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.

  • Calling Spades

    Let me precede what I am about to say by noting that I've written some of what follows before. But I think it bears repeating, and so with that in mind, I offer this:

    Yesterday somebody asked if I'd comment on the following passage from Byron York:

    On his 100th day in office, Barack Obama enjoys high job approval ratings, no matter what poll you consult. But if a new survey by the New York Times is accurate, the president and some of his policies are significantly less popular with white Americans than with black Americans, and his sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are.

    At first, I said I wouldn't--mostly because I don't want to be that guy who patrols the net looking for right-wingers who say dumb shit about black people. Moreover my fellow Left-Coast Avengers were already on the case. But then the quote stayed with me. And after thinking on it, I realized why--Even by the standards of a National Review alum, I think that Byron York's column is incredibly racist.

    We spend a lot of time attacking people for playing the race-card--I've done my share. But what largely animates this idea that crying racism is an overused tactic (as opposed to say crying antisemitism) is this notion that among polite, thinking people, there are no employers of racism. Racism is the trade of the American savage--the man who flies the Confederate flag,  has an undiscovered dead dog under the porch, and lives in West Virginia. This man doesn't walk among the civilized.

    But here is your political correctness run amok:

    James Watson argues, not simply that there may be a biological explanation for IQ differences, but says of notions of intellectual equality, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not to be true," and be held up as a truth-teller.

    A series of newsletters entitled the Ron Paul Freedom Report, The Ron Paul Survival Report, The Ron Paul Politcal Report are revealed to be incredibly racist. ("Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks" Martin Luther King "seduced underaged girls and boys.") But Paul knows nothing about them, and is the farthest thing from a racist. ("Ron thinks Martin Luther King is a hero.")

    Duane "Dog Chapman is recorded repeatedly calling a black woman a nigger, but his son says the following of him, "My dad is not a racist man. If he was he would have no hair. He'd have swastikas on his body and he would go around talking about Hitler. That's what a racist is to me."

    Geraldine Ferraro claims that a black guy has only succeeded at presidential politics because he's black (twice!) but is most offended by the notion that someone would think she was racist. (Since March, when I was accused of being racist for a statement I made about the influence of blacks on Obama's historic campaign, people have been stopping me to express a common sentiment: If you're white you can't open your mouth without being accused of being racist.")

    Michael Richards, repeatedly, yells at a black heckler, "He's a nigger!" then goes on national TV and says he's bothered that people think he's racist. "I'm not a racist," Richards said. "That's what's so insane."

    We live in a country that may well be offended by racism, but it's equally offended that anyone might actually charge as much.

    [MORE]

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  • Obama Presser

    Here it is for those who didn't see it. I don't have much to say. I think it's worth looking at some old Bush pressers. The difference is, even now, shocking. That we could elect both of these guys says something about us, though I'm not sure what. Otherwise, I thought his answer on torture was dead on. He did what all great debaters do--he focused on the strongest arguments.

  • White Woman Obsessed

    Postbourgie writes about the new Beyonce\Ali Larter\Idriss Elba flick obsessed, and in the process, goes where I've feared to:

    But come on. Who isn't into this flick for the beatdown? Trust. You won't be disappointed (unless you're looking for an abundance of punny smack-talk). Just turn off your brain, embrace the derivativeness, and close your ears to the Beyonce power ballad playing over the credits. ("I wanna run smash into you," Beyonce? Really?)

    On one level this is just flicks like Trois, going mainstream--Obsessed carried the weekend. But I've stayed away from this, mostly because I feel the film is feeding on a hostility toward white women.

    I'm haunted by an old memory: Back in college I went to see Waiting To Exhale. The theater was overrun with black women, which was cool with me. I actually like seeing films in the hood, given that there's often something participatory, if ignorant about it--Only negroes bring their two-year old to see The Two Towers.

    Anyway, the thing that got me was the scene where Anglea Bassett barges in the boardroom and slaps the shit out of the white woman her husband has been sleeping with. The whole theater lost it--I'm talking damn near a standing ovation. Word is that this scene was repeated around the country. Now maybe Negroes just liked Bassett's bop. Maybe they just were happy to see the "other woman" get hers. Maybe everyone just wanted to stand at the same time. But I don't think so. I think race was essential to that scene and the crowd's reaction.

    I could have this wrong, but I think pitting a blonde homewrecker against and upwardly couple played by Elba and Beyonce is speaking in crude code to black women. Or maybe not. Maybe I'm stuck on race. Maybe I just need to see the movie. Kenyatta saw the flick at Court Street in Brooklyn, a theater which I love almost as much as the one up here on 125th. She said fools lost it on the fight scene. Anyway here's the trailer, for those who don't know.

  • The Battle Flag

    I found this note from frequent commenter Sporcupine to be revealing:

    The flag we're discussing, the "Battle Flag" with the big X across it, became the overwhelming symbol not in the 1860s, but in the 1950s. It's about revolt and rejection, heavily on race, but not entirely so. It includes a heavy helping of "Don't tread on me." It also has a loud, rambunctious, beer-and-pickup truck style. It's Lester Maddox and George Wallace and the Dukes of Hazzard.

    I'm told my grandfather's comment on the Klan was "When they go marching in their sheets, just look at their shoes." He meant that they were poor men, with few options and a large helping of desperation. And he also meant that he, a man with a college education, a law practice, and inherited land, was too good for that.

    My grandfather was raised in home that displayed a flag with two red bars with a white one in between, and a blue field at upper left with thirteen stars in a circle. That's the "Stars and Bars." It goes with verandas and juleps and cavalry officers and gentility. It's Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. It's a different symbol than the one we're puzzling here.

    Seeing that divide may help untangle what's up with the heritage v. hate argument about the Battle Flag.

    When we ask someone to let the Battle Flag go, I think they hear a request to let go of those other loyalties too, to say they wish they'd grown up in a bigger house, with a newer car and more educated parents and a life style Martha Stewart would approve. They think we're asking them to say they look down on what their parents were able to provide, and on their parents. They think we're asking them to sign up not just for my grandfather's relatively decent views on race, but his smug, witty, indecent view of social class. And, of course, they're not entirely wrong.

    The heritage thing isn't the whole truth. It isn't even half the truth. But it is a part of the truth, and very few people who fly the Battle Flag will take it down if they have to let that family pride element go to do it.

    (My current take on the issue in small Kentucky towns is to say "I'm a one-flag Southerner" and "When I say the Pledge of Allegiance, I mean it all." I've gotten at least a few Battle-Flag fans to chuckle and nod in response.)


  • The Long-Term Effects Of Bullying

    UPDATE: This is one response. Please don't take it as a decleration of what happens to all people in all places, or even most people in most places. It's freestlye memoir. Not science.

    It's worth spending some time with Terry Gross's piece on the new Mike Tyson doc. I appreciate the fact that Gross didn't just hand the megaphone to James Toback, the director. Instead she also talked to journalist Elmer Smith who was able to balance out Toback's partiality. This was particularly important for the discussion of Tyson's rape case and the events leading up to his infamous bite.

    There's a lot of time spent discussing the fact that Tyson was bullied as a child, and how he learned to master that fear. It led me to want to read more journalism on the psychological effects of bullying. I don't mean the "Ban Bullying!" placard waving kind, but some investigation of the long-term effects.  I don't think I ever recovered from getting my ass kicked--a few times--in middle school by the local hard-rocks. But I'm not sure I want to recover either.

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  • We Don't Believe You. You Need More People.

    Michael Steele's statement on Arlen Specter deserves a hard look:

    Some in the Republican Party are happy about this. I am not. Let's be honest-Senator Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record. Republicans look forward to beating Sen. Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don't do it first.

    This is an amazing statement when you think about it. Steele is basically arguing that the left-wing stretches from from Dennis Kucinich to Arlen Specter. That's quite the big tent--and it's being pitched by the head of the Republican party. It's based on the notion that you can just say "liberal," "socialist," "lefty" 100 times and then say "Vote for me!" I know a lot of us think people are that stupid, but they aren't. And they especially aren't in these times.

    The purpose of name-calling is to draw contrast, to draw dividing lines, with the understanding that if do the math right more people will end up on your side. But the GOP of late have excelled at drawing lines that leave them with less voters on their side. The implicit message in Steele's statement is that if you think like Arlen Specter, if you voted for the Iraq War, if you oppose card check, if you think government should have some role in health care, you're "left-wing." So much for a center-right nation.

  • A Black Man On White People's Money

    Nate Dimeo makes the case for Frederick Douglass replacing Ulyssess Grant on the $50 dollar bill. I'm reading about Reconstruction these days--you know what I think of this idea. The obvious choice for a black man is King. But I'd go with Douglass. I see him, in many ways, as a founding father. He really helped finish the work the Jefferson, Washington, Madison etc. started.


  • 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."

  • 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?

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