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. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

  • Toward a More Willful Ignorance

    People will often believe what they judge to be in their interest to believe

    Matt Yglesias pulls this quote from a report on immigration:

    In both experiments, the information influenced attitudes very little. We conclude by noting the potential limits of "information effects" on mass attitudes.
    I think fair-minded people who make a living arguing opinions should always keep this in mind. Facts have limits. People will often believe what they judge to be in their interest to believe. This is  a fairly human trait--as in the mother whose son has just butchered a family and tells us that he was always "such a good boy." No one ever shoots anyone. The weapon magically discharges.

    In these discussions of the Civil War and Ron Paul, I've had ample opportunities to reflect on "the potential limits of informational effects."
  • The 'Chronically Oppressed' Keith Olbermann

    Nice piece from David Carr on Olbermann's latest melee:

    Executives at Current TV told me they contacted Mr. Olbermann two months before the Iowa caucuses about being the anchor and executive producer of their coverage, and he declined. Mr. Olbermann thought it was silly to attempt to expand coverage when the channel's marquee show lacked reliable production. 

    But that didn't stop him from calling in his staff for a news meeting on the day of the Iowa caucuses as if his show were going to appear, when he clearly knew that no such thing was going to happen, a pretty callous stunt by any measure. It fell to Mr. Bohrman to send a memo to the staff saying there would be no installment of "Countdown" that night. Ugly business, that. 

    But if Mr. Olbermann is disappointed in the widespread technical failures at Current TV, it should be pointed out that he helped choose the studio, an old building on the far west side of Manhattan that has turned out to be a lemon. He is a part of the management team, and you generally don't get to rail against the Man if the Man is you. 

    Executives at the channel say the embarrassing public fight has more to do with his unwillingness to play, let alone play well, with others. Which is kind of a running meme in Mr. Olbermann's career, but this time was supposed to be different. By enrolling him at a high level in the remaking of Current TV and keeping the bureaucracy at a minimum at the small, privately held company, Mr. Gore and Joel Hyatt, the founders, hoped that the brilliant but chronically oppressed anchor would find the angel of his better nature. No angel has been forthcoming.
  • MLK Day Fact Check

    Andrew repeats an interesting claim that I've seen all over twitter tonight: 

    Chuck Todd notes that Ron Paul voted for the MLK national holiday. Gingrich voted against. I find the notion that Ron Paul is a racist to be preposterous.

    Again, I make no claims about the contents of Ron Paul's heart. I've never met him, and consider such things beyond the bounds of the ultimately knowable. But Ron Paul's voting record is a different matter. 

    But first here's Ron Paul on Martin Luther King Day in his newsletters:

    Boy, it sure burns me to have a national holiday for Martin Luther King. I voted against this outrage time and time again as a Congressman. What an infamy that Ronald Reagan approved it! We can thank him for our annual Hate Whitey Day.

    It has been alleged that these are Lew Rockwell's words, not Ron Paul's. One would think that Rockwell would be familiar with Paul's record, as he was his longtime Chief of Staff.

    But, fair enough. Let us assume that Rockwell was, indeed, in error. Paul's supporters link to his Yea vote on this 1979 bill as evidence that he supported an MLK Holiday:


    But this actually isn't the bill for the holiday. The text doesn't even claim that. More importantly, the date is wrong. This vote was taken on December 5, 1979. The vote for the King holiday was actually taken on November 13, 1979:

    The bill was called up in the House on Tuesday, November 13, 1979...When the final vote was taken, 252 Members voted for the bill and 133 against--five votes short of the two-thirds needed for passage.

    I'm sorry to report that one of those Nay votes, as you can see here, was cast by one Ronald Paul. I'm sorry to further report that Paul again voted no on the 1983 bill that passed.

    If we are to take the version of events proffered by Ron Paul's defenders, the Congressmen voted for a holiday which his Chief of Staff publicly denounced as "Hate Whitey Day." In Ron Paul's own name, no less. This version of events should inspire skepticism even in a Paul admirer. I am happy to report that in some, it did.  

    I want to reiterate--again--that I make no claims on the heart of Ron Paul. How he truly feels about black people is best left to Paul and his conscience. His actual record, however, is wholly subject to the wiles of google.
  • The Sadness Everywhere Present

    A little taste of poetry from Jennifer Grotz

    I'm over at The Paris Review (Big up Lorin Stein) talking poetry. Specifically I'm talking Jennifer Grotz's incredible poem, "Poppies." Here's a taste:

    The poppies are wild, they are only beautiful and tall 
    so long as you do not cut them, 
    they are like the feral cat who purrs and rubs against your leg 
    but will scratch you if you touch back. 
    Love is letting the world be half-tamed. 
    That's how the rain comes, softly and attentively, then 

    with unstoppable force. If you 
    stare upwards as it falls, you will see 
    they are falling sparks that light nothing only because 
    the ground interrupts them. You can hear the way they'd burn, 
    the smoldering sound they make falling into the grass. 

    Poppies was originally published by the effete, latte sipping, wine-track, coastal elite, pinko, Prius-driving libruls at the The New England Review. OK, so I added some superlatives. 

    Moving on, yesterday, on twitter, someone hipped to the association between poppies, World War I and death. Here's John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" which (like a lot of things) I'd never had the pleasure of reading:

    In Flanders fields, the poppies blow 
    Between the crosses, row on row, 
    That mark our place and in the sky 
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly 
    Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

    We are the dead, short days ago, 
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
    Loved, and were loved, and now we lie 
    In Flanders fields! 

    Take up our quarrel with the foe: 
    To you from failing hands, we throw 
    The torch; be yours to hold it high. 
    If ye break faith with us who die 
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow 
    In Flanders fields!
  • Food Stamp President

    Gingrich will get a frosty reception if he goes to the NAACP convention to "talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."

    Newt Gingrich's message to the black masses:

    "I'm prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps," Gingrich said.

    He should expect a frosty reception:

    Oscar Eason, President of NAACP State Conference of Alaska, Oregon and Washington State, told CBS News Gingrich's comment "goes right to the heart of real racism - that African Americans are lazy and don't want to work and depend entirely on handouts.

    It's true that white people make up the majority of  SNAP participants (59 percent.) It's also true that a disproportionate number of people participating in SNAP are black (28 percent.) But what's salient here is that most black people (62 percent) actually are not on food stamps. Moreover, I strongly suspect that the percentage of black people who are not on food stamps, and are politically conservative, is even higher. Of course these black almost always vote Democratic. 

    I wonder why.

    As for Santorum's comments (which is where this all started) you can see his explanation here. I'd love to join in the fray. But I have to tell you, I've watched the video, and I'm not completely clear on what he actually said or was trying to say. So there's that.
  • Senate Fail

    Robert Menendez can't get to his opponent so he goes after his opponent's girlfriend:

    Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey is holding up President Obama's nomination of a judge to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the only time a Democrat has tried to block one of Mr. Obama's judicial nominees. 

    Mr. Menendez would not comment. But the nominee, Patty Shwartz, has been in a relationship for more than two decades with the head of the public corruption unit for New Jersey's federal prosecutor. And that unit investigated the senator during his 2006 election fight, an inquiry Mr. Menendez has long contended was politically motivated.

    Judge Shwartz, now a federal magistrate judge in Newark, a lower-level position, declined to comment. But the connection has led lawyers and judges in the state to speculate that Mr. Menendez is acting out of resentment, rather than any concern about Judge Shwartz's qualifications. 

    "Every lawyer in the world will tell you that she's extraordinarily qualified, a decent person and an excellent judge, and would be an asset to the circuit," said Tom Curtin, the chairman of the lawyers' advisory committee for the United States District Court for New Jersey. "This was going to be words and music for her, then something happened."
  • The Radical Imagination

    My new colleague Robert Wright (Hurrah!) makes an interesting point:

    Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value. It doesn't lie in the substance of his foreign policy views (which I'm largely but not wholly in sympathy with) but in the way he explains them. Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans. 

    This is such a radical departure from the prevailing American mindset that some of Paul's critics see it as more evidence of his weirdness. A video montage meant to discredit him shows him taking the perspective of Iran. After observing that Israel and America and China have nukes, he asks about Iranians, "Why wouldn't it be natural that they'd want a weapon? Internationally they'd be given more respect." 

    Can somebody explain to me why this is such a crazy conjecture about Iranian motivation? Wouldn't it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?

    One of the depressing things about politics is not simply that elected politicians exist "in the world of the possible" but that those who are about the business of expanding that world are generally denigrated. I wrote about this for the Times, last summer, so I don't want to repeat the argument. Suffice to say that I don't think we've yet come to terms with the fact that the Iraq War proceeded with the endorsement of "serious people," while those who dissented were consigned to quackery.

    I have had exactly the same thought Paul offers above--about all nations pursuing nuclear arms. If I were them, wouldn't I want the bomb? By what philosophy would I conclude that allegedly hyper-moral America and its friends should have a monopoly on the uses of nuclear power?

    But that sort of thinking is not only outside of mainstream political discourse, it's actually intellectually denigrated. The sense is that our morality should be defined by what seems achievable. 

    I strongly suspect that his willingness to ask questions which have been deemed quackery, seemingly because they are "impolite," fuels a lot of the excitement you see among some progressives (and even Andrew.) The problem arises when there's actual quackery thrown into the mix. But that's nothing new for the GOP

    MORE: See the video at the top for some sense of what I mean.
  • Saviorism

    A few dissents that deserve consideration:

    I have to admit that I was/(still am?) a Paul supporter. I always heard people casually omit Ron Paul but they could never form an idea to support their dismissal. For putting that thought into context means quite a bit, so, I thank you. 

    What I would like to ask you and perhaps other commenters is who should we look for? I'm of the belief that everyone has some dirt that can be revealed and just beause it hasn't come to light doesn't mean that other politicians running for office right now don't represent something that is easily reprehensible. 

    I read one comment that Ron Paul speaks out on low hanging fruit, but it's an unpopular message that most politicians don't actually want to enter in. I agree that what Ron Paul is saying maybe shortcuts, but a bunch of what he says regarding government spending I find to be true. 

    So, with the mindset that everyone running for office can't be trusted : who else besides Ron Paul is saying something other than what politicians normally say when running for office?

    The commenter continues:

    Again, I want to reiterate that these views are reprehensible. But I am honestly looking for another option, even distilled. Essentially, my hope that our system of government is capable of correcting course is dwindling by the second. Promises of change have resulted in little change.  

    The people are resorting to occupying places with no clear goal but with the general sentiment that "something stinks". I know something stinks, you know something stinks. We *all* know something stinks. 

    Who else besides Ron Paul is saying, "Hey, does something stink?" I am honestly asking this question because I would like to have an open mind and hear the thoughts of others.

    I support Paul, but realize he is not perfect, nobody is. The fact is he represents Those things that are important to me now! I ask you, who is your prophet in this age, now that you have matured from your youth? Is he or she perfect? We have to make decisions based upon who is willing to lead.

    And finally:

    I'm reading everything I can find on Ron Paul because I'm one of those disaffected Obama supporters looking for a new horse to back this year. I agree with you -- it's beyond disappointing that the closest thing to a candidate that supports my views on these key issues is a crazy racist who'd be more at home in front of a podium at the North Idaho Separatists Club than he would be in the White House press office. (And the lengths that Ron Paul supporters go to to pretend he is not disturbing, is itself disturbing. Own the cognitive dissonance, people -- you'd have to learn to if he got elected.) And I also understand that the President doesn't set policy alone and that it takes more than one person to change the course of a wayward nation. I know all this. 

    But what I really want to know is -- okay, where does this lead me? People like to say that civic responsibility doesn't end at the ballot box, and I think that's only half-true. Writing angry letters and making angry phone calls can be done, for sure, but that is like substituting checks for cash -- the currency that backs those checks is still the vote. An elected leader does not care whether I spend my time doodling his name with hearts and flowers or lobbing darts at his photo. All that matters is: will I vote for him? And if I have significant money, will I give it to him so he can get other people to vote for him? All the angry phone calls in the world will do nothing if they are not backed by the currency of my implied vote. 

    More »

  • The Lost Battalion

    Forgive the light posting. I've been working on that last post for almost a week. (Props to Brian Beutler and Adam Serwer for that.)

    Anyway, it's yours
  • The Messenger


    They too needed emancipation.
    --Ulysses S. Grant

    As I often do on this blog, I'd like journey back to the Crack era--the late 80's and early 90's --when the general sense was that the black youth of America had lost their minds. All across our cities, young black men were bleeding in the streets. All of us had friends who were dead or jailed. All of our high school classes included at least one young woman who was a mother or about to be. All the brothers were out.

    It was a good time to be young and angry, to retreat to into the audio chaos of Chuck D, retreat into the writings of Malcolm X, and fantasize about revolution. The verdict of the young held that our leadership was desolate--boycotting South Carolina for some expected slight, trying to secure entrance into a country club, picketing Denny's, or fighting over Affirmative Action at Harvard Law. We didn't know anyone at Harvard Law, and so we fumed. What we wanted was a great messenger who would talk to us, instead of talking to white people. You see, whatever our anger, we were American (though we would have said different) and believed in our talent to reinvent ourselves and compete with the world.

    The need was real. And the man who best perceived that need -- Louis Farrakhan -- preached bigotry, and headed a church with a history of violence, and patriarchal and homophobic views. We knew this. Some of us even endorsed it. A few of us debated about it. But, ultimately we didn't care. Farrakhan--and his cadre of clean disciplined black men and modest, chaste black women--spoke to our deep, and inward, sense that we were committing a kind of slow suicide, that--as the rappers put it--we were self-destructing. 

    Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Farrakhan's beguiled young African-Americans. At the height of his powers, Farrakhan convened a national meeting of black men on the Mall. (Forgive my vagueness. The number is beside the point. It was a group of dudes.) The expectation, among some media, was for violence. What they got instead was a love-in. I was there. I don't know how to describe the feeling of walking from my apartment at 14th and Euclid, down 16th street, and seeing black women, of all ages, come out on the street and cheer. I can't explain the historical and personal force of that. It defied everything they said we were, and, during the Crack Era, so much of what we had come to believe.

    I think about that moment and I get warm -- and then I think about Farrakhan and I go cold. The limitations of the man who'd orchestrated one of the great moments of my life were evident as soon as he took the stage and offered a bizarre treatise on numerology. The limitations became even more apparent in the coming months, as Farrakhan used the prominence he'd gained to launch a world tour in which he was feted by Sani Abacha and the slave-traders of the Sudan.

    During Farrakhan's heights in the 80's and 90's, national commenters generally looked on in horror. They simply could not understand how an obvious bigot could capture the imagination of so many people. Surely there were "good" Civil Rights leaders out there, waging the good fight against discrimination. But what the pundits never got was that Farrakhan promised something more--improvement, minus the need to beg from white people. Farrakhan promised improvement through self-reliance--an old tradition stretching back to our very dawn. To our minds, the political leaders of black America had fled the field. 

    I've thought a lot about Farrakhan, recently, watching Ron Paul's backers twist themselves in knots to defend what they have now euphemistically label as "baggage." I don't think it makes much sense to try to rebut the charges here. No minds will be changed. 

    Still let us remember that we are faced with a candidate who published racism under his name, defended that publication when it was convenient, and blamed it on ghost-writers when it wasn't, whose take on the Civil War is at home with Lost-Causers, and whose take on the Civil Rights Act is at home with segregationists. Ostensibly this is all coincidence, or if it isn't, it should be excused because Ron Paul is a lone voice speaking on the important issues that plague our nation.

    I have heard this reasoning before. 

    More »

  • The Banality of Racism

    Racists -- and those who exploit racism -- are rarely about the business of openly declaring themselves as such.


    Critiquing the libertarian view of racism, Jon Chait says:

    The most fevered opponents of civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s -- and, for that matter, the most fervent defenders of slavery a century before -- also usually made their case in in process terms rather than racist ones. They stood for the rights of the individual, or the rights of the states, against the federal Goliath.
    I think this is a really important point, as we tend to think of racism as working, primarily, through volume and violence. James Byrd is the only undisputed victim of racism in recent memory. But the poll tax, the literacy tests, the grandfather clauses were all ostensibly color-blind and were explicitly designed for their authors to hide behind that fact. It's comforting to think of, say, "State's Rights" as a value neutral, ahistorical proposition. In fact, its always been tied to the aims of white supremacists:

    I consider the Tariff, but as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States, and the consequent direction, which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, have placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in opposite relation to the majority of the Union; against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the States, they must in the end be forced to rebel, or submit to have their permanent interests sacraficed, their domestick institutions subverted by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves & children reduced to wretchedness. Thus situated, the denial of the right of the State to interfere constitutionally in the last resort, more alarms the thinking, than all other causes.
    That's John C. Calhoun in 1830, on the eve of the nullification crisis. To be clear, "the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States, and the consequent direction, which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry" is slavery. The "Nullification Crisis" is itself a euphemism for "The Crisis Over The Stolen Wages Of Black People." A little bombastic, but you get the point.

    Racists -- and those who exploit racism -- are rarely about the business of openly declaring themselves as such, especially after their cause has been thumped, Before the Civil War, you could find all manner of Southerners exalting the "great moral truth of slavery." Afterwards, they claimed it was just "State's Rights." Before Reconstruction, the defeated Confederates employed explicit black codes that reduced African-Americans to slavery. After Redemption they moved to "vagrancy laws." "contracts" and "grandfather clauses."  In the 1960s George Wallace would loudly declare "segregation forever!" Now we say "the Civil Rights Act destroyed privacy." In the era of militia madness, Ron Paul defended his racist newsletters. In the era of Barack Obama, he didn't read them.

    It certainly is possible that Ron Paul never read a publications produced in his own name, just as it's possible to sincerely believe that the Civil Rights Act destroyed personal liberties, and it's possible to sincerely believe that if you are going to vote, you should be able to read the names of the candidates, or that Lincoln destroyed the original values of the republic. But it's also true that those beliefs have long been used to shield more odious ones. Forgive me for being suspicious when I see them employed in combination. 
  • The Obesity Mountain

    I thought Tara Parker-Pope's piece on obesity was fascinating, and worked best as a corrective to the notion that weight-loss can be easy and fast. (Lose 30 pounds in 30 days.)

    I thought Tara Parker-Pope's piece on obesity was fascinating, and worked best as a corrective to the notion that weight-loss can be easy and fast. (Lose 30 pounds in 30 days.) But I thought her basic conclusion--that weight loss is essentially impossible for majority of humans--was underserved by her reliance on studies that looked a lot like crash diets. 550 calories a day, much of it coming from shakes sounds insane, as does 30 pounds over eight weeks. It isn't shocking that someone on that diet would gain it all back, and then some. In another case the subjects were on a liquid diet of 800 calories a day.

    I'm not a scientist, but I have lost roughly a quarter of myself. I've done it at a glacial pace--almost eight years. So glacial in fact that I wouldn't even call it a "diet.": I've gained some in that time, but never yo-yoed back to the heights of my girth. The pattern has been more like lose lot, gain a some, lose some gain a little, lose a lot etc. 

    Obviously I wish this had happened faster and smoother. But the upshot of taking the long way is that I've learned a lot about how to negotiate  world where, at almost every step, cheap high calorie food is at the ready. You can't get that understanding in a lab and you're unlikely to get if your trying to burn of 3-4 pounds a week. That sounds like masochism. 

    It would have been nice to see Parker-Pope incorporate studies of people who didn't lose weight through crash dieting. Perhaps those studies don't exist. I don't know. At the end Parker-Pope writes:

    One question many researchers think about is whether losing weight more slowly would make it more sustainable than the fast weight loss often used in scientific studies. Leibel says the pace of weight loss is unlikely to make a difference, because the body's warning system is based solely on how much fat a person loses, not how quickly he or she loses it. Even so, Proietto is now conducting a study using a slower weight-loss method and following dieters for three years instead of one.

    I really would have liked to have seen a more substantial treatment of slow question than that. It feels like an afterthought. I highly recommend the piece. But it seems to boil down to crash diets don't really work. 


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