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.

  • Echoes Of The Crack Age

    One of the great arguments against rappers who claim that they're just reporting what goes on, and against conservatives who think "hip-hop" can tell you something about the performance of black boys in schools, is the music itself. It's amazing that when we were at our lowest, in the early 90s, the music was its most diverse. Not to act like it's all gravy now, but the most violent years for black men, in recent memory, were the late 80s and early 90s. And yet, when you listen to the music, the gun element, is an element, but not a dominant one.

    In fact, the popularity of gangsta rap has an inverse relationship to the actual conditions in the streets. After steadily increasing throughout the 80s, the murder rate among African-American males peaked at 50.4 per 100,000 in 1991. That was a lovely and diverse year for hip-hop. Then the murder rate declined until it was 25.6 per 100,000 in 2000. By then, gangsta rap was the dominant genre in the music.

    It's weird to think about that, and surfing I came across this gem, made right about the time I was in Baltimore, and the city was going crazy. This, I assure you, is not a love ballad. But it is a beautiful song.

  • Ignorance Is Bliss

    The more I think about Peggy Noonan's statements on Sunday, the more horrified I get. Noonan is a graceful writer who was particularly hot during the campaign. And yet is there anyway to listen to her comments, and not hear them as a willful endorsement of kind of national blindness?

    The job of journalists is to challenge the government and to challenge their readers and viewers. What sort of journalist tells his readers that some things must be mysterious? What sort of writer tells her readers, and viewers, essentially, to not ask too many questions? We have a fine era, when otherwise respected, intelligent, and well-read people step on a national stage and endorse national ignorance. What a mess.

    In case you haven't seen them, Noonan's comments are below. George Will doesn't come off any better. I'm less surprised by that. In fact the whole panel is kind of depressing. They've been in the same city for too long.

  • Abu Zabaydah's Interrogator On Torture

    Former FBI Agent Ali Soufan's piece in the Times today is fascinating, and will be talked about quite a bit, I assume. But what I'm most interested in is this:

    There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn't, or couldn't have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions -- all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

    I am so scared of what we don't know. What we often forget is that these documents are only part of the picture. God only knows what's yet to be unclassified, or what will never be known.

  • Maybe You Should Study Harder

    I think this Affirmative Action case is going to lose. And it probably should:

    Frank Ricci has been a firefighter here for 11 years, and he would do just about anything to advance to lieutenant.

    The last time the city offered a promotional exam, he said in a sworn statement, he gave up a second job and studied up to 13 hours a day. Mr. Ricci, who is dyslexic, paid an acquaintance more than $1,000 to read textbooks onto audiotapes. He made flashcards, took practice tests, worked with a study group and participated in mock interviews.

    Mr. Ricci did well, he said, coming in sixth among the 77 candidates who took the exam. But the city threw out the test, because none of the 19 African-American firefighters who took it qualified for promotion. That decision prompted Mr. Ricci and 17 other white firefighters, including one Hispanic, to sue the city, alleging racial discrimination....

    But Donald Day, a representative of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, questioned the value of the New Haven test, which included written and oral components. "An individual's ability to answer a multiple-choice exam," Mr. Day told the city's Civil Service Board, "does nothing but measure their ability to read and retain."

    There are more important values, he added. "Young black and Latino kids have every right," he said, "to see black and Latino officers on those fire trucks that are riding through their community. They have every right to look for a role model."

    No they don't. Look if the test is a bad test, then get rid of the the test. But if you administered it as tool for promotion, then you need to be good on you word. I get that the firefighting departments, nationally, have been bastion of discrimination. People are right to be horrified by that. By how is it that no one is horrified that not a single black firefighter did well enough on the test to qualify for a promotion.

    People should have the right to compete in this country-- not the right to win. I'm not indifferent to changing the way these guys do hiring. But you can't do it like this. This is just stupid and hamfisted.

  • The Measure Of A Great Politician

    I keep getting e-mails from people who think we should stop pressing Obama on torture. The basic argument is, would you rather have this inquiry or would you rather have health care? I think it's becoming clear that we may not necessarily need Obama, himself, to launch an inquiry. But be that as it may, I want to push back against this idea that the only job of a great politician is to set a list of achievable priorities. It's, of course, a large part of the job--but the other part is making sure as many of those priorities get done as possible.

    I expect a lot out of Obama, mostly because of what I saw in the campaign. He was not a politician simply capable of taking what was given to him. Not to rehash this, but that was I saw in Hillary. Obama was the politician who was capable of creating more, of expanding the coalition. People laughed at a lot of us Obama supporters when we talked about expanding the map. I begrudge any of that. In 2004, none of us thought that a Democrat running in 2008 could win--not just Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania--but Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana. Had someone told us this would happen, we would have assumed it was some grizzled white war hero, not a black community organizer, who'd done this. You don't get to win, in the manner Obama won, and not have some demands put on you,

    I believe that while a good politician accomplishes what is possible, a great one expands the realm of possibility. He doesn't simply accept the lines of argument as they're drawn and hew to the side with the most soldiers, he tries to redraw those lines to benefit his ideals. Obama's jobs isn't simply to spend his own political capital, it's to grow his capital, and by extension, the moral weight of his ideals. Perhaps pushing torture investigations would make passing health care harder. But this is the business he chose. This is the business of becoming great. And after what happened last year, we have the right to expect more of him. We have the right to demand more.

  • Speaking Of The Man

    For years, King's family has been accused of profiting off his name. This won't help:

     Nothing is too small for the family to ignore. Isaac Newton Farris, King's nephew and chief executive officer of the King Center in Atlanta, demanded payments for images showing President Obama and King on the same T-shirts. "We're not trying to stop anybody from legitimately supporting themselves," Farris said. "But we cannot allow our brand to be abused." It is hard to imagine King himself demanding payment from someone who wanted to put his image alongside that of the nation's first African American president.

    In the latest monumental shakedown, the King family's Intellectual Properties Management Inc. was paid $761,160 by the nonprofit foundation raising money for the Washington memorial. This was on top of a "management" fee of $71,700 paid in 2003. The Kings have defended the payments by noting that donations to the foundation have been down because people were giving to the monument fund instead. The other possibility is that fewer people want to give to a foundation run by the King family.

    Few people familiar with the family are shocked by their demands. What is shocking is the failure of the memorial foundation to call their bluff and simply stop work on the memorial. Foundation officials should have publicly announced the payment so that donors could think seriously about whether they want to contribute to such an outrageous arrangement. Instead, officials waited for the Associated Press to force the disclosure. Donors have complained that they were never told of the arrangement.
  • The Problem Of King, Obama And Heroic History

    As a lot of you know my interest, of late, has dipped toward Reconstruction and immediate post-Reconstruction black America. One side effect of a lot of my recent reading is a reevaluation of some of my childhood prejudices toward the South. I started school just 13 years after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Whenever we had Black History Month, his legacy was simply dominant. I don't just mean King the man, but the portrait of black people during the King era, and especially black Southerners. According to the films we saw, all black Southerners, in King's era, were Christian, law-abiding, nonviolent, salt of the earth types besieged by hooligans. In those days, Malcolm X wasn't talked about at my school.

    Anyway, you hear about the Edmund Pettis bridge enough times, and you come think of the rest of your history as a kind of Dark Age, peopled with a few peanut scientists, heart surgeons, and traffic light tinkerers. All those folks are complicated in their own right (read this piece on Garrett A. Morgan) but they got reduced to a list of "firsts" and one sentence deeds. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, rises Martin Luther King, who redeems the country, and saves us all.

    But you get no sense of agency from people in the meantime. You get no sense of how and why the world had changed over the course of a century. And most of all, you get no sense of the complicated people who laid the path. I thought about this this morning, because I was reading about P.B.S. Pinchback, whose colorful biography I would only disservice by summarizing. But my point is that the world comes alive so much more when you can see the past in detail, and not always and only as a narrative of black Messiahs triumphing over white racists.

    I worry about Barack Obama being discussed in this same King-like way--as though nothing changed among the people to make him possible, or no actors before existed, like Jesse Jackson, for all his flaws, didn't make Obama possible. This isn't a shot at Obama or King, as much as its a collection of rather random thoughts and observations. I'm just walking my way through some things.

  • Cougardom! Rawr! Ahem...That's, Rowr!

    Heh, Troy Patterson and Rebbecca Traister look at the new, unprecedented, never before witnessed phenomena of 40 year old women bagging 20 year old dudes. Evidently there's not just a reality show about this on TV, there's actually a sitcom coming out which will explain to us why "The Graduate" never got made. Meh. Here's Traister on the show:

    So because the men her age have a ticking clock and she no longer does, she tries to fulfill her romantic dreams by moving in with 20 men under 30, the kinds of guys "who can keep up" with her. Evidence that they can "keep up" begins with their arrival on some kind of frat party bus, where they are shown swigging beers and saying things like, "I can't wait to meet this cougar!" and "I really hope this cougar likes lamb, cause I'm nice and sweet and tender." Ah, liberation! Sweet, hot congress with dudes you were so glad you never had to deal with again after graduation! Mee-ow.

    Is it possible that Stacey -- and all the other women who embrace the term "cougar" -- don't know that, on some level, they're being laughed at?

    Original "Cougar" author Valerie Gibson has claimed that the term was coined as derogatory (no shit!), in reference to older women who went out drinking and went home with whatever guys were left at the end of the night -- like the weakest members of the pack, see? And even though women are making extravagant efforts to reclaim it as empowering, it remains offensive and dehumanizing on almost every level, as "Daily Show" senior women's issues commentator Kristin Schaal illustrated in a piece in which she had an animal handler carry a grown woman to the news desk, Jack Hanna style, so that Jon Stewart could examine her up close: "Do you want to hold her, Jon?"

    Slow down Rebecca, you're killing em.They aren't laughing at her because she's enjoyed the company of young dudes--they're laughing at her because she's called a cougar. Much as I would, now, laugh at any dude who, with no sense of irony, referred to himself as a "sugardaddy."

    Look, people come together in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons. I'm a huge believer that the human race's survival depends on this fact. If you're 20 and you fall for someone older than you, it's all love. If you're 40 and you fall in love with someone who's 20, it's mo' love. If you just have a friend with benefits who's half--or twice--your age, it may not be love, but it hopefully it's peach pie. But all of that said, don't let them turn you into a name,  into a marketing ploy.

    On another note, a lot of this reminds me of the 70s, and blaxploitation's odd obsession with white women. There was this whole line of Cleaveresque Black Power logic that argued that it was somehow empowering to mimic one of the more repulsive relics of White Power--the sexual subjugation of black women. This isn't a perfect parallel, I know. But there is that kind of, "Well, if my ex-husband can be lecherous, so can I."

    The obvious backdrop is a long history of men engaging whatever fantasy suits them, and then standing in judgement of women's sexual predilictions. That's a nasty problem. But I don't think embracing a sexuality, which much be animalized in order to be accepted, helps much.

  • The Irony Of Jane Harman

    Glenn Greenwald points the way:

    Jane Harman is so shrill and angry today.  She sounds like some sort of unhinged leftist blogger.  As The Washington Post's Dana Milbank so insightfully asked this week, what could any Democrat possibly have to be angry about?  After all, they won.  I wonder how long it's going to be before Harman joins the ACLU?  What's that old saying -- a "civil liberties extremist" is a former Bush-enabling, Surveillance State-defending Blue Dog who learns that their own personal conversations were intercepted by the same government that they demanded be vested with unchecked power...
  • Capitol Men

    I'm reading Phillip Dray's rather incredible history of Reconstruction, Capitol Men, told from the perspective of the nation's  first black Congressmen. I'm only 90 pages in, but I'm immediately reminded of why I love great books about history. Probably out of necessity, history is taught to us in a utilitarian form--a list of facts, dates, names and ultimate results. But a great book doesn't go from event to event, and it's not over-interested in getting to the end. This is sort of an extension of my comments about plot and character, and the problems of Black History Month.

    Capitol Men is, in many ways, a sad book. But that isn't the point. The point is Robert Charles Smalls, a biracial black man born into slavery, who plots with his fellow slaves to steal a Confederate ship, and upon reaching Union lines exclaims to his black brethren, "We're all free niggers now!" The point is the rather mystical, and likely fraudulent, Robert Brown Elliot, who was trilingual and had this mysterious past--almost literally hailing from parts unknown. In 1869, Elliot accused a Union vet of trying to woo his wife, then whipped him in the middle of Columbia, South Carolina. The next day the local paper ran the following headline--"A Negro From Massachusetts Cowhides a White Carpetbagger." The point is  Elias Hill--a 50-year old black preacher and dwarf who was beaten by the Klan, and immediately left, with his congregation in tow, for Liberia.

    The point is people, people, people. We should never presume to know too much of them. They always surprise us. Anyway, it's a great book.

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author