TC: “She’s not the greatest candidate. I think she had a specific history with Black folks. I think it was the “super predators” comment, her position on welfare reform, her husband’s Sister Souljah Moment. I don’t think people have forgotten this although it’s no longer mentioned in writing. But as recently as 2008 there was the comment about hard-working white people. That’s a lot for a white Democrat to be carrying and to then come into Black folks’ communities and to say, “I’m with you.” This is especially so at a point right now when Black folks occupy more power in the Democratic Party than they did 20 years ago.
“People remembered that stuff. They remember her husband making that crack about Jesse Jackson winning South Carolina after Obama won the state in 2008. But I think that was a uniquely bad situation, and I think the fact that she did better than Bernie [Sanders], who really had no clue about Black voters, concealed the thinness of support that she had in the Black community. it’s just a tough situation. But she would be better than what we now have. Let me be very clear, I am certainly not advocating not voting for her. She would have been much better than what we have. But I think there was a ton of baggage there, which is why Black Lives Matter went at her.
“Have you ever had a clearing of the air with Dr. West, who thought Toni Morrison’s high praise of you was not merited? West, who teamed with Tavis Smiley to often criticize Obama, shot down Morrison’s comparison of Coates to James Baldwin, suggesting Coates’ ‘fear-driven self-absorption leads to individual escape and flight to safety.’ West also called Coates “cowardly silent on the marvelous new militancy in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, Oakland, Cleveland and other places.
“No, and I don’t know why he did that, I really don’t. He [West] called me after that but he didn’t really say anything. I couldn’t understand what he was saying and I mean that literally. I don’t really have any insight. You know, after “Between the World and Me” a lot of people had a lot to say. So my job is to keep writing. I was pretty shocked about some of that reaction. But the time I spend trying to decipher what’s going on in other people’s minds and why they are doing X, Y, and Z is dead time. their mind and why they are doing ZYZ is dead time. My job is to keep writing. But the statement was pretty clear from his perspective. I don’t know what there is to clear up.”
JM: What did you make of their joint attack on Obama?
TC: “I know Cornel specifically — we have the same literary agent — and he said it. Tavis is a little bit harder to understand. But with Cornel it was things like he didn’t get inauguration tickets or something. He felt like he went out there and stumped for Obama and Obama had disrespected him. He [Obama] wasn’t taking his calls etc., in addition to whatever very real political disagreements he may have had with him.
“With Tavis it was clear. Obama didn’t come to Tavis’ State of Black America thing that he used to do. Obama declined to come on a particular instance, Tavis got upset. It was what it was. In a larger sense, I think the difference with Obama compared with other candidates was that he didn’t have to negotiate with quote unquote Black leadership to talk to Black people. He didn’t need to come to a State of Black America thing to talk to Black folks. He’s from the Southside [of Chicago]. People tried to use that, “well he’s half white.” But that’s not real. Black folks loved him and he could go directly to the community. That probably rubbed some people the wrong way.”
John N. Mitchell has worked as a journalist for more than a quarter century. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Tweet at @freejohnmitchel.