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.

  • Heritage Not Hate

    One defense of the Confederate flag, made below, is that people who fly the flag and wear it on their tee-shirts aren't necessarily, themselves, racist. This is a rather low hurdle to clear. The harder test doesn't question your where your heart, but your sword.

    From this perspective, the question isn't "Do you hate black people?" It isn't "Would you invite a black person to your barbecue?"  It's "Are you more offended by black people who recoil in horror at the Confederate flag, than you are by the flag's history?"

    It may well be true that Alabama's desire to fly the Confederate flag at the state capitol, or the desire of many Alabamans to use it themselves as they see fit, has nothing to do with the fact that the state was the last to drop its (unenforceable) prohibition against interracial marriage (in 2000!). It may be a mere coincidence that the only people to oppose the Alabama repeal were leaders of the states' "Confederate heritage group."  But if the flag's defenders aren't racist (which I can accept) the necessary conclusion, while banal and common, isn't anymore comforting--a shocking ignorance of one's own history.

    Well here's the thing: Historically racist often don't declare themselves. And when they do, they often claim to be acting in the interest of blacks and whites.  Indeed the "not a racist" argument has been upheld, in varying forms, since the end of Reconstruction.

    In terms of the confederate flag, the people claiming "not a racist" are the same people who name their parks, roads, and squares after generals who served in an army of white supremacy. Or they are  the same people who remain willfully ignorant that this is being done in their name. One enduring fact of black life is that the willfully ignorant are as dangerous, or more, than the knowledged racist. Lynch mobs were led by the latter, but comprised of the former.

    Perhaps this generation is different. Perhaps they are owed the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, perhaps this has always been so--maybe Fort Pillow really wasn't a massacre. But, were I them, I would not ask for that benefit, nor would I be shocked and appalled were I to see it withheld.

  • The Meaning Of Specter's Defection

    Some pretty tight analysis from Steve Benen:

    ...talk of a "filibuster-proof" Democratic majority is a stretch. For one thing, Norm Coleman just received a powerful reminder incentive to keep his legal fight going for as long as humanly possible. For another, the Democratic caucus, even at 60, still has Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh to consider.

    But if reaching the 60-vote threshold doesn't make Arlen Specter's big switch "huge," what makes today's news a seismic political shift? It's further evidence of a Republican Party in steep decline, driven by a misguided ideological rigidity. Indeed, Specter suggested as much in his statement: "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right."

    Basically. It's much more significant for the GOP than the Dems. I think getting 60 will still be a challenge. But Republicans face a more existential problem--not becoming the party of "We wuz robbed."

  • Echoes Of The Crack Age

    Of course I'm untouchable...

    <a href="http://www.joost.com/135c2wu/t/Above-The-Law-Untouchable">Above The Law - Untouchable</a>
  • The Essential Americaness Of African-Americans

    The CBS News polling data has some interesting results on race. Matt was surprised that a significant number (44 percent) of African-Americans believe that blacks and whites have the same shot at success in this country:

    I'm surprised that as many as forty-four percent of blacks say that both races have equal opportunity. I think the evidence is unambiguously clear that they do not. African-American children have parents with lower levels of income and education. Their families, even when they have above-average incomes, tend to have less wealth than white families. And even controlling for parental income and educational attainment, black kids do worse in schools than white kids. Then beyond all that, there's clear evidence of discrimination against job applicants with "black" names that tends to suggest a broader pattern of employment discrimination. There are inequities in the criminal justice system both in terms of more punishment being meted out to black offenders, and the police and the courts doing less to protect black victims.

    I'm not surprised that most white people prefer to ignore this sort of evidence and believe in the existence of equal opportunities, but it's surprising to me how many African-Americans have adopted an unrealistically optimistic view.

    I obviously agree with Matt's assessment of the socioeconomic plight of black folks. But I don't share his surprise. First there is this--If you're black, a quick way to go insane is to think about how much racism has altered your life. But beyond that, I spent a lot of time in my youth as a left-black nationalist arguing with friends and family about race. One thing that became clear is that while a large number of black people recognize the ugly history of racism in this country, many have a hard time seeing themselves as victims of that racism.

    This makes sense if you think about it from a human perspective.  Black people have to compete, and their kids have to compete. In order to wake up every morning, work your ass off, and pay taxes, then tell your to do the same, it helps to  buy in to the idea that "you can win."  Perhaps more important than that, African-Americans are Americans, and "you can win" is a part of our ethos. I suspect that overestimating the extent to which "individual effort" matters is an American trait. Maybe even a human one, I'm not sure.

    This is why I always thought Shelby Steele's "Divided Man" theory of Obama was mostly fodder for people who think that saying fathers should be responsible for their kids, will cause you to lose black votes. If you walked 125th a year ago and asked black people what they wanted from Obama, you would have heard more about the war and the economy, then about racial justice. My point being that Obama's attitude on race is a pretty common one around black people

    Personally, I've never seen myself--as an individual--as having less of a shot because I'm black. With a kid, bills, and my own personal problems, I can't really afford to think like that. I suspect this is even more true of a lot of black women. Even the Detroit Lions think they win the Super Bowl. Why else would they step on the field if they didn't?

  • Specter Leaves The GOP

    Just saw this over at Matt's:

    It's all over cable.
    Questions: Will he have seniority in the Democratic caucus? Will he vote like a northeastern Democrat, or will he vote like Ben Nelson?

    I don't have a TV. Please fill in what you know. I'll update as news comes in. This "no TV" thing has been great. I don't know how long I can maintain it, with this job though.

    UPDATE: It's official. Here's part of Specter's statement. The full one is at the link:

    ....It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.

    I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary.

    I am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers and have my candidacy for re-election determined in a general election.

    I deeply regret that I will be disappointing many friends and supporters. I can understand their disappointment. I am also disappointed that so many in the Party I have worked for for more than four decades do not want me to be their candidate. It is very painful on both sides. I thank specially Senators McConnell and Cornyn for their forbearance...
    Amazing. Can the Palin\Limbaugh wing continuing to dominate like this?
  • Ill Visions

    Last night I read this rather chilling quote from Adelbert Ames, the Reconstruction-era governor of Mississippi. Ames, himself, is rather amazing and worth reading about. (He is, amongst other things, George Plimpton's great-grandfather) Here he is writing to Mississippi senator Blanche Bruce on the plight of blacks in the state, just as Reconstruction is ending:

    Election day may find our voters fleeing before rebel bullets rather than balloting for their rights. They are to be returned to a condition of serfdom--an era of second slavery. It is their fault (not mine, personally) that this fate is before them. They refused to prepare for war when in times of peace, when they could have done so. Now it is too late. The nation should have acted but it was "tired of the annual autumnal outbreaks in the South"...The political death of the negro will forever release the nation from the weariness from such "political outbreaks" You may think I exaggerate. Time will show you how accurate my statements are.

    The "autumnal outbreaks" Ames is referring to reference Grant's Attorney General, Edwards Pierrepoint, who refused to send troops to Mississippi, telling Ames that the nation was "tired of the annual autumnal outbreaks in the South," and that the state would have to fend for itself. Shortly thereafter Mississippi's white supremacists effectively staged an armed coup. You know the rest of the story.

  • The Radical Critique Of Obama

    From Andrew Bacevich:

    ...however much Obama may differ from Bush on particulars, he appears intent on sustaining the essentials on which the Bush policies were grounded. Put simply, Obama's pragmatism poses no threat to the reigning national security consensus. Consistent with the tradition of American liberalism, he appears intent on salvaging that consensus.

    For decades now, that consensus has centered on what we might call the Sacred Trinity of global power projection, global military presence, and global activism - the concrete expression of what politicians commonly refer to as "American global leadership." The United States configures its armed forces not for defense but for overseas "contingencies." To facilitate the deployment of these forces it maintains a vast network of foreign bases, complemented by various access and overflight agreements. Capabilities and bases mesh with and foster a penchant for meddling in the affairs of others, sometimes revealed to the public, but often concealed.

    Bush did not invent the Sacred Trinity. He merely inherited it and then abused it, thereby reviving the conviction entertained by critics of American globalism, progressives and conservatives alike, that the principles underlying this trinity are pernicious and should be scrapped. Most of these progressives and at least some conservatives voted for Obama with expectations that, if elected, he would do just that. Based on what he has said and done over the past three months, however, the president appears intent instead on shielding the Sacred Trinity from serious scrutiny.

    I wish I was more prepared to tackle this critique. One problem with blogging is you end up talking about everything you're reading. But interest isn't the same as deep knowledge, and when it comes out to national security, I admit to my status as a tadpole.

    Nevertheless, indulge me a moment, as I doggie-paddle with the sharks.

    Andrew (Sullivan, not Bacevich) posed an interesting question to me yesterday. He asked me if there was anything about Obama that scared me. I answered that the thing that scared me most, was the possibility that Paul Krugman was right.

    I mean that in the specific sense (about the economy) and in the broader philosophical sense. I think it's fair to say that Obama is, temperamentally, conservative. I mean conservative in opposition to "radical," not progressive or liberal. I think that approach undergirds everything from his stance on the economic crisis to his unwillingness to push too hard on torture. George Packer summed it all up pretty well:

    What underlies so many of Obama's decisions is an attachment to the institutions that hold up American society, a desire to make them function better rather than remake them altogether.

    I differ with Andrew (Bacevich, this time) in that I'm not really surprised by any of this. I didn't think Obama's campaign was especially radical, and I thought his anti-war bonafides were more born of caution and skepticism than out of a deep critique of American military power. That is, in large measure, why I voted for Obama. After eight years of dealing, not simply with an impulsive, anti-intellectual, hot-headed, president, but a rigidly ideological president, I thought the answer was someone who was more pragmatic--even when their politics (as on torture) didn't match up with my own.

    But what if pragmatism isn't enough? The danger of a conservative approach, of too much respect for institutions, is that it's liable to deeply underestimate that rot eating away at the girders.  It tends to downplay the evil at home, preferring to believe that was is old is, essentially, always good. I think the challenge Bacevich (on foreign policy) and Krugman (on the economy)  are posing is this: Pragmatism isn't going to cut it. Only a deep and fundamental overhaul will do.

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  • That's Not How You Get Invited To Rush's Xmas Party

    Ross, silky-smooth as ever, wonders if conservatism would have been better if Dick Cheney were the Republican nominee:

    "Real conservatism," in this narrative, means a particular strain of right-wingery: a conservatism of supply-side economics and stress positions, uninterested in social policy and dismissive of libertarian qualms about the national-security state. And Dick Cheney happens to be its diamond-hard distillation. The former vice-president kept his distance from the Bush administration's attempts at domestic reform, and he had little time for the idealistic, religiously infused side of his boss's policy agenda. He was for tax cuts at home and pre-emptive warfare overseas; anything else he seemed to disdain as sentimentalism.

    This is precisely the sort of conservatism that's ascendant in today's much-reduced Republican Party, from the talk radio dials to the party's grassroots. And a Cheney-for-President campaign would have been an instructive test of its political viability.

    As a candidate, Cheney would have doubtless been as disciplined and ideologically consistent as McCain was feckless. In debates with Barack Obama, he would have been as cuttingly effective as he was in his encounters with Joe Lieberman and John Edwards in 2000 and 2004 respectively. And when he went down to a landslide loss, the conservative movement might - might! - have been jolted into the kind of rethinking that's necessary if it hopes to regain power.

    It's worth noting that "real conservatism" means being pro-life and anti-gay marriage also. But that aside, I'm mostly interested in this column for the writing. Which is pretty damn good. I don't know how he'll hold up after a few years of this. But he isn't Bill Kristol.

  • Newt Trapped On Torture

    I think Newt knows the right answer on waterboarding. But I think the laws of politics dictate that he can't call waterboarding torture, because he won't be able to score points. And that's all that really matters.

  • A Sprawling Post Of Middling Genius

    This post allows me to engage in some old-fashion lit journalism, boosterism. I want to talk about Caitlin Flanagan's piece on Alec Baldwin. But I can't really do that without recommending Ian Parker's deeply-reported, and beautifully written profile of Baldwin as a companion.

    Now on to to the Flanagan piece. When I was coming up, I can't tell you how many hack editors told me that young people should never write in the first person. I understand the argument--self-absorption and ego generally make for boring writing. But writers don't learn to use the first person by avoiding it. They don't find a voice without looking for one.

    Anyway, I have a weird fetish for the piece that proceeds ordinarily along, and then suddenly drops the writer in as a character. I first thrilled at this a decade ago, back home, when my old friend Amanda Ripley did exactly that, while chasing a phantom across Capitol Hill.

    There's a sense of shock when you see it done right--it's a kind of card trick pulled on the reader and our assumptions. We assume we're reading a piece of objective journalism. And then the writer does this reveal, and says "No, I'm human too. Here are the assumptions, I bring to bear, and here is what they may tell you."

    [MORE]

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  • The Civil War Wasn't About Slavery

    I once thought that civil rights group made too much hay out of the confederate flag. This was, by and large, a product of me having spent all my life in places where no one really flies a confederate flag.

    This came back to me this weekend while reading Capitol Men. I was digging through a chapter which talks about the famous Congressional debate between Robert Brown Elliot and Alexander Stephens over Charles Sumner's posthumously enacted Civil Rights Act of 1875. Better schooled men than me were probably wise to Stephens infamous statements about the Confederacy at the time of secession. I wasn't. Here's an excerpt from Stephens "Cornerstone Speech," which he explains the basis of the Confederate Constitution, and attacks Thomas Jefferson's stated opposition to slavery.

     The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically....Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

    Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

    I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics...I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

    Consider that this isn't just some loudmouth Confederate delegate spouting off, this is the Vice-President of the Confederacy making the case. Also note his invocation of the Creator, the notion white supremacy is not just natural, but divinely inspired. Stephens' clarification is here. I don't think it will make you feel any better though.

    People like to debate about the salience of white racism in our daily lives. I think the fact that there are entrenched interest in this country, and in one of our major parties, that continues to honor a treason founded on white racism really says a lot.

    Those interests are shrinking, no doubt. But they are there. And so is the confederate flag. I don't know how black people live in Mississippi. I'm not trying to dis. I, in all seriousness, don't get it.

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