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.

  • 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.


  • What To Make Of Condie Rice

    Here she is on Cheney's PR campaign:

    "My view is we got to do it our way; we did our best. We did some things well, some things not so well. Now, they get their chance. And I agree with the president. We owe them our loyalty and our silence while they do it. Because I know what it's like to have people chirping at you when they perhaps don't know what's going on inside. These are quality people. I know them. They love the country. And they won't make the same decisions, perhaps, that we did. But I believe they'll do what they think is best for the country and I'll give my advice privately and keep it to myself."

    Mmmm. Sometimes I hate her. Other times...

    I've got a running joke with my girlfriend. It starts in an alternate reality where I'm 20 years older, single, and childless. I've also gone all John Hinckley over Condi Rice, and somehow I manage to finagle my way into a social event where she is a guest. When she's off to herself and no one's looking, I whisper in her ear, "I hate everything you stand for. You take orders from a tribe of orcs who worship the Stone Age and mistake myopia for morality, and brutality for strength. You are a disgrace to your people and their long history of forcing this country to live up to its lofty ideals. Furthermore, you are the most beautiful woman inside the Beltway. Come away with me to a desert island. We will make beautiful arguments together."

    Of course there is no alternate reality where anything like this could ever happen. Condoleezza Rice serves at the whim of a bizarro president who has pulled off the trifecta of wrecking the economy, waging a war in Afghanistan, and going off on Iraq before the dust settled in Kabul. She has been a willing participant in our isolation from the UN, and has willingly fed the dogs promoting anti-Americanism.

    Worst of all, in the service of Bush, she's proved herself more than willing to obscure the truth. The African uranium hoax was "technically" accurate? But this wasn't the first or even the worst of Rice's prevarications. During one of her early appearances on Meet the Press, Russert went right for home base and asked Rice her thoughts on reparations. Her response was a clumsy attempt at historical revision: "I think reparations, given the fact that there's plenty of blame to go around for slavery, plenty of blame to go around among African and Arab states, plenty of blame to go around among Western states, we're better to look forward and not point fingers backward."

    I'm not even for reparations, but that answer was equivalent to saying, "Well, there are four people who were involved in this murder, and since there's plenty of blame to go around, let's not prosecute it." Clearly Rice is smarter than that, and her willingness to use her intellect to bend reality pisses me off. It just makes me want to grab her by the arms, shake her, pin her down, and . . . uhh, I have to go now.

    Six years late, but still, I really should be going...

  • Conservatives For Criminal Justice Reform Pt.2

    Adam does some reporting, and comes back with good news. Well, not entirely:

    Not all of the ideas states have come up with to cut costs have been good ones. In Georgia, Republican state legislators proposed a bill that would make inmates liable for all their health-care costs relating to medication. Public-health advocates opposed the bill on the grounds that it could cause a public-health disaster, given that inmates might not seek out treatment to avoid being charged.

    "[The bill] didn't have an exception for people with chronic illnesses; we're talking about diabetics, people with pretty serious conditions," says Sara Totonchi, public-policy director at the Southern Center for Human Rights. "If their treatment was contingent on whether or not they could pay, they would choose not to or be unable to seek medical attention. Which is a dangerous scenario to create in a prison."

    The bill was changed to apply only to nonessential medications like cold or headache medicine. The savings are also now negligible and would save the Georgia Department of Corrections about $1.8 million a year, a small amount considering the $226 million Georgia spends on health care for inmates.


  • Bringing The Stupid

    Seriously, Michele Bachmann's constituents should be embarrassed. Yesterday she asks Geithner:

    "Would you categorically renounce the United States moving away from the dollar and going to a global currency as suggested this morning by China and also by Russia. Mr. Secretary?

    Geithner: I would, yes.

    Bachmann: And the Federal Reserve Chair?

    Bernanke: I would also."

    I can't take it. Hilzoy has the math on this fool. Here's the video. Wow.

  • Conservatives For Criminal Justice Reform

    From Ross:

    ...as you might expect, a policy turn undertaken during a period of emergency will eventually produce diminishing returns - as Steven Levitt puts it, "the two-millionth criminal imprisoned is likely to impose a much smaller crime burden on society than the first prisoner" - even as it imposes substantial moral costs. And precisely because the tough-on-crime approach was largely vindicated by events, it's extremely difficult for elected officials to walk back from some of the dubious practices that have grown up around it - like, say, the possibly cruel-and-unusual use of long-term solitary confinement.

    This political dynamic explains why the chances for effective prison reform probably depend on Nixon-to-China conservatives, who can put the credibility the Right has built up on law and order to good use. (It wouldn't hurt if conservatives were willing to champion some alternative approaches to crime reduction as well.) But they probably also depend on crime rates staying flat, or falling - and in the current downturn that may be too much to hope for.

    I'm less certain that the "tough on crime" approach has been "largely vindicated" by events--mostly because I think a large part of the events include the moral costs, and the real costs to communities where alarming numbers of men are under the watch of the state. One should consider the numbers here--blacks make up a third of all drug arrests, and black men are 12 times as likely to be imprisoned on a drug conviction. Four in Five of these arrests were for possession, not sale. Perhaps this is because the drug epidemic has run rampant through black communities, but probably not. The difference in illicit drug usage is slight (9.5 percent of blacks have used illicit substances, 8.2% of whites).  Those are the sort of numbers that feed an intense distrust of the justice system in many black communities. I think Ross (though I can't be sure) sees the ends justifying the means. But the means are disproportionately born by people who live far away from those "Nixon to China" conservatives.

    This is more than theory for me. Ten years ago, my college friend Prince Jones was followed by a cop from Prince George's county Maryland, into the District, and out into the suburbs of Virginia, where he was going to see his young daughter and girlfriend. The police officer was allegedly looking for a drug dealer--a short man with long dreads. Prince was about 6'3 and wore a low caesar. The officer and Prince ended up in a confrontation, merely yards away from the home of Prince's girlfriend. He produced no badge, just a gun and a claim that he was a cop. Prince didn't believe him (and without a badge, I wouldn't have either) and rammed the guy's car. The cop shot Prince eight times, killing him.

    Prince was not from the inner-city. His mother was a radiologist. He was a fitness freak. He was a born-again Christian who tried to convert me whenever I saw him. He was a student at Howard, who was killed mere yards from the home of his baby. The only thing he shared in common with the drug-dealer  the cops were seeking out was color. Despite a botched operation, that spanned three jurisdictions, and resulted in the death of an innocent man, and orphaned a girl who will have no memories of her father, the officer was neither prosecuted, nor bounced off the force.

    I don't bring this out to be cheap or try to shame my colleague, but to say that when you live close to that line, when you've been stopped by the police several times, when you know innocent people who are dead, when you know kids who are coming up fatherless because of our obsession with drugs, it becomes difficult to say that events have vindicated our strategy. Cases like Prince's wear on an essential thread in our democracy--a belief that the people who are charged with protecting you, actually care about protecting you.  We've paid a heavy price for our crime policy. I'm heartened that some conservatives are starting to see that.

  • New Comment Policy Pt.2

    So yeah, as you guys can see there are some changes. We're going with registration, for now. I'm still trying to work out a couple other things, but this is the first step. I agree the full moderation is something I should work hard to avoid. I'm hoping we can go to a trust system.

  • Bizarre...

    I don't find the feud between MSNBC and Fox particularly engaging or entertaining. It's not new for news organizations to feud--just really small-minded. All of that said, I just want to note that I did watch this thing with Amanda Terkel over at ThinkProgress. I think she handled herself really well. Better than I would. Seriously. My gut reaction is to murmur to Kenyatta that if I see these fools posted up in Harlem, I'm fin to catch a case. But that isn't a particularly smart reaction. As an adult, I've gone with the gut a couple times. It never ended up anywhere good.  I think Bill Moyers showed us how to do it, son.



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