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 Tragedy And Betrayal Of Booker T. Washington

    I've been (slowly) making my way through this Booker T. Washington biography. It really is a great read. But that aside, I think that it also highlights a great tragedy in race relations in this country. Washington is arguably the most effective and powerful black conservative in this country's history. (I maintain that Malcolm X was, for much of his public life, a black conservative.) Unlike today, Washington lived in a time when there actually was a credible black conservative tradition. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" is remembered as a betrayal and a sell-out because it accepted segregation, and argued against black political agitation. But in fact, at the time, the response from black America to the "Compromise" was at worst mixed, and at best quite positive. No less than W.E.B. Du Bois called the speech, "the basis for a real settlement between whites and black in the South."

    It makes sense, when you think about it. Washington basically said to the white South in 1895. "You win. We don't want the right the vote. We just want to till our farms, better ourselves, and be left alone. Leave us in peace, and you'll here no more of this voting or integration business." You have to remember the state of mind of black people, at that time. Reconstruction had been rolled back. The South was wracked by race riots. Three years after Washington's speech, the only coup in American history was orchestrated in Wilmington, North Carolina by racist thugs. Washington was basically conceding what he'd already lost. In return he hoped to simply secure the right of good Christian blacks to work the land in peace.

    The dominant logic of the post-Reconstruction era held that the real problem wasn't white racists, but carpetbaggers and meddlers from up North who'd elevated illiterate blacks above their station. The white Southerner, presumably, had no existential objection to blacks, they just didn't want to live next door to them or have an illiterate and morally degenerate population electing their politicians. To this Washington, and much of black America, said Fine. Cease fire. You let us be, we'll let you be.

    In retrospect, this was a grievous error. In point of fact, whites actually did have an existential objection to black people. Their beef wasn't that illiterates and moral degenerates might get too much power. Quite the opposite. Their beef was that blacks would prove to not be illiterates and moral degenerates, and thus fully able to compete with them. To see this point illustrated, one need only look at the history of race riots in the South. When white mobs set upon black communities they didn't simply burn down the "morally degenerate" portions--they attacked the South's burgeoning black middle and working class and its institutions. They went for the churches, the schools and the businesses. It's one thing to be opposed to black amorality. It's quite another to be opposed to black progress. The lesson blacks took post-Atlanta Compromise was that whites had used the former to cover for the latter. These days, it's popular to bemoan the fact that Washington has fallen into disfavor. But it wasn't blacks who proved the Atlanta Compromise fraudulent--it was the whites of that era.

    You must understand the chilling effect this had to have on black people. To actually concede to all the racist propaganda out there, and then to be rewarded by hooligans burning down your community must have been psychologically devastating. People wondering why the GOP can't get a foothold in the black community, need to not just think about Goldwater and Nixon. They should think about Du Bois telling black men to go fight in The Great War, and then having those veterans come home to the Red Summer of 1919. They should think about the pogroms that greeted Booker T's compromise. There's a lot of hurt out there. A lot of ancient hurt. A lot of it, even in these times, quite deep.

  • The Case Against Michael Vick

    CHFF says Vick needs to play his position--running back:

    Vick's major problem as an NFL quarterback has been that he simply does not pass the ball nearly as well as the game's elite quarterbacks. He's never completed 57 percent of his passes, he's never thrown for 2,500 yards and he's never thrown more than 20 touchdowns. And his career passer rating of 75.7 is below average (typically about 80.0) and far below the elite status that might inspire a team to take a chance on him three seasons after he last took a snap from center.
    Atlanta's running game has certainly suffered severely without Vick. The team's historic 5.47 YPA on the ground with Vick in 2006 fell sharply to a middling 3.95 YPA in 2007, before recovering in 2008 (4.36 YPA) behind Pro Bowl RB Michael Turner.
    However, Atlanta's passing game hardly missed a beat without Vick. 
    In fact, it improved dramatically in the two years since Vick left football. We all know that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was the NFL's Rookie of the Year in 2008. His 87.7 passer rating easily exceeded Vick's best efficiency mark (81.6 in 2002). But the most damning indictment of Vick's passing capabilities is that the Falcons rose from 32nd in passing yards with Vick at the helm in 2006, to 18th in passing yards in 2007, when the team was led by rotating collection of castoff quarterbacks who filled the void in Vick's absence: Joey Harrington, Chris Redman and Byron Leftwich. 
    The Falcons averaged 5.70 YPA passing behind Vick in 2006, and 5.93 YPA passing behind the back-up all-stars in 2007.
    I agree with the case against Vick as a QB. I'm not sure I agree that he's the heart to take the sort of pounding that a running back has to endure. There were quite a few running backs who were faster, bigger and stronger than Emmitt Smith. There weren't many that were tougher. Think how Walter Payton used to finish his runs. It takes something internal to deliver like that. I could see Vick as a third down back, a kind of Brian Mitchell back--but not much more.

  • Y Control

    Nick Catucci spends some quality time with Karen O and her mens and them:

    Chase describes it as a "new cool detachment." But let's just say it: Despite the detours into atmospheric balladry, this is a dance album. To some fans--the ones drawn to the band because, like the also bass-free White Stripes, their emergence promised a rock resurgence in deafening guitars--that might sound a little too cool. Their self-titled first EP, in 2001, and 2003's Fever to Tell trafficked in raw: Shouty, guitar-driven, and entirely one-of-a-kind, they were that rare band that maintained their indie patina even with a mainstream single (the transcendent "Maps"). When they dared to dabble with texture and instrumentation, to facilitate a bit of introspection on 2006's Show Your Bones, there was backlash. If Karen O came out of the gate a rock star, the thinking seemed to go, why should the band need to tweak their sound, for fame or any other reason?

    O & Co. were therefore nervous about how the new album would go over. "We were concerned what their hard-core fans would say," says the band's lead producer, Nick Launay. "The new direction was a very, very brave decision--a strong and confident decision not to want to repeat themselves ... And Karen was definitely the main person who was adamant that we had to change direction."

    It really is a dance album. $100 to the man or woman who hears "Dragon Queen" in the club and doesn't move. Alright, so I'm not exactly "in the club" anymore. Still up here, just off Lennox, that joint do make em yell go Karen and do the whop. We gotta work on the boy's rhythm. But we're getting there.

  • Even Though We Had Fun In 91...

    Folks always note my penchant for announcing my public appearances at the last possible instant. (Reading in Cumberland, Maryland in two minutes! Catch it if you can!!) In an attempt to actually get people to come out, I'm offering advance warning. Next Tuesday evening I'll be in Brooklyn, at the Court Street Barnes & Nobles, reading with Adam Mansbach. I'll be, as always, hawking copies of The Beautiful Struggle.

    Sorta. Actually, I'll also be previewing a project I'm working on--The Beautiful Remix. The idea is to take a few chapters from my book and do what Kid Hood did for Tribe in 92. Could be shockingly awesome and revealing. Could be shockingly derivative and redundant. Who knows until it's done. I'm not even sure how I, or if, I'm going to publish it. I may just throw it up on the blog. The more important point is that I'm having fun working on it, which is really all that matters. Takes me back to being a 16 again, when all I wanted was to do something like this. Feh, who am I kidding, even today, all I want is to do something like this.

  • Hey Ladies...

    I'm sure there are some real hotties who frequent this blog. I am aware of the effect I have on women. All the Jennies love a Star Trek fan who spends his days listening to MF Doom, playing WoW, and bragging about having a kid when he was 24 (making me practically a teen parent) and not marrying the mother. Teh Sexah, indeed.

    But even if it wasn't locked down, I can't see myself going where Ann Althouse has gone. I don't disapprove (who cares if I do?) but I'd be too scared.

    It's funny because I've actually seen relationships come out of online gaming. When I used to play Everquest back in the day, I ran with two Wood Elves (I was a Euridite wizard. Even when I'm fantasizing, I'm a black nerd) who were hooked up in real life. I only figured this out as I hung out with them more. Whenever we'd go to Karnor's or the City Of Mist, this dude would follow us. Later the couple told me the dude was the girl's ex--in real life. They used to game together, but she met this other dude (the other Wood Elf) and left her man to move in with him. That just blew me away--but it really shouldn't. Virtual communication is a lot like real communication.

    Anyway, if teh ladies weren't sweating me before this post, having heard me hold forth on Wood Elf mating rituals should do the trick. You may now mob me. I'm all yours.

  • The Fetish Of Centrism

    He doesn't come out and say it, but I think Jonathan Chait's piece on the Democratic congress, really puts the lie to this idea that what we need right now is group of Senators assembled to prevent the Democratic Party from tilting to the left. My beef isn't with people who aren't as liberal as me--it's with people who call themselves moderates because it polls well, or to cover for their fundraising efforts. As Evan Bayh admitted, these dudes have no stated platform. They're just yelling "Centrism!" into a crowded room.

    So what do they want? Who really knows. But here's Chait on Mr. Moderate Ben Nelson:

    The most emblematic objection has come from Nelson, who is balking at Obama's plan to save money on college loans. You might suppose that a fiscal conservative like Nelson would agree with Obama's plan to save $4 billion on a social program. But he does not, for reasons that provide a useful window into the rot afflicting the congressional Democratic Party.

    For many years, the federal government supported college education by guaranteeing bank loans to students. If a student defaulted on his loan, Washington would simply pay back the difference. In 1993, Clinton undertook to reform the program by cutting out the middlemen and simply having the federal government issue the loans directly. Clinton hoped to save money for the government and plow some of those savings into lower interest rates for students. Of course, private lenders who benefitted from the no-risk profit stream balked and forced a compromise whereby both kinds of loans--guaranteed private loans, and direct loans from the government--would exist side by side.

    Recent years have shown beyond a doubt that the direct lending program works better. Every independent analysis--by the Congressional Budget Office, by the Office of Management and Budget under each of the last three presidents, and by the New America Foundation--has found that direct lending is cheaper. The guaranteed-loan program managed to cling to life through its congressional patrons and through simple graft. In 2007, a major student-loan scandal emerged when it turned out that private lenders paid off college administrators to drop out of the direct lending program and steer students to them.

    Obama thus proposes to save the taxpayers more than $4 billion per year by ending the guaranteed loans. This is as straightforward a case as you can find of a fight between special interests and the public good. Nelson opposes it because one of the lenders that benefits from federal overpayments is based in Lincoln, Nebraska.

    There's so much more. Read the piece.

  • 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.

  • 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.


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