Coates’ First White President: Read It


Readers here know that I won’t hesitate to disagree, sometimes sharply, with the Blue Meanie. In his recent post about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The First White President, the Meanie advises readers: “You really should read Coates’ entire essay.” Sorry, Meanie, you fell short. Folks, it’s an absolute must read, especially if you’re white. And, when you’re finished, you need to tell every one you know to read it.

It’s that important.

From my narrow perspective, the timing of Coates’ Atlantic piece was perfect. Those who follow me here or on Facebook know that I’ve been reading a lot about race lately. I’ve focused not only on trying to understand the forces behind the plight of black Americans, but also on the dynamics of what we politely refer to as the white working class.

In the second category, I’d place White Trash, Strangers in Their Own Land, Hillbilly Elegy, and White Working Class.

It’s almost as if I’ve been anticipating Coates’ piece for the past six months and researching a rebuttal to it.

Except there really isn’t a rebuttal to write, as far as I can tell. At least not an intellectually honest one.In three of those four books I read about working class whites, the author tries mightily to cast the white working class in a sympathetic light. To some extent, the authors succeed. Certainly, the coastal elites have a superficial and, well, elitist, understanding of the white working class. I learned a lot from those books.

But the explanations were incomplete. They made sense, but they didn’t negate the conclusion that racism runs rampant in white America.

That’s where Coates’ essay comes in. Using hard data and sound logic, Coates makes a devastating case that Trump is a racist himself and blatantly and successfully appealed to white racism. And he succeeded with every segment of white America: whether rich, middle-class or poor; whether young or old; whether male or female; whether college-educated or not; whether urban or rural. No matter how you slice the data, being white was likely to mean voting for Trump, while huge majorities of every other race in America supported Clinton.

There’s a lot more to it than that. As the Meanie’s post points out, Coates’ piece is an indictment of how, across the board, white America has perpetuated the racial divide. It’s not just conservative America, but progressive America as well. I can’t summarize this aspect of Coates’ piece, but here’s a taste of the intensity with which he takes on this issue:

One can, to some extent, understand politicians’ embracing a self-serving identity politics. Candidates for high office, such as Sanders, have to cobble together a coalition. The white working class is seen, understandably, as a large cache of potential votes, and capturing these votes requires eliding uncomfortable truths. But journalists have no such excuse. Again and again in the past year, Nicholas Kristof could be found pleading with his fellow liberals not to dismiss his old comrades in the white working class as bigots—even when their bigotry was evidenced in his own reporting. A visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma, finds Kristof wondering why Trump voters support a president who threatens to cut the programs they depend on. But the problem, according to Kristof ’s interviewees, isn’t Trump’s attack on benefits so much as an attack on their benefits. “There’s a lot of wasteful spending, so cut other places,” one man tells Kristof. When Kristof pushes his subjects to identify that wasteful spending, a fascinating target is revealed: “Obama phones,” the products of a fevered conspiracy theory that turned a long-standing government program into a scheme through which the then-president gave away free cellphones to undeserving blacks. Kristof doesn’t shift his analysis based on this comment and, aside from a one-sentence fact-check tucked between parentheses, continues on as though it were never said.

Observing a Trump supporter in the act of deploying racism does not much perturb Kristof. That is because his defenses of the innate goodness of Trump voters and of the innate goodness of the white working class are in fact defenses of neither. On the contrary, the white working class functions rhetorically not as a real community of people so much as a tool to quiet the demands of those who want a more inclusive America.

I’ll end where I began. Folks, The First White President is a must read, especially if you’re white. And, when you’re finished, tell every one you know to read it.


  1. Re trolling. The way to address it is to require all posters to use their real names. If someone is willing to use their real name, then their posts should at least be tolerated. Otherwise you get a bunch of people agreeing with themselves without anyone’s views being challenged. If someone is unwilling to use their real name, then this invariably leads to the degeneration of discussion to the lowest point. But if someone is willing to stand by their posts with their real name, then they deserve to be heard. Otherwise there is little point to a public blog. One person’s view.

    • Rich, I agree that whether a commenter uses his/her own name is a factor, but there’s more to it than that. I see commenters who repeat the same information and the same arguments over and over again, typically on posts to which the information is irrelevant. Having that person comment under an actual name doesn’t solve that problem. So, I think perhaps the threshold for restricting comments is different if the commenter uses an actual name, but I don’t think anyone has license to engage in trolling.

  2. Chris Hayes interviewed Ta-nehisi Coates last night on MSNBC. Overall, a good and lively interview. Advance to 17:45 to watch the interview (which contains ads).

    • Chris Hayes isn’t kidding about the source of the title, “We Were Eight Years in Power”. TNC explains this toward the end of the interview. It is quite profound.

  3. Bob,
    I know you’re aware that Ta-nehisi Coates had his own blog before he was hired by The Atlantic. By the time I started reading his blog he already had a huge following. He eventually posted open threads every day and he read all the comments, often participating in discussions.

    I think there were several reasons why his blog became so popular, but one very important reason was that trolls were banned. His blog became a very safe place to have serious and meaningful discussions on pretty much everything. A troll wouldn’t last five minutes.

    I keep wondering why BfA tolerates trolls. If you read the comment thread on this post, you can literally watch the discussion deteriorate as one individual interjects his worthless, racist nonsense.

    I have noticed that when you post here that you have obviously given a great deal of thought to what you want to say and have expended considerable effort to write the post.

    So why allow your comment threads to be trolled?

    Trolling is fairly effective, unfortunately. It does tend to divert attention away from the original post and whatever meaningful and relevant discussion there might be in the comments. And I also believe that it causes some readers to just give up on the post. That’s how I’m affected.

    Just asking…

    • It’s a fair question, Liza. The Blue Meanie and I have different views on this — his is closer to yours. But mine has changed a bit, sort of. I have a narrower definition of troll than others; however, some who I didn’t consider trolls earlier on I now do. I also don’t want this to be an echo chamber, which causes me to be tolerant, perhaps too tolerant, when those on the conservative side verge on trolling. Lastly, my thinking is infected by the experience with our friend Thucky. For 6 months I considered him a troll. Instead of banning him from the site, I treated him as a useful idiot. Then, I discovered who he was, and it was like gold. I was taking him apart both in the comment section and in posts, knowing he was a high-ranking elected official. It was intoxicating. There’s a post from that time titled “The Thing About Thucky.” Take a look and you can get a feel for the fun I was having. Part of me was disappointed when Brahm Resnik called, because I knew the Thucky days were ending.

      So, perhaps you can appreciate my reluctance to chase the trolls off the site. That said, my view has changed. I’m less reluctant. But I don’t know if my view counts much here. In a good week, I’ll put up two posts. The Meanie does that many on an average day. So, in fairness, it’s his call. I’ve noticed that traffic goes up on the days I post, and my page view numbers are good for my posts, but he’s really carrying the load and I think keeping readers engaged. So it’s his call.

      • Have we thanked you for the Thuckhead outing lately?

        Because I still think that was funny.

        Thanks to both you and AZ and the others who blog here. Especially for the local stuff, getting anything useful from the local TV news-gigglers is impossible, much appreciated.

      • Yeah, Bob, I suspected that your troll tolerance would be influenced by that Thucky experience.

        That was great, to be sure. But does lightning strike twice in the same place?

        Here’s what I see. This so called Trump presidency is bringing out the best in some people and the worst in others. Some of us who are the opposition are having a harder time than usual with “conservatives” and the nonsense they write for whatever reason, but trolling is the most obvious.

        The other issue that I see is that any discussion about race is going to bring out the absolute worst in racist trolls. And, in my opinion, these are important and timely discussions for white “liberals” to be having and they are probably more effective without the Klan interruptions. I think readers might give up because racist comments are just too offensive.

        If you do intend to post more about race related issues, I guess you can play it by ear and see how it goes. But I’ve got a prediction…

    • Ignore the troll, and please keep posting. You and a few others bring valuable insight every time.

      I know when I see a comment from you I’m either going to learn something or have a good laugh when you’re feeling witty.

  4. because white people owned black people as slaves 150 years ago and the latent racism from white people since. we need affirmative action to restrict the number of asian student entering our most prestigious colleges. and if you disagree you are racist.

    • “…and if you disagree you are racist.

      I sense you are being tongue in cheek, Captain, and if I am right, that is funny! And if I am wrong:

      ” we need affirmative action to restrict the number of asian student entering our most prestigious colleges.”

      That is a silly proposal that, sadly, is already in effect at many Universities across the Nation. Entrance into Universities should be color blind and based on achievement, but it is not.

  5. Agreed Bob. This white guy is trying to understand what I know I can’t understand. My attempt is to come closer to understanding. And Coates does the best job I’ve read lately of cutting through the bullshit and laying things out. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a brilliant stylist.

    • “It doesn’t hurt that he’s a brilliant stylist.”

      Coates does hair, too? He is a man of many talents!

      “This white guy is trying to understand what I know I can’t understand.”

      Maybe you can’t understand it because it is largely BS playing on your guilt at being white.

      “My attempt is to come closer to understanding.”

      That sounds suspiciously like brain washing…the difference being that usually brain washing occurs to unwilling participants while you are willing to be brain washed. Giving up so easily is a little sad.

  6. As a middle aged white man my opinion on black issues is this:

    I shut up and listen.

    TNC is a good place to start listening. Thanks for posting.

    • That one actually got a good bit of pushback from black writers whom I respect. I only read passages, so don’t have an opinion myself.

      • Yeah, I’ve noticed TNC usually gets pushback from a few black writers. In some cases, jealousy is the issue, IMO.

        Toni Morrison reviewed his book, Between the World and Me, and said that TNC fills the intellectual void left by the passing of James Baldwin. Kind of a harmless statement and actually quite personal, it was simply her opinion. Well, a few black folks went nuts.

        But it does illuminate an interesting point, that black intellectuals do not march in lockstep.

      • Like this, for example. Someone linked this in a discussion we were having about TNC, and it’s quite insightful.

        I would never have thought to compare TNC to Fannie Lou Hamer, and I had numerous random thoughts while reading this. Like the inevitable differences attributable to being a deeply religious black woman in the Jim Crow South versus a still young black man from a rough neighborhood in Baltimore. And there are other differences as well. But the author’s conclusion is difficult to argue against.

        The Birthmark of Damnation: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Black Body
        R.L. Stephens May 17, 2017

      • But what is so truly awesome is that these voices are finally being heard, even if it is a small percentage of white people who are paying attention. And perhaps an even smaller percentage who are open minded enough to really listen.

  7. bob I glad you found out what I have known all my life being non-ignorant southern white trash myself though part native american. white people have some degree of racism for the most part. some struggle against these feelings others do not. white liberals are a minority. the majority of white people who are confronted with what coats has to say will not beg for forgiveness as white liberal elitists will ;but will say ok I am a racist tough deal with it. by the way as I wrote in an earlier post these people dint have enough vote to drag donald trump kicking and screaming over the top to electoral college victory. these factors I posted earlier.

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