Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

  • Is James Baldwin America's Greatest Essayist?

    His are some of the coldest American sentences ever written. But they're about love.


    I finished The Fire Next Time on a plane to Greenville, South Carolina. I am here to give a talk tonight about the legacy of the Civil War. I probably should not have read Baldwin before coming into the backyard of John Calhoun and Pitchfork Ben Tillman. I'm all on fire and resolved to bring some of that fire forth tonight.  I have come to places like this before. I have never shrunk from speaking my piece, but I dislike making people directly uncomfortable and have a tendency in person to complicate things that I know are not complicated at all. I am resolving to move away from that. Manners have their place. I should not conflate them with cowardice.

    I want to thank everyone who pointed me toward how much Baldwin really does embrace love. I am remembering what I, myself, loved about him as a young man. I came to college a total Malcolmite. I kind of still am. But Baldwin was among a set of influences that talked me out of my younger self. He is tough to pin down, because he understands the anger in black people, he feels it himself, and fears it. There is something of the atheist about him, though he does not directly say it. His encounters with racism leave him on the edge of violence and hatred, but The Fire Next Time is all about why one should walk back, all about why you should never judge yourself by the standards of the owner of the boot presently on your neck. 

    That is how Baldwin got me. He revealed to me that black nationalism is, itself, a kind of philosophical integration. If you listen to any of Malcolm's speeches they sound like they are straight out of the Enlightenment, and Malcolm himself uses the American revolution and the nationalism of whites around the globe as a model. Baldwin's reply is not to interrogate black nationalism in isolation, but to interrogate nationalism—and the nationitself. He hates the hypocrisy and self-congratulation of white liberals and though he loves hard, though he deeply understands that race is a creation, he is never blinded by love:

    The real reason that nonviolence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes—I am not speaking now of its racial value, another matter altogether—is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened. One wishes they would say so more often.
    Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro's situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them. It must be added that the Negro himself no longer believes in the good faith of white Americansif, indeed, he ever could have.
    Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession [Brown vs the Board] would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons, to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters. Had it been a matter of love or justice, the 1954 decision would surely have occurred sooner; were it not for the realities of power in this difficult era, it might very well not have occurred yet. This seems an extremely harsh way of stating the case—ungrateful, as it were—but the evidence that supports this way of stating it is not easily refuted. I myself do not think that it can be refuted at all. In any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems.

    I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now—in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life—expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power—and no one holds power forever.

    White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. Why, for exampleespecially knowing the family as I doI should want to marry your sister is a great mystery to me. But your sister and I have every right to marry if we wish to, and no one has the right to stop us. If she cannot raise me to her level, perhaps I can raise her to mine.

    These are some of the coldest American sentences ever written. When I was a young nationalist, this was the one that really shook me. "I don't what your sisterbut if we wanted each other, no one has the right to stop us." It was something I'd never seen beforethe black pride of nationalism fused to the undeniable morality of integration.

    I don't want to cherry-pick here. On the contrary, my point is that after all of this—after all his hard talk—Baldwin is still talking about love. These essays are amazing acts of intellectual and emotional courage. I got off the plane here in Greenville and called my agent (who knew "Jimmy" as she called him) and asked, "Does anyone still write like this?" The question was rhetorical. No one does. No one had. No one will.

  • A Festivus for the Rest of Them

    I want to do something I've never done--wish Happy Birthday to someone I do not know. Mijin Cha is somewhere out there among the Horde. I am told that on this day, some years ago (never mind how many) Mijin joined the living. And we are most happy that Mijin joined the living and not some other random zygote who might favor cat videos over watching me glummy doom-say everything, fail at French, and otherwise discover at age 37, that which normal people discover 16. 

    I don't much know why people come here to read, but I am happy they do. It's easy to forget that the vast majority of these readers do not comment but sit in their own private spaces quietly taken my measure. The most vocal members of the Horde owe this sprawling silent majority quite the debt. Without out them, I'd be back on typepad counting my hits for the day. (Two--me and my Dad.)

    And so in honor of these lurkers, of who Mijin Cha is clearly Queen, I declare today September 26, the Day Of The Lurker. Let there be song. Let there be dance. Let there be drink. Let there be merriment, for this the day for all those who don't talk, but understand. But mostly this is a day for Mijin. Happy birthday. I hope you have a great one. 

    Happy birthday Mjin. Keep fighting the good fight. We love you much, but Susan loves you even more. 

  • A Rising Tide Lifts All Yachts

    Poverty Neighborhoods.jpg
    So in our continuing run of posts, which The Horde has dubbed "The TNC Futility" series, we have a chart showing the relative poverty levels of the neighborhoods where blacks and whites in America have lived across two generations. One generation was born between 1955 and 1970. The other generation was born between 1985 and 2000. The data was compiled by Patrick Sharkey for his excellent book Stuck in Place. It is pulled from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal study which began in the late 60s. I think I've used this chart before, but it bears another look.
    As you can see, the majority of black people live in conditions that very few white people ever experience, and a significant number of black people live in conditions which virtually no white people experience. This has not changed. For the first generation 62 percent of black people, but only 4 percent of white people, lived in neighborhoods where 20 percent or more of the people were poor. In the second generations 66 percent of black people, and 6 percent of white people, lived in such conditions. In both generations a third of all black people lived in neighborhoods where 30 percent of the population was below the poverty line. Only one percent of all white people lived in such situations.
    The vast majority of white people live in low poverty neighborhoods. The vast majority of black people live in moderate to high poverty neighborhoods, with the scale tipping toward the high end. Only 10 percent of all African-Americans experience the kind of neighborhood ecology that 61 percent of white people experience. It's interesting that the trend line--even for white neighborhoods--is pointing down. Canaries in the coal mine I guess.
    It's important to understand that a direct line from neighborhood poverty to individual poverty can not necessarily be drawn. On the contrary, individual affluent African-Americans tend to live in neighborhoods that are a step below individual affluent whites. [A]lmost half (49 percent) of black children with family income in the top three quintiles lived in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty," writes Sharkey. "Compared to only one percent of white children in those quintiles." The sociologist John Logan found that, over the past two decades, affluent blacks tended to live around more poverty, than poor whites.
    So this is not simply a question of "the black poor" or even "the poor." Helping the poor is a noble goal on to itself. But it isn't the same as addressing the effects of a tradition of racist policy. The two are related--much like homophobia and misogyny are related. But just as same-sex marriage and abortion rights are not the same thing, neither is America's toleration of racism, and its toleration of inequality, color regardless.
    About those baguettes: I forgot to close out my last post with some sort of notation on the culinary adventures of this particular black family which--for the first time ever--finds itself living in that black ten percent. I tried to teach my son some knife skills in the kitchen this weekend--I started cutting when I was about his age. This ended in bandages. Just a flesh wound, I assure you. But afterward the boy looked at me like I was Jesus walking and said, "If you weren't here, I would have been freaking out." Do not think I have forgotten the importance, and particular magic, of black fatherhood. I think I wanted to be a father not out of any sense of nobility but for that moment, right there. To feel needed. To be singularly important to someone.
    After I bandaged him up he sat in the kitchen and watched me cut up a chicken, make a quick stock, and then some noodle soup. I then announced that we would, again, try our hand at a cake--but this time something basic and yellow. The boy went and watched a 20-minute video of Christopher Kimball baking a cake. He then returned and said, "I want to do it." And he did it. It was awesome--light and not overly sweet. The only help he got from me was getting the batter into the pan. 
    It was then that I remembered that someday I would not be so needed, not so singularly important. Already he is coming home with notes from girls. One of them is going to sweep him away from me. And then it will just me and his mother again. And France. We'll be free and that will be nice. But we will never again be so terribly needed.
  • Is James Baldwin America's Greatest Essayist?

    Baldwin's genius increases as we grow older.

    I picked up James Baldwin's new collected joint and haven't quite been the same since. I read a lot of Baldwin in college, and basically left with the sense that he was a badass. But I hadn't gone back to Baldwin in many years. Some people who are important to us as young people, wither under our gaze as older adults. And then other people who we know as genius somehow just increase in our estimation. 

    Baldwin is among those people for me. This is not news. You can see him here giving Bill Buckley exactly what he deserves. And smarter people then me can tell you about his genius. What I can say is that this weekend I read his essay "Price of the Ticket" and felt like someone out there—long dead—understood how I felt.

    Here is passage from "Price of the Ticket" in which Baldwin reflects on the mentoring he got from Marion Anderson and Beauford Delaney:

    Because of her color, Miss Anderson was not allowed to sing at The Met, nor, as far as The Daughters of The American Revolution were concerned, anywhere in Washington where white people might risk hearing her. Eleanor Roosevelt was appalled by this species of patriotism and arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This was a quite marvellous and passionate event in those years, triggered by the indignation of one woman who had, clearly, it seemed to me, married beneath her.

    By this time, I was working for the Army—or the Yankee dollar!—in New Jersey. I hitchhiked, in sub-zero weather, out of what I will always remember as one of the lowest and most obscene circles of Hell, into Manhattan: where both Beauford and Miss Anderson where on hand to inform me that I had no right to permit myself to be defined by so pitiful a people. Not only was I not born to be a slave: I was not born to hope to become the equal of the slave-master. They had, the masters, incontestably, the rope—in time, with enough, they would hang themselves with it. They were not to hang me: I was to see to that. If Beauford and Miss Anderson were a part of my inheritance, I was a part of their hope.

    Much of Baldwin's writing is roughly contemporaneous with the Civil Rights movement, but he seems to share none of its hope, none of its belief in the power of love to conquer all. There is something so real about him. He is not a nationalist, but a humanist—and yet he is the most clear-headed humanist I've ever read. He is not here to flatter you. He is not here to make white people better. He is not here to change the world. He doesn't even seem like he's trying to "inspire." He is here to write—because it's what he wants to do. I love that, and I feel it on so many levels.

    I'm often asked what "impact" I hope my writing has. To which I can only respond, "Fuck if I know." I write because I want to, because I can do nothing else. Because I believe they will hang themselves, and this is my attempt to prevent them from hanging me.

  • The Killing of Jonathan Ferrell in Context

    Sharkey Mobility.jpg

    If I sounded a bit glum and fatalistic in my post on the killing of Jonathan Ferrell, and if I sounded glum and fatalistic in my postings on Trayvon Martin, and if I generally have sounded glum and fatalistic—period, you can blame charts like this one. Again, this is from Patrick Sharkey's research in his book Stuck In Place. I would go so far as to call it essential in understanding the profound lack of progress we've seen, over the last forty years, in our efforts to forge an integrated society.

    Much of Sharkey's data is pulled from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. The PSID is remarkable in that it allows you to look at people across generations. Or, for now, just one generation, because the PSID started in the late 60s.
    Above, you see a chart looking at blacks and whites born in poor and affluent neighborhoods, and what happened to them across a generation. The chart then shows what percentage of each group's families remained in poor neighborhoods, and which group's did not. It also shows what percent of each group's families born into affluent neighborhoods were able to remain there, and what percent of each group's families were not.
    As you can see, the results are glum. Put simply, if you are black and grew up around poverty, your children probably grew up the same way. If you are white and grew up around poverty, your children probably did better. If you are black and grew up around affluence, your children probably didn't. If you are white and grew up around affluence, your children probably did. 
    When I talk about terms like "poor" and "middle class" and "elite" not translating when we compare blacks and whites, this is what I mean. Black people living around affluence are not white people living around affluence with a tan. Their lives are different. The prospects of their children are worse, and their presence on the East Side tends to be transient.
    The fact of a dual-society has implications beyond the dollar signs. Toleration of black disadvantage, in a world where that disadvantage is rarely forthrightly explained, leads to the toleration of magic. This is true many times over when you consider that America was founded on the magical thinking of white supremacy. Put differently, if a society has a history of believing that black people are less than human, and repeatedly sees black people living in conditions unlike other humans in that society, the original belief is reified. 
    And we know this. Beryl Satter documents in her book Family Properties how the racist practice of redlining black people did not just rob black people of wealth, it reinforced racist beliefs already present. Because I am black, my interest rates and my payments are higher than yours. Because my payments are higher I can not keep up my property as well as you. Because my payments are higher, I work a second job and I am not around to supervise my kids. You don't ever see the absurd contract on my house. But you do see my gutters falling off. You see my kids out past the hour of streetlights. No one told you about redlining. But many people told you that I am lazy and prone to criminality. You have been told this since somewhere around the 18th century. And now you see that when I move next door, property values dip, and the neighborhood becomes a ghetto. 
    Where science is concealed, magic reigns. And you will be forgiven for believing that the fact of the ghetto is the fact of my lesser humanity. And with that lessened humanity, with all the requisite stereotypes, comes an entire belief system that tolerates the killing of Trayvon Martin by a man who then tours the factory where the weapon he used to slaughter a child was made.
    I can only yell so loud when a jury comes back with a verdict we do not like. I can only yell so loud when the police act on magic. The society believes in magic. The institutions reflect this belief. Whoso tolerates a dual-society, necessarily tolerates the killing of Jonathan Ferrell. I see no evidence that the dual-society, nor its toleration, are in decline. Trayvon Martin will happen again. George Zimmerman will be innocent again. Fools will blame hip-hop again. Racists will discover Chicago again. And we will be back in the streets demanding a change in some law which is but the thin branch of a problem that extends down into our country's deepest roots. 
  • The Killing of Jonathan Ferrell

    I have strong doubts about any efforts towards prosecution in the death of Jonathan Ferrell. A former FAMU student, Ferrell crashed his car, crawled out the back window looking for help, and then knocked on the door of the first house he saw. A woman, thinking it was her husband knocking, answered. When she saw Ferrell she shut the door, hit her alarm and called the police. What happened once the police arrive is not clear. There evidently is dashcam video, but it hasn't been released. Lawyers have seen it and I think this reaction is important:

    "(Ferrell) advanced toward the officers. His hands were not in the air," said George Laughrun, attorney for Officer Randall Kerrick, speaking to reporters about what he saw in footage from a police cruiser's dashboard camera. 
    "You see one of his hands partially behind his back, concealed as he ... continued to advance. He was given three commands to 'Get on the ground. Get on the ground.' He did not. And Officer Kerrick backed up and then felt the need to deploy his service weapon."
    Later in the story the police chief makes the obvious point that not complying is not a good reason to try and kill someone. People do not comply for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they mean harm. But they also might not clearly hear you. They might be mentally disabled. Or--having just emerged from a car crash--they might be totally disoriented.
    Having said that, it's important to understand that, in America, it is broadly believed that police can--and perhaps should--kill people who do not comply with them. Roy Middleton was shot in his own driveway after a neighbor called the police on him, thinking he was a burglar breaking into a car. The car was Middleton's. When the police arrived, they claim to have given Middleton orders to which he did not comply. Middleton thought it was neighbors playing a joke. The police claim he "lunged" at them."It was like a firing squad," Middleton told PNJ from his bed at Baptist Hospital. "Bullets were flying everywhere."  The local sheriff doesn't believe the police did anything wrong. 
    There's been some rage directed at the woman who called the police. I think this is wrong. You may believe racism is an actual force in our interactions--I certainly do--but you don't know whether it was an actual force in this one. It's important to recognize that this is both a woman and an individual. You might speculate about what she thinks of black people. I might speculate about whether she'd been a victim of sexual assault, or any other kind of violence. That also happens in America. But it would be better to speculate about nothing, since all we actually know is that this was a woman who was home with a young child, opened the door in the middle of the night, and found a dude standing outside. 
    Her reaction may not have been your reaction. But this woman is not paid by the State to keep the peace. Police officers are trained to deal with situations like this. In too many cases that training does not emphasize de-escalation, but killing people who make them jumpy. Miscommunication is not an excuse. Mental illness is not an excuse. Confusion is not an excuse. If the officer believes you are a threat to their life, they have the right to shoot you--and anyone standing near you
  • Brad Paisley and the Politics of Offense and Offense-Taking

    What he still doesn't get: Wearing the Confederate flag is far worse than "offensive."


    New York's Jody Rosen has an interview up with Brad Paisley that's worth checking out. When Paisley released "Accidental Racist" earlier this year I got into some conversations on Twitter (I used to live there) with some of his fans. They defended him as a singular figure in the country music scene willing to push borders and challenge all manner of convention. You see that guy on display in Rosen's interview. Usually people who end up on the business end of the barrage Paisley endure come out sounding scornful. Paisley sounds more like he's grappling. We should all be so lucky.* 

    I'd like to focus in on something:

    Some Southerners got very mad it me: "I'm done with you. How dare you apologize for the Confederate flag." But the majority of my fans said, "We know you, we love you -- and we don't understand the controversy, we don't get why everyone is so mad." Which tells you all you need to know, right there.

    There is a gulf of understanding that I was trying to address. The most surprising and upsetting thing was being thought of by some as a racist. I have no interest in offending anyone -- especially anyone in the African-American community. That song was absolutely, earnestly supposed to be a healing song. One hundred percent.

    I don't really doubt that Paisley wasn't trying to be offensive, nor that he really, earnestly was trying to do some good. But I don't think he really gets what bothers black people about the Confederate Flag. It is not simply that the flag is offensive. It is that it is the chosen symbol of slaveholders and those who wanted to live in a republic rooted in slaveholding.

    This warrants clarification. In 1836, cotton from the South accounted for59 percent of this country's exports. Effectively, in the run up to the Civil War, our leading export was produced by slave labor. This cotton enriched our country financially and powered us into the modern world. "Whoever says industrial revolution," wrote the historian Eric Hobsbawm, "must say cotton." 

    The men and women who grew this cotton not only enriched through their labor, but through their very flesh. At the onset of the Civil War enslaved black people were valued at $3 billion, more than all the factories, railroads, and the productive capacity of America combined. This wealth was traded throughout the South regularly, and that trade enriched America even further.

    InSoul By Soul, awesome history of the antebellum slave trade, the historian Walter Johnson takes the measure of the system:

    As those people passed through the trade, representing something close to half a billion dollars in property, they spread wealth wherever they went. Much of the capital that funded the traders' speculations had been borrowed from banks and had to be repaid with interest, and all of it had to be moved through commission-taking factorage houses and bills of exchange back and forth between the eastern seaboard and the emerging Southwest. 

    And the slaves in whose bodies that money congealed as it moved south had to be transported, housed, clothed, fed, and cared for during the one to three months it took to sell them. Some of them were insured in transit, some few others covered by life insurance. Their sales had to be notarized and their sellers taxed. Those hundreds of thousands of people were revenue to the cities and states where they were sold, and profits in the pockets of landlords, provisioners, physicians, and insurance agents long before they were sold. The most recent estimate of the size of this ancillary economy is 13.5 percent of the price per person-tens of millions of dollars over the course of the antebellum period.

    Natchez, Mississippi, a major slave-trading hub, was home to more millionaires per capita than any city in the country. But behind the numbers were the wrecked lives of black men and women. A slave stood roughly a 30 percent chance of being sold away. "Of the two thirds of a million interstate sales made by the traders in the decades before the Civil War," writes Johnson, "twenty-five percent involved the destruction of a first marriage and fifty percent destroyed a nuclear family." 

    I think of Henry "Box" Brown, saying farewell to the family that was sold from him.

    The next day, I stationed myself by the side of the road, along which the slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty, were to pass. The purchaser of my wife was a Methodist minister, who was about starting for North Carolina. Pretty soon five waggon-loads of little children passed, and looking at the foremost one, what should I see but a little child, pointing its tiny hand towards me, exclaiming, "There's my father; I knew he would come and bid me good-bye."

    It was Brown's oldest child. Henry Brown never saw his son or his wife again. In antebellum America, slavery was the enriching of white people through the legalized destruction of black families. And that is the cause of the men who raised the Confederate flag:

    Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

    If you accept that the Confederacy fought to preserve and expand slavery, then you might begin to understand how the descendants of the enslaved might regard symbols of that era. And you might also begin to understand that "offense" doesn't even begin to cover it. Reading Penthouse while having Christmas dinner with your grandmother is offensive. Donning the symbols of those who fought for right to sell Henry Brown's wife and child is immoral. 

    It is important to speak this way. Nothing is changed by banishing the Confederate Flag out of a desire to be polite or inoffensive. The Confederate Flag should not die because black people have come to feel a certain way about their country, it should die when white people come to feel a certain way about themselves. It can't be for me. It has to be for you.

    *I want to be clear that I wasn't being sarcastic. Intellectual grappling is always, always a good thing.

  • A Rising Tide Lifts Mostly Yachts

    Median Household Income.jpg
    Doubling down on our conversation over Patrick Sharkey's work from yesterday, what you have here is chart of real median income over the past forty years or so. You can't really make a hard black and white comparison before the early 70s, because "White"--as has always been the case--is a category in flux. At some point in the early 70s we started tracking Hispanics as either white or nonwhite. At any rate, this study from the Census tells us what we already know about the black-white income gap--that very little has changed:
    Comparing the 2011 income of nonHispanic-White households to that of other households shows that the ratio of Asian to non-Hispanic-White income was 1.18, the ratio of Black to nonHispanic-White income was 0.58, and the ratio of Hispanic to non-HispanicWhite income was 0.70. Between 1972 and 2011, the change in the Black-to-non-Hispanic-White income ratio was not statistically significant.11 Over the same period, the Hispanicto-non-Hispanic-White income ratio declined from 0.74 to 0.70. Income data for the Asian population was first available in 1987. The 2011 Asian to-non-Hispanic-White income ratio was not statistically different from the 1987 ratio.
    Again, consider that this stunning lack of change enjoys the black drop of record declines in teen pregnancy and declines in the murder rate in black communities. Also, you should view even small progress in black income with some skepticism.  From the great social scientist Douglass Massey we have this useful perspective, pointed out to me yesterday in comments:
    People in Jail and prison are excluded from the data sources used to compare income and unemployment ... mass imprisonment thus renders America's most vulnerable citizens, quite literally, "invisible" to policymakers and the public... Roughly two-thirds of prison inmates were employed at the time of their incarceration, and at the time they entered prison these workers earned systematically lower wages than their non-incarcerated counterparts. 
    After adjusting for the selective exclusion of these poorly paid workers from the labor force because of rising imprisonment, Western (2006, 100-1) fount that the apparent improvement in black wages all but disappeared. Relative black wages rose in government statistics during the late 1980s and 1990s not because African American workers were earning higher wages relative to whites, but because those earning the lowest wages were systematically being removed from the labor force and put behind bars.
    So yeah, I think I'll go bake another angel food cake. Or something.
  • More Baguettes and Black Families


    The other day I wrote this:

    The root of all of this is not really the fight against racism and white supremacy. My expectation is that racism and white supremacy will win--and take this country down with it. Indeed I expect the worst of everyone to win--and take humanity down with them.
    This bothered some folks and I tried to clarify what I meant in comments. For the past few months I've turned into an amateur sociologist. There's some really revealing work out there on racism, segregation and ghettoization being done by people like Patrick Sharkey, Douglass Massey and Robert Sampson. I also would recommend Robert Lieberman's book Shifting The Color Line, for those who are interested in the effects of white supremacy on the shape of social safety net.
    A lot of this work follows the research of William Julius Wilson, and much of it is very depressing. I keep thinking of Edmund Morgan who persuasively argued that white supremacy did not stand in opposition to American democracy, it made it possible. "The most ardent republicans were Virginians," writes Morgan. "And their ardor was unrelated to their power of the men and women they held in bondage." 
    At the end of his masterful tome American Slavery, American Freedom, Morgan starts to wonder: 
    Was the vision of a nation of equals flawed at the source by contempt for both the poor and the black. Is America still colonial Virginia writ large? More than a century after Appomattox the questions linger. 
    Morgan died while I was away. I keep wondering what he would have our transition from slavery to debt-peonage to mass incarceration, a transition so seamless that one could be forgiven for seeing the hand of an Author. Of course the Author is us. We are a congenitally racist country. We can improve around the margins. We can even progress. And perhaps we can some day learn to live with ourselves. But on some level, I suspect, we will always obey our terrible prime directives.
    Today's exhibit of the prime directive comes courtesy of Patrick Sharkey and his deeply disturbing book, Stuck In Place. Here is a chilling thought: Over the past half-century or so, violent crime has spiked and declined in black communities. Teen pregnancies have spiked and declined. The out of wedlock birthrate spiked and then declined. The teen pregnancy rate is as low as its been since sometime in the 40s. One thing has remained stable--the woeful economic status of the African-American community. 
    As you can see from the data, a greater share of black America lives in the lowest quintile of income than in any other region. This was true in 1970  and it is true today. I suspect, given our recent economic crisis, the numbers in five years will look worse, not better. We aren't even beginning to talk about the yawning wealth gap between black and white America. 
    So yeah, if I seem a bit pessimistic about us ever closing this gap, forgive me. I hope I'm wrong. When I hear the president say that things are getting so much better, I know what he means. But these numbers just hit me like a punch in the gut. If you'd like to be more depressed you can read this earlier post I did on Sharkey's work. 
    In other news, I found that Côte Du Rhone I loved so much. $10.99 at Whole Foods. Not so bad. But then yesterday my wife and I tried to make an angel's food cake. The whole thing fell and stuck to the pan. Clearly, racism.
  • Trayvon Martin Was a Victim of Black-on-Black Crime


    It was nice to be some thousands of miles away when the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial came down. I confess to being about as skeptical of a guilty verdict as I was of the predictions of mass violence in response. But being back and having thought about this a bit, I think something needs to be pointed out. There is this horrible idea out there that we should bracket off murder; that Trayvon Martin was a victim of racism but Derrion Albert and Hadiya Pendleton were not. The thinking holds that black people are concerned about the violence done to them by people who aren't black, and forgiving of violence done to them by people who are.

    But Derrion Albert and Hadiya Pendleton are no less victims of racism than Trayvon Martin. The neighborhoods in which these two young people were killed are a model of segregation funded and implemented by private citizens, realtors, business interests, the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois and the federal government. This segregation is not a mistake but the desired outcome of racist social engineering. Beryl Satter's Family Properties helps us here:

    Restrictive covenants were introduced in the 1920s. By the 1940s, Chicago led the nation in their use. Racial deed restrictions covered approximately half of the city's residential neighborhoods. Together, the bombings, "neighborhood improvement associations," realtors' sales policies, and restrictive covenants helped create Chicago's first all-black ghetto on the city's South Side. As historian Allan H. Spear explains, the ghettoization of Chicago's blacks "was not the result chiefly of poverty; nor did Negroes cluster out of choice. The ghetto was primarily the product of white hostility..." 

    The FHA embraced these biases. It collected detailed maps of the present and likely future location of African Americans, and used them to determine which neighborhoods would be denied mortgage insurance. Since banks and savings and loan institutions often relied upon FHA rating maps when deciding where to grant their mortgages, the FHA's appraisal policies meant that blacks were excluded by definition from most mortgage loans. The FHA's Underwriting Manual also praised restrictive covenants as "the surest protection against undesirable encroachment" of "inharmonious racial groups." The FHA did not simply recommend the use of restrictive covenants but often insisted upon them as a condition for granting mortgage insurance.

    Those black families that somehow overcame state-mandated segregation and attempted to leave the ghetto were greeted by "Improvement" organizations founded to resist "the invasion of white residence districts by the Negroes." The tactics endorsed by these improvement associations were nonviolent—until they weren't. Airport Homes, Cicero, and Fernwood all testify to the fact that the borders of the ghetto were patrolled not just by government policy but by the willingness of individual white citizens to resort to violence. 

    Policies have consequences. The hands that forged the American ghettos are ours—and they are blood-stained. To claim that the ghettoes of Chicago, and all the violent deaths that flow from them, are the creation of white racism is not to make an overheated charge. It is to cite the historical record. It's not even history.  Arnold Hirsch's Making The Second Ghetto opens with this chilling quote:

    Something is happening to lives and spirits that will never show up in the geat housing shortage of the late 40s. Something is happening to the children which might not show up in our social record until 1970.

    Or 1975. That was the year that the term "black-on-black" crime was born. The phrase is a deceptive restating of basic truth—people tend to kill the people they live around. Black people are among the most hyper-segregated group in the country. The fact that black killers tend to kill other black people is not refutation of American racism, but the ultimate statement of American racism. 

    Like so many other lost black boys, Trayvon Martin was killed close to home. He was killed by someone whom he lived around. His hoodie marked him, as surely as any gang color ever marked anyone. He was watched by George Zimmerman in the exact same way that I, and all my friends, were watched when we strayed into some other neighborhood. Indeed, one thinks of George Zimmerman's attitude and can't help but hear the moans of Kendrick Lamar ("Where your grandma stay, huh, my nigga?") And finally Martin was killed in a way that is very familiar to a lot of us: a sucker goes looking for trouble, finds it, and shoots his way out of an ass-kicking.

    There are no fair ones in America. Recent events have born this out. Here is George Zimmerman speeding through town. Here is George Zimmerman touring the company that allowed him to take your son's life. Smile for the cameras, George. Here is George Zimmerman menacing his wife and then smashing the evidence. George Zimmerman claims his wife's father attacked him. Someone is always attacking George Zimmerman.

    Black people see the relationship here. Jesse Jackson marched for Trayvon Martin—and then he marched for Hadiya Pendleton. It's worth listening to Hadiya Pendleton's mother, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton:

    "I have a son that I am raising in this environment, under these circumstances. So now I have a youth that is not at risk because I'm raising him with certain value systems, but he is at risk of being viewed a certain kind of way," Cowley-Pendleton told MSNBC during an anti-gun violence summit in Chicago on Friday, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. "I have to do things and be boisterous to protect him before he gets to where he's going to go independently, walking down a street on his own with certain privileges and being misidentified as someone else. Right now he's 11. The Martins have already suffered and that's an awareness for the rest of us." 

    That would be Trayvon Martin's parents. The story was written by Trymaine Lee, a black man, and a stellar journalist, who reported on Trayvon Martin and Hadiya Pendleton. There's no separation for us. We can't afford it. We've been talking about the plague of modern gun violence since the days of "Self-Destruction." People who are late to this, who do not know this, or who ignore this, are not filled with a sudden concern for Hadiya Pendleton so much as a sudden need to change the subject.

  • Of Baguettes and Black Families

    I don't like to reward threadjacking, but I was asked the following question the other day in the thread about French food:
    I have a question from a previous post where the comments closed on me. You made a claim that you held slavery/racism as responsible for the breakdown of the black family. How do you reconcile that with data showing that the the black out of wedlock birth rate only started surging in the 1960's and that the black marriage rate was on par with the white marriage rate well into the 20th century?

    In other words how do you make the claim that racism is linked to the destruction of the black family when the black family was in fact strongest during time periods when racism was substantially more prevalent than today?
    So I was annoyed by this. First because I've never claimed that "slavery is responsible for the breakdown of the black family." I don't consider the black family to be "broken down." I'm not even sure what that means. Moreover, if by "black" we mean "African-American," the "black" family was invented in slavery. There is no African-American family before slavery. We were born there, and proceed accordingly. But I was more annoyed because I'm really interested in baguettes right now. I was on my break--and now I am called to pick up the sword again.

    But as much as I'd like to blame white folks, the fact is I love this stuff. I answered the question, but I wasn't totally satisfied with my own answer. The root of all of this is not really the fight against racism and white supremacy. My expectation is that racism and white supremacy will win--and take this country down with it. Indeed I expect the worst of everyone to win--and take humanity down with them. I get sad about that sometimes, but I am mostly resolved. So the root of this, for me, isn't altruism but curiosity. Even if you know how the story ends, you still want to know how we got there.

    So here's some math for you. Before we get to it, let's look at some historiography courtesy of University of Minnesota professor Steven Ruggles and his article "The Origins of the African-American Family Structure." Ruggles alludes to some of the earlier data and what I suspect were Thomas Sowell's sources:
    The controversy over the Moynihan report stimulated a spate of revisionist historical investigations into African-American family structure. These studies asserted that black families in the late nineteenth century were overwhelmingly male-headed and nuclear in structure. Although some authors acknowledged minor differences in family structure between blacks and whites, they all maintained that in practical terms black families were essentially similar to white families (Agresti 1978; Bigham 1981; Carlson 1988; Furstenberg, Hershberg, and Modell 1975; Gutman 1975, 1976; Harris 1976; Krech 1982; Lammermeir 1973; Pleck 1972; Riley 1975; Shifflett 1975). The revisionists thus implied that the distinctive African-American family pattern is of recent origin, and this reinforced the now widespread view that economic disadvantages faced by blacks in the recent past are responsible (Brewer 1988; Wilson 1987).
    This actually helps me because I've long wondered why sociological work on black families seemed so ahistorical. There's a strong bias toward looking at black people through the lens of the 1960s--as though black America begins with the Long Hot Summers. I suspect part of that is that we just didn't have great data on black families, and the data we had indicated that something had gone drastically "wrong" around 1960. 
    But while it's true that you see a dramatic increase in single-family homes in 1960, the gap is about as old as our data. Ruggles was able to get ahold of census micro-data and basically concluded as much. If you look at the report you can see on Table 2 that as early as 1880 there were roughly double the percentage of black children born to single mothers as to whites (13.1 to 5.9.) Ruggles concludes:
    ...[T]he finding of recent studies that the high incidence of single parenthood and children residing without parents among blacks is not new. The pattern is clearly evident as far back as 1850 among free blacks. From 1880 through 1960, the percentage of black children with at least one absent parent was fairly stable and about two-and-one-half times greater than the percentage among whites. Recently, the percentages of both black children and white children with absent parents have risen dramatically...

    Race differences in family structure have expanded throughout the twentieth century, especially over the past three decades. But the fundamental differences in the percentage of children residing without parents began well over a century ago. The critical question remains: What is the source of this distinctive African-American pattern of single parenthood? Recent economic changes can be invoked to explain the growing differential between black family structure and white family structure, but they cannot explain why blacks started from a higher base.
    Again, you see a big shift in 1960. But that's true for both black and white families, and it's a shift that has been oft-commented upon. The change in marriage is not a "black" problem, and I am not even convinced that it is a "problem." People who want us to go back to 1880 should have the intellectual courage to advocate for the entirety of their vision, not just the parts they like. It is not simply a question of "Is marriage good for kids?" It's "Are shotgun marriages good for kids?" "Should marriage be valued at all costs, including enduring abuse or ill-treatment?" "Should women marry men regardless of their employment prospects and their contact with the correctional system?"

    My sense is democratic. I think that human beings are pretty logical and generally savvy about identifying their interests. Despite what we've heard, women tend to be human beings and if they are less likely to marry today, it is probable that they have decided that marriage doesn't advance their interests as much as it once did. It's worth noting that it is not simply women with children who aren't marrying, but women period. Indeed, black women today who are unmarried are having fewer kids than at any point in our recorded history. Mouthing platitudes about culture is fun if you want to be right. But if you really want to know, it's a little harder.

    And on that note I'll say peace to Dalton Conley and Andrew Cherlin for the assistance. And keeping it 100, I will add that I had an excellent Côte Du Rhone with my lunch today. And to keep it hood I'll note that the Camembert from Whole Foods is really incredible. (I almost felt like I was home.) And finally, to make it extra hood I'll say I'm looking forward to going out with my wife, my homegirl Chana, and her dude tonight. We plan to drink some wine and do all we can to ruin the good name of the black family and further discredit the entire race. 

    Holler if you so happen to hear me.
  • How to Become a Foodie

    So I've been missing Paris a lot. My current playlist is pitiful—I alternate Distant Lover and Cette Année-la. I keep waiting to walk out my door and see the women in the long dresses and big hats riding the Velib. No dice. I've had some small victories. Kenyatta found us a cheap, decent Sauvignon-Blanc. I found some good, stinky Camembert. I've been walking a lot more, and running a lot less. I like how much you see when you take it slow. Prenez le temps, mon fils. Don't let it all pass you by. Think about your life.

    All of that's been nice, but I've been frustrated by my inability to find a good baguette.  I'd tried the local bakery nearby, which was reputed to have one of the best baguettes in New York. It was too big, too dense, too bland, and (ultimately) too expensive.
    What I remember about the baguettes in Paris is that they were cheap and I never had a desire to put anything on them. They are a meal onto themselves. And I also suspect they were laced with narcotics. I get high off the plainest things. I joke a lot about oatmeal here, but a good bowl of rolled oats, with a little brown sugar, cranberries and raisins really smooths me out. It's a different feeling than eating something really sweet or salty. There's a kind of evenness that just takes over you. I just feel mellow.
    But yesterday I took my walk and on the loop back stopped at Whole Foods to buy some oatmeal. They were selling baguettes for two bucks. I figured I'd take the gamble. It's fashionable to talk shit about Whole Foods. But the baguette I got there was almost—almost—as good as my daily special from Eric Kayser. I brought it home, sat up with my wife and my kid and we all got high.
    When I was leaving Paris, I wrote about how the things I valued seemed to be valued over there. High on that list are things you stuff into your body. And when I thought about what I stuffed into my body, while in Paris, I didn't feel like a foodie. I didn't feel special. I felt like I was learning French. But I guess I am a foodie now. I'll take that. There aren't many moments of peace and bliss. I can't drink like I did when I was young. My life doesn't really allow for marijuana. But I need a separate space. Dinner seems like a good place to draw the line.
    Now for the saucisson and boudin noir...
  • In Defense of Pedophilia (Again)

    Over the past few years, I've gotten a real education in how, and why, the sexual assault of children continues to be tolerated. On one side we have people who think forcing sex offenders to live under bridges is an awesome idea. And then on the other side we have people who don't really think sexually assaulting children is that bad. Cue Richard Dawkins:

    While he told the Times that an unidentified schoolmaster "pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts" when he was a child, he argued that he did not think the abuse -- which he referred to as a "mild touching up" -- against himself and other children in his class "did any of us lasting harm."

    "I am very conscious that you can't condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours," Dawkins was quoted as saying. "Just as we don't look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can't find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today."

    No, this is very wrong. It's very convenient to believe that racism is a relic of an unenlightened, barbaric past. But a good body of historical scholarship shows that modernism and racism go hand in hand. Indeed, you can find people condemning racism in the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and the 19th century. For a sliver of the 15th century, the city of Florence was ruled by a black man.* Early 17th century Virginia was less racist than early 19th century Virginia. The myth of racism as a failure of manners is convenient because it conceals what lies at the heart of any system of exploitation--power.
    I don't have the intellectual chops to extend that out to the history of children, and childhood, but I have my suspicions. At any rate I am very skeptical that if, say, Harry Truman was found to enjoy giving children a "mild touching up" the country would have cheered him on. On perhaps they would have. The "Pedophilia isn't so bad" caucus is significantly larger than I'd once thought. 
    *Bonus question for the Horde. I've been going back over my early modern Europe lectures with Margaret Anderson. Was Florence, technically, a city-state?
  • Michael Bloomberg Is Not a Scientist, Man

    The technocratic image the mayor cultivates isn't just an affront to democracy -- it's also dishonest, since many of his signature moves lack empirical support.

    Brendan McDermid/Reuters

    There's a lot to like about this Jonathan Chait retrospective on Michael Bloomberg. Chait's main target is the insane idea that Bloomberg could ever have run for president and won. This notion rests on the idea that Bloomberg is a "centrist" when, in fact, his politics are basically the politics of the Democratic Party. If you can articulate the difference between Michael Bloomberg's politics and, say, Chuck Schumer's or Cory Booker's, I'd love to hear it. The idea of Bloomberg as a "centrist" savior rests on the premise that somewhere in the Senate there is liberal version of Ted Cruz.

    But there's something else here that's more telling. Chait quotes David Broder asserting that Bloomberg should run because:
    ... there is a palpable hunger among the public for someone who will attack the problems facing the country -- the war in Iraq, immigration, energy, health care -- and not worry about the politics.
    This is an amazing statement, but it's of a piece with Bloomberg's contention that "people aren't good at describing what is in their own interest." There's obviously something to be said for not consulting a poll for every single decision an executive makes. I think when people vote for a president, mayor, or governor, my hope are not simply electing someone who will agree with me 95 percent of the time, but that I am electing someone who reflects their baseline values.
    And there are obviously some choices that simply cannot be submitted to popular opinion. Even that sort of prohibition is complicated. We might assume that in 1860, a majority of the public would have supported slavery. But how do we reconcile that with the fact that South Carolina, which initiated the Civil War, was the least democratic state in the old union As early as 1917, a majority of the House and Senate was prepared to pass an anti-lynching bill. Democracy didn't kill the anti-lynching bill, the filibuster did.
    When I started writing this post I was going to point out that George W. Bush had plenty of public support for Iraq invasion. The reality is more complicated, and had the truth been known about WMD, public support would have likely plummeted. The idea that "politics" and "public opinion" are nuisances to be trampled upon by the philosopher-kings proceeds from the basic belief that the people are stupid (or easily duped by "powerful interests") and that the obviously correct solution should immediately prevail. You see this kind of anti-democratic instinct in school reform -- Michelle Rhee's contention that she wasn't in the business of "politics," or Bloomberg's appointment of Cathie Black as schools chancellor.
    There's something else here also -- there's no real track record. Anti-democrats -- despite their insistence on empiricism -- are often just as addled as the public. For every smoking ban, there's a Cathie Black. Black's appointment was not the result of an infallible algorithm designed to compute the best interest of New York students. It was the result, by Bloomberg's own account, of a desire find someone who "came from out of left field." The appointment was a disaster. But, according to Bloomberg, it's not because he foolishly appointed someone who had no history in education, it's because she was "dumped on in the newspaper from day one." (Powerful interests!) There's always an available excuse for the technocrat.
    Likewise, there is no empirical proof that stop and frisk is responsible for New York's drop in crime. But this does not stop Bloomberg from claiming it anyway, then fuming because "nobody" is talking about crime in minority neighborhoods. In fact, minorities have been talking about since the days of "Self-Destruction" (the song is literally called "Self-Destruction.") Disagree? By Bloomberg's lights you are a "racist" who's attempting to divide the city.
    Last week in class we read Elizabeth Alexander's wonderful poem "The Venus Hottentot." Reading that piece got me thinking about how tempting it is to adopt the mask of science and empiricism to conceal less noble motivations. Such as ego. When Bloomberg calls Bill De Blasio's campaign "racist" or claims that he should be frisking more black people, I'm not convinced his making a real claim. The content of the words are beside the point. Even as Bloomberg has full-throatedly defended stop and frisk, he's scaled it back. But he can't bear to say that publicly and thus concede a point to those whom he feels are besieging him. Michael Bloomberg's feelings are hurt and he wants to hurt back.
    This is not about numbers. There are no numbers that support branding random mosques as "terror enterprises." But for Bloomberg technocracy means the right to tell us that the numbers mean what he says they mean.
  • On the Shameful, Obvious, Self-Evident Racism of Bill de Blasio

    Michael Bloomberg tries to criticize a would-be successor -- and ends up writing one long Bill de Blasio love note.

    I'm not really sure what you get the mayor who has everything, but if Bill de Blasio becomes mayor of New York he should immediately thank Michael Bloomberg:

    Then there's Bill de Blasio, who's become the Democratic front-runner. He has in some ways been running a class-warfare campaign -- 
    Class-warfare and racist.
    Well, no, no, I mean* he's making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it's pretty obvious to anyone watching what he's been doing. I do not think he himself is racist. It's comparable to me pointing out I'm Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.
    You should read the whole interview. It's just one long Bill de Blasio love note. At one point, Bloomberg asserts that the presence of air-conditioning on the subways means that no one in New York is poor. At another he blames Cathie Black's failure as schools chancellor on the press. The whole piece reads like a caricature of the 99 percent. I think there is a credible argument to be made that Bloomberg is playing 12-dimensional chess and intentionally trying to destroy Christine Quinn. 
    What a total and complete meltdown.


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