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.

  • 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

    ransom.civil.war.us.figure1.jpg

    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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  • The Irony of American History

    I'd like to think that the Confederate Flag in the back was photo-shopped. At any rate, what's amazing is the frame here--It's not the firing on federal property that inaugurated the War, it's Bull Run, or some such. It's as if I punch you in the face and then accuse you of bullying me after I get the crap kicked out of me. Except worse. 


    At least he's against the drug war...

  • Mitt Romney Family History

    It's worth checking out this Fresh Air interview with Romney biographers Michael Kranish and Scott Helman. There's good stuff on Romney's business ventures, the time he spent proselytizing, and his relative liberalism as Mormon official. It's pretty well balanced in the best sense.



  • 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.

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Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

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Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

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An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

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The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

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The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

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