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Ta-Nehisi Coates on Race, Power, and Why He Loves Chicago

And yes, he has something to say about Trump, too.

The journalist and MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner stopped by Northwestern to chat about his favorite topics.   Photo: Rob Hart

Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t shy about his love for Chicago.

It’s the black capital of America, Coates declared at Northwestern University’s Evanston campus on Tuesday, where he discussed race and power as part of the school’s Contemporary Thought Speaker Series. Noted author and professor of sociology and African American studies, Mary Pattillo, guided the conversation.

Coates’s award-winning Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations” is largely based in Chicago, which has long-lasting scars of racial housing discrimination and which many see as the most racially segregated city in the country.

Coming off the success of 2015’s Between the World and Me, and his latest Atlantic piece “My President Was Black,” the renowned journalist sat down for a candid conversation about politics and race in front of a packed house at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Hall.

On “The Case for Reparations,” in which Coates interviews North Lawndale residents to tell the story of systemic racism in Chicago:

 “When I went to do ‘Case for Reparations,’ in some respect, it wasn’t really about reparations. [There] was this notion of racism as something that happened 100 years ago, in the deep distant past, that no one [felt like they] had to deal with today. I wanted to remind folks that this is real.

“When I think of Chicago, I think about home. You guys have so much. You can feel the spirit and it’s everything that you love about yourself. Here [in Chicago], it’s like reconnecting to something in you, as a black person, that’s in your bones.”

On Laquan McDonald and the ongoing accountability crisis in the Chicago Police Department, which Coates said is no different than an organized gang:

“Chicago is the capital of black America, which means everything isn’t [always] good about being black.”

On Barack Obama’s campaign on “hope":

“I think that it takes not just a certain kind of politician but a certain kind of African American politician to go into some of the white communities that [Barack Obama] went into, to speak the way he spoke.

“[Obama] had a level of comfort in those households that I think is really, really hard to find. On the other side, I think he made black folks feel proud. You feel like the best of yourself is being represented and you got excited about that. That particular black family looked really, really familiar to you and people got excited.”

On what it means for Donald Trump to follow Obama:

“It’s always the case that individually gifted and lucky African Americans could go far. But the fight for equality in America for black people is really the fight to be mediocre. Donald Trump is president. [Now] I look at my son, and I say, you really can be president. If they called you right now, you could be president.

“Donald Trump [was] not a surprise to me. I was shocked. But, I was shocked because, believe it or not, there’s a part of me that remains sort of optimistic about the world, even if the cold-hearted part of me who sits down to write understands that this is what’s going to happen.

“The fact that somebody who started their career in birtherism [the false claims that Obama was not born in America] ended up becoming president of the United States, I think that when you look at this 100 years from now, you would say it makes sense.”

On why black people have to work three times harder than whites to make it:

“Black folks can’t be Donald Trump. You’d be dead. Somebody would’ve killed you. If you were that foolish about the world, you might get shot.

“You get to these places, these high institutions and, no disrespect, but you can see the kind of tolerance there is for white mediocrity and that there’s no tolerance for black mediocrity. None.”

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