The Bleak View of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent article in the Atlantic — “The First White President” is a devastating and image-shattering look at how President Trump is truly the first white President. While I highly recommend reading it in its entirety, I will briefly summarize its arguments here: Trump is half as qualified as his predecessor, has time and again shown a level of overt bigotry, racism, and misogyny previously unheard of for the office, and generally, really has no business running a country. And yet, he is president, the power of white supremacy exemplified. Coates chastises many of the left, from Sanders, the talking heads, and even Obama, for failing to call Trump’s ascendency what it truly is — the power of “whiteness.” Rather than identify the ingrained racial undertones that empowered Trump, many of the pundits on the left blamed the Democratic party’s inability to appeal to the “working class,” thus blaming economic rather than racial strain. Not so, Coates argues, as minority working-class voters were not driven into Trump’s arms due to “economic” issues, they saw racism for what it was — the force propelling Trump to the White House and a move by white America to strip away Obama’s legacy.

Of course, Coates’s view is not without detractors. At least two commentators, George Packer in the Atlantic and Ryan Cooper in The Week, have published responses to Coates, pointing out that there are some logical gaps in Coates’s treatise. Jason D. Hill, a professor of philosophy at DePaul University even wrote a highly critical response to Coates’ general themes.

Packer and Cooper mainly pointed out that the factors that got Trump into office are not so easily distilled to racism alone, and that Coates arguably falls prey to the same fallacy that he accuses the left of — willful blindness. Women voted for Trump in significant numbers despite the general misogyny he leveled against them and Hillary both prior to and during the campaign. In other words, people can readily overlook horrible things like racism and misogyny when it suits their interests, even if some groups such as blacks and Latinos seem less likely to do so.

While I can agree with the critics that the issue may not be so easily paired down to exclusively race, Coates’s critique nevertheless left me shaken in its wake. Regardless of where you pinpoint the exact nature and truth of Trump’s victory, you are hardpressed to deny that race played no part at all, even the critics admit as much. But more importantly, and more to Coates’s point, the structures of race and supremacy, even after 400 years, still hold a great deal of power over the most powerful office in the world. The America that elected Barack Obama is still the same that replaced him with Trump. We were naive in thinking that the bastions of hate and fear, fed over centuries, had suddenly crumbled with the election of the nation’s first black president. And this is what Trump stands for — a privileged symbol of white supremacy that could quickly and easily replace the prior image and legacy of hope.

I was left with a sinking feeling in my depths after reading Coates. I had been among those who had wanted to believe that we had arrived at a place in our history where obvious bids towards racial and ethnic divides would make someone unelectable. Namely, that hatred could not stand as a party platform. I was wrong. The America that we all live in has grown on the blood of saints, slaves, and sinners, and history is not so easily forgotten. I also had bought, in part, the stories brought forth on the left that people were driven to Trump because of economic disparities. That they just differed from their counterparts on the other side of the aisle on who is to blame for the country’s problems. Regardless of how precisely accurate that premise is, the Balrog of racism has not been defeated. He still stands on the bridge challenging our passage in a great and terrible fury.

In reading and reflecting on Coates’s writing, I felt something I had not felt since last November. Despair. Coates does not continue weaving his thoughts into a way forward. I immediately consumed a number of his other articles, interviews, and even his book Between the World and Me. All in search of a path forward. His book, written for his young son, detailing the ongoing struggle of blacks to obtain control over their own “bodies” from their oppressors, is beautiful and haunting, but again, leaves a certain, empty despair. Indeed, even after publishing this most recent article, Coates himself has said in interviews that he doesn’t see a way forward. He sees no way of slaying the demon. He leaves us without hope.

And here, unlike the Dude, I cannot abide. There is always hope, even if it is only granular and readily tramped underfoot. This is not vanity, Polly-Annish-ness, or ignorance speaking. It is a well-informed and powerful idea that, to paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend towards justice. While it is undeniable that Trump’s power is rooted, at least in part, in the supremacy of whiteness, it is no less true that it had to come in response to a previously unheard-of reality — a black president.

While Obama’s election did not suddenly rectify 400 years of the unspeakable, it does show a willingness in enough of us, a majority, that we can forge ahead towards something closer to equality. And this is where I fundamentally disagree with Coates, not necessarily in substance but in conclusion — Trump’s election is not a showing of racism and white supremacy’s strength. Rather, it is its last resurgence in the death throes of its slow demise. It is a showing of its erosion, however slow. They say it themselves — “Make America Great Again” necessarily implying that they have lost something.

In 2016, for the first time in our history, just over half (50.2 percent) of the babies born in the U.S. belonged to people of color. If the estimates hold, sometime around 2050, whites will no longer be the majority in the country. These children are being born into a world fundamentally different from those their parents were. One where, even if he had to work twice as hard as his white predecessors, a black man could and did become president of the most powerful country in the world. Twice.

In the same manner, the children already present have had the opportunity to see what racism and bigotry look like personified at the highest levels of government. Because of the nearly-global and unfiltered availability of information, these young people have seen and experienced for themselves the evils hate perpetrates and perpetuates. They do so in ways that their parents could not have experienced it in the era predating the internet. Trump offers, maybe for the first time in modern America, a figurehead, and an outspoken one at that, for white supremacy. And by extension, Trump has shown all of it, in bold technicolor, to the one demographic most easily and likely influenced — our youth.

These painful lessons of their parents, siblings, and friends will inevitably drive them away from Trump’s version of America in search of their own. Just like minority voters were driven away from him in the present. It is my hope, and possibly the only one I can cling to, that these young people who are staring into the true darkness of racism and hatred will one day choose instead to help bend America’s moral bow towards justice.

Maybe it is not Coates’s responsibility to offer hope. Maybe his strength lies in rooting out the problem and leaving it to the rest of us to face. Indeed, the first step towards fixing much of anything is the admission of the problem’s existence. I can certainly hope for and wish that Coates would direct his powerful abilities of insight and analysis towards solutions and not only problems but in the end, I can ask no more of him than he has already given.

I am not as well-written or read as Coates and do not pretend to be his intellectual equal. But to all those who are listening and are sinking in the despair personified in this current administration — hold onto hope. This America, however tainted and misguided it has been throughout its history, is still worth fighting for. We have a great moral debt that we will hopefully one day address with willing hearts and minds. There will be no quick resolution to centuries of oppression and there will be no ground gained without pain and frustration. But there is no other choice, no other way than forward. Forward to face the Balrog. Trump’s ascendancy is not an end, but hopefully a beginning, not a showing of power but a desperate clawing at it as it slips away. For the sake of those behind us and before us, we must continue, and continue to hope.

Dan Melo

Dan Melo is a recovering lawyer and learner of many things. He is currently writing a book exploring our inability to be reasonable.

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Dan Melo

Dan Melo is a recovering lawyer and learner of many things. He is currently writing a book exploring our inability to be reasonable.

8 thoughts on “The Bleak View of Ta-Nehisi Coates

  1. Not only have I not seen misogyny from Trump (sorry folks but sexuality is not sexism), I have not seen racism from Trump. And while he has been anti-LGBT, he is still better then W Bush was, even now.

    When it comes to bias and politics, it couldn’t be clearer when you have one racial group voting almost in its entirety for a candidate who appears to be of the same race, as happened in 2008. The Democrats tried to duplicate this by appealing to sexism, having their candidate run as “a woman”, and claiming that this quality made her more fit to govern than a man. Thankfully, she failed.

    Trump isn’t a white supremacist, despite the left’s desire that he be so. But he is dangerously incompetent and narcissistic. In any case, he shows that when the Democrats offer up a candidate you can’t refuse, when they tell women that there is a “special place in hell” for them if they don’t vote for a woman, when they lie and pretend that inequality is equality, the public will reject that offer.

  2. I hate to do this, since I don’t really like or care for TNC, but I feel I have to challenge the late comedian Patrice Oneal, and say, “What’s the point of talking about racism, when no one wants to admit they are racist?”

    It’s somewhat pointless to argue whether or not people who voted for Trump did so because he’s racist or not, who’s going to admit it anyhow? What we do know is that a. he appealed to racism, and b. enough people did not hold it against him. It’s a question that would never arrive at an honest answer, and thus all of us are left just speculating.

    However what we do know is that Trump appealed to racism in his presidency and he advocated for laws and policies that differed in execution based on people’s differences. In other words, Trump’s policies weren’t rooted in equality or more importantly, individual rights, but as we’ve seen even clearer now, from a desire to maintain a certain cultural norm or stronghold.

    People who voted for Trump weren’t bothered by racism, primarily because they didn’t see it affecting them. This doesn’t make them racists, just people who don’t give a fuck, which well, I’m beginning to bet was the majority of people who made up the Jim Crow South as well.

  3. I truly appreciate this piece. I consider myself someone who does believe that Trump won at least partially because of SOME white people’s conscious or unconscious investment in white supremacy. But I just cannot believe that all of them voted for him because of that.

    I loved his piece on reparations in “The Atlantic,” but I really couldn’t bring myself to read Coates’ latest piece. I knew the themes, and I knew the overall arch of what he was saying. I cannot tell you how many pieces, social media exchanges, et cetera I have read over the past 5 years that come from a similar place of hopelessness and pessimism. I wish I could un-see them for my mental health because I cannot abide the idea that there are no solutions for addressing institutionalized racism and white supremacy. I loved Coates’ piece on reparations precisely because it posed a solution. I think reparations, in some form, should definitely be explored.

    But I cannot abide this idea that I, as a white person, am somehow responsible for the racist behaviors and leanings of certain elements of the white people who voted for Trump when I have dedicated my work in health care to ensuring that marginalized populations have equitable access and when I was the one telling people on the Left they’d be sorry if they didn’t get their asses behind Hillary.

    They didn’t like Hillary? Tough shit. She doesn’t need to be likable to do a good job and maybe folks needed to consider that sexism was playing a role in the perception of Hillary as unlikable.

    It’s also not okay with me to pretend that only white people are responsible for this outcome. If we look at the data…substantial numbers of Latino and Asian American voters went for Trump…only 58 percent of the country voted…and a lot of people stayed home – including some black voters. A lot of people helped ensure this outcome – not just white people. People voted for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson; if those people who voted third party had voted for Hillary, she would have won the states necessary to win the electoral college. FYI: Jill Stein has the same amount of experience as Trump did, which is NONE.

    People wrote in Bernie Sanders.

    People linked with the Russian government were using Facebook and Twitter accounts to post false information about Hillary Clinton. James Comey did not correct the record like he needed to regarding Hillary Clinton, which gave the appearance of wrongdoing when she had not done anything wrong.

    Ascribing collective white guilt for this outcome would be like me saying that because 70 percent of black voters in California voted against same-sex marriage in 2008, black people are somehow more homophobic or that black Californians are somehow collectively responsible for that event. NO! Absolutely not. Campaigns are confusing and full of mixed, confusing messages. The backers of Prop 8 framed it in a way that made it seem like same-sex marriage was a threat, and the proponents of same-sex marriage did not do enough to reach out to black people and other communities of color in California. Maybe the Clinton campaign didn’t do enough to reach out to some of those white voters who went to Trump or to encourage the people who stayed home to turn out for Clinton? Maybe “basket of deplorables,” while somewhat true, wasn’t the best way to persuade people to examine how Trump’s campaign fomented racism and white supremacy?

    We also need to remember that this is the second time in the last 20 years that the winner of the Electoral College lost the popular vote. Al Gore won the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. The majority of people who did vote voted for her. So perhaps this speaks to a real need to restructure the way our elections work?

    As much as I respect Coates as a writer and respect his right to write whatever he wants, my heart cannot take the unbridled pessimism any more. And, of course, it’s not just coming from Coates. There are other writers from other socioeconomic backgrounds writing from a place of hopelessness as well.

    But I have realized that the only way to move forward is to focus on solutions and cling to an informed optimism…one that recognizes the state of the world we live in but also knows that there are always solutions and ways forward. That means tightly controlling the media I consume and what I allow into my heart.

    Thank you again for writing this piece, and I apologize for the long response.

  4. Jason D. Hill’ s reply is profoundly moving, and far more compelling that Ta Nehisi Coats’ elegant but sometimes overblown, and always highly partial, and anti-universalist writing.

  5. The narrative, implied or direct, by the left that: Trump is a white supremacist, and x number of white people voted for Trump, therefore white people who voted for Trump are all white supremacists and representative of America as a white supremacist nation is one of the many reasons Trump won in the first place and why conservatives are conquering the entirety of the political sphere.

    Coates is a great example of why the broad left is being snuffed out: he cannot help but see racism everywhere he looks at all times. Yes, he’s a very intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate writer but his whole world is viewed through the lens of race. When all you see when you see a white American is someone who, by default, must harbor some ill will toward black people, America will necessarily look like a white supremacist country.

    With regard to how race played a part in the election, perhaps the white proportion of Trump voters were willing to overlook his many, many, many flaws, in part, because the last couple generations have been brought up to believe that white people in the present have to bear responsibility for historical wrongs. It’s become the racial equivalent of ‘original sin’ in our culture. When you tell a majority of the population that they bear this mark, pushback is inevitable. Unfortunately, we now all have to deal with the consequences and Coates is a great example of the left having learned nothing from this disaster.

  6. I fundamentally disagree that racism is what made Trump win. To put it another way: racists were likely to support Trump, but that was not the factor that propelled him to victory. And here is the data for this: according to a survey of voters, 2/3 of those who voted for Trump did so primarily because they did not want Clinton to win.

    Two thirds! Far from ’62 million Trump voters are racist,’ that reduces things to ’40 million people couldn’t stand Clinton, 22 million actually supported Trump.’ And even here their motives for such support were not necessarily related to race. Issues such as the economy, immigration, anti-globalism, and trade were also important.

    Coates’ thesis depends on the sleight-of-hand assumption that anyone who does not prioritize racial issues as the most important problem in America must be racist, as well as the assumption that everyone must see Trump as a racist, but see Clinton, the Goldwater girl of ‘superpredator’ fame, who championed policies that were disastrous for black Americans, as a glorious anti-racist. This is patently ridiculous.

What are your thoughts?