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.

  • Girlfight

    The New York Times chronicles boxer Claressa Shields

    The Times chronicles boxer Claressa Shields from Flint, Michigan. It's amazing at the end to see her coach say when he gets done with her she's "going to be a real lady." It's amazing how much that word--lady--has changed. A century ago it definitely couldn't encompass fisticuffs.

  • Patriotism

    In the early days of army integration, a young white supremacist expresses a stunning amount of hatred, a type that can't be explained away by politics.

    As I mentioned before, I'm reading Randall Kennedy's book The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency for a magazine piece. The most moving chapter in the book is on black patriotism. Most of the chapter finds Kennedy offering a rather sympathetic, and compelling, look at Reverend Jeremiah Wright through the lens of his father. 

    But there's also an intense section where Kennedy describes black soldiers efforts at The Battle of The Bulge. Eisenhower had lost so many troops that he gives black soldiers the opportunity to volunteer to fight. Even though it means taking demotions so that black officers wouldn't end up commanding white soldiers, four thousand black men sign on.

    In the years following the armed forces began to desegregate. In the wake of those changes, the following letter was sent to Theodore Bilbo, an avowed white supremacist and senator from Mississippi:

    I am a typical American, a southerner and 27 years of age.... I am loyal to my country and know but reverence to her flag, BUT I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner with a negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory tramped in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throw back to the blackest specimen from the wilds.
    The letter was written by a man who served, not in the American military, but in the white supremacist militia and rose to be a "Exalted Cyclops" of the Ku Klux Klan. In another life the longest serving senator in American history, and supporter of the country's first black president. The man was Robert Byrd.

    One of the problems with history as debate club is Byrd's name is typically bandied about in order change the subject away from the latest racist act by some GOP official. This offers a convenient excuse to not look, in any depth, at Byrd's past actions. 

    I don't pull out that quote to play "Who is more racist?" But it must be said that there is stunning amount of hatred in those words. It can't be explained away by politics. This isn't the public "I'll never be outniggered again" race-baiting of Wallace. And it's much more than just hatred of black people; it's hatred of an America in which black people are allowed to fight with whites, voiced by someone who did no fighting himself. 

    Byrd's sentiment isn't original, It really is the same fear that led to secession. But it basically holds that one hates black people so much, that they would see their mother country fall, so long as black people stay fallen. 

    Perhaps inappropriately, I'm reminded of a scene in one of those many X-Men crossovers from the 80s. Jean Grey is locked in battle with her clone, her "sister," Madelyne Pryor. As they fight to the death Jean tells her she can still save her and they truly can learn to live in the world together that there still is a world to live for. Pryor says "Not with you in it" and dies. 

    That's the kind of hatred you see in that letter. And it wasn't even unusual. Kennedy chronicles how blacks in the South, up through the 1950s, often didn't celebrate the 4th of July less they be lynched for believing themselves American. 
  • Compensation


    III. Violence

    We have, thus far, established that Ron Paul's version of the Civil War is wrong on chronology, and wrong on economics. But what of Paul's contention that slavery was ended in every other country without the violence that swept over America:

    Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I'm advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war.

    I think we can grant the technicality here--that the specific sort of violence. a civil war launched by slave-holders to establish an empire of White Supremacy, makes America different. But if Paul's point is simply one of nomenclature, or specimen, it doesn't has little import on his greater argument--that the horrific violence that attended America in 1860 was, somehow, preventable. 

     I'm fairly sure, for instance, were we to use the terminology of some of Paul's fellow travelers "The War Of Northern Aggression" his point would remain. His argument is about violence and war--that "every other major country" somehow managed to purge itself with a minimum of bloodshed or through magnanimous nonviolence. As with virtually everything else Paul says about the Civil War, the facts have taken leave.

    The obvious counter-example is Haiti, where black people fought a bloody two year war of liberation against the French, and then a second war against the French under Napoleon. The Haitians triumphed in each instance and thus authored one of the few (if only) successful slave rebellion in world history. I spent some time, via twitter, talking with Laurent Dubois, author of Avengers Of The New World, one of the most heralded histories of the Haitian Revolution. We have a source here putting casualties at over 100,000, in era before the minie ball.

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  • Grandstanding Gingrich

    I hadn't actually seen this moment with Newt Gingrich and John King until I was filing through some old Daily Show segments. I don't really understand why reporters allow themselves to be fodder for this sort of thing. I think the worst part is King's backpeddaling attempt to blame the question (about Newt's previous marriage) on someone else, which allowed Newt to go into nuclear faux-outrage mode.

    If you don't think a question is legit, don't ask it. If you do, and you're called to defend it, you need to do so, not relapse into "What had happened" mode. I don't know how objectivity is served by being afraid of your own questions. Newt Gingrich knew the rules. He's defending his brand. CNN should defend theirs. Gotta say, Bill O'Reilly--to his credit--would never go out like that.

    Sorry I'm late. Too much Civil War on the brain.

  • Into the Canon: De Tocqueville

    Yesterday, I think we arrived at an interesting historical paradox. The consensus was that, in the slimmest sense, compensated emancipation was possible. But in the actual sense it was impossible. That is because while we were able to imagine the country getting its hands on enough resources to bail-out slave-holders, we could not imagine slave-holders accepting such a bail-out. The only way to make it work would be to compel them to accept--which is just another way of saying "War."  (This, of course, only one of many problems with the counter-factual, and I ask patience as we address the others in the coming days. Again, one post can't do it all.) 

    So, of course, this made me to think of De Tocqueville:

    The great difficulty was, not to know how to constitute the Federal government, but to find out a method of enforcing its laws. Governments have generally but two means of overcoming the opposition of the governed: namely, the physical force that is at their own disposal, and the moral force that they derive from the decisions of the courts of justice. 

    A government which should have no other means of exacting obedience than open war must be very near its ruin, for one of two things would then probably happen to it. If it was weak and temperate, it would resort to violence only at the last extremity and would connive at many partial acts of insubordination; then the state would gradually fall into anarchy. If it was enterprising and powerful, it would every day have recourse to physical strength, and thus would soon fall into a military despotism. Thus its activity and its inertness would be equally prejudicial to the community. 

    The great end of justice is to substitute the notion of right for that of violence and to place a legal barrier between the government and the use of physical force. 

    Is it fair to say that by 1860, slavery had effectively brought the American government to ruin? Isn't that what secession was? The failure of government? Can we not look at the administration of James Buchannan in the face of the secession crisis and see a weak temperateness and "many partial acts of insubordination?" It is probably not accurate to say that North and South fell in to "despotism" during the War -- there was an election in 1864, and one which Lincoln believed he would lose. But you do see the State strengthening itself and infringing on previously held liberties. 

    These are all questions. I don't have much experience with political science or the history of governments. But it would seem that the threat of violence is an indispensable fact of governing ("I got more glocks and techs than you.") And yet having to honor that threat regularly indicates a failure of legitimacy. 

    This is disturbingly akin to the West Baltimore of my youth. Without a real power establishing a monopoly on dispensing of beat-downs, pistol-whippings, and shootings, we were left to regulate it ourselves. The kids who were most able to protect their person, were allowed the right of self-governance, and almost never had to fight. The threat of what they might do had to be honored. I, on the other hand, spent the first half of my seventh grade year getting jumped, and the second half fighting. My eighth grade year was considerably less violent. The threat was now honored, and by then I was rolling with a crew.

    This is all thinking out loud. We're here in the sandbox together. Let's go.
  • This Is Someone's Mayor

    When East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo was asked what he plans to do for Latinos, he responded: "I might have tacos when I go home."

    I missed this with all of my Officer Friendly snarking, but after East Haven, Connecticut police were arrested by the FBI (including the head of its union) for harassing the city's East Haven community, the city's mayor was asked what he would be doing "for the Latino community" He responded as follows:

    When WPIX reporter Mario Diaz asked Maturo what he plans to do for the Latino community, Maturo said, "I might have tacos when I go home. I'm not quite sure yet."

    Maturo added: "When you ask me what I would do for Latinos, I may go out and have a Latino dinner in the Latino community. There's nothing wrong with that and you can twist it and turn it whichever way the press decides to do."

    Yes, how dare you twist my remarks by video-taping them and posting them in full online. (You have to watch the full video in the link.) Also note the "If I have offended you" apology. As a member of the horde said, you can't make this up.

    And note to self -- never drive through East Haven. 

  • Lana Del Rey Leaked

    A bad month gets worse for the embattled siren

    Vulture gets a listen:

    Here's what we can tell, based on a few early listens: Most of the tracks we've already heard ("Video Games," "Blue Jeans," and "Born to Die," plus leaked songs like "National Anthem") are stuffed in the first half, and the last seven tracks feel a little scraped together. Del Rey uses the same images over and over -- the red dress, bikini tops, lipstick -- and she leans on a good liquor reference whenever possible. (An incomplete list of substances consumed: black Cristal, Bacardi chasers, cognac, top-shelf liquor, cherry Schnapps.) 

    Speaking of booze, we swear to God that she recruited the Maybach Music chick to drop in a "Pabst Blue Ribbon on Ice" voice-over on "This Is What Makes Us Girls," and the reference will either make you laugh or cringe, depending on how you feel about Rick Ross and/or pandering to worn-out ideas of hipsterness. That last part applies to the whole, probably. 

    The melodramatic strings and moody atmospherics of "Video Games" carry through most of the album, though Del Rey does get a little frisky with some half-rapping on "National Anthem" and "Lolita." ("National Anthem," which leaked in unfinished form a few weeks ago, contains lines like, "Money is the reason we exist / Everybody knows it, it's a fact [kiss kiss]" and "Do you think you'll buy me lots of diamonds?" LDR is not afraid of herself, even if you are!) "Million Dollar Man" sounds a lot like a Fiona Apple outtake; "Off to the Races," the album opener, just sounds nuts. None of the songs stood out as a particularly easy live fit for Del Rey's voice -- she's still jumping registers and milking that fragile falsetto. How will the tour go? And why didn't she perform "Born to Die" on SNL, we wonder?

    I've gotta say, I've never quite understood the hate Lana Del Rey gets. OK, it's not cool to lie about being poor. But "Video Games"--an OK song, I guess--always struck me as kiddie music. It strikes me as something a young lady might play in those angsty years before she gets her driver's license and is imagining what adulthood is like.

    I don't know. I don't really get Justin Bieber-hate either. Or Common spitting at Drake
  • Everything Sunny All The Time Always

    Racial profiling abounds in New York city

    Here in New York, Officer Friendly loves everyone. But sometimes he has to use his outside voice when talking to Muslim people:

    Since August, an Associated Press investigation has revealed a vast NYPD intelligence-collecting effort targeting Muslims following the terror attacks of September 2001. Police have conducted surveillance of entire Muslim neighborhoods, chronicling every aspect of daily life, including where people eat, pray and get their hair cut. Police infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds more.

    I think Muslim people should be happy Officer Friendly is watching the most minute details of their life. When Officer Friendly is on patrol, nothing bad ever happens! Just ask Spanish people:

    They were known as Miller's Boys, police officers who worked the 4-to-midnight shift, patrolling the largely working-class town of East Haven, Conn., including the small but growing Hispanic community that has spread out in recent years from New Haven. The officers were more than well known in that community; according to residents and federal authorities, they were feared. 

    They stopped and detained people, particularly immigrants, without reason, federal prosecutors said, sometimes slapping, hitting or kicking them when they were handcuffed, and once smashing a man's head into a wall. They followed and arrested residents, including a local priest, who tried to document their behavior. 

    They rooted through stores looking for damning security videotapes of how they had treated some of their targets, described by one of them on a police radio as having "drifted to this country on rafts made of chicken wings." 

    And after it became known that the Justice Department was investigating the department, according to an indictment unsealed on Tuesday, a picture of a rat appeared on a police union bulletin board, and in the locker room, an ominous note: "You know what we do with snitches?"

    Silly newspaper person! Officer Friendly helps snitches understand how to use their powers responsibly. Only angry swarthy people intimidate witnesses. 

    Officer Friendly's only problem is that no one loves America like he loves America. So when we heard that Officer Friendly said mean things about Muslim people, we knew it had to be an honest mistake

    The New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, through a top aide, acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that he personally cooperated with the filmmakers of "The Third Jihad" -- a decision the commissioner now describes as a mistake...

    Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne told The New York Times on Monday that the filmmakers had relied on old interview clips and had never spoken with the commissioner. On Tuesday, the film's producer, Raphael Shore, e-mailed The Times and provided a date and time for their 90-minute interview with the commissioner at Police Headquarters on March 19, 2007. 

    Told of this e-mail, Mr. Browne revised his account. "He's right," Mr. Browne said Tuesday of the producer. "In fact, I recommended in February 2007 that Commissioner Kelly be interviewed." In an e-mail, Mr. Browne said that when he first saw the film in 2011, he assumed the commissioner's interview was taken from old clips, even though the film referred to Mr. Kelly as an "interviewee." 

    He did not offer an explanation as to why he and the commissioner, on Tuesday, remembered so much of their decision.

    I wish bad people would stop hurting Officer Friendly with questions. Officer Friendly only wants to protect us against people with names that don't like America. I know that Officer Friendly has dedicated his life to saving mine, and that is all the explanation I need. 

    Can it be sunny hug time now? 
  • Compensation


    II. Economics

    I saw the graph above for the first time yesterday, and it made me shiver. It's taken from historian  Roger L. Ransom's article "The Economics Of The Civil War." 

    When you look at how American planters discussed slavery, over time, you find a marked shift. In the late 18th, early 19th century, slavery is is seen as an unfortunate inheritance, a problem of morality lacking a practical solution. Thomas Jefferson's articulation is probably the definitive in this school of thinking:

    There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.

    In Jefferson's day, talk of eventual abolition was not particularly rare in the South. Slave-owners spoke of colonization and some even emancipated their own slaves, The Quakers had a presence in the South and in the late 18th century banned slave-holding (If anyone has a precise date, I'll gladly insert.) Prominent slave-owning southerners like Henry Clay were in pursuit of some kind of compromise which would purge the country of its birth taint. 

    But by the 1830s, such thinking was out of vogue in the South. Men like Henry Clay's cousin Cassius Clay, once wrote:

    Slavery is an evil to the slave, by depriving nearly three millions of men of the best gift of God to man -- liberty. I stop here -- this is enough of itself to give us a full anticipation of the long catalogue of human woe, and physical and intel- lectual and moral abasement which follows in the wake of Slavery. Slavery is an evil to the master. It is utterly subservient of the Christian religion. It violates the great law upon which that religion is based, and on account of which it vaunts its preemi- nence.

    In 1845 Clay was run out of Kentucky by a mob. By then the Calhoun school had taken root and Southerners had begun arguing that slavery was not immoral, but a positive good:

    Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. In the meantime, the white or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature. 

     But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good--a positive good.

    This is not just a rebuke of abolitionist thinking, but a rebuke of Jeffersonian thinking. Fifteen years later, Alexander Stephens would call Jefferson out by name arguing that his presumption of equality among men was a grievous error. 

    Perhaps this is too crude an interpretation but the graph above, measuring the incredible rise in the wealth represented by the pilfering of black labor, tracks directly with the political debate. When slaves were worth only a cool $300 million, property in man was an "unhappy influence." When that number skyrocketed in excess of $3 billion, suddenly it was a "positive good." Perhaps this is to deterministic. I leave it to my fellow commenters to color in the portrait. At any rate the notion that such an interest--by far the greatest collective asset in the country at the time--could be merely incidental to the war is creationist quackery.

    But on to the problem.

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  • Compensation

    Paul Flag.jpg

    I. Lincoln

    I think, for starters, it's worth laying out the position on the Civil War, and then breaking it down into parts (economic issues, international comparison, morality, politics etc.) But before I proceed, I want to first thank everyone who contributed to this effort. As I said, it's always frustrating to spend hours on hours debunking, but I think that frustration was ameliorated by the information we were able to gather in one place. I know that the Paul's line on the Civil War is wrong for a few reasons. But I didn't know how many reasons, or the actual color of all of those reasons until yesterday. Whenever you learn a little more, it's a good day.

    And so we begin.

    Here is Ron Paul giving his standard view of the war to Tim Russert:

    MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. "According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery." 

    REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn't have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. 

    MR. RUSSERT: We'd still have slavery.

    REP. PAUL: Oh come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I'm advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn't sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

    I don't wish to speak ill of the dead, but it's really grating to watch reporters with a national platform offer these kind of broad, moist  platitudes ("We'd still have slavery.") instead of the hard dead facts of history. This particularly rankles in reference to Lincoln the first president ever killed, remixed by Paul as an inaugurator of  war. Allowing that sort of distortion to pass isn't just unfair to viewers, it's deeply unfair to Lincoln who, throughout his career, was at pains to both declare his enmity to slavery, and sympathy for the people who practiced it.

    Lincoln's basic feeling is captured in a speech he gave six years before he became president:

    I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world -- enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites -- causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty -- criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest. 

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  • Today

    Guys, I'm going to spend much of the day trying to pull our Sunday crowd-sourcing into a coherent post. There's some great stuff in there. 

    I want to make sure that I, again, call attention to an error in the original thread. The 1860 value of the slaves was $3.5 billion and the 21st century value is, per Blight, $75 Billion. I obviously want to correct the record, but I also don't want something like "Ron Paul Voted for MLK Day" to happen here. There's no need for exaggeration. The scale is ultimately what we come back to:

    In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America's manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together. Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy. The only thing worth more than the slaves in the American economy of the 1850s was the land itself...

    At any rate, this thread is yours. 
  • The One That Got Away From the Ravens

    What Lee Evans and Kyle Williams will be thinking about for the rest of their lives

    I haven't watched the Giants v. 49ers yet, though I know the Giants won. I did watch the Ravens v. Patriots and I just want to say that Lee Evans will probably think of that dropped pass every day for the rest of his life:

    Lee Evans sat on a chair facing his locker under Gillette Stadium, alternating between fingering a piece of black athletic tape and dabbing at his eyes with a towel. 

    Then as the number of reporters waiting to interview swelled, the wide receiver slowly stood up from the chair, turned around, and unhesitatingly shouldered the blame for not holding on to what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown pass in the Ravens' 23-20 loss to the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game.

     "There's really not a whole lot to say about it," Evans said. "It is what you saw. It was an opportunity for us to go to the Super Bowl, and I let it go."

    I feel for him. You don't forget something like that. Same for Kyle Williams.
  • Crowd-Sourcing American History

    Comfortable History is like the computer virus that poses as the shield -- it positions the espouser as a brave truth-teller, even as it infects us with lies.

    Correction: In comments, I've written that slaves were worth 75 billion in 1860 dollars. That is wrong. It's 75 billion in today's dollars, and three billion in 1860 dollars. My apologies.

    One of the more unfortunate aspects of blogging about the Civil War is that a great deal of time is expended on debunking, as opposed to discovery. Instead of looking at, say, Unionism in Tennessee, or Native American participation in the Confederate Army, we end up revisiting black Confederates again. I've tried to avoid this. But history is political and the deployment of comfortable narratives is a constant malady. Moreover, I get something out of these repeated debunkings that I didn't realize until this weekend. My wife recently noted that is not unusual for scientist to spend as much, or more, time disproving things, as opposed to proving. She added that sometimes in disproving, they actually make a discovery.

    I've been thinking about that some in my posts on Ron Paul, Howard Zinn and the issue of compensated emancipation. To be blunt, I am unsatisfied with my rebuttal. I have a case which demonstrates, on a surface, why compensated emancipation as an alternative to the Civil War, is ridiculous. But it isn't complete. It doesn't attack at all angles.

    The problem debating this sort of thing is the side of dishonesty and intellectual laziness is at an advantage. It will likely take more effort for me to compose this post, then it took for Ron Paul to stand before the Confederate Flag and offer his thin gruel of history. Those attempting to practice history need not only gather facts, but seek out facts that might contradict the facts they like, and then gather more facts of context to see what it all means. 

    But Comfortable History is asymmetrical warfare it needs only a smattering of facts, and need not guard against a lack of context, presentism, or other facts that might undermine its arguments. Instead it breezily proceeds through hypotheticals and abstract thought experiments  which somehow satisfy our desire to be in possession of a dissident intellect. Comfortable History is like the computer virus that poses as the shield -- it positions the espouser as a brave truth-teller, even as it infects us with lies. 

    All this fueled by the fact that are real viruses, that we are often lied to. The government didn't invent HIV, but Tuskegee happened and people who believe the former are always about the business of citing the latter. The Comfortable History is surely cynical -- but it gives us a pattern of broad paranoia which we can obey. In the way that a lawful evil dictatorship will always be preferable to a chaotic evil anarchy, cynicism gives us bright lines. It gives us patterns and thus avoids the atheistic truth--that there are no patterns, that there is no Law Of History, that all of it is chaos.

    Against that chaos, we have the light of our critical thinking skills and in applying them, in working harder those who seek only to comfort, we are rewarded with deeper insights. It is from that perspective, that I'd like to address this question of "Compensated Emancipation" and enlist the help of this knowledgeable group of readers to fill in the gaps. Consider this an advanced Talk To Me Like I'm Stupid. (It will be edited. Think before you write. Also, please don't just throw in links, with a "Check out this." Or "read this book," Not that we're opposed to books, but we need actual comments. It is permissible to say nothing.)

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