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.

  • Abuse And Responsibility

    This is at the bottom of the spousal abuse thread. It's a shame that it got buried. It's worth pulling out, as I think it points to a rather difficult catch-22. How do you empower people without giving them agency and responsibility? And how do you tell them any agency and responsibility, without blame?

    I once heard Bill Cosby try this while talking to some kids in jail, most of them who had been abandoned by their father's. He told them that someone had hurt them, and that that wasn't their fault, but that, ultimately, they'd be the ones who'd have to fix it. It's an unfair deal. But there's really no other way. Anyway, here's someone who'd know better than me:

    There's a lot going on in this comments thread. And I haven't taken the time to carefully read all of it, though I've had a good skim over it. Honestly, I can't quite bring myself to read all of this in too much detail. My hands are already shaking just having read the piece Ta-Nehisi linked to.

    I'm an abuse survivor, and Linda Hirshman's piece and the majority of these comments just don't have anything to do with my experience. I'm not doing a very good job structuring an argument here because, well, I'm not looking to be logically compelling, refute points, or even advance any particular assertion...except that I would really encourage everyone who is discussing this stuff here, and Hirschman, if they want to understand why women stay in abusive relationships, to trying asking a woman who was in one. And then five or ten more, because reasons vary a lot.

    Somebody wrote something above, poking fun at an abused woman because "he left HER ass" or something to that effect. Well, I was left by my abuser and not the other way around. It took me a year after he left to figure out that it was abuse. If you want to ridicule someone, ridicule me. When I got together with my abuser, I was the head of a feminist organization at the university I attended. My feminism didn't prevent me from getting into an abusive relationship, unfortunately--in large part because, like others mentioned here, I thought it was something that happened to other people. Once the abuse began, I was so ashamed of having gotten into that relationship that it prevented me from reaching out to others and getting out. The problem wasn't that I was a feminist, of course. It was that although I was a feminist, I didn't know enough about intimate partner violence--both how to recognize it in its initial stages and the fact that the shame that isolates you from others is one of the most potent tools that abusers have.


    I've been in support groups with a wide variety of women who've been through domestic abuse, and if there's one thing I can tell you about all of them, it's that they are in no danger of not taking responsibility for their abuse. The struggle, actually, is to begin to hold your abuser responsible for what they did and to stop being so paralyzed by shame that you can't heal. The fact is, women who are abused are getting the message every day that's it their fault--from their abusers. It's hard sometimes to walk the line between denying women's agency and avoiding blame. I understand why people have a hard time finding a balance between the two. But if what you really care about is the well-being of abused women and not some kind of abstract notion of personal responsibility that it's tempting to apply to them, it's not that difficult: don't apply blame, or anything that is likely to sound to an abused woman like blame. Because shame, guilt, and blame are the basis of abuse. My shame hurt so much more than the blows I suffered. And every time I felt more shame, it pushed me further into my self-destructive relationship and made me feel that I had less agency.

    I don't know if I'm actually getting this across very well, but I felt compelled to say something about this. There's been a lot of "I don't really know much about this, but here's my two cents" kind of talk on this thread. I would ask that people please try to refrain from making spurious assumptions about domestic abuse. Please, if you're really interested, read some good books about it, or if you know a woman who's been through it who is willing to talk, ask her what her experience was like. Or, heck, ask me. Mostly I would just ask that you open your mind to the possibility that maybe you don't already understand everything about this topic. Because being in an abusive relationship feels really different from imagining you are in one.

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  • Let's Do This Like A Prison Break

    A while back a buddy of mine was critiquing the whole "white people can't dance" thing. His point was that so many black kids, historically, grow up in conditions where all you have to control is your body. You have no other real way to demonstrate power, and so "body control" becomes a measure of power. Indeed the great popular dancers in our cosmology--James Brown, Michael Jackson etc.--had so much control that it almost seemed like they weren't even exerting any. They looked they weren't trying.

    Anyway, he was saying that whenever he hears black people brag about being able to dance better than white folks, he has to laugh to himself. It's like a kid from Harlem bragging to some Wall Street dude about the width of his gold rope. "You have to be able to dance," my buddy said.  "because you have nothing else." On the contrary, when you see that white dude out on the floor, he's free to just enjoy himself. He has nothing at stake--nothing hanging in the balance. For us it's ritual. But for them--it's just a good time. And they're free to do that. Hell, we wish we lived in a world where we couldn't dance.

    I thought of that convo watching this beautiful YYY's performance. Karen O is jumping around, doing what we imagine when we say the "white girl thing." It's quite thrilling--she's leaping all over the place, and there's a kind of submission to herself at work, a sense that she could care less who's watching. And the crowd just loves it. As for me, I desperately wanted her to stop. Because the whole time, thrilling as it was, I was afraid she was going to fall...

    UPDATE: For the record, the kid can't dance a lick either. My folks didn't celebrate holidays. I missed all those chances at family dinners to get my coordination right.

  • More On Cuba

    Again, this comment is worth pulling out. From frequent commenter Eduardo who is, himself, Cuban-American:

    I have been working so much and I am very tired. I am equally tired of those people who claim themselves to be for the little guy, democracy and all that, and then cannot understand that if a country --a Western country at that-- is ruled by 50 years by one guy and his brother without elections or opposition or freedom of press etc that is a cruel, brutal tyranny. These people are simply stupid or lack empathy.

    Sometimes people ask me why Cubans vote so overwhelmingly Republican despite that anybody who knows us a little bit knows we are neither social conservatives and probably are to the left on economic issues. Well, here is your answer. And it is not just them, it is Michael Moore, and Stone, and a big long etc.

    I get the politics of the 60s and the 70s. I understand that the Vietnam-era was a different dynamic. But today, in the 21st century, in the era of Barack Obama, I have no idea how any lefty can say of Castro, "It was like listening to an old friend." Here is Human Rights Watch on Castro's Cuba:

    Over the past forty years, Cuba has developed a highly effective machinery of repression. The denial of basic civil and political rights is written into Cuban law. In the name of legality, armed security forces, aided by state-controlled mass organizations, silence dissent with heavy prison terms, threats of prosecution, harassment, or exile. Cuba uses these tools to restrict severely the exercise of fundamental human rights of expression, association, and assembly. The conditions in Cuba's prisons are inhuman, and political prisoners suffer additional degrading treatment and torture. In recent years, Cuba has added new repressive laws and continued prosecuting nonviolent dissidents while shrugging off international appeals for reform and placating visiting dignitaries with occasional releases of political prisoners.=

    Check out the report, the best part is that it ends by calling out the insanity of the embargo. But my point is that it's weak to act like Castro is consistent with best of the progressive tradition. It's weak to call out Dick Cheney here, and cheer on Castro over there. It's weak to shout apartheid at Israel, and then turn around and applaud Castro. It's weak to say, "Yeah, I hear you but..." Either repressively ruling a country for half a century and then conspiring to pass power to your brother, is wrong or it isn't. We have to choose. Or we have to be jesters.

  • When You Love Someone Who Chokes You

    Since we started with the whole "I want to break your back" thing, I figure we should just go full bore. Here's Linda Hirshman discussing victims of domestic violence, and the victims responsibility. Here's she's talking about Morgan Steiner's memoir, Crazy Love:

     In this latest episode of bad choices, her future husband gave her clear warning. Once when they were having sex, long before they got engaged, he choked her until she almost passed out and informed her that he "owned" her before he came. Still, she made herself available for the hurting. Since the relationship ends when he walks out of their apartment after three years of marriage, we never know if she would have left on her own.
    In the press kit for Crazy Love, Steiner says it's easy to see why she married someone who choked her on a regular basis. She was, she says, "kind, insecure and desperate for intimacy. ... It is not difficult to understand why anyone ... could become trapped in an intimate manipulative relationship." She also relentlessly reminds the reader that she is a WASP of impeccable ancestry and therefore an improbable abuse victim. "All my family is blond," Steiner writes. "I do not look the part." Her abuser was blond, too. It was the first thing she noticed about him. She also acknowledges that she should have picked up on the warnings he littered behind him.

    Steiner is wrong: It is difficult to understand why she stayed in this awful relationship, given that she was not risking starvation and had no children with her abuser. Which is why, no matter how many times Steiner and Marcotte and the others tell them not to, people keep asking the question. And it's terribly important to do exactly that. Asking why women participate in destructive relationships is a mark of respect. The amazing thing is that, four decades after the birth of feminism, we are still arguing about it.

    I have no idea why anyone would think that blonde hair is a force-field against crazy. Perhaps thinking that there's a physical profile for battered women is part of the problem. But I digress, folks should read the whole piece. Again, I'm a lapsed nationalist--and there is weird gender nationalism going on in this piece that I actually respect and agree with. One good thing about nationalism, is that it knows how to hold individuals responsible without letting its persecutors off the hook. I don't think Hirshman is arguing that Rihanna rammed her face into Chris Brown's fist. But on some level, people have to be responsible for their lives. Saying that doesn't make Chris Brown any less of a dirt-bag.

  • Two Thoughts Can't Occupy The Lame Brain At The Same Time

    It's against the laws of physics, and apparently against the creed of the Congressional Black Caucus. Here's Bobby Rush having returned from Cuba on a trip with the CBC:

    Lee and others heaped praise on Castro, calling him warm and receptive during their discussion. But the lawmakers disputed Castro's later statement that members of the congressional delegation said American society is still racist.

    "It was quite a moment to behold," Lee said, recalling her moments with Castro.

    "It was almost like listening to an old friend," said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Il.), adding that he found Castro's home to be modest and Castro's wife to be particularly hospitable.

    "In my household I told Castro he is known as the ultimate survivor," Rush said.

    Right. I get that the embargo hasn't worked. I get that it's bad policy. But dude, he's a dictator. And no amount of subject-changing can get around that fact.

    UPDATE: I just want to emphasize the point is to reject dichotomy. You don't have to endorse American Cuban policy, to understand that no one can makes you become a despot. No one makes you lock up artists and intellectuals. No one makes you spend 50 years as the head of a totalitarian state. America didn't make Castro a dictator, anymore than Castro made America embark on a failed embargo policy. Two people arguing can both be wrong.

  • A Courageous Act Of Journalism

    Seriously, this is amazing:

    The new evidence -- including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s -- contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.

    That was written by two Washington Post reporters. And they aren't alone. I think it's truly weak that Will's editors stood by his efforts to misrepresent climate change data. In the face of such weakness, Will, of course, didn't back down but was emboldened. It's great to see reporters not just avoiding on-the-other-handism, but actually challenging someone in their midst.

    But I have a deeper question. Why is Will even fighting this one? Why can't the "sensible" right let this go? The other day I watched David Frum and my colleague Reihan Salam argue on Bill Maher about climate change. They weren't backing denialism, but Frum kept arguing that liberals are alarmists, and Al Gore's overstated the data. But I kept thinking, why would anyone ever listen to anything David Frum has to say about climate change?

    That's not fair--which is really my point. Will's denialism tarnishes the conservative brand. It also makes it hard to take lectures about "liberal alarmism" on climate change seriously. There's a basic credibility problem. Any argument that sees Al Gore and George Will as two sides of the same problem isn't serious. And taking advice from a guy who worked for George Bush on how to proceed on climate change will always be laughable.

  • Gay Marriage And The District

    The D.C. Council just voted--unanimously--to recognize gay marriages from other states. The next step will likely be voting to legalize gay marriage period. Andrew frets:

    This is particularly appealing to the Rove wing of the GOP, because they can use black homophobia as a wedge issue. DC is a perfect place to pit gays and straight, religious African-Americans, and we know that Republicanism as it has evolved under Rove is almost defined by finding groups of Americans to pit against each other.

    Hmm, not to minimize, but I don't think that's likely. Unlike, other municipalities, I don't think this is going to be a ballot initiative. Even if it were, the dynamics in a city like D.C. are unique. D.C. is a city that (with Congressional approval) passes it's own laws. Because of the relative size of the city, and it's history, I doubt a gay marriage initiative would play out like it would in, say, Alabama. You can be black and live in Alabama and never see anything like a Dupont Circle--or what Dupont Circle used to be, I guess.

    It's not that there isn't any homophobia in black D.C.--there most certainly is--it's that the fight isn't exactly new in the city. There is no Phillip Pannell, for instance, in Alabama. State legislators don't have to deal with a Jim Graham, or a David Catania, in the way you have to in the District, given that there are only 13 members on the D.C. Council. Also, and I could be wrong about this, it seems like the politically active gay community in D.C. is as organized, and as powerful as they are anywhere else in the country. 

    The other thing is that homophobia--intense as it is--doesn't trump all. Black people don't like Republicans--but black people in D.C. hate Republicans. Part of it is the truly ugly history of putting Southern bigots in charge of D.C.'s affairs. But more presently, Republicans are seen as the main obstacle between the city and statehood. D.C. may be the only place where Karl Rove could actually help gay marriage activists.

  • On Breaking Backs

    In relation to the TVOTR post, Rudimudi offers a woman's perspective on that "I wanna break your back" line. I think it's worth teasing this out some:

    I was with you on this until you got to the "I wanna break your back" part. I'm not sure that the violent desire you describe is better than the macho posing. Or rather, I don't know if this sort of desire for women SHOULD be considered an authentic expression of masculinity. It seems to me that both attitudes are rooted in the same sort of patriarchal disposition toward women. We often attack the first one because it manifests itself in pretty obvious ways(and also, causes people to make bad records). But speaking as a woman, it freaks ME out to read that an authentic description of how some men feel when we walk in the room is the desire to violently possess us. You say there is a crucial distinction between "wanting" to do it and knowing that you're "going" to do it. I don't understand that. I guess what I'm trying to say is, at the end of the day, the way you understand sexual desire for women is still rooted in ideas of dominance. I don't see the vulnerability there, except for the fact that the language is different.


    ...didn't take it to mean that this song suggests doing bodily harm to women. I was speaking more to the ideology that that kind of language reflects. I recently read a piece by Catherine MacKinnon, and she talked about how the way that we conceptualize sex and desire is ultimately grounded in the idea that it is natural for men to dominate women. Porn, snuff films, rape, etc are the most blatant examples of this, but she argues that this attitude trickles down into even normal, consensual relationships between men and women. Ta-Nehisi himself is evidently somewhat aware of this connection, since he cops to feeling like its pornographic and "borderline violent" to express lust in that way. And he's right, it is. In fact, it's not borderline violent; it's violent. Cultural understandings of lust, desire, etc are informed by ideas of domination and subordination.

    So I was just troubled by the fact that Ta-Nehisi was writing as if that approach is a more mature, more nuanced way of looking at women. To me, it's the same, albeit more articulate. In other words, I don't agree that it's just human nature---people are socialized into conceptualizing sexuality that way, even women. The only difference is that women are often taught to be the willing recipients of sexual acts, of desiring to be that dimepiece who sets off sexual fantasies.

    Hmmm. Well it only felt pornographic because I'm blogging at the Atlantic. There is, believe it or not, still some element of puritanism running through me. But to the broader point, I don't know where the nature/nurture thing begins and ends for sexual desire. I guess it's possible that we're socialized in certain terrible ways about sex. The whole conceit in horror flicks of killing sexually active young women freaks me the fuck out. Likewise, I've never gotten the appeal of the pimp aesthetic.

    That said, all I have to offer here is some modest life-experience. The kid was never Denzel, so you can take this for what it's worth. My limited experience tells me that both men and women enjoy, at times, dominating and being dominated. My limited experience tells me you'll be shocked by who pulls out the handcuffs, and what they plan to do with them. My limited experience tells me that the key thing, that all people want, is a choice.

    Objectification isn't simply wanting someone physically--it's a denial of their right to choose, it's a denial of their will, their independence, their agency. The person literally becomes an object. That's where, I think, so much of hip-hop goes wrong--black women are rarely given the sort of agency, that any dude who's lived in a hood knows that they exhibit on a daily.


    Men have a lot of trouble with that agency idea--indeed we live in fear of it. Ever had a dude hit on you on the street, and when you ignore him, he yells something completely out of line? ("Fuck you bitch," or some such?) That's a dude who has yet to acclimate himself to the fact that women get to choose who they want to talk to. It is again, the heaping of their insecurities on to someone else. There's a Dr. Dre joint (the title of which I'm blanking on) where in the video, an attractive woman strolls into a party with a rather uppity look. She scorns all the men, and is rewarded by having beer sprayed on to her. The implicit point being that she doesn't have the right to choose. She is the property of the first nigger that approaches.

    The difference between the lyric that brags about what it's going to do (the will of the recipient plays no part) and the lyric that expresses what it would like to do, is the absence of agency. The great thing about that TVOTR lyric, and about the whole song, is that doesn't simply express a desire to dominate, it expresses a desire for the perspective dominee to want the same ("I want to love you all the way off..."). It's a request for submission, and on some level, isn't that what love and sex are about?

    Perhaps that's some foul, fucked up sexually backward shit. I know I can relate--but I could just be a demented perv. But I know a lot of brothers who feel the same way. Maybe that only proves that demented, sexist pervs run together. I don't know. When it comes to these matters my ability to theorize is quite limited. I don't know how much ideology can be applied to who likes what, and why they like it. I don't know if there is a standard of sexual attraction that can be called wholesome. We are all animals. And sometimes we feel that way.

    I didn't address the violent aspect of it, sorry. Again, I think that's an expression of the sort of force the attraction hits you with. I don't know what to say, except that when I hear that song, I know exactly how that feels. And, in my talks with other brothers, it expresses how they feel. I think women who want to know what dudes are thinking should listen to more TVOTR. You might not like what you hear. But, then, I'm not sure we'd like it much if things were reversed.

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  • Drug Warring

    One frequent retort to the notion that blacks pay a particularly high price for the drug war, is the argument that this is the case because blacks do a disproportionate share of the dealing. Probably not. Here's Jacob Sullum (via Andrew, again) replying to Jonah Goldberg:

    Goldberg assumes that blacks are disproportionately arrested for selling drugs because they are "disproportionately in this line of work." That is not at all clear. Considerable research, including studies by the National Institute of Justice, indicates that drug users tend to buy from people of the same racial or ethnic group. (This report [PDF] includes a quick summary of the research.) Given this pattern, since whites are about as likely as blacks to use illegal drugs, they should be about as likely to sell them. Yet blacks, who represent 13 percent of the general population, account for about 40 percent of drug offenders in federal prison and 45 percent of drug offenders in state prison (PDF). 

    Further evidence that blacks' disproportionate share of drug arrests cannot be explained by disproportionate involvement with drugs comes from New York City's little-noticed crackdown on pot smokers under Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Survey data indicate that among 18-to-25-year-olds, the age group where these pot busts are concentrated, whites are more likely than blacks or Hispanics to smoke marijuana. Yet a 2008 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that in the Big Apple blacks and Hispanics are, respectively, five and three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession...

    Read the post, there's a lot of great stuff in there. The tough thing about drug law is it require that you accept that, while two groups will commit a crime at the same rate, one group will be more harshly punished. I was just wondering how far this goes. In a country like ours, wealth will always impact, not just crime rates, but actual sentencing. The better representation you can afford, the more likely it is that you'll get off or get a lighter sentence--regardless of what  crime you've committed.

    Thus on some level, we're going to have to expect that poor people are going to suffer more than those who aren't poor. The troubling thing about the drug war is that it, as Jacob notes, it doesn't simply hit blacks harder, it actually has racist roots. At some point it seems fair to say, Look these folks have been screwed over pretty royally. Let's do what we can to not make it worse.

  • What The Geese Are All Roaring About

    I simply couldn't make it through the new Eminem video--you know the one where he waxes humorously about sex with Sarah Palin. Part of it is the fact that, skills aside, Eminem is a bully. Rap beefs are played, no doubt, but no one has picked weaker opponents than Eminem. Here is guy who feuded with Britney Spears and Christina Aguliera. Kim Kardashian? Come on killer, at least lick a few hot ones at Ray J.

    But there's also a bigger issue that's been plaguing me about hip-hop. The music has always caught its share of criticism for misogyny/sexism. But I actually think that doesn't quite get at the problem. When you listen to hip-hop, even much of the golden-age stuff, you get the feeling that for all the pimp talk, for all the "I'm a player" posing, you get the feeling that you're listening to a group of dudes who don't know much about women, and--worse--don't know much about themselves.

    One of the reasons I've always had a semi-beef with "One More Chance" (I say semi, because I will dance if it's played at a party) is because it's basically a battle rap, in which women are the objects. There's this weird dissonance--you've got this laid-back track, perfect for setting the mood (cool, cool), you've got Big playing the Lothario role (tell em how you do it, Big), but then you listen to the lyrics and you realize that what you're hearing is not a dude spitting game at a honey, but a dude talking to another dude.

    Hip-hop, it seems, is music for dudes--even when it's not. There's a lot of hip-hop that communicates being into girls, because it impresses your friends, but not as much that communicates being into girls because, uhm, you're heterosexual. I think that's because the expression of want, the communication of deeply felt need, implies vulnerability. It implies the possibility of failure, of disappointment. Hip-Hop is at its best when it gives in to that vulnerability, but that's never been the norm.

    This isn't about not being sexist, or being respectful, or gentlemanly, or even nice--it's about being in touch with yourself. (That phrasing is unfortunate, but perhaps too true.) I first got this while thinking on my favorite TV On The Radio joints--"Wolf Like Me," "Lover's Day," "Poppy" etc. Music aside, "Wolf Like Me" and "Lover's Day" perfectly describe the filthy, impolite thoughts that flood men daily, and simply overrun them when they see that girl:

    Charge me your day rate,
    I'll turn you round in kind.
    When the moon is round and fool,
    Gonna teach you tricks that'll blow your mongrel mind


    Oh but the longing is terrible,
    Once a heart under attack
    I want to love you, all the way off,
    I wanna to break your back.

    It feels pornographic to even write this, but that "I wanna break your back" line is so key. It really describes how it really feels--not polite, not debonair, not chivalrous--but incredibly visceral, and borderline violent. Moreover, the "want" is so important, as it describes desire, not ability. In a rapper's hands that line would be "I'm going to break you back."

    It's true hip-hop has a problem respecting women, but this is a symptom of deeper truth--the music doesn't respect men. It doesn't respect that essentially male moment, when standing at the bus stop, when sitting in English class, when in that sales meeting, a dime-piece floats past, and cognition stops. It doesn't respect the exhilarating terror of being attracted to a woman. To cop to that violates the pimp ethos. One can't be out of control, and be the player president.

    There are, obviously, exceptions--Outkast being the most significant. There's also the obvious caveat that hip-hop's audience has always been young boys. But I've felt this way since I was 13 puzzling over "A Bitch Is A Bitch." The music very much described the mask I adopted to walk the streets. But it never described how felt about females, or even the mask I adopted to try to talk to them. Maybe that was the problem. But somehow, I doubt it.

    We talked last week about bigotry as heaping your insecurities on to someone else. That's what hip-hop's women issues ultimately come down. Instead of making art from that honest place of admitting your vulnerability rappers, like a lot of dude's, run from it. It's a shame. We could use more Outkast.

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