just asking questions

Ta-Nehisi Coates Is an Optimist Now

A conversation about race and 2020.

Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photo: Cole Wilson/The New York Times​/Redux
Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photo: Cole Wilson/The New York Times​/Redux

In recent days, as Democrats debated the definition of “reparations,” Joe Biden rationalized his opposition to integration, and socialist congresswomen started demanding the rebirth of a nation, inquiring minds wanted to know: What would Ta-Nehisi say?

Throughout the Obama years, Ta-Nehisi Coates provided politics-watchers with a regular source of historically grounded, bracingly well-written punditry and reporting. But since 2016, the writer’s ambitions have led him off of Twitter and out of the news cycle, leaving us to navigate the Trump era’s dark waters without the aid of his insight.

Until now, anyway. Earlier this week, New York caught up with the author of Between the World and Me and “The Case for Reparations” to discuss the latest developments in the Democratic Party’s 2020 primary race, the case for — and against — reparations, and the role of pop culture in fostering progressive change.

What do you know about American politics today that you didn’t know on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated? Or, put differently, what, if anything, about the politics of Trump’s America (whether in terms of developments within the two major parties, or between them) have you found particularly edifying or surprising?

I think I underestimated the left’s response to Trump. I definitely underestimated the Democratic Party’s response. Listen, I was in college during the Clinton era, in high school and college. That whole “super predator” thing that came up during Clinton’s campaign, that wasn’t — and is not — abstract to me. That was literally the folks I went to school with. It was well within the mainstream to say things like that. We’re gonna see, but the kind of pressure that our activist groups, and the left wing of the Democratic Party has been able to exert … I get this rap for being pessimistic, but it’s inspiring to see. It’s really inspiring to see.

And I think it proves something that I try to talk about from time to time, that is there is a whole range of politics that happens outside of the voting booth. I think you’re seeing the effect of that. Obviously with the fact of Bernie’s campaign in 2016, and the effects of that, but I think you’re also seeing what I would describe as this sort of long war — or a continuation of the long war — with Black Lives Matter. I think those guys got a lot of flak at the time for this notion that they were too abstract, that they weren’t doing anything, they weren’t doing this, they weren’t doing that, but I actually think you can very much see the impact right now on the Democratic race.

Yeah, I think you can definitely see that movement’s influence, both in how mainstream Democrats talk about race, and how they approach questions of criminal justice. That said, right now Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are two of the leading contenders for the Democratic Party’s 2020 nomination. They are also both politicians who embraced some version of “tough on crime liberalism” earlier in their careers. Harris threatened to prosecute and incarcerate the parents of kids who skipped school. Biden led the charge for expanding mandatory minimum sentencing throughout the 1980s, and co-authored Clinton’s crime bill in the 1990s. And yet they are currently polling near the top of the field, in large part thanks to their popularity with African-American voters. And so I’m wondering whether you believe that it is possible for Biden or Harris to earn the votes of those who value racial justice, and if so, what they would have to do to earn them? And finally, whether you are concerned that they might win such votes without earning them; which is to say, that their offenses might matter more to African-American activists then to the black electorate, writ large?

Let me start by stipulating that I’m always gonna be the guy that did not think we would have a black president in my lifetime. You need to take that in consideration when you hear any sort of prognostication from me. I wouldn’t have predicted that we’d even be talking about reparations, right now. I wouldn’t have thought that.

That said, you would think looking at Biden and Kamala that they have some of that baggage, particularly around criminal justice. Biden and Kamala are different. Biden is really popular right now among black voters. But it’s worth remembering that in ’08, Hillary Clinton was really popular among black voters early too. I think Biden has more than just criminal-justice baggage when it comes to race. I think that it’s not just that. Biden said, “My goal is to lock Willie Horton up.” He’s literally on the record making the case for why his crime bill is tough. He wasn’t trying to compromise with the Republicans. This was actually an attempt to get to the right of Republicans. On top of that, you have this piece in the Post where he talks about his own rhetoric in the ’70s and ’80s, in terms of busing. I don’t know if the criminal-justice bit is going to be enough. But you start pulling all of it together, I think you start to get something that might actually be problematic.

I do think the implicit point you made about there being a separation between African-American voters and African-American activists is a real thing. I was very concerned about how Obama addressed black audiences during his time as president. I’m not sure that that was ever a mainstream position among black people. I don’t think it ever hurt him in any sort of demonstrable way. And I think there’s a similar thing with Kamala. I don’t want to hear about how she didn’t lock anybody up. The idea of threatening mothers — and in most cases, because of how the families were set up, it was gonna be mothers, minority black and brown mothers — with jail, under the notion that you ultimately want to help them? I find that chilling. That’s really really chilling. I think it sits in a line with … There’s a whole kind of liberal thinking that tries to use the state, and particularly the punitive aspects of the state, under the notion that it’s actually going to help black people. Whenever people start talking about that, I get worried. I get really, really worried. I think there are profound implications to somebody that would say something like that; that there’s profound implications for laughing about the prospect of threatening people with the police.

I don’t know how she feels about that now. I don’t know whether she’d stand by that now or not. But for me, that raises really serious questions. And not just about race in this country, but also about foreign policy. You can be that distant with people that are right here. What does that mean when I hand over the keys to the armed forces to you? How are you gonna be in those situations? I think that’s something that people should be concerned about.

Whether black voters will be concerned about it, though — I’m not convinced they will be, man. I think she will probably be formidable in a state like South Carolina, and maybe even beyond that. Definitely even beyond that. Here’s somebody that went to Howard University, is in AKA [Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first sorority established by African-American women]. If the party’s base now really is black women, she’s right in that lane. I am not yet convinced that people are going to be as concerned, that voters are gonna be as concerned about it as I would like them to be. But then, I never thought reparations would be on the Democratic Party’s discussion table, either.

On that point, Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro has come out in support of reparations, and promised to empanel a commission to study the best means of executing it. Other candidates have evinced vague support for the policy, while attempting to recast race-neutral redistributive programs that disproportionately benefit African-Americans, as reparations. Many progressive reporters and commentators have insisted that the latter proposals do not count as reparations.

And yet your landmark Atlantic essay suggests that they might. In “The Case for Reparations,” you cite Charles Ogletree’s proposal for “a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races” as one hypothetical form reparations could take. And that form is a race-neutral program enacted in the name of compensating African-Americans for the state’s historic crimes against them. Meanwhile, the most explicit definition of reparations that your piece offers is “full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences,” which suggests that a mere public accounting of those crimes might qualify. So I’m wondering what you see as the minimum requirements for a policy that claims the mantle of reparations, and which Democratic candidates, if any, are meeting those minimum requirements, in your estimation?

When I say I am for reparations, I’m saying that I am for the idea that this country and its major institutions has had an extractive relationship with black people for much of our history; that this fact explains basically all of the socioeconomic gap between black and white America, and thus, the way to close that gap is to pay it back. In terms of political candidates, and how this should be talked about, and how this should be dealt with, it seems like it would be a very easy solution. It’s actually the policy recommendation that I gave in the piece, and that is to support HR 40. That’s the bill that says you form a commission. You study what damage was done from slavery, and the legacy of slavery, and then you try to figure out the best ways to remedy it. It’s pretty simple. I think that’s Nancy Pelosi’s position at this point.

There’s a whole line of thinking that says the recommendation for a study is somehow like a cop-out or weak. I don’t really understand why that would be the case. Look, if you have a sickness, you have an illness, you probably start with diagnosis. The first step is to get some idea of what actually happened. We’ve never really done that. You’re talking about an epic crime that literally has its origins before there was a United States of America, and carries all the way up to this very day.

White supremacy is a suite of harms, operating on multiple levels across the board. In “The Case for Reparations,” I was dealing with redlining. Criminal-justice questions come to mind. There are education questions, there are university culpability questions. A state like North Carolina, where people were forcing black women to be sterilized. In Virginia, where they responded to Brown v. Board by basically shutting down public education in whole swaths of the state. You have this suite of damages. What we don’t need is for one person to sit up and try to design a program to undo 400 years of damage. We didn’t just say to AOC, “Hey, you sit over there, and you come up with a Green New Deal.” You need time. You need people to actually put some resources behind an actual study.

And there are small-d democratic reasons for why you should be starting with a study instead of a plan. Have you talked to the community? Has the community thought much about it? Has there been much interaction with the community about how they would like to be paid back? I think there are actually great, morally important reasons for not sketching out a plan right now. But you should support HR 40. It boggles my mind why we can’t behind that.

I think that makes a lot of sense. But allow me to play white moderate’s advocate. I want to get your response to the political case against pressuring Democratic candidates into endorsing reparations. The strongest version of that argument, in my view, goes something like this: In the United States, it is very difficult to pass laws that massively redistribute resources from those who have a lot of them to those who have little. This is because those who benefit from the inequities of the status quo can afford to invest their wealth into obstructing such legislation, through campaign contributions, public advocacy, and lobbying. Meanwhile, our governing institutions overrepresent white, rural areas (i.e. conservative ones), and also feature a plethora of veto points that give opponents of change many different places where they can apply pressure and kill bills. Thus, defenders of the status quo distribution of wealth and income are always competing with progressive forces on a field tilted in the former’s direction.

Given these realities, it simply is not possible to redistribute significant resources from the (disproportionately white) rich — to the the (disproportionately black) working class and poor — unless you can marshal mobilized, majoritarian support behind your policy goal. In these fights, working people’s only strength is their numbers. And you’re never going to build enthusiastic, majoritarian support behind a transfer program that exclusively benefits a racial group that represents 13 percent of the population. Medicare for All is likely a quixotic demand — but many polls do show that it has majoritarian support. And the broader idea, that the government should guarantee all Americans basic health care, often attracts majority support among self-identified Republicans. Other race-neutral redistributive programs — that would disproportionately benefit African-Americans, such as tuition-free college and a jobs guarantee — similarly attract majority support in many surveys.

In public opinion terms, reparations is categorically different. Not only do upwards of 80 percent of white voters oppose reparations in most polls, but the policy attracts less support from black voters than many race-neutral, redistributive programs do. A Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN survey from 2015 found that only 52 percent of African-Americans support reparations for slavery. In 2016, Marist put that figure at 58 percent, with 35 percent of black voters voicing opposition. And no significant percentage of black voters ranks reparations as a top issue. (The civil-rights movement had to overcome majoritarian opposition, of course. But I don’t believe 35 percent of African-Americans ever opposed that movement’s core aims.)

Considering all this, it seems reasonable to conclude that there is no serious prospect of Congress passing monetary reparations in the near-term future. And if that is the case, why should Democrats accept the political risk of embracing a profoundly unpopular policy, and/or of reframing their popular universalist policies in racial terms — something Republicans have long sought to do because it reliably reduces support for race-neutral redistribution? After all, few groups stand to lose more from Trump’s reelection — or from the defeat of universal, social democratic programs — than the African-American underclass. So why shouldn’t we see the demand for reparations as an action that actually jeopardizes the well-being of white supremacy’s biggest victims, in service of a hopeless cause?

The first thing I would say is that the approach you just outlined — it’s not a new approach. It’s basically been the white liberal approach to race and to black America, literally since emancipation. People forget, for instance, that the Freedman’s Bureau was not just some sort of racial set-aside. They actually had to do it for poor whites also. So, my basic answer to that is quite simple: When I look at the track record of programs that have been enacted in that way, it is not heartening to me.

What I’ve found, particularly in studying New Deal policy — but not just New Deal policy — is that the people who you are opposing are not fools. They’re not fooled by the fact that you’re trying to close the racial gap by including more people. Or doing it in such a way as to not explicitly say black. They know your motive. And they know your aims, and they oppose it exactly in that manner. Again, I mean, that was Obama’s approach for eight years. The folks that voted for Trump weren’t fooled by it. They weren’t fooled by the fact that Obama employed this “rising tide lifts all boats” rhetoric.

That’s the one part of your argument that I’m not sure about. Without question, reactionary forces have leveraged racism to try to defeat, undermine, or racially circumscribe universal programs — and they’ve often had success. And yet, in 2017, Social Security lifted 1.5 million African-American seniors out of poverty,  according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Without Social Security benefits, the black elder poverty rate would have been 51.7 percent. Instead, because of that universal program, it was 19 percent. And Donald Trump can’t touch it. George W. Bush tried and failed.

And the same is broadly true of Medicaid. Obviously, white supremacy is implicated in the refusal of many red states to expand the program. But this is, nevertheless, a universal social-insurance program — that disproportionately benefits African-Americans — that a unified Republican government couldn’t cut. And when red-state voters are given the opportunity to decide, in referenda, whether they want to expand the program, they generally say yes.

Right. But the case for reparations is not a case against universal programs — it’s a case against universal programs as the sole, total solution to this matter of white supremacy. It’s not a case against the social safety net. That should exist no matter what, right? Race aside, that stuff should exist. But if we’re saying we’re going to address white supremacy solely through class means, or means that avoid any overt statement about race, I would just point out a couple weaknesses. The first being that while reparations is about redistribution — it is about money — the conversation and the argument are still really important.

There’s always tension in saying that, because people can read it as a way to say “oh this isn’t about money” or “this isn’t about actual material conditions.” But I think the moral argument of this is really, really important. It offers the possibility of something that I don’t know exists right now, and certainly doesn’t exist in this country, and that is a state that actually has a real sense of who it is, its best and worse impulses and tendencies.

White supremacy is, as much as it’s a structure, it’s a tendency. Like this country, at varying moments, even in moments of left or progressive reform, so often does shit that either consciously or unconsciously hurts black people. And that history stretches from the rise of public education in the South, to the formation of the police, through unionization efforts, into the New Deal, into this era of obscene criminal-justice policy. But we don’t see the through lines. We don’t get that when Michelle Alexander says “the New Jim Crow” she’s not just yelling out a rallying cry, she’s saying something that is demonstrably true about American history — that black people have never lived in era wherein this country has not had some method to enforce social control over broad swaths of their community. I am deeply scared of any attempt to close the wealth gap, to ameliorate the broad socioeconomic disparity in almost every field between blacks and whites in this country, that avoids talking about why those disparities are there to begin with. It holds out the prospect of this country never learning the real lesson of white supremacy. It means the possibility of this dream state wherein we still think of ourselves as the font of freedom and liberty continuing. And if that happens, I would say it’s almost inevitable that we go on and plunder someone else.

In other words, there’s an inextricable link between our nation’s failure to confront white supremacy at home, and its imperial actions abroad?

Yes. This is so tied to who we are. It’s the obviation of the history of white supremacy that allows for leaders to say, with a straight face, that they’re going into the Middle East to “liberate” the Iraqis. It’s the obviation of that history that allows for the use of the phrase “Jeffersonian democracy” in earnest.

But there’s also practical reason. To be crude, I think it’s unwise for black people to trust in the good will and promises of those who hold power in this country. And that’s what a “class exclusive” policy requires — some amount of trust that those creating and enacting it are actually conscious of the history and trying to rectify it. Because if you’re not thinking about white supremacy, it may, in fact, creep in, and reinforce some things that you actually seek to combat.

Look, I can agree with you about Social Security, right? But when I hear that, I think about my great-grandparents. And it’s nice that, at this point in time, that we have a Social Security program that we would support. But the price of that was my great-grandparents not being eligible for it. Do you understand what I’m saying? Actual people, because of how Social Security was actually passed, because of who could qualify for it and who could not. So I can’t in my mind say, “It’s fine because it all worked out in the end.” Do you understand what I’m saying?


That was fucked-up. It was fucked-up how it was passed. Period. And I think we need to acknowledge that. And that doesn’t mean we throw it out right now, but it means that we’re mindful going forward, in how we design social programs.

Right. So you’re saying, at this point, a Democratic government (almost certainly) wouldn’t consciously write de jure racial restrictions into a universal welfare program. But if we aren’t actively thinking about how the reality of white supremacy could affect that policy’s implementation or efficacy in the real world, de facto racial restrictions could creep in. Which is basically what’s happened with the Medicaid expansion, as a result of Democrats neglecting to federalize it.

Yeah. And I know this didn’t work in every state — I’m not sure that it did work in any state — but consider the carve-outs that people were trying to use to throw people off food stamps. It just happened. All sorts of things. I think you really need, to my mind, to pay explicit attention to this. You have to be on your guard. The notion that you can just program the machine to be colorblind, and walk away, ignores the fact that there are actually going to be people who have power, who like this country the way it is. Who, even if they don’t want to say it, enjoy the fact that there is in fact a wealth gap in this country.

But here’s the other part of it. I would argue that the kind of polling that you just marshaled — there’s nothing natural about that. Part of that is because people laugh at reparations. Part of that is because reparations is a Dave Chappelle skit. That’s what a lot of people think about, when they think of reparations. That polling is not a natural, free-standing fact. That’s the result of people denigrating the idea repeatedly. When I wrote “The Case for Reparations,” my notion wasn’t that you could actually get reparations passed, even in my lifetime. My notion was that you could get people to stop laughing. My notion was you could actually have people say, “Oh, shit. This actually isn’t a crazy idea. This actually isn’t insane.” And then, once you got them to stop laughing, you could get them to start fighting. And so it doesn’t particularly surprise me that reparations is unpopular. A part of it being unpopular is the people who have the megaphone not taking it seriously at all.

I would submit that part of why those other policies you mentioned poll well is that there’s an attendant conversation right now around wealth, and around the accumulation of wealth in relatively few hands. There’s nothing natural about that conversation. People agitate for it. People worked to make it serious. And so I have a very hard time accepting that our imaginations should be open toward questioning the very economic structure of our society, but we shouldn’t take this moment to also examine — in a very direct way — what’s always been the handmaiden of that economic base, and that is white supremacy.

Trump is in the White House, dude. Old man white supremacist is in the White House. The Democratic Party is as far left right now as it’s ever been in my lifetime. If we’re not gonna talk about reparations now, then we’re never going to talk about it.

I take it you’re not 100 percent satisfied with the way Democrats are currently talking about it.

You know, I am not shocked, or even disappointed, when those moderates basically use “rising tide, lift all boats” rhetoric to address race. But part of why I always considered myself a product of the left was because that was the place where you could try to reimagine society. And in 2016, we had the most serious left-leaning presidential candidate I’d seen since I was a kid and Jesse ran. But I have to say, unlike in Jesse’s campaign — which supported reparations — there isn’t the same level of consciousness of that history in Bernie’s.

And you see that when Bernie rails against the identity politics of, say, a young Latina, when only weeks earlier he’s rooting himself in the white working class to launch a critique. You see that when Bernie goes on Chris Hayes and claims that “political correctness” helped explain Trump’s victory. That shit baffled me. Or downplaying the racism that Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum faced.

And to see a candidate like Senator Sanders just hand wave reparations away like it’s nothing — who says, “I think there are better ways of dealing with this than writing a check.” When writing checks is a basic part of how … there’s nothing wrong with writing people checks! Especially to those who have had their checks taken from them. Let’s start there. So it’s hard to have a left-wing candidate who is pushing the boundaries on almost everything else, but when it comes to race, whose policies I have a hard time distinguishing from Obama.

Now, none of this makes Bernie a racist. And none of it makes any of his competitors a more obvious choice. This is not an endorsement of the unspecific, vague reparations talk I’ve heard from Kamala Harris. But I think it’s fair to question whether Bernie, and more importantly the people around him, even understand the illness which they think they can treat through class-exclusive solutions.

Am I off on that? Am I missing something in that? Feel free to push back.

I think that’s all fair. That said, a left-wing critic of reparations, like Adolph Reed, might still insist on a class-centric approach to alleviating black deprivation — not because they are blind to the peculiar injuries of white supremacy or to its enduring power — but rather because they dispute your theory of change. So, for example, on the polling question: I think some Marxists would argue that part of why Medicare for All is popular is that it is in the objective, immediate material interests of a majority of the public. And the same goes for various other universal programs. But you just aren’t going to get a majority to support significant redistribution to a marginalized group. You can get them to rally behind recognizing certain rights for a minority, but gay marriage doesn’t cost straight people money. And you can get them to support aid to a minority like the very poor, because a majority of Americans can imagine themselves or their family members ending up in that minority. But transferring massive wealth from the majority racial group, to a firmly bounded minority group … I’m not sure there’s a precedent for that.

There isn’t. Well, I mean there’s obviously the case of post-World War II. But in terms of what we’re talking about here, there’s not a defeated power that’s trying to come back into the Western alliance. So, no, there isn’t.

But man, I would say two things. I would ask you whether you think it’s the case that people are actually looking at their tax bill, or is the problem who that money’s actually going to? By which I mean, you’re correct that same-sex marriage doesn’t cost anybody; gay marriage doesn’t raise anyone’s taxes. But I don’t know if that’s what this is about.

Yeah, I’m not sure. I do think Marxists sometimes underrate the power of ideology as an independent force.

Yeah. But the second thing I would say is, we are at this revolutionary moment I thought. Are we questioning? Isn’t it, pretty much, an article of faith on the left that this country, and this world, can’t continue as it is?

It is hard to imagine a morally acceptable answer to the climate crisis that doesn’t involve a majority of Americans agreeing to transfer resources to groups they don’t belong to.

That’s right. That’s right. And I will say, there are left-wing critiques of reparations that I appreciate. Folks rightly get skittish about a straight-up exchange of private property, period, without any sort of reform to the larger economic project, right?


Because the point of reparations is to destroy white supremacy, not displace its emphasis. Not integrate black people into its most acquisitive functions. It’s to question and assault the entire paradigm. But that is why it makes me really nervous when I see leftists saying, “We should abandon the whole project altogether.” Because I feel like the way to counter that is to get into the debate. Okay, so you don’t like reparations being talked about strictly in terms of capitalism and market. Well, let’s think about it in another way. Let’s think about cooperatives. Let’s think about something more transformative. Let’s ask, you know, should I be in line in the same way that somebody that has been living in the projects for generations should be in line? You understand what I’m saying? Let’s ask how we deal with class within the African-American community. But we can’t have a debate if people leave the room.

To your previous point: I want to drill down on your theory of change. It seems that a central premise of a lot of advocacy for reparations, including your own, is that squarely facing hard truths makes them easier to overcome. By forcing Americans to stare white supremacy straight in the face, we can break its grip on them. In “The Case for Reparations,” you write, “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”

I do think there is some evidence for such a view. Since your essay, and since Black Lives Matter, polls have found white liberals moving left on questions of racial justice. And while reparations remain unpopular, a recent survey from Data for Progress found that the policy has (narrow) plurality support among voters under 45. Which suggests that this sort of blunt advocacy can have an effect, if only on the young, whose worldviews are still being formed. As a writer myself, I find this theory of change — that forcing a confrontation with truth can spur progress and liberation — very attractive. So much so, I get a little suspicious of it. But is that a fair description of the theory you subscribe to?

Yes. And I don’t think it’s just us writers. I don’t want to overlook the power of journalists. But it’s also the activists who take down Confederate monuments, it’s … I think we as political writers — and this is one of the reasons why I’ve been making comic books and other things — we can argue with people up one side, and down the other. You confront them with facts, and they’ll just look away. They’ll completely look away.

Because our politics occurs within the imagination of the citizen. If I don’t believe that black people are human, it really doesn’t matter what you say to me about policy. So the question is: How do we decide who gets to be human and who doesn’t? How do we decide who our heroes are, and who our heroes aren’t? All of that is tied together in the stories we tell ourselves. There’s a direct relationship between the legacy of Birth of a Nation and the fact that folks don’t support reparations.

Our mass entertainment culture has, over the course of a century, spent most of its time reinforcing the idea of black people as undeserving, as lazy, as any number of stereotypes. Remember, for black people that’s always in the background.

Willie Horton, the welfare queen. These things are dangerous because of their impact on policy. But they’re also dangerous because of how they make black people look in the white American imagination. And in some cases, in their own imaginations. Because it’s the imagination that sets the terms for what’s possible in terms of policy. And so popular culture matters. It’s a part of it too.

It seems to me that what might set you apart — from both moderate and Marxist critics of reparations — is actually your optimism. Optimism about what’s possible in a democracy, or about what storytelling can make possible.

I just don’t have another choice. I just don’t have another choice. I don’t know how I go and look my mom in the face, I don’t know how I go and look my son in the face, and say, “Well, I’ve been fighting, mom and dad, as you brought me up to fight. I’ve been fighting. And I’ve told you to fight, and the best I can see in my vision, from my imagination, is the permanent second-class citizenship of black people.” And just, I wouldn’t ask anybody to accept that. And forget being black, I wouldn’t ask the women of this country to accept permanent second-class citizenship.

It’s not enough for me to see an America where the wealth gap is reduced from 20-to-1 to 10-to-1. That’s not enough to me. Five-to-one. It’s still not enough to me. Two-to-one is bad. That’s not as bad as 20-to-1, but it’s still a species of bad. And so, as a writer — I’m not a politician; I’m not trying to denigrate politicians — but I’m really talking to writers right now. If we circumscribe ourselves, and write as though we are Senate aides, or House aides — if the way we write about policy’s completely circumscribed by this notion of what we can see as possible right now, we’re in a bad place. We’ll always be fighting between these lines. And one of the things I thought that was so exciting about 2016, when Bernie ran, was like, “Yo, okay, the imagination’s expanded now. There’s shit on the table that I never thought was going to be on the table. We’ll fight for it.”

But if we’re going to do it, then let’s do it. Let’s put it all out there. Let’s tell folks how we imagine this new America being. And a vision of that without an explicit and direct confrontation with one of this country’s oldest evils — with an evil that is actually foundational to the country? If you’re confronting that strictly through the lens of poll numbers? I don’t know, man, as a black person, I just got difficulty with that. I don’t know how I explain that to my family. I don’t know how I explain that to the community that I come from.

*A version of this article appears in the March 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Ta-Nehisi Coates Is an Optimist Now