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.

  • The Intellectual Dishonesty Of "Looking Forward"

    Hilzoy goes off on Robert Gibbs:

    That's why I found today's White House briefing so infuriating:

    "Q So I understand, you're saying that people in the CIA who followed through in what they were told was legal, they should not be prosecuted. But why not the Bush administration lawyers who, in the eyes of a lot of your supporters on the left, twisted the law -- why are they not being held accountable?

    MR. GIBBS: The President is focused on looking forward, that's why."

    You know what? I'm focused on looking forward too. And as I gaze into my crystal ball, I see a world in which members of the executive branch take it for granted that they can do whatever they want with impunity. Why not break the law? Why not eavesdrop on Americans? Why not torture people? Why not detain citizens indefinitely without charges? Heck, why not impose martial law and make yourself dictator for life? There is nothing to stop the people who make these decisions. They have nothing to fear. Because once they've made them, their actions are back there, in the past that no one ever wants to look at.

    I also see a world in which everyone takes it for granted that there are two kinds of people, as far as the law is concerned. If most people tried to make the case that prosecuting their criminal acts was just "looking backwards", or a sign that the prosecutor was motivated by a desire for retribution, they'd be laughed out of court. Imagine the likely reaction if your average crack dealer were to urge the judge not to dwell on the past, or if someone who used accounting fraud to flip houses told offered a prosecutor the chance to be "very Mandelalike in the sense [of] saying let the past be the past and let us move into the future", or if I were pulled over for speeding and, when asked if I knew how fast I was going, replied that "Some things in life need to be mysterious ... Sometimes you need to just keep walking." I don't think any of us would get very far.

    The only way you can embrace the "Looking Forward" line of logic, or the "some things in life need to be mysterious" line of logic, is to accept that the law works one way for people who've accrued political power, and another way for those who don't. The worst part is its not even necessary. I think a lot of us would accept what Obama said yesterday. A lot of us have sympathy for troops in the field who, as Hilzoy, were following the OLC. But from those who drafted the guidelines, we'd like some answers.

  • Some Explanation Is Due

    A friend wrote me this morning to say I was unduly harsh in my reply to KCN. This is likely true. One problem with highlighting your commenters is you have to respect the basic asymmetry--you have the megaphone, not them. Smugness and sarcasm doen't really exhibit that sort of respect.

    Having said that, I wanted folks to understand why this line of cultural argument rankles so much. For those who know this, I'm sorry to repeat. But it's indispensable to what I'm about to say.

    You guys know me--I came up in Baltimore, during the crack era, across the street from Mondawmin Mall (before they added that Target). I was born out of wedlock (my parents married when I was four) to a father with kids strewn across the city. I went to public school all my life. I spent much of childhood underachieving in school--until high school when I summarily failed out of school. Twice. I went to college, but dropped-out. I've got an eight-year old son out of wedlock. I've been living in sin with his mother for years now. For the vast majority of those years, her income has dwarfed mine--some years even tripled it.

    From a socio-economic perspective, that's my biography. Rightly or wrongly, I identify with people who come up in a similar fashion, while at the same time recognizing the great diversity amongst them.

    This isn't about hood credentialism. I ran from more fights than I stood for. I think Dungeons & Dragons changed my life. I never lived in the projects. I never worried once about what would be for dinner. I rocked my share of off-brands, but all I ever really wanted for, as a child, were a pair of Lottoes, a Le Coq Sportif sweat-suit, and cable television. When I talk, my diction bears all of those experiences, and one of the reasons I chose not to change it, is because I want you to know who I am and where I've been, because that's exactly what I'd want out of you.

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  • The Men Who Would Teach Us About Family Values

    One reason why I reject the hamfisted argument that marriage is the best option for everyone, everywhere, at all times, as well as its oft-invoked corollary that none of this applies to gays, is that it's an argument that overstates our knowledge of other people's lives. In its worst form, its invoked by characters so sanctimonious that you smell the bad faith on their breath before they utter a word.

    Thus Yglesias brings us the exhortations of men like Rudy Guliani and Newt Gingrich in favor of traditional values. What a joke. As Matt says:

    Far be it from me to say that Newt Gingrich's 1981 decision to ask his first wife for a divorce while she was in the hospital recuperating from cancer should bar him from commenting on the value of traditional marriage. But six months after the divorce was finalized, he married a new woman, Marianne Ginther, which suggests there was some infidelity involved. Then in 2000 he divorced Ginther and married a third woman with whom it turns out he'd been having an affair. That, I think, is a bit much. Then after that, he became a Catholic!

    As for Guliani, I don't know how much his postion is going to help him. He's in favor of "civil unions."

  • Not Out Of The Woods Yet

    Nice piece in the Times outlining the current debate around torture. I think people will find this interesting:

    On Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on the ABC News program "This Week" that "those who devised policy" also "should not be prosecuted." But administration officials said Monday that Mr. Emanuel had meant the officials who ordered the policies carried out, not the lawyers who provided the legal rationale.

    Three Bush administration lawyers who signed memos, John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury, are the subjects of a coming report by the Justice Department's ethics office that officials say is sharply critical of their work. The ethics office has the power to recommend disbarment or other professional penalties or, less likely, to refer cases for criminal prosecution.

    The administration has also not ruled out prosecuting anyone who exceeded the legal guidelines, and officials have discussed appointing a special prosecutor. One option might be giving the job to John H. Durham, a federal prosecutor who has spent 15 months investigating the C.I.A.'s destruction of videotapes of harsh interrogations.
  • Fear Of A Native Black Planet

    Commenter KCN writes:

    I would really love to hear TNC's thoughts on the NYT article on "downward assimilation" among second-generation Latinos. I agree with Storm that the article really made me squirm. I am married to an African immigrant and the article basically described my husband's worst nightmare--that our kids would grow up to act "ghetto."

    Every African immigrant familiy knows a family whose kids (usually US born although this also happens to kids who immigrated at a young age) ended up doing poorly in school, abusing substances or otherwise acting "ghetto" like the girl in the NYT article. My husband has made it clear to our kids that "ghetto" speech, dress and attitudes are not welcome in our home and that anyone who has a problem with this policy is welcome to go back to Africa to live with relatives (usually this comes with a reminder like, "did you know that 5 gallons of water weighs 40 pounds? Forty pounds is a lot to carry on your head....."

    I think a lot of Black Americans interpret African immigrants as being snobbish (or dare I say uppity?) but the root is a deep fear that our kids will grow up to be entitled and lazy.

    I'm flattered by the eagerness for a response, but I really don't know what there is to say. I think if you truly believe that "African immigrants are snobbish" you should avoid "African immigrants" at all costs. I'm sure said immigrants would appreciate it. Greatly.

    Likewise, if you really believe that the negative potency of native black kids is such that mere socializing will cause your "kids to grow up and act ghetto" then you should avoid native black kids. As the father of a "native black kid" and, as the partner of a native born black woman, as someone who has grown up and regularly acts ghetto, I can tell you that we would, likewise, appreciate it. Greatly.

    I generally avoid talking to people who insist on thinking in broad generalities. I imagine a lot of Africans, immigrants or not, could understand why. I'm a fan of people's right to be as prejudice as they wish. But I think those who truly believe in their prejudice shouldn't talk our ears off--they should get to stepping.

    The prejudiced mind has made its judgment--that's what it means to be prejudiced. Life is too short to spend it washing other people's laundry. These are my personal limitations. Better men than me can spend their hours disabusing people of their notions. I have my own issues to wrestle with.

    As to the article, I didn't get the sense that the Latinos were blaming their own issues on black culture. Nevertheless, if you want to credit us with MS-13, we'll take that. Whatever you need to get through the day. That's what we're here for.

  • First We Get All The Lawyers

    Emily Bazelon offers the following:

    That footnote also demonstrates why if we're going to investigate or prosecute anyone, it shouldn't be the agents on the scene. In the wake of Obama's carefully crafted statement fending off prosecution for anyone who relied in good-faith on the DoJ memos, some commentators have called for looking into whether CIA agents could go down for torturing before the memos were written in August 2002. This seems wrong to me. If we went that route, we'd get around version of Abu Ghraib: a few low-level scapegoats standing in for their far more culpable superiors. Much more interesting is another possibility Obama left open: going after the lawyers who wrote the memos and the officials who demanded and approved them--David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, Jim Haynes. Rahm Emanuel told George Stephanopoulos on Sunday that Obama believes that "those who devised policy... should not be prosecuted either." But what about disbarment? And impeachment for Jay Bybee, the torture memo author who got life tenure on the 9th Circuit? It would be a start. If you think these memos are good lawyering, then you don't deserve to be a lawyer. That's a lesson the bar should desperately want to impart.

    On thing that I've wondered for some time is why we expect the Attorney General, appointed by the president, to actually be independent of the president. I don't have a good answer there. But it seems like the very nature of the appointment process lends itself to corruption.

  • When I Get Challenged By A Million MCs

    Seeing KRS-ONE used to a rite of passage--like going to Mecca. I saw him circa 95 at The Ritz in D.C. Kool G Rap was supposed to open up, but didn't show. Kris existed in our minds as a kind of myth, so much so that when he came out on stage, and they played the baseline to The Bridge Is Over he didn't even have to say anything. He just kind of stood there and looked at the crowd which was going nuts. Something about the first few bars. They just take you to another place. Needless to say he gave a great show.

    Many years later I saw Bjork, and was convinced that hip-hop, live, just couldn't compete. I mean this chick was out on Coney Island, the ocean at her back, fireworks going off in the distance, jets of flame shooting up whenever she bellowed "state of emregency" from "Joga." Meanwhile some dude was cutting on the turntables, and she had a string section doing work. Was amazing. Still a KRS show holds a special place in my heart. Maybe we shouldn't compare. But what the hell. I'm no fucking Bhuddist.



  • Black Immigrants (Again)

    In a blog post entitled "Africans Still Trumping American Blacks," Keith Josef Adkins observes:

    In 2004 Dr. Henry Louis Gates insisted that African and Caribbean immigrants as well as bi-racial students were trumping American Blacks in numbers at top-ranked universities.  In 2008 I blogged extensively about my experience within the Afropolitan culture, the social/intellectual circle where Africans [from abroad and second-generation] mingle and organic global consciousness is commonplace.  My 2008 assessment?  Africans and Caribbeans were trumping American blacks on the corporate climb as well as the artistic.

    I couldn't decide whether I should address this or not. I think this was written with the intent of garnering more heat than light--or without regard to either. I can't know a man's heart, but I suspect that when you use a phrase like "trumping American blacks" you aren't exactly interested in reflection or conversation. I think anyone with any serious knowledge of how immigration works, understands the problem with comparing self-selecting group to a native mass. Indeed, if you follow through to the original article you'll note that immigrant blacks aren't just doing better in these areas than native-born blacks, they're doing better than whites also:

    The data showed that 75 percent of first- or second-generation immigrant blacks enrolled in college after high school. For whites, the figure was 72 percent. For blacks whose families had been in this country for more than two generations, only 60 percent of high school graduates went on to college.

    Slightly more than 9 percent of immigrant black high school graduates enrolled at the nation's most selective colleges. Only 2.4 percent of native-born blacks and 7 percent of whites enrolled at these schools.

    I'm not really surprised by any of this, and I'm not sure why anyone else with a cursory knowledge of immigration history would be. And yet we keep hearing this whisper. In the context which Gates raised the issue--around Affirmative Action, not who's trumping who--I think it does, indeed, point of the problem with race-based AA. But beyond that, I don't know what else to say.

    And now allow me to digress to a broader, more existential dilemma. Every time I read something like "Africans Still Trumping American Blacks" I'm struck by the fundamental limitations of argument and dialouge and consequently the limits of blogging. One of my great qualms about this whole enterprise is that settled debates are rehashed, not because of new evidence, but because of the nature of punditry, because of a profession (??) that boils down to a kind of vulgar exhibitionism.

    Punditry is often disparaged as a sport or theater--but this is demeaning to sports and actual theater. It's more like wrestling--it cloaks itself in the veneer of truth-seeking, but beneath the surface is all the bombast and overstatement that can be mustered. Except wrestling bills itself as entertainment and punditry is self-regarding. Thus even this comparison may be demeaning to wrestling. 

    I don't mean to come down on Adkins--anyone who's watched Sunday talk shows knows this is the form argument has taken. Nor do I mean to absolve myself. I have, in my time, allowed outrage to get the best of me. But it's something to turn that outrage into a mode of argument, into a business model.

  • Open Thread At Noon

    To cut down on threadjacking, there will be more of these. I keep thinking this is my house. And it kinda is, and then not really. 

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