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Must Read- The First White President by Ta-Nehisi Coates

You should read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article The First White President. The article sat with me for a while, I’ve been thinking about it on and off since it came out a few weeks ago and, eventually I reread it to pin down my reaction.

While I don’t agree fully with his approach- I think he simplifies situations so as to better paint a black and white picture and purposely refuses to look into the future – I do think it’s worth your time. Not least because he he is making an accusation against white politicians, white journalists, white voters and against you, if, like me, you are a white reader of The Atlantic.

Coates asserts that racism is one of the main, if not the main, reason that Trump was elected and that he continues to garner support, despite his narcissism, and incompetence. Further, Coates stresses that the reality of prejudice in America is not sufficiently being addressed in the press, in the government, and in the public conscience.

Coates’ uses historical events around abolitionism juxtaposed with recent reporting on Trump and polling data to build his argument that white supremacy in America was established during slavery and has been maintained ever since by a powerful white elite for whom Trump is their latest, and most explicit, manifestation. Coates goes so far as to indict journalists for playing into this push for white supremacy, even if it’s unconscious or unwitting, by framing the Trump administration as the result of a class rebellion rather than a race issue.

“Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Most convincing for me was Coates’ reference to polling data, which suggests that white voters in all income brackets supported Trump; the highest percentage of Trump supporters fell in the $50,000 to $99,000 income bracket, more middle-class than working class. Coates links these figures to a fear that the black minority is gaining power, a fear bolstered and emboldened by Obama’s two terms in the Oval Office.

I absolutely agree with Coates that Trump’s campaign rhetoric and his administration’s actions mark him out as a racist with a white supremacist agenda. And there is undeniably a move from some politicians and pundits to turn away from such a reality, preferring to focus on class divisions rather than admit to an enduring racism within American culture and society. However, Coates’ argument ends with this powerful accusation, and I wish he would go one step further, to explore how we might discuss a future government and population that is truly ethnically mixed.

In one of his recent podcasts, Ezra Klein talks to Heather McGhee about her progressive think tank Demos and its work on racial divides and the evolution of a progressive agenda. It wasn’t until I heard their conversation alongside Coates’ article that I understood why the ending to Coates’ article was dissatisfying.

In the interview, Heather McGhee makes a point that I kept coming back to as I reread Coates’ article, she says “I believe it’s time for a new story about who we are as a country that says our diversity is our greatest asset. That who we’re becoming demographically — a pluralistic nation with no racial majority — is not the unmaking of America but the fulfilment of it.” She doesn’t apologise for racism within political agendas, she argues that such prejudice needs to be addressed for the benefit of the whole society, whites included. But she goes further than the anger of Coates’ article. She stresses the need for a positive vision of a ‘pluralistic nation’, one that addresses fears on both sides of the racial divide with concrete ideas for what an equal nation can look like.

McGhee places her faith in the Democratic Party to bring this vision to life by unabashedly pursuing a progressive agenda, saying, “what unites people to the Democratic Party banner is an idea of a government that works in the public interest — an idea of linked fate across race and identity.” I understand Coates’ desire to aggressively concentrate on the ongoing, perhaps increasing, prejudice embodied by Trump; and McGhee’s is undoubtedly a more optimistic view of racism and the current state of American politics, however I can’t see way forward in Coates’ piece, whereas McGhee’s stance enables me to envision a political party and society that confronts the demographic reality of diversity and encompasses it within its agenda.


Leftists would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism. Incorporating all of this into an analysis of America and the path forward proved too much to ask. Instead, the response has largely been an argument aimed at emotion—the summoning of the white working class, emblem of America’s hardscrabble roots, inheritor of its pioneer spirit, as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Further reading:

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on the Obama Administration- My President Was Black.

Heather McGhee responds to a caller asking her how to be less prejudiced on CSPAN’s ‘Washington Journal’.

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