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.

  • On Looking Like a Ghetto Crackhead



    One other way Obama represents is simply by being all black and normal, and thus driving white racists even more batshit insane. Take for instance the following clip where a guest on Fox says:

    "How long do you think Sean Hannity's show would last if four times in one sentence, he made a comment about, say, the President of the United States, and said that he looked like a skinny, ghetto crackhead?" Bozell wondered. "Which, by the way, you might want to say that Barack Obama does."

    What starts out as halfway-fair critique degenerates into utter racism, at Obama's expense. That five percent of black America that's conservative, or left and have qualms about him see that and their decision is made for them.

    I am aware that saying the first black president looks like "a skinny ghetto crackhead," might not strike some people as particularly racist. It's true that the president is, in fact, skinny. It's true that ghettos didn't originally refer to places where black people lived. It's also true that white people, do in fact, smoke crack. 

    Likewise, poor white trash could refer to the garbage can somewhere in the Kentucky hills.It's not like we can read minds, or anything.
  • Jay-Z Still Big Pimping

    Reducing misogyny to the usage of the word "bitch" misses the point.

    So it turns out that the rumors of Jay-Z dropping "bitch" from his vocabulary are utterly false. Leaving aside the thin empathy underlying this alleged "Come to Wollstonecraft" moment, I'm not really disappointed. I think reducing misogyny to the usage of the word "bitch" misses the point--and then in some way's it really is the point. I don't know that hip-hop is any more sexist than other art-forms that takes boys and young men as its primary audience, and is generally created by boys and young men. I don't think hip-hop has anything on comic books or video games, for instance. It's true that hip-hop is more profane than any of those other art-forms--but it's more profane about everything, not just gender. 

    I understand the focus on the word "bitch," given its particular history and usage. But we should mindful of reductionism for reasons both political and artistic. There is a whole school of thought that holds racism is impossible unless attended by the word "nigger." And there are plenty of ways to regard a women as bitches, without ever saying the word. 

    Finally, I have never wanted a world where white people were forever banned from using the word nigger. That's not really the point. All words exist in a context. Rap's "bitch" problem has never been about the word itself, but the context in which it's regularly used.

  • The Power of Symbolism

    Should President Obama be the defining image of a successful black man in America?




    One of the reasons I've been MIA (French class aside) is I've been working on a piece for the magazine about Obama's relationship with the black community. One of the themes I'm looking at is how Obama employs symbolism to woo African-Americans. 


    There's a stereotype of successful black men that holds that they prefer white women, white society, and white people, overall. And they tend not to identify with the black community. When you're discussing biracial black men, or Ivy League black men, that stereotype is only intensified. The crude saying is "All the good ones are taken, married to white women, or gay." Or some such.

    Obama is surely "taken" but he is "taken" by a woman who represents, and formed a family that represents, and thus Obama represents. He has not "opted out." I don't doubt his sincerity in checking "black" on his census forms. Moreover, I think people who urge him to do otherwise, often do so having the luxury of roots, of a home, of being "from somewhere," or of having traditions which are not regarded with some hostility in broad swaths of the country. Still, I would have to believe that Obama understands the message he's sending to that place where he says he is rooted. 

    And Obama -- and his family -- are  as Joe Biden would say, clean. Randall Kennedy is dead-on when he writes:

    Blacks love Obama for relieving them of the burden of making excuses for him. 
    One has not had to worry, for instance, about saying "Yes I know he has a love-child, but he's the only one raising these issues. Or, "Yes, I know three boy accused the pastor molesting them, but the church has helped so many. Or, "Yes I know know five women have accused him of sexual harassment, and he doesn't know a thing about Libya, but the GOP should be more diverse." Or, "Yes I know he urinated on a child, and videoed it, but he sings so beautifully, don't you agree?"

    No, Obama is clean. 

    It's tempting, and perhaps correct, to impugn this low standard, which is, itself, a reflection of racism. (Again, Alex Smith is not worried about what Tim Couch did.) It is equally tempting to dismiss symbolism as unimportant when measured against tangible policy. I hope to look at how Obama's deployment of symbolism often shields him from actual critique. But I don't think symbolism should be easily dismissed. Perhaps having your president croon Al Green at the Apollo really does make your day easier.

    One way to think about this is remember that black people are people, and that all people turn human beings into symbols, whatever the person's actions. It's worth thinking about why we -- as humans -- do this. What need are we fulfilling? What ache are we ministering to? What is this need -- among us all -- to represent for our team? 
  • The Whole Universe Is Against Terrell Owens

    This GQ piece on Terrell Owens, presently exiled from the grid-iron, got me thinking a lot about my son, the psychology of children, and regrettably, very often adults.


    I think this is rather illustrative:

    It's his mouth, that unhinged gusher of an orifice with its gleaming slice of teeth. Or at least memories of the chemistry-killing vitriol that spewed from that mouth during his time with San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas. And how he punctuated the raw stream of consciousness with a magic bag of clever if ultimately self-destructive antics once the play ended: the spike on the "sacred" Dallas star logo in 2000, the Sharpie pulled from his sock to sign a ball after a 2002 touchdown against the Seahawks, the 2006 Thanksgiving Day TD after which he blithely deposited the ball into a huge Salvation Army kettle. 

    If there's one word Owens can't abide, it's regret. The mere sound of the syllables sends ripples of discomfort across his face. His grandmother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's soon after San Francisco picked him in the third round of the 1996 draft and hasn't recognized him for years, always told him: "Never regret anything." They talked bad about Jesus, she would remind him, so you know they're going to talk bad about you. "To say I regret anything would be a slap in my grandmother's face," he says. 




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  • Real Racists Do Real Things


    Newt Gingrich puts Juan Williams up on that Summer Jam screen, and church of white populism says Amen:


    Next to the election of a black president, we'd say that Gingrich's standing O was the most compelling dramatization of racial progress so far this century. Which isn't to say that racism has been completely eradicated. It lives on in the minds of liberals who see Bull Connor when they look at Ozzie Nelson.

    Again if you really want to believe that racism "lives on in the minds of liberals" and that Gingrich's address to Williams stands just below the election of the country's first black president, I'm sure you can marshal some sort of evidence for support. If your chief goal, as a thinking person, is to find a path to making yourself right, you may never amount to much of a thinking person, but you can never be disappointed. It must be admitted that Juan Williams is, himself, no stranger to such pursuits, and that the unerringly righteous are, ultimately, deserving of each other.

    As for the moment itself, and why it resonates, I think (again) this Jane Austen is appropriate:

    The power of disappointing them, it was true, must always be hers. But that was not enough: for when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong, they feel injured by the expectation of anything better from them.

    People who are regularly complicit in wrong, are not in the habit of admitting such things. The unwillingness to admit wrong, the greedy claim upon the powers of disappointment,  the deep sense of injury is not coincidental--it is a necessary fact of wrong-doing. The charge that the NAACP are the actual racist is the descendant of the notion that abolitionists wanted to reduce Southern whites to "slavery,"  that the goal of civil rights was the rape of white women.That Barack Obama would have a "deep-seated hatred of white people" is not a new concept. 

    Racism is, at its root, a lie.The habit of lying does not end with the racism itself. It is a contagion that extends to the defense of the initial lie.  The expectation of intellectual honesty, from a candidate who employs dishonesty, and from a slice of the electorate that stakes their political lives on that dishonesty is rather bizarre. 

    When a professor of history calls Barack Obama a "Food Stamp President," it isn't a mistake to be remedied through clarification; it is a statement of aggresion. And when a crowd of his admirers cheer him on, they are neither deluded, nor in need of forgiveness, nor absolution, nor acting against their interest. Racism is their interest. They are not your misguided friends. They are your fully intelligent adversaries, sporting the broad range of virtue and vice we see in humankind. If you are a praying person, you should pray for their electoral destruction in November. Surely they are praying for yours:

    Let his days be few; and let another take his office 
    May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. 
    May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. 
    May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. 
    May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children.

    Newt Gingrich coined "The Moment" on Martin Luther King's birthday.  Real racists do real things.
  • The Allure of Swift Justice

    The Taliban and the politics of force

    Steve Coll's New Yorker piece on the hunt for Mullah Omar is behind a paywall, but I'd urge you to pick it up. It's always easy to understand why we consider a force like the Taliban "evil," but the less explored question is how "evil" comes to power. Of course when you start answering that question even the term "evil" somehow becomes inadequate. 


    In the Taliban's case, what Coll shows is a force that rose on its image of legitimacy. The Talibs were able to brutally enforce the law in places where anarchy reigned. Once they rose to power, the Taliban rode that image by staging gruesome spectacles of alleged criminals being subject to violence. In her lecture series, Margaret Anderson explains that the best way to understand the dastardly public torture of criminals in early modern Europe is to consider the need of authority to establish itself over great distance, in an era before cell-phones and a legitimate judicial systems.

    From the perspective of the people, a known dictatorship with obvious bright lines is often preferable to utter chaos. The ability to erect those bright lines and to enforce them harshly and swiftly  aided the Taliban's rise, and even now according to Coll's reporting, it sends people to their courts to adjudicate disputes. 

    When you read something like this, you start to understand the difficulty of establishing and maintaining a democracy, I have serious critiques of the criminal justice system in this country. But getting most people to buy into a system that presumes innocence, that accepts that many more people will remain free, having committed crimes, than those who will be wrongly jailed or even executed, is no small feat.
  • The NFL Playoffs So Far

    Vernon Davis is an emotional football player

    Some quick thoughts:


    1.) I really think Tom Coughlin deserves much, much respect. Here in New York, it feels like his job status is a regular issue. I don't really know why.

    2.) Watching Vernon Davis crying after catching that pass, was eerily reminiscent of watching Terrell Owens do the same thing all those years ago. I love watching football players cry after plays like that. I'll never do anything as hard as get smashed by 245-pound linebacker while trying to hold on to a football. 

    But I know a little (just a little) about putting your heart and body into something and seeing it come out beautiful. I got that (for the first time) as a west African drummer when I was 16. All kids should experience it. 

    3.) Tom Brady is most unchristian. 
  • Because There Is No Racism

    Fallows rightly flags Newt Gingrich continued labeling of Obama as  "the food stamp president" as a doq-whistle and gets this from a reader:


    You cited as a "dog whistle" Newt Gingrich's comment that Obama is "the food stamp President". By calling that a dog whistle you are dog whistling to your own constituencies about how terrible and racist those evil Republicans are.

    Fallows responds:

    ...Newt Gingrich knows exactly what he is doing when he calls Obama the "food stamp" president, just as Ronald Reagan knew exactly what he was doing when talking about "welfare Cadillacs." There are lots of other ways to make the point about economic hard times -- entirely apart from which person and which policies are to blame for today's mammoth joblessness, and apart from the fact that Congress sets food stamp policies. You could call him the "pink slip president," the "foreclosure president," the "Walmart president," the "Wall Street president," the "Citibank president," the "bailout president," or any of a dozen other images that convey distress. You decide to go with "the food stamp president," and you're doing it on purpose. 

     If Joe Lieberman had been elected, I would be wary of attacks on his economic policy that called him "the cunning, tight-fisted president." If Henry Cisneros had or Ken Salazar does, I would notice arguments about ineffectiveness phrased as "the mañana administration." If Gary Locke were in office, then "the Manchurian candidate" jokes that had been used on John Huntsman would have a different edge. And so on.

    I think this is the point. There are a great many ways to attack Obama's economic policies and priorities. People as diverse as Mitt Romney and Tavis Smiley do it all the time. The notion that Gingrich is somehow unaware of that "food stamp president" has racial connotations, that he is being on the level when he says the black community should not be satisfied with food stamps, requires an extension of supernatural generosity. 

    I mean, it certainly is true that somewhere in Obama's America, black kids are beating up little white kids. And I am sure a lot of black people really do have a high opinion of fried chicken. If you want to be right, there's always a way to get you there. But honesty is different.
  • Supersizing 'The Great Gatsby'

    What does story have anything to gain from the 3D treatment?




    As I've said before, I think filming The Great Gatsby in 3-D is a pretty bad idea, though this is interesting: 


    It might also supply what has been missing in the Oscar season -- the heat of a film that decisively breaks a barrier, like "Gone With the Wind," the first all-color best picture, or "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," perhaps the first Oscar winner to be anchored in its make-up and fantasy effects. 

    "The 'special effect' in this movie is seeing fine actors in the prime of their acting careers tearing each other apart," Mr. Luhrmann explained in a telephone interview this week. He spoke of using 3-D not to create thrilling vistas or coming-at-you threats, but rather to find a new intimacy in film. 

    He referred particularly to a climactic scene in which Daisy's husband, Tom Buchanan (played by Joel Edgerton), confronts Mr. DiCaprio's Gatsby in a suite at the Plaza hotel, all in three dimensions. "How do you make it feel like you're inside the room?" he asked.

    I think this starts in the right place. Whereas much of Hollywood's big-budget work is plot-centric, Gatsby's plot is thin, its love story banal (that's the point,) and its magic rather subtle. It works marvelously on the level of character, and acting would have to be key. So I think Luhrmann has it right when he says the special effect is the actors.

    What scares me is the sense that I get from a lot of Hollywood directors that more is necessarily "more." There are all kinds of ways to make us "feel" that we're in the room--and more detail and verisimilitude doesn't always equal greater "feeling." I think Fitzgerald very much makes us feel like we're in the room:

    There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. 

    On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before. 

    Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York--every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour, if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb. 


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  • Into the Canon: Democracy in America

    For reasons important to my fiction, it was good to read this defense of localism from De Tocqueville which, I imagine, has often warmed the hearts of conservatives. Please forgive the lengthy quote:


    Centralization easily succeeds, indeed, in subjecting the external actions of men to a certain uniformity, which we come at last to love for its own sake, independently of the objects to which it is applied, like those devotees who worship the statue and forget the deity it represents. 

    Centralization imparts without difficulty an admirable regularity to the routine of business; provides skillfully for the details of the social police; represses small disorders and petty misdemeanors; maintains society in a status quo alike secure from improvement and decline; and perpetuates a drowsy regularity in the conduct of affairs which the heads of the administration are wont to call good order and public tranquillity; 49 in short, it excels in prevention, but not in action. 

    Its force deserts it when society is to be profoundly moved, or accelerated in its course; and if once the co-operation of private citizens is necessary to the furtherance of its measures, the secret of its impotence is disclosed. Even while the centralized power, in its despair, invokes the assistance of the citizens, it says to them: "You shall act just as I please, as much as I please, and in the direction which I please. You are to take charge of the details without aspiring to guide the system; you are to work in darkness; and afterwards you may judge my work by its results." 

    These are not the conditions on which the alliance of the human will is to be obtained; it must be free in its gait and responsible for its acts, or (such is the constitution of man) the citizen had rather remain a passive spectator than a dependent actor in schemes with which he is unacquainted. 


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  • 'The Whitest Man in America'

    Lee Siegel dubs Mitt Romney:


    Pundits have already begun the endless debate over whether Mr. Romney's wealth and religion are hindrances or assets. But there has yet to be any discussion over the one quality that has subtly fueled his candidacy thus far and could well put him over the top in the fall: his race. The simple, impolitely stated fact is that Mitt Romney is the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory. 

    Of course, I'm not talking about a strict count of melanin density. I'm referring to the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways he telegraphs to a certain type of voter that he is the cultural alternative to America's first black president. It is a whiteness grounded in a retro vision of the country, one of white picket fences and stay-at-home moms and fathers unashamed of working hard for corporate America.

    In this way, Mr. Romney's Mormonism may end up being a critical advantage. Evangelicals might wring their hands over the prospect of a Mormon president, but there is no stronger bastion of pre-civil-rights-America whiteness than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yes, since 1978 the church has allowed blacks to become priests. 

    But Mormonism is still imagined by its adherents as a religion founded by whites, for whites, rooted in a millenarian vision of an America destined to fulfill a white God's plans for earth.

    I think there might be an interesting point to be made about the specific kind of "Leave It to Beaver" whiteness embodied by Romney and his family (emphasis on "might"). But this feels like an headline in search of piece. The notion that Mormons imagine their religion as "for whites"--and more so than other whites--is basically an act of mind-reading.

    We often think of personal qualities, or personal faults, as representing something about the collective. I don't know. I think Mitt Romney is just really awkward--whether he's yelling "who let the dogs out" or whether he's giving that fake laugh at some Perry jab. 

    I'm not really sure why Romney is whiter than Ron Paul or John McCain. Maybe our the Ivory Horde can explain?

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