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.

  • White Music For Black People

    Some initial impressions on the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs joint. I really, really like Karen O's voice, and I can't even tell you why. It really is the weirdest thing. I didn't come up in the church, but like a lot of black folks, my ideal is Aretha--in other words when I say I like someone's voice, I'm usually saying I think they can blow. I don't think Karen O "can blow." And I don't much care. She makes me feel like singing. I don't know what else to say about that. Besides, we live in an age of oversinging--too many motherfuckers doing the technical Aretha thing, but without any real passion.

    More on the album itself--I think I must be the only person who's liked each one of the YYY albums better than the last. I know Show Your Bones had its critics. I think It's Blitz may be my favorite--but I should give it more time. "Dragon Queen," "Soft Shock," "Hysteric" and "Little Shadow" are just great.

    I think my opinions are shaped by basically missing any music created by white people during the mid to late 80s. Kids like me would have been dismissed as "acting white" for listening to a ban like the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs. OK, that's dishonest--I would have been the one doing the dismissing. What can I say? I was young and stupid, and thought the Bomb Squad and Marle Marl created the world. To get a listen from me, you had to run game--think George Michael who half my hood thought was black. We couldn't get cable in the city, and so we missed a lot of videos. (Hell, even Madonna got cut off, post "Get Into The Goove.")

    Kenyatta, who did listen to a lot of white 80s acts, was saying how much of the stuff I'm digging today is derived from her childhood. I can vaguely hear that. But not really. The YYYs offer a shot at redemption, a chance at forgiveness for that imaginary black kid who I mocked as white because he dug Flock Of Seagulls. Forgive me Derwin. Everyone else, cop It's Blitz. Derwin already has it.

  • Tell Us How You Really Feel, Rod

    Hilzoy pulls out this amazing nugget from a Dreher post on homosexuality:

    If homosexuality is legitimized -- as distinct from being tolerated, which I generally support -- then it represents the culmination of the sexual revolution, the goal of which was to make individual desire the sole legitimate arbiter in defining sexual truth. It is to lock in, and, on a legal front, to codify, a purely contractual, nihilistic view of human sexuality. I believe this would be a profound distortion of what it means to be fully human. And I fully expect to lose this argument in the main, because even most conservatives today don't fully grasp how the logic of what we've already conceded as a result of being modern leads to this end.

    There are these moments when, even during polite dialouge, you have to concede that you aren't living in the same world as other people. I'm at one of those moments. The idea that two gay cats marrying "would be a profound distortion of what it means to be fully human" leaves me flabbergasted. I thought "Rock Of Love" took care of that. But again we see a social conservatism that defines itself by a stigma of others, by an insistence that it has monopoly on what it means to be human, that the world would be a better place if we had more Ted Haggards, not less.

  • Justice Delayed

    Matt swats at Bob Gates for delaying the death of Don't Ask, Don't Tell:

    It's simply the nature of the military that this "a lot on our plates right now" excuse will almost always be available. In retrospect, the 1990s were a period of relative peace and quiet for the military, but at the time it was seen as a stressful period of multiple deployments (to Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia) around the world mixed with efforts at containment in the Gulf and the Korean peninsula. The Joint Chiefs are never going to say "eh . . . we don't really have much going on these days."

    Meanwhile, racial desegregation of the military actually required a large number of active steps and was successfully carried out near the peak of Cold War tensions. The biggest step toward ending discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military would be the passive step of just not discriminating against them. Gay and lesbian soldiers are already serving. Gates could just decide that with as much on his plate as he has at the moment, he'll make sure we stop persecuting them.

  • Fucking Racist

    I'm on the journolist e-mail list, and thus by definition, a closet liberal. I don't talk much on the list, preferring to embarrass myself publicly. On that note, I don't think it's crazy to call someone "a fucking racist" for saying the following:

    Well, I am extremely pessimistic about Mexican-American relations, not because the U.S. had done anything specifically wrong to our southern neighbor but because a (now not quite so) wealthy country has as its abutter a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counter-culture and increasingly violent modes of conflict. Then, there is the Mexican diaspora in America, hard-working and patriotic but mired in its untold numbers of illegals, about whom no one can talk with candor.

    I think a racist would claim that Mexican society is "congenitally corrupt." I think a racist would disparage "sub-tropical work habits." (There would be no slaves in the past, and no construction workers in the present without those habits.) But it takes a fucking racist to say all of that,and then assert that "no one can talk with candor" about illegal immigrants. Understand the difference--the racist simply argues that you are less than. The fucking racist argues he isn't allowed to say you are less than, right after he's said as much. The former deserves a dis track. The latter, only half a bar. Which means, I've already said too much.

  • Thinking Big

    The BigThink people had me in for a session. Here's one clip. More later. Now, seriously, I'm off to talk to some kids. I know, I know. I wish I could quit you.


  • Obama And Pot

    I agree with Andrew. I love Obama's sense of humor. His answer was funny. But then not really. I'd rather hear jokes after marijuana legalization actually gets a fair hearing.

  • Criminal Justice Week Continues

    Ross offers a response to my response on conservatives and justice policy:

    Here we have an issue - the design of our criminal-justice system - that's of burning concern to the African-American community. It's not an easy issue to wrestle with by any stretch: My preferred approach to reform, for instance, would marry a reduced incarceration rate to a substantial increase in the police presence on America's streets, which if implemented clumsily (as most policy shifts are) could mean fewer black men behind bars, but more tragedies like the death of Ta-Nehisi's friend. But it's also an issue where conservatives could embrace policy shifts without compromising their core beliefs - the question of where to strike the "build prisons or hire cops" balance is a practical rather than a philosophical one - and in the process, I think, substantially change the way the Republican Party is perceived in the black community. Also, it would be the right thing to do. 

    This is something I think that arguments like Steele's - which are common on the American Right - lose sight of. As I remarked in the context of the Europe-or-America debate, there are a lot of big-picture political issues that boil down to philosophical differences, and that can't (and shouldn't) be resolved or finessed through clever policy thinking. But there are also a lot of political issues that boil down a question of resource allocation: We're going to spend X dollars on prisons and police (or on the military, or on the school system or the highways or what-have-you), and the question is how. And getting that "how" right can make an awfully big difference - to the African-American community, and to many other people as well.

    I basically agree with this, and I think, if, say, a Mike Huckabee, took this stance, he'd find a lot of allies in places where Republicans traditionally don't. I do think it's worth looking a little harder at the Shelby Steele argument that Ross is referencing. Steele basically argues that the GOP won't have much success recruiting blacks because our identity is built on alienation and grievance. I think the GOP won't have much success if it listens to people like Steele.

    Steele's argument that black people exist in a "grievance-focused identity" is kind of amazing, given that he supports a party who held grievence as an integral part of their strategy. What was the Nixonesque "us against them" rhetoric, but grievance? What was the silent majority, if not a grievance? What was Sarah Palin's small town snobbery? Oh, right. That's not grievance. That's patriotism. In all seriousness, I don't know how you become a politician if you fon't have a grievance--that's the point.

    Anyway, let us remember how Steele's poster-child for black grievance, Al Sharpton, did amongst black voters:

    Mr. Sharpton's showing in the other state primaries was even worse, but he had staked his credibility on South Carolina, spending more time here than in any other state, hoping the large number of black voters would accept him as the defender of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy.

    Yet polls of voters who had cast ballots showed that he had received 19 percent of the black vote as against 32 percent for Mr. Kerry and 36 percent for Mr. Edwards.

    Let us also remember  that Steele claimed Barack Obama would lose largely because black people wouldn't support him if he wasn't grievance-focused. That's the sort of proclamation that comes from spending too much time on a campus and at conferences, and not enough time at cook-outs and barber-shops. Steele's analysis of black people always amazes me, because there are rarely any actual recognizable people being discussed. What we mostly get are symbols and automatons, ripped from some debate circa 1994 between him and Cornel West. His columns always give me that feeling of watching a lit professor deconstruct a text.

    Sorry for the digression. The upshot is that I think Ross is right. It's also that I'd do well to spend less time annoyed by Steele. One day I'll be as humble as my rhetoric.

  • Variations On A Theme

    I don't mean to make this Criminal Justice Day at the Atlantic, but a comment just linked this incredible story, that must be read to be believed:

    Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle stood in front of a dozen news cameras this afternoon at police headquarters to apologize for the behavior of an officer who stopped a family outside a hospital emergency room.

    "His behavior in my opinion, did not exhibit the common sense, discretion, the compassion that we expect our officers to exhibit," the chief told a packed audience of media outlets that included Inside Edition.

    During the traffic stop, caught on the officer's in-car camera, Powell berated the driver, 26-year-old NFL running back Ryan Moats, and threatened him with arrest for running a traffic light.

    "I can screw you over," said Powell, 25. "I'd rather not do that.

    Moats was speeding because his mother-in-law was upstairs dying. He recieved a call that he and his wife should get to the hospital if they wanted to see the woman before she passed. Moats explained this several times, the cop did not care.

    The chief also praised Moats and his family for how they handled the officer's behavior.

    "They exercised extraordinary patience, restraint, dealing with the behavior of our officer," Kunkle said. "At no time did Mr. Moats identify himself as an NFL football player or expect any kind of special consideration. He handled himself very, very well."

    Moats rolled through a red light as he and his wife were en route to Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano. A Dallas police squad car pulled their SUV over near the hospital's emergency entrance.

    Moats and his wife implored the officer to let them hurry on to the bedside of her ill mother.

    "You really want to go through this right now?" Moats pleaded. "My mother-in-law is dying. Right now!"

    His wife, Tamishia Moats, said Powell "was pointing a gun at me as soon as I got out of the car. It was the weirdest feeling because I've never had a gun pointed at me before under those circumstances."

    Powell then spent long minutes writing Moats a ticket and threatening him with arrest...
    Read the whole story. It's pretty shocking, in all kinds of ways. The officer did this despite the fact that his camera was recording the stop. You really have to wonder what would happen if this dude had not have been a ball-player. Also, check out Moats response to the cop. I think a lot of black men will relate. It reminded me so much of how my mother taught me to deal with the police.
  • On the other hand...

    This is ridiculous:

    About 60 people marched and rallied in Oakland on Wednesday to condemn the police and honor Lovelle Mixon, who was killed by Oakland police after he fatally shot four officers Saturday...
    "OPD you can't hide - we charge you with genocide," chanted the demonstrators as they marched along MacArthur Boulevard, near the intersection with 74th Avenue where Mixon, 26, a fugitive parolee, gunned down two motorcycle officers who had pulled him over in a traffic stop. He killed two more officers who tried to capture him where he was hiding in his sister's apartment nearby.

    The protest was organized by the Oakland branch of the Uhuru Movement, whose flyers for the march declared, "Stop Police Terror." Many marchers wore T-shirts featuring Mixon's photo, including a woman identified by march organizers as Mixon's mother. The woman declined to comment and gave her name only as Athena.

    Lolo Darnell, one of Mixon's cousins at the demonstration, said, "He needs sympathy too. If he's a criminal, everybody's a criminal."

    Asked about police allegations that Mixon was suspected in several rapes, including that of a 12-year-old girl, marcher Mandingo Hayes said, "He wasn't a rapist. I don't believe that."

    This is a familiar refrain for anyone whose come up in shouting distance of the hood. Jay-Z articulated the phenomenon of mothers swearing their slain sons were angels:

    I put your crew in hard-bottoms, the preacher's like God's Got Em
    He ain't did nothing to nobody, but them boy's shot em

    Beyond that, my Pops published a book a few years back looking at the legacy of the Black Panther Party. He was really proud, given that he'd been a Panther. Though largely sympathetic, and maybe slightly nostalgic, the book is not a piece of hagiography. In one of the more trenchant essays, the author points out the folly of equating thugs with revolutionaries, of essentially criminalizing the vanguard. Man, just writing that sentence takes me back to 95.

    Anyway it's a rather stupid pattern that's been repeated on the black left (and likely on the radical right, too) right up through hip-hop. Think T.I. nuzzling up with Farrakhan, or Eldridge Cleaver asserting that rape was a revolutionary act. It's very hard for me to imagine Malcolm X making such a claim.

    A few years back, I remember this group doing "cop watches" in the style of the old Panthers. They'd basically follow cops around to make sure they weren't brutalizing anybody. I used to think cool, but are you watching for them fools who stuck up my girl after she got off the Q train? In all fairness, that sort of thinking is much less common today. But when we see it, we should call it out.

  • A Little More On Prince Jones

    Some folks asked about my buddy from Howard who was murdered by a police officer. The Washington Post did a very good investigation of the case, unfortunately it's behind a curtain. Here's a piece on the settlement. Here's some info on the cop, who is a piece of work, to put it mildly. And here's the reason I started writing. I knew for years that the Prince George's County police department was one of the most brutal in the nation, and had wanted to write about them. Prince's murder gave me that last push. It really was a small act. But it was something, and it was better than sitting at home stewing.

    What's not in that article, is the profound personal effect Prince's death had on me. When I went down to his memorial service at Howard, I was upset, but not beside myself with grief. Truthfully, Prince had closer friends than me, and we'd been out of touch for a year or so. But I was disturbed, and didn't realize how profoundly until a year later when 9/11 happened. Everyone I knew was deeply shaken by it. And yet, again, I was disturbed, but not as grief-stricken as most of my friends.

    I have a weird way of dealing with big, emotional events. My brain moves slow, and I tend to experience things in waves--it took weeks for me to understand, emotionally, what Obama's election meant. Ditto for 9/11, except longer. And then one night I woke up yelling and bawling like a four-year old.  I'd had this dream where I saw Prince, alive and well, and tried to warn him, repeatedly, of the impending danger. But whenever I tried to explain, he would cut me off and tell me he didn't want to know.

    This was a few months after 9/11. Kenyatta had repeatedly admonished me for being cold whenever someone talked about the attacks.I think I'm an atheist who's yet to come to terms with this fact. I didn't have a spiritual lens to interpret Prince's death or 9/11. I never believed in spirits sending you messages in dreams. But I did have a very concrete epiphany. The world had ended for my old friend, much as it had ended for all the victims of 9/11. But whereas we were hell-bent on bringing justice to Al'Qaeda, I knew that there would be no justice for Prince. The cop would keep his job, they'd rule the murder justifiable, and people would accept the death of a hard-working father, and a college student, the way the accepted the death of Patrick Dorismond and Amadou Diallo. It's the cost of doing business. And it's a cost born mostly by us.

    I can't tell you how angry that made me. And anger breeds hate and blindness. And so for a good year, after 9/11 I was blind. I couldn't feel what this city was feeling. My son was almost two, and the thought of raising him right and him still becoming "a cost of doing business" filled me with fear--and more anger. The idea that someone, whose salary you were paying, could be lethally incompetent and yet continue to keep their job just burned me.

    Emotions aren't moral. I wouldn't defend how I felt, and as time passed, and I came out of the anger, I came to feel deep shame for not participating in the public mourning after 9/11, for seeking to construct a morbid equation from death. I don't think Prince's murder justifies that. But it was how I felt. I simply didn't know how to cope.

  • Ain't No Sense In Going Home...

    Jody's got your girl and gone...

    I started writing this thinking that this was basically Big's "One More Chance," before Big's "One More Chance."

    Jody leaves ashes in your ash-tray,
    Footprints on your carpet, while you work all day.
    Even got the nerve to sleep in your bed,
    Sit down at your table, and eat your bread.

    But isn't it much more? I love "One More Chance" but always found it to be, believe it or not, to explicit. The wordplay is incredible, the track is great, but I love hint of impropriety in this song, and its borderline feminism (this song could be performed by a woman without changing a single lyric). Big's song really is about manipulation of women. ("my game just rewind...") Johnnie Taylor is doing a similar thing, but a little more.

    I always thought Taylor, here, (and especially in "Who's Making Love...") was great about making men uncomfortable (in a good way) by breaking away from the Madonna/Whore thing. I play this stuff for my son all the time. I get the humorous praise of the antihero cuckold, and, I'd argue, commentary on black men (niggers vs black people?) and mores. Of course it's more complicated and ambivalent than that. Words fail. Maybe I should just stop theorizing and let the music rock. I need to think more.

    On a side-note, fools really need to see Wattstax. It's an incredible doc.

  • Some Clarification On Drug Convictions

    I think I should ammend my post yesterday. I still maintain my thoughts on a basic fairness issue. Drugs are a multiracial equal opportunity problem. That said, we need to not repeat the mindless emotionalism of the "Tough on Crime" crowd. We should be more clear-eyed. I think this helps:

    Wish I would have jumped in on this discussion before...

    I've commented before on the topic of prison reform, and while I agree generally with the sentiment primarily voiced here against the "war on drugs", I think that it tends to be oversimplified in the comments.

    As a previous commenter noted, plea bargains skew the statistics on the drug possession versus drug dealing charges. I'm a therapist in a medium-security prison and have worked with lots of guys down on drug cases. I think the notion that there are a lot of guys locked up on drug possession cases who were just drug addicts is false. I would say, anecdotally speaking, that most of the guys I work with that have drug cases were dealing. Often they were dealing to support their own habit, but nevertheless...

    What is more common with the addicts is that they get arrested for theft, residential entry, battery, etc. That list includes violent and non-violent offenses.

    The whole criminal justice/corrections system handling of drugs is a mess. I agree with the majority of what is said here about it, but I think we need to realize that the diagnosis of the problem is not as simple as it often is portrayed here.


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