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. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

  • How I Met Your Mother

    The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #12

    How I Met Your Mother.jpg

    I was out on The Yard with another girl. Homecoming. 1996. That was the year I finally found myself and knew that there must be a world beyond The Mecca. That was the year when I finally accepted that I was a cliché, that I liked Seinfeld and Pretty Woman, believed in Nubian Queens and thought the suburbs were cool. 

    I was walking across the Yard with another girl when I fell instantly in love. I am not ashamed to tell you this. I stopped and spoke to some friends. She was standing with your Aunt Kamilah, who was down with the Rythym and Poetry Cipher, and yes, that is what we called things back then. 

    I am not ashamed to tell you that I knew nothing about her, beyond how she looked. I am not ashamed to tell you that I was ignorant and dumb, in search of some Umoja mythology or all that Malcolm meant when he urged us toward self-love. I am not ashamed because I now know that everyone is urged toward everyone because of myth, and the only difference is the quantity and vintage of our guns.

    But I was 21 years old, and I knew nothing beyond the fact that I was so young that I could only be a walking cliché. I think of Ethelbert throning from the top of Founders, looking over my bad poetry and telling me that I more needed to live than write. What did I know of loving anything, beyond a longing, beyond being biased in one woman's direction. 

    I can now say that I what I immediately felt that day was thin. I shall speak responsibly and say that love is built on years of struggle, on business, on the tight-spots from which you brawl your way out. And I shall speak honestly and tell you that the my whole adult life has been built on something else--on thin feeling, on myth, on instinct, on the irrevocable desire to do the sort of filthy things that makes respectable people shriek, "Think of the children."

    Fuck the children. I was out on The Yard--Sadé in the tape-deck, while I'm moving in slow-motion. I was talking to Kamilah and my man René and I wasn't hearing a word being said. That thin feeling was everywhere around me and no one else could speak.

    So we partnered, parented, and married in precisely that order, and we would have left the last one off it were in our responsible power. We would have left that one off so that we always remembered that our mutual roots were not in churches where angels sing, not in high holiness, nor registry nor showers, but in chaos and lust for blood. We have held ourselves together with good reasons. But we have always known that love is not made by respectable people but by the freaks who come out at night. May you soon strive to rank among them. 

    I tell you this because I have fallen before, and it generally ended badly. So it goes. You will end badly too. So it goes. When I was 16 a boy smashed me over the head with a steel-trash can, then raised his arms like he was champion of the world. I haven't had the blues since.

    I am thinking of Langston Hughes:

    Folks, I'm telling you,
    birthing is hard
    and dying is mean-
    so get yourself
    a little loving
    in between.

    I am thinking of Black Thought:

    We knew from the start
    That things fall apart
    And tend to shatter

    But mostly I am thinking of you. I want to tell you that I have fallen for Paris. I think you know. I think you know because I am stupid and I am cliché. A serious man should should fall for some village in Moldova, for brandies made from magic apples, or ham taken from a rare and endangered hogs. A serious man should claim to have discovered Nashville, should live in Austin before it is Austin, then leave with tales of the edgy old days. I have been told that serious men are buying homes in Detroit. But I love chicken fingers. And I have never been to Foxwoods or Vegas. And I love New York against my better wishes. And I love Paris with that same familiar feeling--aching, everywhere and thin.

    What I am telling you is that you do not need to know to love, and it is right that you feel it all in any moment. And it is right that you see it through--that you are amazed, then curious, then belligerent, then heartbroken, then numb. You have the right to all of it. You must want to own all of it. We will try to ward you away. We will try to explain to you that we have already walked that path. We will try to tell you that we have made your mistakes. We will claim that we are trying to spare you. But you will see our greed and self-service hiding behind our words. You will see us ward you away with one hand, while the other still shakes at the memories. Here is the thing--you have the right to every end of your exploration and no motherfucker anywhere can tell you otherwise.

    The culture of our world, right now, is crafted by little boys who only recall being stood up on their first date, and nothing they got after. They don't remember the sand they kicked in other people's eyes, only their own injuries. Our art is cynical and bad-ass and made by people who will not be happy until you join them in the church of "everything is fucked up, so throw up your hands." This is art as anesthesia.

    Our art is made in cities like New York by people who are running from other places. They feel themselves as misfits who were trapped in dead-end suburbs. They hated high school. Their parents did not understand. They are seeking a better world. And when they realize that the world is wholly a problem, that the whole problem is in them, they make television for other people who are also running, who take voyage in search of a perfect world, then rage at the price of the ticket.

    I am not immune. But when I think of Baltimore, I think of Ma and Dad. I think of their new lives. I think of my sisters and brothers and their many mothers. I think of my youngest niece, like a daughter who I will never have. I think of nephews who are like sons to me. I think of high school friends who would have leaped in front of car for me.

    I thought I would return to Baltimore. But I was out on the Yard. I was struck--then struck again by you. So it goes.

  • Paris Disappointed Me—and I Am Glad For It

    The Atlantic in Paris: Dispatch #11

    I think it's worth introducing another perspective from an American in Paris. What you get from me will necessarily be limited by my own eyes. Here are a different set of eyes.

    Dear TNC,

    I visited France and Paris during the first few weeks of July and deeply appreciated doing Paris alongside your dispatches (and have been following your reflections since). While I grew up in many ways very far from you in Baltimore, your wonderings on how power and privilege work, how it perpetuates itself, and on education have kept me thinking. In a ninth grade French class in small town Indiana, I too found myself repeating "il fait chaud" and "il fait froid" without any real connection to what this faraway place and people may be like. But now I realize, at age 30, having been in Paris and having read your reflections on language and travel, that what I'm acting out now was begun many years ago in that high school French class when my world was little more than farm, cows, and high school basketball games. I learned the world was bigger, and I wanted to see some of it. Luckily, and with a bit of my own work, I'm able to start living into that curiosity that education first fostered.

    I'm realizing Paris has always sort of been an impressionist painting for me - a big, colorful, beautiful blur without much detail. All water lilies and wine and torrid love affairs and Midnight in Paris. And while I absolutely loved the city, I also - like your food poisoning, and I suppose like every time my knowledge is confined to what I get from movies and textbooks and media - found that the dirty detail of the city isn't as pretty as my faraway impressions. In daylight the Eiffel Tower looks sort of rusty-tin-can, the café smoke smells wonderful until it chokes me, the feted Metro is hot and crammed at every hour, and Monet's gardens were swarming with bugs. And further out from the postcard-ready city center, packed and poorly maintained apartment complexes house Parisians who somehow didn't get access to the gold-plated legacy of Versailles.

    But, staying out in the 19th, I gained a much greater love for the city seeing its many parts rather than just the postcard scenes. Like Dorchester where I live in Boston, the 19th gets talked down to visitors and even a walk-through by a novice like me brings out some of the cracks of injustice and segregation and poverty in Paris' rich and romantic façade. The 19th reminds me that Paris and being Parisian is a much wider and more colorful picture than any American rendering had given me, that Parisians are people of Europe and Africa and Asia and with various native born and immigrant stories. Also in a city where Richard Wright and James Baldwin and others came to in some sense distance themselves from American racism, the 19th reminds me that this is also an old capital of empire, a place that with all its stunning lights and cultural achievements would like to push its colonial history to the margins, out of view. It seems just as stunning a burden of history to bear as any, smoldering in its extravagant abandoned palaces and oppressed and depressed banlieues.

    Sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens on my last day I saw a beautiful palace, but it was no doubt built while peasants starved. I walked down the Champs Elysees and saw the stunning Arc de Triomphe, glorifying an emperor's conquest. I picniced in the Buttes Chaumont park with the lovers kissing and friends toasting and families filling the Indian and Tibetan and Senegalese restaurants nearby, but also walked home through hot, packed, and dilapidated apartment complexes reflecting inequality and oppression that the city's monuments and postcards would like me to believe are of a different era. I'm struck by how many sought an escape from American racism here yet ugly and other forms of racism were stewing here, too. How the problems of conquest and empire and inequality and racism of the past are also our problems now. How, like Baldwin said, history isn't just past but present, too.

    In short, Paris disappointed me, and I guess I'm glad for that in some perverse way because I was afraid it was perfect. Maybe now I can start to really love it. And thanks for your dispatches. Keep them coming.

  • The White Man's Continent

    Shout-out to whoever it was that told me to check out Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution. I am really digging it. For people like me--black dudes who like European history--one of the really unfortunate things is the inability to consider Europe on its own human terms. European history was always presented to us in the manner of a victorious football team spiking the ball in your face. If you accept the logic of racism--that skin color really does correspond to something deep and meaningful--and you are black and care about history, you wind up spending much of your time searching for reasons why white people are savages and you are not. This is especially true if you don't actually know much about African history.

    In that way, Europe becomes "white people's property." You only look at the continent and its history in the hopes of mining ammo to lob at your enemy. You don't really find World War II interesting for the story, so much as you find the Nazis the logical apex of the White Man's Civilization. You can't really think about, say, Garibaldi or Descartes or Hobbes or Marx. Basically all you want to know is did they hate black people, or not.

    This is why (again) Ralph Wiley's "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus" meant so much to me and my intellectual development. It was the liberation of humanism. (It's so interesting to me that the Russians themselves have long only barely qualified as civilized and "European.") It's not so much that culture doesn't exist or that Newton's country is irrelevant to understanding him. It's that culture is not mystical. Culture is not a euphemism for "I am innately more awesome than you."

    Hobsbawm's two main subjects are the Industrial Revolution and The French Revolution. He makes the case, very early in the book, that where these two revolutions happened mattered and that it's very difficult to imagine them happening anywhere else. But Hobsbawm--like any good historian--isn't writing nationalist triumphalism. One of the most freeing experiences for me over the past few years has been the freedom to dig into this stuff simply because I think it's cool.

  • Egypt, America, and the Democratic Pact

    "When activists call for demonstrations, that is activism. When generals do, that is Peronism."

    I'm going to be wholly unoriginal here and suggest that you check out Juan Cole as you absorb the dire events overseas. Cole gives a brief and nuanced snapshot of what went wrong over the past two years, of how a desire for one-party rule undermined the dream. Money quote:

    In my view Morsi and the Brotherhood leadership bear a good deal of the blame for derailing the transition, since a democratic transition is a pact among various political forces, and he broke the pact. If Morsi was what democracy looked like, many Egyptians did not want it. Gallup polls trace this disillusionment.

    But the Egyptian military bears the other part of the blame for the failed transition. Ambitious officers such as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Morsi's Minister of Defense, were secretly determined to undo Morsi's victory at the polls. They said they wanted him to compromise with his political rivals, but it seems to me they wanted more, they wanted him neutered. When the revolutionary youth and the workers and even many peasants staged the June 30 demonstrations, al-Sisi took advantage of them to stage a coup. Ominously, he then asked for public acclamation to permit him to wage a war on terror, by which he means the Brotherhood. I tweeted at the time: "Dear General al-Sisi: when activists call for demonstrations, that is activism. When generals do, that is Peronism."

    There's a lesson here for us--and the lesson is more than "How could the United States have prevented this?" About a year and half ago I debated with my colleague Jim Fallows about the fate of American democracy. Jim argued that American democracy has to be more than the naked pursuit of interest--that using every legalism at your disposal to make sure your side, in the short-term, wins is ultimately suicidal. I countered that in America it always has been about pursuing your own short-term interests. I'm less sure about that now.

    When I was a child, West Baltimore ran on a democratic pact. We used to play basketball. But we had no refs. If you got fouled you yelled "Ball," and the other team respected that. Or sometimes they didn't and you argued about it. But the ideal of calling your own fouls was generally respected--even as it relied on each team sacrificing the short-term interest. If we had started calling Ball every time we went to the hoop, or if we had decided to not respect any such calls, the entire game would have collapsed--and then West Baltimore would have collapsed taking that particular form of democracy which governs the ghettoes and gyms of America along with it.

    Please forgive that America-centric highjack. I don't want it to bind the conversation below. On the contrary, as always, I'm depending on The Horde to bring more links, and more information about Egypt. My hope is that the commenter who wrote this a few months back (@jshilad is the handle) will return.

  • 'I'm Dressed in All Black, This Is Not for the Fans of Elvis ...'

    Kendrick Lamar's latest is proof that he deserves comparisons to some influential rappers who have preceded him.

    I need a second to absorb this verse, but Kendrick Lamar on this Big Sean, Jay-Electronica joint is basically insane (if unquotable within the august walls of The Atlantic).

    The thing about this cat is he has lyrics and flows. That sounds like the most cliché praise ever. But frankly, I can think of about five MCs who repeatedly adjusted themselves to the track and also brought poetics to bear. I am not talking about Kendrick as compared to his peers, but Kendrick compared to, like, every rapper I've ever heard. This is like Xzibit meets Busta meets Cube meets Nas. This dude is king right now. 

    Jay did his thing too, but I'm ready to hear that full-length joint.

  • A Parisian Interlude

    In these Paris dispatches, I have tried to explain what the long and slow acquisition of French (still ongoing) has meant to me. I've also talked about what language study could potentially mean to young folks who grew up, as I did, in a community where multilingualism is not an explicit goal. In pursuing multilingualism with my wife and son, one thing I've been noticed is that there is money out there for kids to learn foreign languages--Arabic in particular seems to attract a lot of funding. 

    If you are a parent and are interested in any sort of language immersion--or any other opportunities regarding language--please send me an e-mail. I'll give you all the leads I have, and more as they come in. My address is my first initial attached my last name; the domain is the magazine I work for.

    When we come up in spaces of limited opportunity there are things we can't see. More than that, even when we see these things we often perceive them as being beyond our budget. But our perception is not always the reality. There are opportunities out there. If any parent is any way inspired to take this path with their child, I will gladly do all I can to help. Drop me a line. 

  • Preface to a 30-Volume Love Note

    The Atlantic In Paris: Dispatch #12

    When I was a boy--not older than two--my mother and father left me with my grandmother and drove to Oklahoma. My father is a resurrector. His business, if you may call it such a thing, is scouring the histories for books about people of African descent that have fallen out of print and bringing them back. These were the early days of his trade, his sixth son and his soon to be second marriage. He was rugged. His beard was untamed. His Afro was pathetic. His resume was reckless--military police, canine handler, Vietnam vet, fallen Black Panther lately dubbed "Enemy of the People," advocate for political prisoners, uncompromising autodidact.

    My grandmother regarded him with all the skepticism of a Christian woman who'd raised three daughters in the projects and sent them to college. She had not scrubbed white people's floors so that her youngest daughter could be swept away by a Fanon-quoting, George Jackson-loving, no-pedigree-having hustler.

    But my father, whatever he looked like on paper, was right as a Swiss clock. He had an essential goodness that cut through bullshit. Even now I call him with issues of conflicted morality. From those conversations I usually come to understand that I am basically wishing for things to be more complicated than they are. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. And these things exist and should not be conflated under a false flag.

    My parents drove to Oklahoma in a broke-up Volkswagen. At one point they ran out of money and had nowhere to stay. They were planning to sleep in the car, when they ran into a black man and struck up a conversation. Five minutes in the man looked my parents over and said, "You're coming home with me." My folks enjoyed dinner with the man and his wife. They also got a warm bed. In the morning they pushed on, and through some wild act of God made it back to Baltimore. This was the mid-70s, not so far from a time when black folks--most of whom have Southern roots--were a kind of broad family. Talk to your people long enough (or read "The Warmth of Other Suns") and you come across a story like this--one where black people are dependent on the kindness of strangers who really aren't.

    I think about that story when I have enjoyed my share of Frankish hospitality--people inviting me to meet their mothers, share long walks, or debate the particularities of Belgian identity. I spent yesterday at a cottage out near Fontainebleau. The market was incredible. I tasted cheese from a woman's hand. The palace was garish ("barbaric" a friend of mine called it) and clarified why a nation might murder its kings. But I was there as a guest. I was there on someone else's time. I had never done anything like this.

    I was standing by a gate when a couple came past looking for directions in French. The man was white. The woman was black. They wanted to get to the river. There was nothing assumed about them. They looked like people. "The thing here," an African-American friend of mine said, "is that black people are never surprised to see us." We don't get the patented head-nod from the black Parisians. At first I was injured. But then I remember what the head-nod is black-speak for: "If a Klan rally breaks out, I have your back." Then I wasn't injured. I was sad. Make of this what you can. I am a particular person, laying my head in a particular place, at a particular time. What you see here is one dude's experience. An anecdote is not a country. This is memoir. It will never be history.

    The other day I was in the Latin Quarter. I was at a bar with a man I'd known less than a week. He ordered a bottle of red wine. The wine fell into the glass thick as the water at Gunpowder Beach. I lifted the red lagoon to my lips. It was low and sweet. Mon ami ordered a plate of meat and cheese. (Don't make me say the word.) I was in full black nationalist apostasy. I was so far from tofu, millet and Morning Star that I should have been under some sort of black hippie Fatwah. If 15-year-old me, rocking the phat Africa medallion, rocking thick beads, rocking the Bob Marley Uprising tee-shirt and quoting "Ballot or the Bullet" like the latest Rakim, if that dude could see me now, why he'd pour out libations for my lost and devil-damned soul. 

    I had met mon ami at a language exchange. You talk to people for 15 minutes each--half in English half and French, and then you switch. If you like each other, you're free to continue the exchanging on your own. He said, "Tu connais, Edith Wharton?" and I was done. We drank and ate together. I was helpless. He would speak to the waiter and I may have understood every 50th word. I kept thinking, "If I wanted to come back here, if I wanted to bring my wife, I couldn't. I don't know the language. I don't know the culture. I don't know anything." It is the helplessness that hurts, the helplessness before something that haunts you at night. That was the hurt that sent my father into business. That we would leave our history injured him, and he has not recovered to this day. 

    I think of my homeboy D.J. Renegade who gave me more education on poetry than anyone's MFA. We used to sit in the Border's in Washington, down on 20th and L, going through Robert Hayden or Amiri Baraka. I read this:

    And now, each night I count the stars.
    And each night I get the same number.
    And when they will not come to be counted
    I count the holes they leave.

    And it was over. Every time he brought me before a great poem I was injured, because I knew that I would never say anything that beautiful. Yusef Komunyakaa has this line--"her red dress turns the corner\like blood in a man's eye." I read that when I was 19, and thought "If this is writing, then I will just go ahead and hang myself right now." I was injured because this was one less beautiful thing in the world waiting to be written, and even though I knew there were many others, I would never get to write them.

    I used to leave my sessions with Renegade despairing, angry, raging inside. And I get that same feeling here. Dans la rue and everyone is speaking French--like it's normal. But it is not normal. It is a whole race of people dancing down a sun-touched street, while I am stuck in the mud and rain. And I want to dance. And it is wrong that anyone else should have the right to dance save at my pleasure. Dans la rue and I am nursing that same old rage. It has been 20 years. A dude orders a café and I want to strangle the words in his stupid throat. And steal them.

    That evening, at the wine bar, me and my mens and them talked about identity. Every conversation here comes around to that. He claimed there was no patriotism in France. No, I told him. A country that legislates the preparation of bread and corrects grammar in the street has patriotism and more. Get out of your vocabulary class, he said. The French know nothing about teaching language. See the city.

    He paid the bill. We walked out from the Latin Quarter over to the island, past Notre Dame. We were walking opposite from where I needed to go. He seemed in a hurry to show me something. Perhaps this was end of the elaborate con. Maybe this was where his boys jumped out and took all my Euros. I looked around. There was no black people to give the to head-nod to. Damn. And then I realized if it was going to go down, it probably would not be on Île de la Cité, not with the sun still out at least. We walked for a few more minutes and then I saw where he was finally taking me--the entrance to Saint Chapelle. It was built in the 13th century. He left. I stood there gawking for a good 15 minutes, wondering why I didn't stay in school and go for the doc in French history.

    I don't really get down back home. I don't go out much. I have all the friends I need. My life is my health, my family, and my writing. C'est tout. I don't think I've ever sat with anyone like that, someone who I barely knew, over a bottle of wine. The whole world has its hand in my pocket. 

    But Kenyatta says I am different here--that I am more open. I don't know. I've run into a shocking amount of hospitality here from people who have no idea who I am. They don't know what the Atlantic is. They might be vaguely aware of MIT. Perhaps its that I am American. Nothing has shocked me more than how fascinated people are with us in general, and New York in particular. It opens doors and breeds invitations. I believe some of it is them. They move slower. They take more time. Like people do back in my ancestral home. I expected to find a lot of things coming to Paris. I did not expect to find the South.
  • Ending Michael Bloomberg's Racist Profiling Campaign

    A federal judge has ruled against the city and its racist application of Stop and Frisk. Here is the excellent news:

    In a decision issued on Monday, the judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, ruled that police officers have for years been systematically stopping innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. Officers often frisked these people, usually young minority men, for weapons or searched their pockets for contraband, like drugs, before letting them go, according to the 195-page decision.

    These stop-and-frisk episodes, which soared in number over the last decade as crime continued to decline, demonstrated a widespread disregard for the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, according to the ruling. It also found violations with the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

    Judge Scheindlin found that the city "adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling by targeting racially defined groups for stops based on local crime suspect data." She rejected the city's arguments that more stops happened in minority neighborhoods solely because those happened to have high-crime rates.

    I'm still wending my way through the opinion but this portion is very, very important:

    Based on the expert testimony I find the following:

    (1) The NYPD carries out more stops where there are more black and Hispanic residents, even when other relevant variables are held constant. The racial composition of a precinct or census tract predicts the stop rate above and beyond the crime rate.p> (2) Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be stopped within precincts and census tracts, even after controlling for other relevant variables. This is so even in areas with low crime rates, racially heterogenous populations, or predominately white populations.

    (3) For the period 2004 through 2009, when any law enforcement action was taken following a stop, blacks were 30% more likely to be arrested (as opposed to receiving a summons) than whites, for the same suspected crime.

    (4) For the period 2004 through 2009, after controlling for suspected crime and precinct characteristics, blacks who were stopped were about 14% more likely -- and Hispanics 9% more likely -- than whites to be subjected to the use of force.

    (5) For the period 2004 through 2009, all else being equal, the odds of a stop resulting in any further enforcement action were 8% lower if the person stopped was black than if the person stopped was white. In addition, the greater the black population in a precinct, the less likely that a stop would result in a sanction. Together, these results show that blacks are likely targeted for stops based on a lesser degree of objectively founded suspicion than whites

    As I've noted before, Ray Kelly and Michael Bloomberg justify the number of stops by arguing that black and Latino men commit the majority of violent crime. This position intentionally ignores the data which shows, even after controlling for crime rates, the NYPD still discriminates. It's very important that people interested in this case understand that. And as always, anyone who is interested in the case really needs to listen to This American Life's reporting on Officer Adrian Schoolcraft.

    Expect the city to appeal.
  • I Will Jump That Paywall and Fight Every Blogger Here, Bro

    Here are a few things I haven't had the chance to blog about but are worth checking out.

    --Emily Nussbaum on why Sex In The City gets such short shrift in the writing about this new age of great television. I think it's really important to consider the entire argument, but it's very hard for me to get past Nussbaum's conclusion that "endings matter" and in the end:

    And then, in the final round, "Sex and the City" pulled its punches, and let Big rescue Carrie. It honored the wishes of its heroine, and at least half of the audience, and it gave us a very memorable dress, too. But it also showed a failure of nerve, an inability of the writers to imagine, or to trust themselves to portray, any other kind of ending--happy or not. And I can't help but wonder: What would the show look like without that finale?

    I don't think this point takes away from the sexism critique, either. The Wire's fifth season was, by far, its weakest.

    --The great Rebecca Scott on slavery in France. Maintenant. (En français.) I've long resisted comparisons between the slave society of the antebellum America with modern slavery, because I feel that people who do this are often looking to traffic in the moral capitol of that past, as opposed to illuminating the present. But Rebecca is a serious historian who knows both episodes. I'm slowly wending my way through this piece.

    --Eagles wide-receiver Riley Cooper was caught on tape threatening violence against a black security guard who didn't allow him backstage at a Kenny Chesney concert. Cooper's words were objectionable ("I will jump that fence and fight every nigger here, bro.") But his words on returning to camp are some of the best I've seen from someone whose done or said something racist:

    "I told them, 'I don't want you to forgive me, because that puts the burden on you, and I want it all on me,'" Cooper said.

    This is really really important. A few years ago we had a discussion here about atonement, forgiveness and white guilt. My argument was that white guilt is a destructive force, and seeking "forgiveness" isn't much better. As Cooper says it puts a moral burden on the injured party; the injured having already lost his dignity at the hands of the aggressor, is asked to give one more thing. I'd argue it's better to seek forgiveness of oneself, to learn from one's own wrongs. An apology made in hopes of getting something is already compromised. (Witness the era of "if I offended you.") 

    --Robert Sampson's book The Great American City is really, really important for our conversation here around the challenge of color-blind policy and the long shadow of segregation:

    Neighborhood social disadvantage has durable properties and tends to repeat itself, and because of racial segregation is most pronounced in the black community. I would add a related implication or subthesis: black children are singularly exposed to the cumulative effects of structural disadvantage in ways that reinforce the cycle.

    The data thus confirm that neighborhoods that are both black and poor, and that are characterized by high unemployment and female-headed families, are ecologically distinct, a characteristic that is not simply the same thing as low economic status. In this pattern Chicago is not alone.

    To probe the implications of this point in a different but more concrete way, I calculated the per capita income in the year 2000 in black compared to white neighborhoods in Chicago (defined here as census tracts with 75 percent or more of each group). The result was that not one white community experiences what is most typical for those residing in segregated black areas with respect to the basics of income--the entire distribution for white communities (mean = $42,508) sits to the right of the mean per capita income of black communities. Trying to estimate the effect of concentrated disadvantage on whites is thus tantamount to estimating a phantom reality.

    This is going by income, not wealth which would likely make matters look a good deal worse. At any rate Sampson is observing something similar to what both Patrick Sharkey and John Logan have observed--that the black community because of segregation is singular. One to one correlations, talk of a "white working class" and a "black working class," or a "white elite" and a "black elite," even controls for income, are myopic. There is a great challenge here for traditional "lift all boats" liberal thinking--black America is not merely a community with a disproportionately large impoverished class, but a class onto itself.

    This is not surprising. Creating a separate class was precisely the intent of roughly 300 years of white supremacist policy (commencing with Virginia's slave codes.) The expectation that this could all be wiped away with 50 years of good feelings was magical thinking. The domestic policy of this country in its pre-history, and most of its actual history was the creation of a peon class, denominated by melanin. The policy has been wildly successful.

    --Kevin Hart licking shots at Skip Bayless and Stephen A is hilarious.

    --Le complément d'objet direct. Le complément d'objet indirect. Oh Mon Dieu. Aidez-moi.

    --I don't know much about teaching foreign language. But if I were king for a day, I would mandate that the first week or two go to drilling the IPA system into heads of schoolchildren. Especially for French. /aʒute/ for "Ajouter" makes the world an easier place.

    --I've been going through recent back-issues of the X-Men titles. Second Coming is how crossovers should be done. I thought this when I first read the series, but had it confirmed when I went back over it. That story is what the X-Men are all about. (The scene with Xavier and Legion is just lovely.) Unfortunately the rest of the "Cyclops as Malcolm X" era is more hit and miss. There's a beautiful panel with the Hulk and Captain America in AvX ("Yes. Hulk will smash for you.") But I'm not really feeling the X-Men of the "past" now living in the "present." There's a lot going on. I wish Marvel would just settle down for a moment and let the stories breath. Also. Less Storm is always a bad sign.

  • Primo Levi's Old Negro Spiritual

    As I mentioned, I've been reading Primo Levi's If This Is A Man. I finished last week, but I feel like I need to reread the entire book (which I'm doing) before I give a serious considered response. It's easily my favorite memoir this side of The Life And Times of Frederick Douglass, but there's more to be said.

    I'll also say that I wasn't really prepared for the ways in which Levi unwittingly evokes the black experience in America. I don't mean this in the sort of cheap way you see The Holocaust deployed as a trump card ( "the black Holocaust") in the Olympics suffering. I mean this in the sense that Levi is writing about genocide, and slavery. There's a gripping chapter where Levi describes the camp awaiting the selections--which is to say the time when certain Jews will be taken out and killed. Reading it, I found myself thinking of my ancestors and how they waited, in the run-up to the fantastic end to American slavery, to see who would be selected and sold into the oblivion of Mississippi.

    Here is a passage that wrecked my world:

    But where we are going we do not know. Will we perhaps be able to survive the illnesses and escape the selections, perhaps even resist the work and hunger which wear us out but then, afterwards? Here, momentarily far away from the curses and the blows, we can re-enter into ourselves and meditate, and then it becomes clear that we will not return. We travelled here in the sealed wagons; we saw our women and our children leave towards nothingness; we, transformed into slaves, have marched a hundred times backwards and forwards to our silent labours, killed in our spirit long before our anonymous death. No one must leave here and so carry to the world, together with the sign impressed on his skin, the evil tidings of what man's presumption made of man in Auschwitz.

    That is an old Negro spiritual. That is the Middle Passage. That is how I see my African ancestors here in America, suddenly aware that they will never go back, that they are dead to everyone they have known and loved.

    I've said before that I never really understood why so much ink was spilled over the relationship between black people and Jews. Jews were white people in my eyes, perhaps white people of another tribe, but white people nonetheless. And yet it was clear to me that some black people -- activists and academics -- really saw Jews as "different," and also that many Jews saw themselves as "different." My readings over the past year have begun to bring home why. As well as my travels. There's something illuminating about living in a place with other foundational myths, and other foundational evils.

  • Trayvon Martin's America

    Talking in France about race and the United States. The Atlantic in Paris Dispatch #11

    A week after I arrived here, I gave a talk at the American Library in Paris. The talk was supposed to be about my book, The Beautiful Struggle. But the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial came down earlier that week. I decided instead to say a few words about the long historical process that led to Martin's death. For those of you who regularly read this blog, a lot of this will be familiar. For the talk I pulled from the growing notebook that is this space.

    I want to thank the American Library in Paris for hosting me, and thank all the ex-pats (they are legion) who came out to listen. It is shocking how many people around the world are watching us. Around the city here, everyone knew about the case.

  • English Is a Dialect With an Army

    The Atlantic in Paris: Dispatch #10

    My class at Alliance Française is international. The students come from Italy, Spain, Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan, Portugal, Brazil, Venezuela, Germany, China, Australia and everywhere else. Virtually everyone here is learning their third language--and many are on their fourth. There was a young lady in my class a few weeks ago who spoke Spanish, Catalan and English. All I could think about was how 10 years ago I didn't even know what Catalan was, how I thought that all European countries were united in language. They are white so (unlike us) they must be united, n'est-ce pas?

    In his lectures, the historian John Merriman said that as late as 1789, only 50 percent of the people in France spoke "French." In the west along the Atlantic coast, it might have been Breton. In Normandy it might have been a patois. Further north it could have been Flemish. In Alsace or Lorraine, Merriman says you could have asked someone "What are you?" and they might reply "I am French"--in German. These are the sorts of things you miss when you can only picture Europe as a unified unerring mass of white folks. 

    I am the only person in the class who speaks only one language. I tell my friends there that I wish more people in America spoke two or three languages. They can't understand. They tell me English is the international language. Why would an American need to know anything else? Their pursuit of language is not abstract intellectualism. A command of English opens job opportunities. 

    I am getting some small notion of what it feels like to be white in America. What my classmates are telling me is that the Anglophone world is the international power. It dominates. Thus knowledge is tangibly necessary for them in a way that it is not for me. Of course the flip-side of this calculus is that power enables ignorance. Black people know this well. We live in a white world. We know the ways of white folks because a failure to master them is akin to the failure of my classmates to learn English. Your future dims a little. The good slave will always know the master in ways that the good master can never know the slave. 

    I think this is the seed of the "We don't have any white history month!" syndrome. Through conquest the ways of whiteness become the air. That is the whole point of conquest. But once those ways are apprehended by the conquered--as they must be--they are no longer the strict property of the conqueror. On the contrary you find the conquered mixing, cutting, folding, and flipping the ways of the conqueror into something that he barely recognizes and yet finds oddly compelling. And all the while the conquered still enjoys her own private home. She need not be amnesiac, only bilingual. The phrase "code-switching" is overdone, but there is no cultural code from which all white people can "switch" from. It's not even a code. It's just the world. 

    The historical upshot of this is that Frederick Douglass necessarily belongs to black people in a way that Benjamin Franklin can never belong to democratic-thinking white people. On similar terms Susan B. Anthony will always belong to women, in a way that Ralph Waldo Emerson can never belong to a democratic-thinking me. We see this in our vocabulary. It is the reason why my friends hear "I'll fight ever nigger here" one way when it comes out of my mouth, and another way coming out of Riley Cooper's. It is the reason why "bitch" sounds one way coming out Samantha Jones' mouth, and another way out of mine. Why "poor white trash" sounds one way coming out of Toby Keith's mouth, and another way out of mine. 

    Language without context is babbling. In the context of France, je suis américan. I am an aspect of the great power. There is no "nigger" for me, no private language, no private way of being all my own. And with that comes a great feeling of weakness and shame. I feel exposed. People tell jokes that I can't understand, and I am sure they are laughing at me. They are not. But it doesn't matter. 

    My friend Jelani Cobb talks about how the literature of slavemasters is filled with exasperation over their slaves laughing at invisible jokes. So from time to time you will see people come here and say, "Don't you ever write about something other than race?" I do. But that's beside the point. What they're really saying is, "Will you please stop speaking in a language which I must struggle to understand?" 

    I know the feeling. English dominates the world. Contrary to popular belief, it does not dominate Paris. The other day I was in our favorite épicerie. A family of Americans came in, enthralled and confused. They were marveling at the breads, at the spices, the wines, the champagnes and the prepared dishes behind the counter. At the same time it was not clear how the family was supposed to get service. Could they touch the breads? Could they reach in and grab a tart? The cases were open. What were the rituals here? The mother, a bit flummoxed walked over to a counter and said to a man working behind it. "DO YOU SPEAK ANY ENGLISH?"  

    I have talked to this man before. We always start in French and go to English if there's a problem. I know he speaks a little English. But he looked at this woman, shook his head, and went right back to work.

    The woman was being very rude, and I don't fault the man's response. But you must understand the impulse. You are the cultural conqueror. You wield the biggest guns. Somewhere in your home there is button which could erase civilization. And then you come to this place and find yourself disarmed. You see that it has its own culture, its own ages and venerable traditions, that the people do not tremble before you. And then you understand that there is not just intelligent life in outer space, but life so graceful that it shames you into silence. 

  • The Secret to Learning French

    You must sing. Specifically you must sing Claude François. I'd love to know this dude's dancing influences. Lots of Motown going on there. Whatever. This is a great song.  It's got me stumbling around Rue Oberkampf, yelling "C'était l'année! Soixante deux!"

  • 'There Are No Fat People in Paris'

    The Atlantic in Paris: Dispatch #9

    Two Saturdays ago, I visited the venerable bookstore Shakespeare and Company. It was a hot day. The store was small and stifling. A woman walked around handing out watermelon. I picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution and Primo Levi's If This Is A Man. I went upstairs, sat in a room with view of the street and I think even the river. Two things happened while I sat there. First, I fell in love with Primo Levi, an unoriginal event which nevertheless deserves (and shall receive) elaboration. Second, I decided that this room was perfect. 

    Paris requires effort. There are stairs everywhere and the stairs are all but mandatory. In America the stairs are off to the side, and the elevator is prominent. Often, it's the reverse here -- the stairs are out front and often beautifully wrought. It almost feels sinful to take an elevator. There's a strong culture of pedestrianism. The streets belong to the people, and that encourages walking. On a normal day, I can end up walking for an hour or more. There's so much to see. And those who don't walk use the public bike share.

    There is almost no air conditioning -- not in the homes, not in the offices, not on 99 percent of the subway trains. The windows are actually open on the subways. There's no ice in the water or in any of the drinks and I don't ask for any. Travel isn't colonization. I think that discomfort is life unbound. But because of that discomfort, that constant sheen of sweat, finding a naturally cool place is a divine experience. That day when I stumbled into Shakespeare and Company's reading room, it was like stumbling into an undiscovered oasis, like finding lost treasure.

    Despite all the extra effort, I find that I consume less energy. I don't know that I eat any "healthier" in the sense of what "health" tends to mean back home. There are fat and carbs all around me. There's butter in most of the dishes. It's nothing see a Parisian walking the street while inhaling a long baguette. Bread is served with every meal, but oddly enough, without butter, which leads me to believe that they think of butter as something to be put in things, not on them. 

    I eat my fries with mayonnaise. I now find ketchup to be too sweet. Without exception I eat dessert -- preferably something with chocolate. I eat a panini or a sandwich every day, but I don't eat any chips. You can find junk-food here, but you have to be looking for it. I don't really order out. I've stopped drinking Diet Coke. In general I eat a lot less, and I drink a lot more -- a half a bottle of wine every night. But I don't think I've been drunk once since I've been here. I feel a lot better--more energy, lighter on my feet, a clearer head.

    Before I came here, so many people told me, "There are no fat people in Paris." But I think this misses something more telling. There are "no" stunningly athletic people either. There just doesn't seem to be much gusto for spending two hours in the gym here. The people don't seem very prone to our extremes. And they are not, to my eyes, particularly thin. They look like how I remember people looking in 1983. I suspect they look this way because of some things that strike me -- the constant movement, the diet, the natural discomfort -- are part of their culture.

    I don't know how much of this I can take back home with me. My sense is that I am reacting to my context. I am conflicted about all of this. In many ways, America feels like a much "freer" place. There's more choice, and a strong desire to deliver that choice at the lowest cost possible. There's no sense in France that "the customer is always right." This city is very old -- Pont Neuf is older than America itself. The Merovingian Clovis who reigned 1500 years ago is buried just outside the city. My home of New York is one of the oldest cities in America, but by the ancient standards of Paris, it is still a baby.

    With that age comes a great dose of tradition, and a sense of the conservative. Things are done at a certain way. You don't just roll up on someone and say "Excusez-moi..." and then proceed into your query. You had better start with a "Bonjour" or a "Bonsoir."  The specifics of their language means much more to them then it means to us. I think actually all of this suits me better. I love old things, and I loved old Europe before I ever bore witness. I wanted to study Charlemagne in high school. I didn't really know how. And I am terrorized by choice back home--by the take-out menus, the calorie counts, the organic, the local, the low-fat. By the end of the day, my brain is mush. I can't regulate.

    We talk about culture as a way of establishing hierarchies -- as though a hammer could, somehow, be innately better than a hacksaw. I believe that cultures take shape for actual reasons, responding to real environments. If Americans love choice, if we love our air-conditioning, and our ice, if we love our comforts, and our elevators, the question should not be, "How do we change?" for that too is a kind of colonization. Better to ask "Why do we love those things? How do they profit us? What we do we stand to lose should we abandon them?" 

    I love the tradition of low architecture here. But I also wonder how that tradition affects the cost of living for actual people. And so this is the other thing about culture. It tends to be an interlocking network, a machine of related gears, pulleys and levers. The thing you find so valuable may well be related to something else which you find utterly objectionable. I suspect that the instinct toward ensuring an abundance of fresh, high-quality food is not so distant from the instinct to ban the hijab burka.

    There is surely some knowledge to be taken back home. But in thinking about myself and my country, and "cultural" change, I find that I am more reformist than revolutionary. We are who we are. Our unchanging acre is forever our own.

    More »

  • Anthony Weiner and Liberal Morality

    The New York mayoral candidate's two big failures: terrible political sense and a lack of compassion

    Andrew Sullivan offers a defense of Anthony Weiner, who has recently been shown to have continued his online affairs even after he resigned from Congress:

    No one outside a marriage can fully know what's in it, or what makes it work. For my part, I favor maximal privacy for all married couples in navigating the shoals of sex and life online and off. Monogamous, monogamish, and open relationships are all up to the couples themselves and all have risks and advantages. But ultimately it is up to the spouse to decide if there has been a transgression or not, and whether to forgive and move forward or not. The truly awful spectacle yesterday was seeing Huma Abedin being forced to undergo another public humiliation as the price for her husband's public career. But she clearly stated she was not abandoning her husband. And for me, as for us, that should close the matter.

    And let's be clear, there is no victim here. A flirty, horny 22-year-old who talks a great sex game is not a victim. She's a player - and good for her. This nonsense about her being "immature" and Weiner being "predatory" is belied by the facts. She knew he was married when she sexted him and he returned the favors. The only salient question is whether, having lied in the first place about sexting, Weiner was caught deceiving the public again by claiming he had stopped sexting and re-built his marriage, while the compulsion was clearly not over. That's a question of public trust, and there's little doubt that Weiner has squandered it. On the question of lying, the NYT's harrumph this morning is a valid one. Once a politician has deceived people, he gets a second chance. When he deceives them a second time on the same issue, he loses whatever public trust he might have hoped for.

    But I see no reason why that trust should not be tested where it should be: at the ballot box. Weiner should not, er, withdraw prematurely. He should do us all a favor, if his wife agrees, and plow on until we can all smoke a collective cigarette. In this new Internet Age someone has to be the person who makes sexting not an excludable characteristic for public office. If it becomes one, then the range of representatives we can choose from in the future and present will be very, very different in experience and background than the people they are supposed to represent.

    There's a lot here that I agree with, but I don't get many opportunities to get to the right of Andrew. In all seriousness, I think there are two separate issues. The first is the idea that there is something wrong with online sex. We can dispatch that fairly easily: There isn't. The second is that the mere act of infidelity makes you unfit for public office. I don't think there's much ground for that argument either.

    But the problem that I suspect a lot of people have with Anthony Weiner is not that he had an affair, but that he does not seem particularly good at the job of politics. Part of being good at politics is being good at pitching your arguments. Part of pitching your arguments is your public image. We know this. Those of us who are partisans do not examine "favorable and unfavorable" ratings in our polls simply for amusement. We examine them to see who might make the best pitch for the policies we endorse. The actual reasons why some people are viewed favorably and others are not may not always strike us as intelligent. But they are real. Politicians know this and thus guard their image accordingly.

    Anthony Weiner is a politician who relished antagonizing the opposition. His appeal was singular and tribal -- in an age of seemingly vacillating, gun-shy Democrats, Weiner took on whoever may come. You never once got the feeling that he was ashamed to be a liberal. He must have known that this made him a target for conservative activists. A wise man in Weiner's position would be watchful. But Weiner is not a wise man. It is not his desire to get off that offends, it is the thick-wittedness of sending nude selfies on Twitter. It is the incomprehensible silliness of handing your opponents a gun and saying, "Please shoot me." Repeatedly. It is wholly sensible that those of us who believe the liberal project is about more than embarrassing Republicans would not want Anthony Weiner as a pitchman.

    There is something else at work here also -- a lack of compassion. Here is where I differ with many of my liberal and libertarian friends. I believe that how you treat people matters. It is folly to embarrass your pregnant wife before an entire nation. To do the same thing again is cruelty. And there is the promise of more to come. One argument holds that what happens between Weiner and his wife is between them. I agree with this argument. But cruelty is not abolished by the phrase "consenting adults." And the fact that the immoral is not, and should not be, illegal does not make morality meaningless. Huma Abedin has one choice. We have another. The choice should be made by voters -- there should be no sense that if not for the powerful editorial pages Weiner would have won. As a city we deserve to see who we are, and what we actually care about.

    I don't think it is wrong to care about how people treat each others, which is another way of saying I believe that morality is important. I find the argument for same-sex marriage compelling not in spite of morality, but because of it. I think public office is an honored, and honorable, position. I do not think it is wrong to ask that our officers be compassionate. I do not believe it is wrong to ask that our officers be wise. I do not believe that it is the fate of all men to send dick pics hurtling through cyberspace. And I do not believe that Anthony Weiner is the best we can expect from maledom, to say nothing of New York liberals.


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