On Race Relations

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

(Editor’s note: Reader questions are in bold, followed by Ta-Nehisi’s replies. In the video above, he discusses issues surrounding his cover story, “My President Was Black.”)

After reading you for the last 5+ years or so, and becoming more aware of the racial strains that permeate the U.S. on so very many levels, and realizing that you are so much more aware of these things than I am (from experience and study), I wonder if you despair of Americans ever living together in truly racially peaceful and tranquil society, rather than being riven by racial division, strife, and conflict? Is a real peace—with something approaching fairness and justice—ever going to be on offer in America in your view?

Nah. I don’t despair. The world is imperfect. Long view of history shows evil triumphing more often than we’d like to admit. That’s just how it is. I don’t despair too much about dying either. It’s just a fact of being human.

How do you try and communicate that insight to children?

I talk to them, just like I’m talking here. I’ve never tried to hide anything.

As a black mother and an advocate for racial equality, I am concerned about your totality of belief that black people will never gain true equality in America. Don’t you think you should use your position in the media to forge alliances and proffer the reality that there are many blacks and whites that seamlessly bridge the gap between the races?

Nah. I’m a writer. My job is to speak what that which I think is true. If that bridges the gap, that’s good. If it doesn’t, that’s too bad.

As a Gen-X pundit of repute, what’s the most frustrating gap you see between Boomer and Millennial (and younger, now) activism? Is there something you’d wish both could grasp, but somehow they cannot?

I don’t feel much of one. I’m immensely proud of BLM, for instance. The only time I felt distance was during the campus protests. But that’s not generational. It’s because I went to an HBCU [historically black college or university] and so couldn’t directly relate to, say, having to walk past a hall named after a white supremacist every day. But that’s just because of my experiences. I think the kids are all right.

I’m a white guy who went to an HBCU (Del-State). I thought it was a great experience, but there was definitely a mixed response to my presence on some days. In recent years, at least as far as Del-State is concerned, there are more white folks going to HBCUs. Do you think this is good, bad, or no big deal?

Sure, it’s a good thing. I always thought of Howard being defined by its mission, not by racist exclusion. There is historical precedent for this. A historian recently told there was a time at the end of the 19th/early-20th century when Howard was the only place in the D.C. area that would train women to be doctors. The result was that, for a time, Howard was actually the largest producers of white women doctors in the region.

That’s right on mission. These places weren’t created to be the inverse of segregated universities. In fact, HBCUs have never been segregated. Howard, specifically, was created to educate and create a class of people invested in the ideals of justice and equality.

I can’t speak for Del-State. But I don’t fear white students coming to Howard. I think it’s great. We need more. And then we need other non-black institutions— not just higher ed—to follow that same example with black and brown folks.

As for whatever raised eyebrows you received, I’d say, while it isn’t right, ultimately, that’s good too. America is on permanent raised-eyebrow status toward those of us who are black. It’s not awful to get to see how that might feel.

What’s the best way for a white person to be an ally and advocate for social justice while de-centering oneself?

I don’t know. This isn’t really what I’d ask of anyone. I know the vocabulary here is popular. But it’s not really the kind I’d use or ask be used around me.

I think it’s really important to be conscious of yourself and the world around you. For me, that meant reading a lot and reporting. I don’t know that white people need to be “allies” so much as understand that any black struggle in America is ultimately a struggle for the large country. “Ally” presumes a kind of distance that I am not sure exists.