One of the recurring ideas of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, is that he hates being asked to offer white people hope of a better future in which America might become a post-racial utopia. But when Coates appeared on The Late Show Monday night, Stephen Colbert asked him to offer that hope — and appeared to be almost offended when Coates refused.
In his book, Coates writes that he hates being asked to talk about a future he doesn’t believe in, and he simply does not believe that America is going to “get over” racism. As he sees it, white supremacy is so foundational to America that it will be impossible to ever eradicate it. “Our story,” he concludes at the end of Eight Years in Power, “is a tragedy,” but it’s one that Coates has dedicated himself to resisting nonetheless.
There are also troubling racial dynamics to this question. Coates is one of the most important writers on race in America today, but that also makes him one of the only writers on race whose work many white Americans have read — and correspondingly, for many white readers, there’s a sense that by reading Coates, you are absolving yourself of complicity in America’s racism. As the Washington Post put it in 2015, “‘Did you read the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates piece?’ is shorthand for ‘Have you absorbed and shared the latest and best and correct thinking on racism, white privilege, institutional violence and structural inequality?’ If you don’t have the time or inclination or experience to figure it out yourself, you outsource it to Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
White people seem to have decided that it is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s job to teach us all there is to know about racism in America. And once he’s finished, we would also like for him to make us feel better, to absolve us of our guilt and tell us that things will get better. Which is a lot to put on a single person, however brilliant — to say nothing of the fact that, as Coates pointed out on The Late Show on Monday night, it’s not actually his job.
“You’ve had a hard time in some interviews expressing a sense of hope in this country,” Colbert said toward the end of the interview. “Do you have any hope tonight for the people out there, about how we could be a better country, we could have better race relations, we could have better politics?”
“No,” Coates said, to scattered laughter. “But I’m not the person you should go to for that. You should go to your pastor. Your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope.”
“I’m not asking you to make shit up,” Colbert interjected. “I’m asking if you personally see any evidence for change in America.”
“But I would have to make shit up to actually answer that question in a satisfying way,” Coates explained.
What about the coming demographic change to America, Colbert asked. White people will soon be a numerical minority in America: Won’t things change then?
“Your question presumes that there is a static definition of whiteness,” Coates said. “And that this is the first time that there’s been a demographic change.” The Irish, he argues, weren’t always considered white; neither were the Italians or the Jews. America, by implication, is perfectly happy to change the definition of whiteness if it means the country can remain a majority-white nation.
“In addition to the very definition of whiteness being malleable,” Coates added, “the ability to vote is also a malleable thing. So you might have the possibility of the demographics actually changing, but who has the ability to use those demographics in an electoral system might also change too.”
Colbert took a second to sigh, in frustration or in sadness. “I hope you’re wrong,” he said.