The Conversation

Readers respond to an October 2017 cover story and more.

The First White President

In October, Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that Donald Trump’s presidency is predicated nearly entirely on white supremacy and the negation of a black president.

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s fascinating article. I found it convincing. I am white. Now what?
I already am angry with police treatment of people who are less white than me. I can vote for Democrats, I guess, but will that solve anything?
I’m sure I’m not the only person who enjoys the not entirely earned privilege of not-being-feared-but-instead-respected-by-authority and who would rather see a world where people rise solely in proportion to their merit. I want to live in a civilization of open and honest rules that we all have to follow, but is that possible? I doubt that it is, but I still want to bang on in that direction.
My question for Mr. Coates is this: If you were writing to someone you no longer needed to convince, if the arguments were all done with, what would you have him do?
James Bach
Eastsound, Wash.

Thank you, Mr. Coates, for exposing what I saw while canvassing for Hillary Clinton in Nevada. The election wasn’t about the economically bereaved. The poor white potential voters I encountered held neither Clinton nor Donald Trump in high regard. They were in such despair about their future that they were giving up on voting altogether. The Trump supporters I encountered were not only white but financially secure. They were definitely going to vote, and their motivation was almost always a sense that “America wasn’t the same anymore”—a k a it wasn’t as white as it used to be. Coates doesn’t discuss another major issue: While the rise of Trump was due to racism, the fall of Clinton was due to misogyny. Just like Trump is America’s first white president, he’s also America’s first male president.
I heard time and time again from voters that they were “not going to vote for that bitch.” They forgave Trump for his cruelty, lies, and sexual predation because he was a man and boys will be boys. But because Clinton was a woman, every flaw of hers was magnified.
Stuart Rojstaczer
Palo Alto, Calif.

Does Coates imagine that the overwhelming share of black votes cast for Barack Obama were motivated only by economic interest? Who gets to determine when identity politics represent justifiable demographic solidarity, and when they represent harmful demographic separatism?
By reducing Trump’s success to yet another apprehension of insidious white privilege, Coates ensures further Trump support among embittered whites, and by slandering legitimate cultural debate as a coded expression of racial allegiance, Coates entrenches stereotypes that well-meaning citizens of all races still seek to overcome.
George Case
Ottawa, Ontario

Because [Coates] takes all white American political behavior as undifferentiated and founded on the idea of race, he faults me for writing a preelection essay in The New Yorker about the white working class … I wrote about white working-class voters because their political behavior is increasingly different from that of well-educated, professional whites, in ways that paint the current map of America red …
At the heart of American politics there is racism. But it’s not alone—there’s also greed, and broken communities, and partisan hatred, and ignorance. Any writer who wants to understand American politics has to find a way into the minds of Trump voters …
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When you construct an entire teleology on one cause—even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism—you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis. So Coates minimizes sexism—Trump’s disgusting language and the visceral hatred of many of his supporters for Hillary Clinton—as background noise. He down-plays xenophobia, even though foreigners were far more often the objects of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policy proposals than black Americans … Coates doesn’t try to explain why, at one point in the campaign, a plurality of Republicans supported Ben Carson … He doesn’t even mention the estimated 8.5 million Americans who voted for President Obama and then for Trump—even though they made the difference. No need to track the descending nihilism of the Republican Party. The urban–rural divide is a sham.
Then there’s the fact that Trump’s support among working-class whites fell from two-thirds on Election Day to 43 percent [in August]. Has Trump gone soft on the bigotry? Or has he failed to deliver on the rest of his package—cleaning up corruption and doing amazing deals and making America great again? Coates might need more than one cause to explain it.
George Packer
Excerpt from a post

[Coates’s] great complaint is not that Trump backers deny their own racist impulses … but that the “collective” of Trump opponents barely acknowledge the role of race and racism in his rise …
I think it’s fair to say that, not nobody, but almost nobody in the large group that favors a broad-spectrum response to Trump thinks that race and white anxiety are “incidental” to his rise. Rather the argument, fairly consistently, is that you can’t devise a politics that deals effectively with the temptation of white identity politics if you don’t take seriously the other forces, economic and cultural and sociological and religious, that make identity politics and racial chauvinism seem appealing …
Speaking dismissively of all socioeconomic explanations of racism’s recrudescence, [Coates] writes:

“There is a tremendous amount of anger and frustration among working-class whites, particularly where there is an economic downturn,” a researcher told the Los Angeles Times. “These people feel left out; they feel government is not responsive to them.” By this logic, postwar America—with its booming economy and low unemployment—should have been an egalitarian utopia and not the violently segregated country it actually was.

But hold up: Postwar America is actually a logical example for the “racism feeds off other grievances and problems” argument, because the long period of economic growth and low unemployment that ran from the late ’40s to the late ’60s was also the era that saw the most rapid legal progress for blacks since Reconstruction. America entered the postwar era as a “violently segregated” country, yes, but in terms of racial progress and expanded civil rights the era was a time of sweeping gains, not successful racial backlash—and backlash politics only really gathered steam as the postwar boom gave way to a period of economic stagnation and social disarray.
Ross Douthat
Excerpt from a New York Times post

In the opening to his piece on the white-supremacist foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency, Ta-Nehisi Coates lists the many instances in which Trump disparaged Barack Obama’s considerable intellectual achievements, including insisting “that his acclaimed memoir, Dreams From My Father, had been ghostwritten by a white man, Bill Ayers.” This illusion spread throughout the fever swamps of racist and right-wing websites and news outlets starting in 2008, and took on a life of its own. To be clear, I of course had nothing to do with writing or ghosting for Barack Obama.
It’s true that people of European descent have an urgent challenge if we are to join the rest of humanity in the enormous task of creating a just and caring world, and it begins with rejecting white supremacy—not simply despising bigotry and backwardness, but spurning as well all the structures and traditions baked into law and custom and history and economic condition. This extends to refusing to embrace optics over justice, “multiculturalism” or “diversity” over an honest reckoning with reality—to becoming race traitors, if you will, as we learn the loving art of solidarity in practice.
Bill Ayers
Chicago, Ill.

The Uses of Memoir

In October, Caitlin Flanagan examined Joyce Maynard’s 50-year career as an essayist (“The Confessionalist”).

I write in response to a piece of invective by Caitlin Flanagan—ostensibly a review of my new memoir, The Best of Us, about the loss of my husband, but swiftly recognizable as an evisceration of my childhood, my apparently unseemly early career aspirations (ambition: there’s an ugly trait!), my parenting, my sexual behavior, my moral character, and what the author appears to have concluded to be my mission in life—namely, the self-absorbed and ultimately pointless examination of myself “unmediated by any meaning.”
I’ll resist the impulse to debate particular inaccurate representations by Flanagan—a writer who, despite her distaste for my work, appears to have studied it closely over the years (though not, perhaps, to have finished reading my most recent book).
Among the evidence your critic provides of my vast shortcomings, she cites my having published work in magazines whose audiences—unlike that of The Atlantic, for example—are chiefly women. What more need she say to make the point that I am therefore a writer of questionable seriousness or worth?
Now comes the central source of Flanagan’s unmitigated disapproval: that I have chosen to devote a significant portion of my writing life to the practice of memoir.
To some, it would appear, the examination of one’s interior life and the refusal to take shame in speaking openly about it constitutes an act of narcissism. I’ll offer an alternative interpretation: Though I have published novels as well (eight of them), I explore my life experiences on occasion (most recently, a painful failed adoption, and marriage in my 50s to my second husband and the catastrophic illness that swiftly followed it) out of a belief that it is in the small, particular, personal story that larger meaning may be located.
More often than not, I leave it to a perceptive reader to do so. In my decades of publishing my work, I’ve come to believe it’s a more modest and less presumptuous act to confine my narrative to the life with which I am most intimately familiar (rather than, say, writing about the life of Caitlin Flanagan, as she attempted to write about mine).
I offer up my shortcomings and failures—more readily than tales of my successes—with the hope that readers may find, within my story, a point of connection and a reminder that none of us is alone in this business of being human.
With unconcealed glee, Flanagan seizes on these disclosures (as if she herself had unearthed them) as proof of my irredeemable character. I will make a rare leap here to speak not simply of myself but of the culture I inhabit when I say this: It is a popular sport (hardly confined to male writers) to level guilt on women. Evidently your critic concluded that the world needed yet another example of shaming the female, and found a place in your pages to unburden herself.
Flanagan speaks not at all of what it might be in her own experience that accounts for her judgments and conclusions, opting instead for the term the reader—with the suggestion abundantly clear that all sensible human beings must necessarily share her view. She apparently supposes that hers is not just the correct perspective, but the only one. Therein lies the definition of narcissism.
Joyce Maynard
Lafayette, Calif.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

Joyce Maynard should by all means indulge her impulses (why stop now?) and enumerate the inaccuracies in my essay. As for the issue of women’s lives and the judgment they receive, I would observe that when an unmarried, nonreligious, semifamous white woman adopts two little girls from Ethiopia and brings them to progressive Northern California but then tells them—after a year in their new family—that they are being sent away to a conservative, religious family in Missouri because what they really need is a “father,” someone should stand up and cry foul. I’m woman enough for the job.

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The Big Question: What was the most influential power couple in history?

(On, readers answered November’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

3. King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I established a model for shared power in marriage, reasserted the Catholic Church’s power in Spain, financed Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, and produced five children, who shaped Europe’s history long after their parents’ deaths—most famously Catherine, through her second marriage, to Henry VIII.

Roisin A. Costello

2. Theodora and Justinian I, who ruled the Byzantine empire, built some of Constantinople’s greatest landmarks and helped advance women’s rights, instituting the death penalty for rape, forbidding the killing of women who had committed adultery, banning forced prostitution, and allowing women more control over their property.

Stephen Azzi

1. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt changed the United States and helped people believe in the better nature of humankind.

Leslie Ellen Brown


How to Die,” by Jordan Michael Smith (October), stated that Irvin Yalom’s wife, Marilyn, had recently helped someone write an obituary for Irvin. In fact, Marilyn was helping a friend write her own husband’s obituary. “A Death at Penn State,” by Caitlin Flanagan (November), incorrectly identified Senator Richard Lugar as an Iowan. He is from Indiana. We regret the errors.

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