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.

  • Some Interesting Advice

    Just got this note over the intertubes-maily doodad:

    Dear TNC,

    I meant to write this a while back so it's not as topical now, but I just wanted to offer you a very quick piece of advice. You have a beautiful (writing) voice and and interesting mind; don't get dragged in every time somebody writes you saying, "some hick say XYZ about black people, please respond." Your commentary on race issues is, of course, interesting and always well thought out. But some of the shit you respond to deserves neither your attention nor that of your readers. Just my two cents.

    This is always such a tough one, and I highlight this note because it mirrors some things I've been turning over in my head. A solid half of my e-mail consists of links from my readers cataloging the dumb shit people say about black people--often by "serious" people. Do you respond? Or do you ignore?

    First, the groundwork. I think that many people (I won't say most) who make money doing opinion journalism aren't very curious. Their interest isn't in expanding their view of the world, or refining their analysis. Their interested in scoring points, and the only relevant information is the kind that helps them score more points. It's understandable--nuance won't get you on Hannity, or turn you into Keith Olbermann for that matter. You get paid to score points, and rev up your side.

    This is a temptation of the trade--and it's one I struggle with mightily. I try not to take TV and radio gigs if I don't know what I'm talking about. I try not to blog too much about areas where my understanding is thin. But I get caught out there sometimes. And I'm sure some missive I've authored, at some point, has been sent to some other blogger as an example of liberal "dumb shit."

    Second, the perils of race-related opinion-journalism--particularly the sort that features no original reporting--are compounded by the demographics of this country.  Black people are the most segregated minority in America.  The people who interpret black people for the world are, in the main, white, and thus not likely to have spent much time in the company of their charges.

    More than that, even if you're black, the nature of race in America is so complicated and so twisting, that being black isn't really enough. Writing about race requires walking and chewing gum, and yet often it's left in the hands of people who aren't particularly interested in either--be they black or white.

    And then there's one final problem--people aren't convinced that black people are human. That's a pretty blanket accusation, but I think it bears out pretty well. I think it explains why the pathologies of poverty are so easily transformed into pathologies of blackness. I think it's why people actually believed that a handsome, Ivy-educated lawyer from the South Side of Chicago, whose married to a black woman, wouldn't be "black enough" for African-Americans. I think it's why people think Bill Cosby is saying something that's never heard in black communities. I think it explains why George Will believes that a guy who wrote a book subtitled "Why We Are Excited By Obama And Why He Can't Win," is nonetheless "America's foremost black intellectual."


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  • Obama Just Like Bush

    If you're gay and in the military:

    Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and officer in the Army National Guard who is fluent in Arabic and who returned recently from Iraq, received notice today that the military is about to fire him. Why? Because he came out of the closet as a gay man on national television.

    Ignorance begets ignorance. Ignorance of homosexuality will now make us more ignorant about the Arab world.

    Meanwhile, as Matt points out, repealing DADT won't ever be convenient. There won't be any politically expedient about it. It's the sort of move you may well lose some votes over. At some point, Obama is going to have to honor liberal tradition, swallow hard, and throw the long ball. It's not suppose to be easy to do the right thing. That's why so many don't do it.

  • Rosen-Gate Wrapup

    It's worth reading Reihan's response here. I think he thinks he went a little too hard. He offers a worthwhile explanation why. And here's Darren Hutchinson, who offered some of the more substantive critique of Rosen's legal reading. Lastly, we have Glenn one more time. In the words of Method Man, flying guillotines here they come.

    As for me, don't expect me to push this much further. I've said my piece, and stand by it. It's there for all to read. I'm not in this for blood. At least not most of the time.

    Also, one quick note on something Reihan offered:

    On the humility point, I have to say: I don't think humility is, as TNC suggests, a floor at all. Given the extremely high levels of self-satisfaction I encounter in the universe of opinion journalism all the time, I actually think humility is pretty rare. But that's an honest disagreement.

    Well, not really. Reihan is obviously right. Humility is pretty rare--in the practical observable sense. I guess I meant in a more abstract sense, as in, "humility is the floor for anyone I'd want to read." In the context of opinion journalism, I guess it makes a certain sense to give writers credit for humility. But that's a kind of sick statement on opinion journalism. Perhaps the old "I take care of my kids!" black male battle-cry is a better analogy.

  • What Are You On, Crack?

    Jon Stewart airs Marion Barry out. Two things struck me about that video. The utter and complete hatred in the eyes of "community leaders" protesting the council's vote. It's like that Nietzsche quote about battling monsters. Second, the spectacle of a dude who put a city at risk so he could get high and get some ass, railing against the immortality of gay marriage.

    These are last days of a certain type of black leader who glories in crowds, placards, sanctimony and indignation. They're getting their kicks in while they can. Nothing else awaits.

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  • The Gay Marriage Debate, Live From D.C.

    A reader sent this note to me. It offers a portrait of the sort dialogue that's going unreported in the city:

    I was at a meeting of the Ward 4 Dem's last night in Washington, D.C., where residents had a passionate but respectful conversation about marriage equality (with both sides voicing their views) and two of DC's Council Members (Ward 4's Councilmember Muriel Bowser and at-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson) discussing their votes, before the room passed a resolution advocating support for FULL marriage quality (not just the "out-of-state" provision passed this week) by a vote of 36 to 6.

    Ward 4 is one of the most diverse wards in the city, and it is very representative demographically (racially, ethnically and socio-economically) of the city as a whole. I think that the tenor of the room last night suggests that the apocalyptic threats of Councilmember Barry and his cadre of suburban Maryland ministers may be exaggerated. (After living in D.C. for more than 20 years, I have seen the many faces of Marion Barry, so nothing he does really is surprising.) Even if he thinks that he is representing the views of the voters of Ward 8 (who I will concede generally are different from those in other wards in the city), I think that Council Member Barry is getting it wrong. 

    I will agree with other writers to your BLOG that D.C. is in many ways a Southern city, and its politics are impacted by the fact that it remains a majority-African American city. But D.C. residents are some of the most politically educated and progressive in the United States. Certainly we saw last night that Barry does NOT speak for African Americans city-wide. Councilmember Bowser succinctly and eloquently described her support of marriage equality is a simple matter of justice. And Ward 4 Dem Chairperson Deborah Royster shared a rather poignant story from her childhood about her family being refused lodging in a Virginia hotel because of racial segregation, saying that that experience of discrimination was etched into her memory and that she cannot stand by and condone other forms of discrimination.

    I am more optimistic than I was prior to meeting with my Ward 4 neighbors. I think - with some good grassroots outreach throughout the city - we can win this fight, even in Barry's backyard. The question is whether outside forces will allow DC residents to have this dialogue without their interference. I am less optimistic about that.

    That last sentence is key. The history of bigots meddling in D.C.'s affairs is extensive and stretches back nearly 100 years. Then it was white supremacy. Now it's anti-gay bigotry. Anyone interested in reading up on the story of how Southern racists lorded over D.C. for years should check out Dream City by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood. It's indispensable to understanding why a city would re-elect a man caught on tape smoking crack.

  • Rosen Responds

    Read it here. I think it backs off some of the more problematic aspects of the piece. I understand the issue with headlines--it's happened to me. But the fact is, you're still responsible. "My editor did it" doesn't work. Still, his response is reflective and he avoids getting defensive. I can't always say as much of myself.

  • Some Great Points Over At Obsidian Wings

    Take it away Publius:

    In the 1960s, both parties were in flux.  The Democrats had traditionally been the racist party, while the Republicans had been far supportive of civil rights.  But then both parties made a fateful choice.  The Democratic Party - and its base - decided to support and fight for civil rights.  It also made a lasting, long-term commitment to equality, and has actively embraced and promoted diversity for the past 40 years.

    The Republican Party - institutionally, that is - went a different way.  They adopted the Southern Strategy.  They demagogued welfare queens.  More generally, the party was institutionally hostile to laws and regulations and practices intended to correct centuries of state-sanctioned discrimination.  To people like John Roberts, the world apparently began anew in 1964. 

    For years, the Republicans benefited from this choice.  Nixon won.  Reagan won.  The South shifted to the GOP, giving it nearly 12 years of Congressonal control.  Times were good.

    But the checks are now coming due.  The Democrats are beginning to see the benefits of the choices they made in the 1960s - the choices they remained firmly committed to over the years.  Demographically, the country is getting less white.  Individually, the most promising young African-American candidates and officials (people like Obama, Artur Davis, and Deval Patrick) are all firmly within the Democratic Party.  Indeed, an entire generation of African-Americans have come of political age knowing nothing but hostility from Republicans and loyalty from Democrats.

    Admittedly, Obama is an once-in-a-generation political talent.  And I'm not taking anything away from him.  But his rise must be seen in the larger context of the institutional commitment that the United States (and the Democratic Party specifically) made to diversity.

    Some of my commenters will, rightfully, point out that the Dems civil rights roots go back even further than the 60s. But I think Publius's point holds up. LBJ was playing long ball--even if he didn't know it.

    Anyway, most of the post is about Jeff Sessions, a man about  whom I have nothing enlightening to say about. I don't know why, I just don't. I'm unsurprised by his past. I'm unsurprised that he's been a GOP senator for some time. Thus I'm unsurprised by his elevation. Again, as with Marion Barry yesterday, "GOP Senator Old Comments On Race Cause Controversy" doesn't scream headline. At least not for me.

    This is your party of Reagan, with the Gipper's smile fallen away. This is your party of States' Rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In the words of Bill Parcells, You are what your record says you are. I don't what else there is to say.

  • Why My Days Of Arguing Are Numbered

    I stand by what I said about the Ricci case. I think there's a horrid history of discrimination in the firefighting ranks. I also think that the city of New Haven's means of addressing that history was hamfisted, ill-thought and will ultimately retard the fight to remedy the wounds of history.

    But it's sobering to wind up on the same side as Pat Buchanan, who thinks that the Ricci case is the equivalent of Jim Crow. For a reminder of who Pat Buchanan is, here is his racist assessment of black America:

    First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.

    Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the '60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream.

    Governments, businesses and colleges have engaged in discrimination against white folks -- with affirmative action, contract set-asides and quotas -- to advance black applicants over white applicants.

    Churches, foundations, civic groups, schools and individuals all over America have donated time and money to support soup kitchens, adult education, day care, retirement and nursing homes for blacks.

    We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?

    I always found this quote interesting because it originates from the same racist thinking that Byron York employed last week--that black people don't actually count. In this instance, the idea isn't about polling, it's about taxes. By Buchanan's lights, black people do not exist as tax-payers, but as social sponges. And the converse is true--no white people use government services, they simply pay taxes that are transferred to blacks

    But Buchanan's not a racist. Or an antisemite.

    Andrew had this great quote from Orwell last week:

    The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.

    I think Buchanan's opinion on Ricci comes out of his own quasi-white nationalist impulses. He's one of a legion of people beating the drum on this case, who aren't so much concerned with discrimination--as they are concerned about discrimination against people like them.

    The dishonesty of it all is bracing. I don't believe in argument for sport, and so I'm somewhat ill-equipped. Still, it's times like these when you wonder whether argument has any real point.

    UPDATE: Edited this post for a few embarrassing errors. Among them, Pat Buchanan as a black nationalist.

  • Sympathetic Interpretations

    I think Reihan is extending an undue helping of generosity here:

    Jeff Rosen has been raked over the coals for his not-positive assessment of Sonia Sotomayor. What I find remarkable is this -- Rosen was being so cautious and careful that he acknowledged his limitations in passing judgment, a good and responsible thing to do, and his humility is being used as a lacerating strike against him.

    Maybe. As I've said, the headline was "The Case Against Sonia Sotomayer." The subhed was "Indictments Of Obama's Frontrunner To Replace Souter."

    Reihan continues:

    Rosen explicitly invited readers to take a different view, and to discount his assessment. Some of Rosen's detractors say, "Well in that case, why did you write anything at all?" Rest assured, most people who weigh in on public controversies of this kind know far less about the subjects of these controversies than Rosen knows about Sotomayor.

    Right. But, in the age of blogging and 24-hour commentary, that's an appallingly low standard. If all it takes to occupy the "respectable intellectual center" is to know more than your average commenter, than there isn't much respectable or intellectual about the center. Perhaps that's the point.

    Having recognized that he was relaying strongly negative assessment, Rosen checked himself before he wrecked himself, which is the best one can do. Should Rosen not draw on the knowledge of legal insiders to sketch out potential criticisms?

    Reihan is a colleague and one of my favorite writers from across the ideological way. But I don't find this very credible. I don't think anyone is seriously arguing that Rosen should "not draw on the knowledge of legal insiders." It's helpful to read the damning graph again:

    I haven't read enough of Sotomayor's opinions to have a confident sense of them, nor have I talked to enough of Sotomayor's detractors and supporters, to get a fully balanced picture of her strengths.

    The very process of journalism is exactly what Rosen said he didn't do. I'm fairly confident that if you turned in a piece with a graph like that to any competent J-school professor, you would fail. I'm not sure why Rosen should be held to a lower standard.

    Reihan wants us to lay off on Rosen because he exercised "humility." But "humility" is the floor for a decent writer--not the ceiling. You don't get credit for not beating your wife. You don't get credit for admitting that you didn't do your job.

  • One Last Bit Of Rosen-Gate

    It's worth reading Reihan's response to me, Glenn's response to Rosen. I don't know that I have any more to say,except this: I know a number of commenters are P\Oed by this whole affair, as they should be. But, for me, at some point, I need to stop swinging and get back to studying.

    My views on all of this here and for all to see--I change nothing. But I can't repeatedly restate those points.I'm not built like that.

  • Another Point On Barry And Gays

    I meant to bang on this more, but I got so pissed off when I was writing. Anyway, this point was made in comments:

    Focusing on Barry's opposition to recognizing gay marriage causes us to miss the forest for the trees; in a majority black city with a majority black political leadership, the City Council voted overwhelmingly (12 to 1) IN SUPPORT of recognizing gay marriage (albeit ones performed outside of DC). This represents a great political victory for the gay rights movements, and refutes the meme which claims that the African-American community is monolithically, implacably, and irresolutely opposed to recognizing gay civil marriage.

    I don't think that can be said loudly enough. There are 12 members of the City Council. Seven of them are black. One is Marion Barry. To anyone who's followed Barry's career, I'm not sure why "Marion Barry Is A Demagogue" is breaking news. It's really wrong to erase the other six votes on that measure, and make Barry the face of blacks on the Council, and blacks in the City.

    Here's something else--consider the fact that D.C. is in the South. Not the deep South, but the South all the same. It's bordered by two slave states, and one Confederate state. I can't think of any other southern jurisdiction that's gone this far on gay marriage. To the contrary, most Southern states have set about the business of a constitutional ban.

    That leaves with a very uncomfortable fact--the most progressive place for gays in the South, is also the blackest. I wouldn't draw too much causality from that statement. Much like I wouldn't draw too much causality from black and Prop 8. But that didn't stop anyone then, did it? Why should it stop them now?


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