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Ta-Nehisi Coates Talks About His Latest Book, The Civil War And White Supremacy During Miami Visit

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Miami Book Fair
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Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses his book "We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy" at Miami Dade College.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the leading voices on race and the enduring legacy of racism in America.

He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about social issues, politics and culture.

Coates was in Miami recently for a community conversation sponsored by the Miami Book Fair and conducted by WLRN reporter Nadege Green. Here are some highlights of their exchange:

WLRN: How does the civil war help us to really understand racial dynamics today?

COATES: I maintain that you really can't understand not black people, you can't understand American history if you can't understand why those 800,000 people died. When I go out to talk about the civil war, sometimes I get people that say, 'Well my great, great grandfather, you know, he didn't own any slaves but he fought for the Confederacy so it can't be about slavery.'

Your great, great grandfather might not have owned slaves, but I assure you he wanted to own slaves.  He didn’t want to own slaves because he’s a uniquely bad person. You know, had I been him at that point in time and I had been white and living in a society that he lived in, I would have wanted the slaves too.  Do you know why? Because slaves was how [you] accumulated wealth. That was accepted. You just couldn't really be a rich person in South Carolina and not own slaves. It just didn't happen.

So when you look not just at the people that died in the civil war  -- when you look at the terrorism that immediately followed, when you look at the failure of reconstruction, when you look at Jim Crow, when you look at the rise of the Klan first in 1862 and then in the 1920s and then again in the 1960s,  when you look at how the New Deal was fashioned to exclude black people,  when you look at all the racist episodes I would argue all the way up through mass incarceration -- you are seeing the aftershocks of the civil war.

And so we went from having the first black president to what you coined, “The First White President.” What does that mean?

One of the key things about the idea of whiteness in this country is that it has always depended on some out group. And mostly it depends on black people.

It defines itself against somebody else. What is Donald Trump without Barack Obama? People think the bigotry and a white supremacy is a side course. It’s not. It’s the central thing. If you took it away, you could not possibly have Trump.

Here in South Florida, I find, especially when we’re talking about race or injustice or inequality, it’s most times dismissed: 'But we're diverse. This is the backyard of Latin America. There are people from all over Latin America here. There are people all over from the Caribbean. African-Americans are here.'  So it's always, 'we're diverse'.

Does demographics matter?  Does being diverse cure the underlying issue of racism?

It matters, but no.  We have this notion in this country now that -people say this all time- that by 2050 will be majority-minority and a lot of this will go away.  Just because you have demographics on your side, again,  it buys into the myth of what America tells itself. You know about this history of fairness and you know X Y Z. I mean, I don't know how many black people expected Donald Trump to win, but I know a lot of them were not surprised that white people would do this because it's not out of the character of white people as a construction, as a people upholding power.

A way to make this comparison is obviously in this post [Harvey] Weinstein moment: I have been shocked-- a lot of my women friends have not been. It's because they know,  they know the character of men as a construction capable of doing certain things.

If you are black in this country, you know. You've spent your time as you are obliged to study the behavior of white people in mass towards black people. You just know and you're not surprised. 

There's nothing surprising about the idea that the lines might be drawn differently. And even if they're drawn in the same way that folks that twiddle with the machinery of democracy to make sure that white supremacy remains a powerful powerful force in American politics.