Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates Talk Race and the Presidency

coates-obamaThe Atlantic has published a fascinating discussion between Barack Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the powerful Between the World and Me.

Here is a taste of the first of three conversations:

Coates: …I didn’t really grow up around white people, but even the abstract construction was as a malignant force in my life, which I had to make my way out of much, much later in life, in my 20s, when I had intimate contact. And I wonder how much of that general optimism you think emanates from your biography. The exposure too, the cosmopolitan nature of all you’ve seen.

Obama: Yeah. I mean, look, I think all of the above. I think I was deeply loved by my mom and my grandparents. I felt that, and I carried that with me. I spent time outside of the United States, which gives you a perspective on how people of all kinds of different races, and ethnicities, and religions, and backgrounds can figure out ways to divide themselves and try to be superior to others. So that I ended up looking at race in America as one example of a broader human problem, rather than something that was unique and I was trapped in. Right? But I also, I think, benefited from the very particular era that I was growing up in, because in some ways, the last 55 years—the years I’ve been on this Earth—have a very particular trajectory of progress that is incomplete, is partial, that middle-class African Americans enjoy in ways that really impoverished African Americans do not yet feel. But that trend would feed my optimism as well.

Now, you know, what’s interesting is the work that I did as an organizer in Chicago would help to temper that optimism and ground it so that it wasn’t just a bunch of happy talk. And it’s one of the reasons why, for the generation just ahead of me, I would learn of the anger, frustration, bitterness of my elders and respect it and understand it even if I ultimately did not agree with it.