“My President Was Black”: The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates on the First African American White House—and What Came Next

The idea that America would follow its first black president with Donald Trump accorded with its history. —Ta-Nehisi Coates.

At some level what the people want to feel is that the person leading them sees the best in them. —President Barack Obama.

Washington, D.C. (December 13, 2016; 5AM EST)In an extraordinary cover story, Atlantic national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the story of the first African-American presidency: how it came into being, what it meant—for black Americans and for the history of the country—and how it gave rise to its own undoing with the election of Donald Trump. Based on hours of exclusive interviews with President Obama, and on years of observing and thinking by Coates, “My President was Black” explains how Obama was able to overcome centuries of institutionalized racism to become the first black president; how his blackness inflected, and often constrained, his presidency; and how his optimism and comfort with white people both propelled him to the presidency and blinded him to the scope of white nationalist backlash that Trump rode to the White House.

My President Was Black leads The Atlantic’s January/February issue, published today, December 13 at TheAtlantic.com and on newsstands next week. The Atlantic will release full transcripts of Coates’ conversations with President Obama next week atTheAtlantic.com, along with reactions to the cover story.

In the 17,000 word piece, Coates writes that Obama's upbringing and “innate optimism and unwavering faith in the ultimate wisdom of the American people” brought him into office, and is also what kept him from seeing the wave of racism on amidst which he departs. The typical traumas that marked African Americans of Obama’s generation were largely absent in his life, giving Obama “an ability to emote a deep and sincere connection to the hearts of black people, while never doubting the hearts of white people.”

Coates writes: “A black president would always be a contradiction for a government that, throughout most of its history, had oppressed black people. The attempt to resolve this contradiction through Obama—a black man with deep roots in the white world—was remarkable. The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable.”

Obama, Coates writes, may literally be the only black American alive who could have been president. But he is also the man who unwittingly summoned our current reality into being. Coates writes: “Obama’s greatest misstep was born directly out of his greatest insight. Only Obama, a black man who emerged from the best of white America, and thus could sincerely trust white America, could be so certain that he could achieve broad national appeal. And yet only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.”

Several excerpts follow; the entire cover story is at TheAtlantic.com and appears in the January/February issue, on newsstands through early February.

The Atlantic’s January/February issue also features Atlantic writers James Hamblin with a physician’s guide on “How to Sleep” in a stressful age; Derek Thompson on “What Makes Things Cool,” a history of the code that can help marketers, writers, and artists sell absolutely anything to anyone; and James Fallows with a look at “Despair and Hope in Trump’s America.” Jeffrey E. Stern also traces the winding, real-life suspense of the unexplained death of Kremlin enemy Alexander Perepilichny in London in 2012—was this  a Putin-sanctioned extra-territorial assassination?


“My President Was Black,” The Atlantic’s January/February Issue
By Ta-Nehisi Coates

After publicly opposing reparations, Coates writes that Obama now seemed more open to the idea, at least in theory if not practice: Coates writes: “Theoretically, you can make obviously a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps,” Obama said, referencing the gulf in education, wealth, and employment that separates black and white America. “That those were wrongs to the black community as a whole, and black families specifically, and that in order to close that gap, a society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment, even if it’s not in the form of individual reparations checks but in the form of a Marshall Plan.”

The political problems with turning the argument for reparations into reality are manifold, Obama said. “If you look at countries like South Africa, where you had a black majority, there have been efforts to tax and help that black majority, but it hasn’t come in the form of a formal reparations program. You have countries like India that have tried to help untouchables, with essentially affirmative-action programs, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the structure of their societies. So the bottom line is that it’s hard to find a model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts.”

Obama told Coates he rarely had “the working assumption of discrimination, the working assumption that white people would not treat me right or give me an opportunity or judge me [other than] on the basis of merit.” He said that assumption of discrimination “is less embedded in my psyche than it is, say, with Michelle.” “If I walked into a room and it’s a bunch of white farmers, trade unionists, middle age—I’m not walking in thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to show them that I’m normal.’ I walk in there, I think, with a set of assumptions: like these people look just like my grandparents. ... And so I am maybe disarming them by just assuming that we’re okay.”

Coates writes that Obama didn’t doubt that there was a sincerely nonracist states’-rights contingent of the GOP. And yet he suspected there might be more to it. The President said: “And so I’m careful not to attribute any particular resistance or slight or opposition to race. But what I do believe is that if somebody didn’t have a problem with their daddy being employed by the federal government, and didn’t have a problem with the Tennessee Valley Authority electrifying certain communities, and didn’t have a problem with the interstate highway system being built, and didn’t have a problem with the GI Bill, and didn’t have a problem with the FHA subsidization of America, and that all helped you build wealth and create a middle class—and then suddenly as soon as African Americans or Latinos are interested in availing themselves of those same mechanisms as ladders into the middle class, you now have a violent opposition to them—then I think you at least have to ask yourself the question of how consistent you are, and what’s different, and what’s changed.”

After Trump’s election, Obama said his general optimism about the shape of American history remained unchanged: “To be optimistic about the long-term trends of the United States doesn’t mean that everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line. It goes forward sometimes, sometimes it goes back, sometimes is goes sideways, sometimes it zigs and zags.”