State of the Union January 2009

The Issues: Race

Hua Hsu and Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss Obama, football, hip-hop, and the elusive notion of a "post-racial" society.
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Also see:

"The End of White America?"
Hua Hsu's January/February cover story.

"American Girl" Ta-Nehisi Coates's January/February profile of Michelle Obama.

TA-NEHISI: what's up man. been a long time

HUA: Man. I keep getting those emails from Barack and Michelle that start "Hua—" and I keep thinking they're real.
(I just got one about the inauguration lottery)
so what are we supposed to be talking about?

TA-NEHISI: race, blacks, whites, yellows, browns...
it never gets old does it?
and can't for the reds
the reds are the originals

HUA: haven't you heard? it's a post-racial world we live in. the only reds I see are the redskins.

TA-NEHISI: indeed, post-racial
that's a good place to start.
do you buy that line at all?

HUA: I don't think I've ever figured this out—where did the term "post-racial" come from?

TA-NEHISI: someone needs to do a nexis, because i'm with you on that. who actually authored that term? it just seems like such a vague word that can stand in for damn near anything.

HUA: I don't really get what "post-racial" would mean. It's a nice idea, I suppose, if I'm understanding it correctly.
In general I think I'm suspicious about any construction that involves "post" + "something that is essentially an idea." "post-rap" is another one.

TA-NEHISI: so true.

HUA: I think the idea of, say, "moving beyond race" (whatever that could possibly mean) is an interesting one to work toward, but much like the very we're-all-the-same logic of globalization, I don't know that I feel comfortable with the erasure of difference, of discrete lines of histories, etc.

TA-NEHISI: it's at once ultra-definitive, and vague at the same time
so here's the question:
while i dislike the whole post-racial deal, i also reject the idea that 2008 is the same as 1988
or '78 or '68
certainly there's been change, no?

HUA: yeah. I mean two weeks from today, something will happen that I couldn't even have imagined in, say, early 2008, let alone 1998 or 1988.
I don't really know how to quantify (?) this sense of change. or adequately describe it.
what's your sense of, uh, 'change' (in a non-Campaign '08 sense of the word)?

TA-NEHISI: hmmm...
I think you have to admit that Barack Obama was simply not possible in 1988.
I mean that in every way.
Race is the obvious thing.
But beyond that—technology.
And yet Obama is possible BECAUSE of 1988.
Here is something people often forget
Jesse has his problems, no doubt, But it was because of his run in '88, that Obama is possible. I don't mean this in a simple, mushy, symbolic sort of way—Jesse literally argued for proportional representation. That's what allowed Barack to beat Hillary.
If not for Jesse, it's likely that we're still looking at a winner-take-all system
And Barack would have lost.

HUA: That's a great point.
I think at a very vague level of "representation" or "culture," things are certainly different. But then it becomes a question of whether it's just different pieces on the same game board. I'm curious about this technology thing, an aspect of which we are literally embodying right now in this transpacific chat
[During this chat Hua was in Taiwan and Ta-Nehisi was in New York]. What role do you think technology has played in bringing about this language of the post-racial? I'm thinking of the extent to which we can quite casually live our lives "virtually," the dissemination of culture, etc.

TA-NEHISI: Well, here's a great time to plug both of our articles
In my piece on Michelle and in your piece on the coming White Minority, we both note how hip-hop has really changed things.

HUA: ha

TA-NEHISI: That's a point that people are very unwilling to appreciate

HUA: And, in this perverse way, I feel like my inability to really articulate/reconcile what I think about hip-hop mirrors (or is embedded within) the ambivalence I feel about this idea of "post-racial" America, or "post-white" America, or whatever you want to call it.
Do you think people are still unwilling to see hip-hop's influence?

TA-NEHISI: yeah
they can't disentangle hip-hop's obvious problems—with the actual fact of the power of, say, a jay-z appealing to so many different types of people. and really on his own terms.
that doesn't mean that jay-z should be raising your kids, any more than it means that howie mandel should be raising your kids.
but it's really significant.

HUA: So are you saying that people tend to get hung up on issues of ethics or materialism or whatever, and they fail to recognize the effect of someone like Jay-Z on the actual social/political terrain of America?
And yes, the idea of Howie Mandel raising my as-yet imaginary kids frightens me to my core.

TA-NEHISI: Yeah, exactly. It's true that a lot of the hip-hop you hear on the radio is, to put it lightly, problematic—as is true of most popular entertainment. For god's sake, this is a country where people ate worms on live tv—during primetime—for our amusement. But that doesn't erase the fact that music—and television—can exist as mediums to connect people who are vastly different. Hip-hop, for all its seeming "blackness," pretty much reflects the wants and desires of young men and boys across the range of humanity.
To bring it back to Barack
One can easily see how that sort of thing could make for a cultural bridge, a touchstone that welcomes all sorts of people to experience it.

HUA: Yeah, totally. This is reminding me of a line from your piece about how certain narratives hold "more truth for the activist, the professional scold, than for the rank and file."
On one hand, I agree that culture just is, and that we have to recognize what it does on its own terms. Jay, Diddy and Russell have changed life as we know it on their own terms.
On the other hand, I still feel that impulse to be the "scold," to demand a bit more. When I interviewed the advertising execs for my piece, it was both inspiring and slightly chilling to hear their visions for how to deploy fairly progressive ways of seeing the world in the service of commerce. Perhaps this is kind of a college sophomore-level complaint. But I kept wondering to myself whether this was really "oppositional" or "resistant" —whether I was still allowed to ask for more.

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