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.

TA-NEHISI: See, I'm not sure you have to choose
I think it's perfectly fine to attack hip-hop—especially from an artistic perspective.
Really, how many more times can we hear you cataloging the number of girls you've bedded?
Who effing cares?
Really, how many more times can we hear you talking about how many dudes you've shot?
Or the scene at the club...
I think that's all defensible.
But it shouldn't be blinding.
And that's a different argument than, Did hip-hop help clear the way for Barack?

HUA: Or: will Barack destroy hip-hop?

TA-NEHISI: yes, that one too
which makes me want to jab my eyes out...

HUA: Why that one in particular?

TA-NEHISI: well, because it posits this world in which young black boys will somehow think suits and algebra are cool.
but very few human boys actually think that
furthermore it pretends that jay never wore a suit
that kanye doesn't wear nice sweaters

HUA: Right, I get what you’re saying. I interviewed Killer Mike recently and we were talking about the "Will Obama Kill Hip-Hop" question, but he was thinking about it more in terms of what rappers will have to confront thematically...

TA-NEHISI: gotcha...now that is more interesting.
what was his view?

HUA: Mike is really into issues of class, and he saw a lot of potential for new kinds of solidarity coming out of the Obama moment. For most rappers (and I'm paraphrasing here) it's been really easy to claim some default oppositional position to the mainstream, and that's complicated now.

TA-NEHISI: That is much more interesting.
I want to ask you something about your piece, though.

HUA: sure

TA-NEHISI: You talked some about an oppositional "white culture"—Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy etc.
What was interesting to me was that the people who seemed most likely to cling to that—the best candidates—were people who never really enjoyed much advantage from whiteness anyway.
Or rather, whatever advantage they enjoyed hadn't helped them much.
There is a reason the white poor are called "white trash"—as opposed to just "trash." It's almost as if their whiteness should have done more for them, or something. Or as if they weren't white to begin with, because they lacked power...

HUA: Yeah. I think it's important to note that the existence of that subculture isn't really "oppositional" in the same way as what I meant with respect to hip-hop. Or if it is, I think most sociologists would say that it suggests a different relationship to the seat of power.

TA-NEHISI: Of course, there were those who were exalting in privilege, too—the WASP woman in your piece, can't remember her name. Was that just snobbishness? Or did that say something being white?
Like was she just really being bougie? LOL. For lack of a better term?

HUA: ha
she didn't really see WASP culture's distinction being the "W" part of its name, she was really invested in these arcane traditions and fashions of these little WASP "tribes" out there.
She seemed very nostalgic for a bygone (at the very least pre-9/11) America. It seemed less about privilege and luxury and more about that mythical "simpler time" we're all trying to get back to—even Michelle!

TA-NEHISI: So could a black person be a BASP in her eyes? Did she see Michelle as a BASP?

HUA: I'm just guessing here, but probably not, because the lineage of WASP families stretches so far back—which obviously leads us to a whole other set of historical entanglements.

TA-NEHISI: Did she have any recognition that this stuff was secured by segregation?

HUA: Yeah, I think she understood that it might strike someone as strange to embrace the identity of the WASP. It is strange to think that this "way of life" (if one wants to call it that) is basically going to evaporate within a generation or two.
I'm curious. what do you see happening in the next few years culturally?
(if it is even possible to approach such a question)

TA-NEHISI: You know what?
I have no idea.
And I mean that—not even being flip.

HUA: Okay, here's an easier one: who are your iron-clad, bet the house (or what remains of it) picks for the Super Bowl?

TA-NEHISI: Hmmm...
Ravens—Eagles
That’s my call.

HUA: That is an awful lot of faith in Young Joe Flacco.
I'll go with the Panthers-Titans, because I am unoriginal.
(Soon after this chat took place, both the Panthers and Titans were eliminated from the playoffs. In this spirit, he would also like to pick the Yankees, the Lakers, and Chelsea to win it all, too.)

TA-NEHISI: more faith in Ed Reed
lol

HUA: Indeed. If only we could all possess the vision of Ed Reed.

TA-NEHISI: they did it with Trent Dilfer!
hahaha

HUA: That might be a good place to end
In Ed Reed We Trust

TA-NEHISI: Indeed. Later dude.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an Atlantic contributing editor. He blogs at tanehisicoates.theatlantic.com. Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College.
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