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 Cowboy and the Welfare State

    The myth of self-reliance, the idea that we can support ourselves without assistance, is powerful.

    I finally finished Binyamin Applebaum's (that name sounds familiar) and Robert Gebeloff's epic piece profiling an area of Minnesota where people inveigh against the welfare state, despite being inextricably tied to it:


    The government helps Matt Falk and his wife care for their disabled 14-year-old daughter. It pays for extra assistance at school and for trained attendants to stay with her at home while they work. It pays much of the cost of her regular visits to the hospital. 

    Mr. Falk, 42, would like the government to do less. 

    "She doesn't need some of the stuff that we're doing for her," said Mr. Falk, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business in North Branch. "I don't think it's a bad thing if society can afford it, but given the situation that our society is facing, we just have to say that we can't offer as much resources at school or that we need to pay a higher premium" for her medical care... 

    He said that his family appreciated the government's help and that living with less would be painful for them and many other families. But he said the government could not continue to operate on borrowed money. 

    "They're going to have to reduce benefits," he said. "We're going to have to accept it, and we're going to have to suffer."

    This kind of thinking reminds me of home. I went to school with a significant number of people who were on some sort of government assistance. The projects were the most obvious, and I suspect that some portion of the violence which characterized them came from the need to control something. The others -- food stamps and welfare, for instance -- weren't generally talked about, for fear of mockery. Indeed, the first retort any black kid of my era learned was "That's why your momma on food-stamps." The other, of course, was "That's why your momma's an African Bush boogie." Not pretty. 

    What you see in both of these insults -- one socio-economic, one racial -- is a kind of self-loathing, a sense of shame. I think of the great Just Ice calling welfare "embarrassing and downright indignant" and a seed of "low self-esteem." I think about Big Daddy Kane describing a woman on welfare as, "the heavyset one with about ten children." I don't have the polling available, but my recollection is that despite the racial aspects of welfare reform, it enjoyed considerable support  in the black community.

    The fact is that black people are Americans, and among all Americans -- and perhaps all humans -- the myth of self-reliance, for better or worse, is powerful. Has it always been this way? Are there some effects from public assistance becoming increasingly racialized? Is it some combination of both? An old self-image mutating with the racial politics of the day?

    I'm not sure. But what I strongly suspect is the sort of shame you see in Mr. Falk's is neither crazy, nor ignorant, nor shocking, once you think about it. We all want to be cowboys. More, we sometimes want leaders who push toward that imagined self, as opposed to our statistical self. 

    As I have always said, this not a matter of voting "against your interest." Your stated interest is in being a cowboy. The way to engage that person is not to condescend to them and assume they just have less information than you. It's to try to get them to game out where cowboy logic leads.

    At the end of Applebaum piece there's a disabled man who identifies as a "conservative" who beautifully demonstrates how that work looks. I won't excerpt it. I hope you guys read the whole thing. It's worth it.
  • The Second Lives of Pro Football Players, Cont.

    Retired players are plagued by more than just expensive injuries

    In my post the other day I missed a large and obvious factor in the effort these guys put into balancing their checkbooks--family:


    I think there's more to the money issue than squandering it or upgrading a lifestyle. These guys are under immense pressure not only to provide for themselves and whatever wives and children they have but for other family members as well. I think this also speaks to @Dex's point about winning the lottery. Is IS a bit like that. Especially when you consider that athletes do not typically have access to the "wealth networks" that people who've built money over time have access to (or, more likely were BORN into). That makes them more vulnerable to bad advice...something that plagues investors of all backgrounds. 

    One thing I think I've been thinking a lot about as the concussion issue gains steam is how much these brain injuries factor into their decisionmaking while they play which is directly related to the ability to transition in my opinion. We're finally beginning to understand how concussion affect players post-career--depression for example. I think the next wave will be understanding player behavior during their careers.

    Good stuff, here. Part of the wealth gap isn't simply not having that down-payment for your first house, it's having to help support the household where you were raised. Most pro athletes can get past the latter, but the former will still be there.

    More here and in the video below. Watch it. Lot of good arguments.

  • The Jeremy Lin Backlash

    Detractors who attribute his success to his race have nothing to stand on

    I feel like I should have smelled this coming. Nevertheless, courtesy of Floyd Mayweather Jr, here it is:


    "Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he's Asian," Mayweather wrote on micro-blogging website Twitter. The NBA's breath of fresh air "Black players do what he does every night and don't get the same praise." 

    Lin graduated from Harvard University and initially failed to get drafted into the NBA, but he was signed by the Golden State Warriors as a free agent in July 2010. He moved to New York in December after being dropped by the Houston Rockets and outshone the legendary Kobe Bryant by scoring 38 points as the Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers 92-85 on Friday.

    I think these sorts of comments ultimately are most revelatory of the person speaking. It does not take incredible reasoning skills to understand that race and talent--as explanatory factors--are not mutually exclusive. In other words, it could that Jeremy Lin is Asian, and that he's talented. But I suspect that it's that Lin is Asian-American, and that he's not a big man, and that he's playing in New York, and that he went to Harvard, and that he was undrafted, and that he is talented. It's true that if he were black this would probably be a smaller story, but if he weren't talented it would not be be a story at all. 

    I'm not sure why that's wrong, or even unfair.

    I would bet that part of the attention that Neil Degresse Tyson gets has to do with people geeking out on a black astrophysicist who can make science interesting. If were not black he probably would be somewhat less interesting. But if he weren't a good communicator, he would not be interesting at all. 

    I consider myself a writer of some merit and talent, who says some interesting things from time to time. That's all very nice. But I understand that if I were in my exact same job, and happened to be just another white dude from an Ivy, I'd attract less interest. Race, as lived by individuals, is biography and people are always interested in biography when it differs from the norm in any field. I have no idea why it should be any different with Lin.

    If anything grates, I strongly suspect it's the long-held tension (some) people feel with the NBA as a massively popular product, and yet one that is consistently derided as a home for thugs in need of a dress-code.  The automatic judgement often placed on black ball players that they play "street ball" or don't play the game the "right way" has long disturbed a lot of us. This seems to hold constant no matter how well Chris Webber passes the ball. 

    That may have something to do with how the larger world perceives Jeremy Lin, but it has nothing to do with his level of talent. The fact that racists rooted for Larry Bird doesn't then make him overrated. Hitler rooted for Max Schmeling. But Max Schmeling was so much more than that.

    The micro and the macro are not the same. It's always dehumanizing to shoe-horn one into the other.
  • The Alchemy of Obama



    In this month's cover story, James Fallows takes a moment to zero in on 2010, and the Obama Administration's soft hand with the banks

    An official familiar with the administration's economic policy told me: "The recapitalization of the banks was a good idea, and necessary. But we did not put enough conditions on [their] getting the money. Ultimately not being tougher with the guys that got the money is the thing that overthrows the government twice--in 2008 [in a reaction against Bush's TARP plan] and again in 2010." Keeping the system going was the guideline during the early days of financial rescue, and again later during the argument over government shutdowns and the raising of the debt ceiling. During the initial rescue, 

    Obama's response was of course shaped by the technocrat circle that guided the effort. From their experience with Asian and Latin American financial panics during the Clinton era, the likes of Summers, Geithner, and Orszag understood that their task was akin to emergency-room medicine, or firefighting. They had to contain the emergency first, because otherwise there was no telling how dire the consequences could be, and worry about anything else later. 

    "Larry, Tim, Peter--when they heard about restricting bonuses or compensation, they would think, These are people's contracts, we can't change their contracts," a member of the executive branch said. "But really it was the idea that the problem was enormous, the economy is in big trouble, do we want to make enemies while we're putting out the fire? Usually they opted for whatever they thought would keep the economy going." 

    This rings true about the mood in the middle of an emergency, and also about the cultural tone-deafness that can affect people who all come from the same rarefied world.

    I think this is really the sort of thing that burns up the president's more populist critics. In our guts, a lot of us wanted to see the sort of justice meted out which we are all subject to in our daily lives. And yet meting out that justice may well have made matters worse. Part of the advantage of power isn't just in wielding but in being able to escape the full brunt of punishment for wielding it irresponsibly.  

    As an aside, I enjoyed Fallows piece. Along with some of the better journalism we've seen over the past few months, it really makes clear that the inexperience criticism we heard during the Clinton campaign was substantive. And yet, given that Clinton folks are behind some of the administration's greatest shortcomings, I'm still not sure what to make of that point.


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  • The Unspectacular Spider-Man

    Is anyone else totally underwhelmed by the upcoming franchise reboot?



    Spider-Man was (and remains) my single favorite comic-book hero, and yet I can't seem to get excited about the reboot. I recently watched the trailer and got some sense for why--it really just feels old. Maybe it's because Spider-Man is the original patron-saint of nerds, but there's something limiting about the sense that he can't actually grow up.

    I was thinking, this weekend, about arcs I'd like to see in the movie, but most of them go away from the core of what most people consider Spider-Man to really be about. There are a lot of reasons for why you wouldn't want to do, say, Kraven's Last Hunt, but among them is the fact that the story seems far removed from what most folks consider the essence of Spider-Man--goofy teenage years, great power/great responsibility, etc.

    It also could simply be that I'm over-exposed to Spider-Man. I didn't read much Batman, but his various iterations, from Tim Burton to Christopher Nolan actually felt different. I'd throw Bruce Timm in there. I'd also add that X-Men: First Class also felt different--even from the trailers. Perhaps it's the ability to throw in new characters. I don't know. I just feel really "meh" about it.

  • Sometimes You Should Say Nothing

    There is a theory that "anyone" who talks for a living will eventually say something homophobic/racist/sexist.



    That's Whitlock on Jeremy Lin. I understand that it's hard to button it when you write for food, as I do. Perhaps it's impossible when, in your professional life, you write things like this:

    "She'd rather eat, half-ass her way through non-major tournaments and complain she's not getting the respect her 11-major-championships résumé demands...[S]eriously, how else can Serena [Williams] fill out her size 16 shorts without grazing at her stall between matches?" 

    "And you probably think I don't like Serena. You're wrong. I love her. She's the main reason I watch tennis. She's fascinating. Her power and skill are breathtaking. And when she's in shape, she's every bit as sexy as Beyonce."

    There is a theory that "anyone" who talks for a living will eventually say something homophobic/racist/sexist. I think it's much more likely that if you talk for a living you will slowly reveal yourself. Roland Martin's tweet did not come out of thin air. Even in the age of spin, I think what people say has meaning.

  • 'Black People Deserve Better Than This'

    Famous first L. Douglas Wilder was supposed to be putting together a powerhouse slavery museum in Virginia. It looks like no such museum is in the offing

    Famous first L. Douglas Wilder was supposed to be putting together a powerhouse slavery museum in Virginia. It looks like no such museum is in the offing:


    "Governor Wilder disappeared," said Rev. Lawrence Davies, the former longtime mayor of Fredericksburg who was a member of the board. Davies stopped getting notices about board meetings, and when he tried to reach Wilder, he never heard back. 

    "No one could ever get through to him,'' Davies said. "We didn't know what to think." It wasn't just board members and city officials who were left to wonder. There are donors, too, asking what happened. 

     "I trusted them," said Therbia Parker Sr., a general contractor from Suffolk, Va., who gave the museum nearly 100 artifacts he had collected over 40 years, including rare and invaluable pieces such as leg shackles, a handwritten bill of sale for slaves, and a collar with a plantation name and slave number on it. 

     "I'll never forget the first time I saw a newspaper with ads for runaway slaves," he said. "The reality of it: This really happened." 

    He wanted future generations to feel that history as he had. But he doesn't know where the artifacts he donated are now. And he is furious that the museum, slated to open in 2004, was never built. 

    "Black people deserve better than this," he said.

    Indeed. Parker has yet to get any of those artifacts back. He doesn't even know where they are. The callousness here is breathtaking.
  • Mitt Romney's Shifty Social Conservatism

    The Times traces the former Massachusetts governor's foot-steps from pro-choice to pro-life:

    In 2002, as a candidate for governor, Mr. Romney filled out a questionnaire for Planned Parenthood declaring that he supported "the substance" of the Supreme Court's 1973 landmark abortion rights decision, Roe v. Wade. Six weeks before he was elected, he sat for an hourlong interview with state officials of the advocacy group now known as Naral Pro-Choice America. Mr. Romney promised to maintain the status quo, keeping intact the rights that already existed under state law. 

    At the end of the private session, when it became clear that the group was going to endorse Mr. Romney's Democratic opponent, he surprised its leaders by saying he could be a "good voice" and the most effective national Republican leader on abortion, said Melissa Kogut, a former Naral official who has detailed notes from the meeting. 

    "I thought, 'That's interesting. He's running for governor, and he's trying to convince us to get behind him because of the role he is going to play on the national stage,' " she said. "We left the meeting feeling pretty good."

    My sense from the article is that Romney actually was pro-life, in his heart, but had no hope of winning with such a position in Massachusetts. So he lied, claimed to be pro-choice, and has now flipped back again.

    That seems par for the course in presidential politics. I don't see much difference between this and the president's "evolving" position on gay marriage.
  • Morning Coffee

    Maybe my adolescent self was wrong about Whitney Houston

    Is there really anything else? As I've said before, in the hey-day of Whitney I was in full hardcore hip-hop revanchist mode. Anything that smacked of jheri juice, color contacts, or mass acceptance by white people was rejected on principal. Oh, to be young and stupid again. It is true that Houston's image was gilded by Clive Owens. But these are the pipes of God--and no juvenile raging against "imaging" can obviate that. You will have your favorites. Of course this is mine.

  • Obama and Purple America

    I think it's worth checking out Noam Scheiber's piece on Obama and end of his "grand compromise" trip. I don't know about other supporters, but I generally thought that when he claimed that there was no "red America" or "blue America" he was engaging in campaign rhetoric. When he claimed, as Ryan Lizza notes, that politics was mostly played between the "40 yard lines" I thought it was more packaging than principal. 


    When Hillary Clinton would criticize his post-partisan fantasies, I remember smugly thinking "That is exactly why I can't support you." I didn't think Obama was more "liberal" than Clinton. I thought he was less polarizing, and more likely to open up the playing field. But I also thought that, in the era of Terri Schiavo, he could really believe in post-partisanship, or a purple America. 

    In hindsight, I should have been less cynical and seen that Obama's 40-yard line politics were deeply tied to his ability to expand the map. Politics and policy were wedded. And so we find that it wasn't until the debt ceiling fight, that Obama truly began to comprehend his opposition:

    After the midterm elections, Geithner's chief of staff, Mark Patterson, thought the administration should try to defuse the debt-limit issue once and for all before the incoming Republicans arrived. He drafted a law giving the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally and sent it to the White House. To sell it politically, the president could explain that renewing the upper-income Bush tax cuts, as Republicans were then demanding, would cost the government $700 billion over ten years, forcing it to hit the debt ceiling sooner. 

    The White House was initially interested, but dropped the idea once Republicans made clear they would oppose it. But, of course, the way to win concessions from obstructionist opponents isn't to sound them out quietly. It's to cause them public discomfort. As one former Treasury aide who was involved explains: "Imagine the alternative reality where the president comes out in December and says, 'I understand you want to increase the high-end tax cuts. But that will make the deficit go up. ... I am willing to do some of what you want to do, but you have to pay for it by raising the debt ceiling.'" At the very least, it would have put the GOP on the defensive. 

    But the White House didn't have an appetite for going to war so soon after the midterms. Instead, it chose to bargain behind the scenes, renewing the Bush tax cuts in order to win more tax benefits for workers. "The feeling [at the White House] was, 'Let's go home, lick our wounds, sort it out.' There wasn't a lot of fight in folks," says the former Treasury aide. "We [at Treasury] were a little bit obsessed. They were, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, we'll deal with it later...' "

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