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.

  • Some Off The Cuff Analysis

    My name is Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I'm a social liberal. I'm pro-choice. I believe in the right to die. I believe in gay marriage. I'm against the death penalty. And, and as we've recently seen, I don't believe that all kids should be raised by married parents. I also like being black. But I'm clear that most of my views are to the left of most black people. By and by, I hope that isn't the case. But it is today, and understanding that difference is key.

    I think one of the biggest problems with the GOP is that they they mistake their deepest held beliefs for mainstream American beliefs. The root of the current conservative crack-up probably lies in Iraq, but the one event that exposed it all, for me, was Terri Schiavo. Here you had a sitting President, a gaggle of Senators and congressmen bending over backward to argue that government was a better arbiter of a woman's fate, than her husband and her doctors. The moment Bill Frist decided to give a diagnosis via video tape, I felt the wind shift. When it comes to the end of their days, most Americans would want their spouse--not the Senate Majority Leader--to be the final authority.

    The point is that you have to be able to distinguish your deeply held beliefs, from the electorates. I think much of the GOP's trouble stems from the inability to discern the difference. That whole "Real America," "Real Virginia," small-town snobbery bit, isn't an act--they actually believe it. I've never understood the whole "Center-right country" meme, because it's ultimately self-serving--and then self-defeating. It blinds you to the hard work of arguing, cajoling and fighting with the electorate, until they see your point. It's interesting that so many of their most dominant voices of the GOP (Steele, Gingrich, Limbaugh) have either never won an election, or haven't won one in a decade.

    I keep thinking about the big things that have always kept me from being a conservative--the knee-jerk worship of a past that branded me half a man, the elevation of the loud imbeciles who think science teachers should be using the Bible, the toleration and baiting of bigots who cloaked themselves in the garb of "States Rights," and now run under the garb of "protecting marriage." The common denominator here is an unreflective veneration of what was, a belief that tradition, no matter how backwards, can heal all. Thus it's only right, that Steele, Gingrich and Limbaugh make up the leadership.

    It's not that I think liberals are without flaw, but to argue that our most strident members should be our public face, would seem silly. As Ross intimates, if most liberals thought it was good idea for Howard Zinn Randall Robinson, or Noam Chomsky to be a spokesperson for the Democratic Party, I'd think we'd all gone insane. If Democratic politicians were scared to disagree with Keith Olberman or Michael Moore, I'd be a man without a home.

    But these guys think that they are America. They delude themselves with that "center-right nation" analysis, and then mask their losses by claiming they didn't really lose. They think the problem is their wardrobe, their slang, their hairstyle. This is what black folks call Project-Bougie or--more aptly put--just plain trifling. The GOP is out shopping for a new dining set, a new couch, a flat-screen--anything to make the crib look a little more inviting. Meanwhile the water bill is two months past due. The lights are off. And the eviction notice is in the mail.

  • The Foolishness Of Rick Santelli

    Don't ever say you're going on the Daily Show, and then cancel.

  • To All The J-School People

    I can't link to Ian Parker's piece on Iceland's financial tumble, in the latest issue of the New Yorker--it's behind the curtain. But I just wanted to say that it has the most gorgeous lede I've read in a long, long time. Anyone who's a fan of long-form journalism should read it.

    I was reading Parker's piece on the 2 train, coming home on Tuesday, and I couldn't make it through the second graff. It was so good that it was actually causing my brain to hurt. I think all professionals in any field are competitive, and sometimes stumble upon a piece of work so well done, that you think to yourself, "Why do I even bother?" It's like watching Jordan hit that last jumper over Byron Russell. I read the first couple graffs of that lede and thought, "Why even bother?"

  • Big Love

    I'm not feeling like I have the past two seasons--or even earlier this season. The whole thing feels rushed. The fraked up the trial by doing it so quickly. So much of the action seems dependent on the ineptness of otherwise normal people, and the seemingly superhuman guile of otherwise normal people. It's getting hard to watch.

  • One Last Thought On Steele

    Any black people here starting to actually get embarrassed for the guy? You know like how any time a black guy fails publicly, you feel like it's your failure too? I read this Politico story, and for the first time felt that old twinge. I'm alright with the brothers laughing at him. I'm alright with other liberals laughing at him. But I don't actually want the GOP's first major effort at ending the Southern Strategy to be a comic disaster. I've never thought that it was good thing for the country, or for black people, to have all of us on one side. This could get ugly really, really fast. I, as much as anyone, should probably remember that.

  • It Ain't Where You're From, It's Where You're At

    steele2.png

    Come on man. It's "We're good" or "We all good," and in a pinch, "We're all good." But never "We are all good." Picking up on something said in comments yesterday, this is why you don't say things like "Obama's from Hawaii, he clearly doesn't know anything about being black." Steele probably spent more time than Obama around black people, as a child. But the history and cultural mores of black folks aren't exactly mystical, and anyone with eyes, and a healthy measure of respect, can pick them up. Moreover, black people appreciate the respect.

    That's what Steele lacks--a basic respect for language of young black people. For him, Ebonics is prop, a device. No black person, of Steele's age, talks like Steele does when he's shilling for GOP:

    The reason I find Steele's behavior irritating is that his invocation of archaic black cultural tropes is plainly not for black folks -- it's for white people. It's to remind them that he's black. His appearance on the DL Hughley show cemented this impression for me -- there was no awkward signifiying, no "off the hook" or "bling bling," as there was in his interview with Curtis Sliwa. There was just Steele being himself and arguing his position. Steele didn't front because he didn't have to -- talking to Chuck D. and DL Hughley, there was no one there to perform for.
  • On Sell-Outs

    I'm reading Up From History, a really cool bio of Booker T. Washington by Robert J. Norrell. I have an old relationship with Booker T, as my Dad worshiped him. Seriously in our house the trinity was Malcolm, Booker T. and Garvey. Anyway, Booker T. has often been accused of being a sell-out. I think, after reading this book, people need to rethink what a sell-out is. Here's William Hooper Councill, president of Alabama A&M, in 1886, talking about lynching:

    Were it not for the white ladies of this country, hell would have broken loose long ago. God Bless the white woman! I know she wants me hung when I assault or insult her and she is right! I tell you Negro men you had better let that white lady alone for she is the goddess of all virtue and purity.

    Wow. Talk about a cooning. They don't make em like they use to, folks. Councill wasn't Booker T's ally, he was his sworn enemy. I think Washington deserves his share of criticism. But Norrell does a great job of contextualizing the man. Here is a dude running a school in South, during an era when whites were explicitly targeting schools and churches for destruction. It couldn't have been an easy row.

  • Obama's African-Americanisms

    One criticism of Nia-Malika Henderson's article on Obama's "dogwhistling" is that many of the cultural markers that Henderson takes as black are either generational, or things that whites understand. The first thing that should be said is that blacks also heard Reagan's dogwhistles--it's not like we didn't know what he meant by "states rights." But more to the point, we went through this a few months back when Obama gave his wife a pound after he secured the nomination. The argument, again, was that this wasn't anything "black" because "everyone" does it. I think this argument originates from the idea that black is the perfect and exact opposite of white. Historically whiteness has meant exclusion (though this may be changing) and so when whites hear that something is labeled "black," they may think "not for me."

    But of course blackness isn't the perfect opposite of whiteness--black is not simply a racial identity, it's also an ethnic identity. So, in much the same way that Jews are, in this country, racially white and ethnically Jewish, blacks are "racially" black and--in the main--ethnically "African-American." This can get hazy when we start factoring in diaspora influences, but the point is that blackness, for black people, isn't a matter of being born, simply with a certain skin color. Indeed, in some cases, it isn't that at all. It's about practices--the way we eat, the way we live, the way we walk. It doesn't mean that all black people participate in this, nor does it mean white people can't participate in it.

    Unlike white racial identity, African-American (and diaspora) cultural identity wasn't created (in most cases) to keep white people out. Hip-Hop wasn't invented so that white people wouldn't buy or participate in black music--quite the opposite. Henderson's article refer to cultural markers in the black community. That many white people (but evidently not many white journalists) understand these markers, and have adopted them themselves doesn't change the origin of said markers.

    Thus claiming that Barack Obama saying "We straight," isn't black because white people get it, is like claiming enchiladas aren't Mexican because all the black people I know love them. Oy is still Yiddish--no matter how many non-Jews use the expression. These things tend to overlap, and allowing for the differences between a racial blackness and a cultural/ethnic blackness, we can see how a pound can be an African-American invention, and yet still be an act performed by the Duke lacrosse team.

    For the record, I think this is one of the reasons why blacks and whites tend to talk past each other. We need to avoid this lazy idea that black is simply the opposite of white, and be conscious of when we're discussing ethnic identity, racial identity or both.

  • Too Easy

    Seriously, man...

  • The Other Dogwhistle

    Nia-Malika Henderson gets something that very few reporters caught during election season:

    On his pre-inaugural visit to Ben's Chili Bowl, a landmark for Washington's African-American community, President Barack Obama was asked by a cashier if he wanted his change back.

    "Nah, we straight," Obama replied.

    The phrase was so subtle some listeners missed it. The reporter on pool duty quoted Obama as saying, "No, we're straight."

    But many other listeners did not miss it. A video of the exchange became an Internet hit, and there was a clear moment of recognition among many blacks, who got a kick out of their Harvard-educated president sounding, as one commenter wrote on a hip-hop site, "mad cool." 

    On matters of racial identity, many observers in the African-American community say he benefits from what's known as "dog-whistle politics." His language, mannerisms and symbols resonate deeply with his black supporters, even as the references largely sail over the heads of white audiences.

    I remember watching Tim Russert try to tie Obama to Farrakhan, and thinking, "Don't they know this dude has been paraphrasing Malcolm X? Why aren't they asking him about that?" Not that I'm in favor of any of that, but I think this is what fueled so much of the "he's not really black talk"--most white reporters don't really know what black is. And so while they were waiting for Obama call for reparations or another Back To Africa movement, the missed the subtle things.

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