Ezra Klein, Vox, October 9, 2017
“Do you have any hope tonight for the people out there, about how we could be a better country, we could have better race relations, we could have better politics?”
“No,” Coates replied.
We Were Eight Years in Power is an unusual book. It collects nine of Coates’s Atlantic essays, one from each year of Obama’s presidency, and one from its savage aftermath.
The most interesting thread of these reflections traces Coates’s slow loss of hope, the rising recognition, long before Donald Trump won power, that Obama’s presidency would not have a happy ending.
There was a time when Coates believed in hope and change, or at least wanted to believe in it. “It was hard not to reassess yourself at, say, the sight of John Patterson, the man who’d ‘out-niggered’ George Wallace to become governor of Alabama in 1959, endorsing Obama,” he writes. But then, in quick succession, came Shirley Sherrod, and the humiliation of the “beer summit,” and the reaffirmation, for Coates, of “the great power of white innocence — the need to believe that whatever might befall the country, white America is ultimately blameless.”
Coates is not a writer who grasps for easy answers. He does not condemn Obama for firing Sherrod, or for placating the police officer who had arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr. on his own porch by inviting him for a drink in the Rose Garden.
There is a paragraph in Coates’s book that I have read and reread. It is, to me, the clearest distillation of his worldview and its power. I do not think there is any doubt that this paragraph is true. I also do not think it is possible to live inside its truth and feel very hopeful:
Any fair consideration of the depth and width of enslavement tempts insanity. First conjure the crime — the generational destruction of human bodies — and all of its related offenses — domestic terrorism, poll taxes, mass incarceration. But then try to imagine being an individual born among the remnants of that crime, among the wronged, among the plundered, and feeling the gravity of that crime all around and seeing it in the sideways glances of the perpetrators of that crime and overhearing it in their whispers and watching these people, at best, denying their power to address this crime and, at worst, denying that any crime had occurred at all, even as their entire lives revolve around the fact of a robbery so large that it is written in our very names.
Though America may improve, its debts will never be repaid, its ideals will never be reached, the barest definition of justice will never be attained. It was, Coates says, his seminal article on reparations that crystallized this knowledge. “The reparations claim was so old, so transparently correct, so clearly the only solution, and yet it remained far outside the borders of American politics. To believe anything else was to believe that a robbery spanning generations could somehow be ameliorated while never acknowledging the scope of the crime and never making recompense.”
“What we know is that good people very often suffer terribly, while the perpetrators of horrific evil backstroke through all the pleasures of the world.”
Last week, I interviewed Coates for my podcast. I asked him to describe the world in which justice had been done, in which equality had been achieved, in which hope was merited. “We have a 20-to-1 wealth gap,” Coates replied. “Every nickel of wealth the average black family has, the average white family has a dollar. What is the world in which that wealth gap is closed? What happens? What makes that possible? What does that look like? What is the process?”
Even imagining that world, Coates makes ample space for tragedy. When he tries to describe the events that would erase America’s wealth gap, that would see the end of white supremacy, his thoughts flicker to the French Revolution, to the executions and the terror. “It’s very easy for me to see myself being contemporary with processes that might make for an equal world, more equality, and maybe the complete abolition of race as a construct, and being horrified by the process, maybe even attacking the process. I think these things don’t tend to happen peacefully.”
For Coates, even hope can be covered in blood.