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.

  • 'Immorality' and Obamacare

    The right and wrong way to discuss the health-care law's failings

    In an earlier post ruminating on Obamacare and the large swath of poor black people who will not be helped by it I used the term "immoral." I should not have done that. I think that's the kind of word that tends to excite, but not much else. I don't want to bring heat to this thing, I want to bring light. 

    I come to this as a card-carrying lefty and Black Panther diaper baby (is that a thing?) who believes the 2008 election to be one of the great events of my life. At the same time I am worried that we are effectively conceding that any expansion/improvement of the social safety net will likely be done on racist terms. Perhaps it was inevitable that Obamacare would exclude a lot of poor black people. I don't think it's a good idea to accept that on face value. If I must accept it, I will do so begrudgingly, greedily demanding more. I will not make the perfect the enemy of the good. And I will not allow the good to masquerade as the perfect.
     
    Again, I want us to think about politics beyond the ballot box, and consider that which shapes the options that come before us. In that sense, this is beyond the man Barack Obama. I have no particular enmity toward him, on the contrary I have a great deal of pride. I think that using the term "immoral" was unhelpful. More later.
  • Obamacare and the Conscience of a Radical

    What if the health-care law's shortcomings aren't just missed opportunities but moral outrages?

    Last week someone alluded to the liberal critiques of radical leftism arguing that the limits of dwelling "too long and too angrily on the systemic racism of America" should not be ignored. This amused me. As I noted, the problem is not that I dwell too long and too angrily on America's systemic racism, but that America's systemic racism has tended to dwell too long and too angrily on me. The commenter replied and expanded, pointing out that he had not expressed himself well. I actually think he addressed the liberal political consensus quite well. And as a point about electoral politics it probably is true. I just reject the idea that "politics" begins with the voting booth, the nominating convention, or the pocket veto.

    I was talking to Eric J. Miller, a law professor at Loyola Law School, for a magazine piece the other day. He made the point that talking about white supremacy as foundational to America is not merely cathartic-- it's citizenship. More, it is providing correct information that helps us understand what ideal policy might look like -- even if we don't get there:
    The political sphere is where you engage with your humanity. You have not merely a right, you have an obligation to participate, to make sure the people, as a whole, are able to make good decisions, and pass good laws and treat you as a human. And if one group subjugates another, if it says 'You can talk about anything you want, except everything that matters to you,' then you are not a full member of the polity. So then voting is not enough because we can't even have the debate.
    Voting is not enough. Defining the terms of the debate is politics too. To a great degree (though not totally) the politics which define the debate around the expansion of our social safety net are the politics of white supremacy. To understand how true this has been across history, it's worth checking out Robert Lieberman's tome Shifting the Color Line. His conclusions are bracing. "Deracialization, the side-stepping of direct confrontation of difficult racial issues," Lieberman writes. "Can have grim consequences." Like leaving the majority of the most vulnerable class of Americans uncovered, while the rest of the country enjoys the expanded safety net. 
     
    What you must understand is that this is actively harmful. Black wealth in America is roughly a tenth of white wealth. Black people are the most segregated people in the country. What this means is that even black people who do personally reap the benefits of Obamacare will reap them less. They will live in communities where there is less coverage. (Remember Patrick Sharkey's work on neighborhoods.) They will have family members and friends who will be uncovered. In this way one can see how an ostensibly, and well-intentioned, progressive and color-blind policy proposal can actually expand a wealth gap. I want to be careful with that last sentence. I don't know that that will actually happen. My sense of this is historical -- selective expansions of the safety net and of wealth-building opportunities have not been helpful to black people.
     
    Lieberman argues for the long-term nationalization of the safety net. In the case of health-care reform this would have meant national single-payer. That was never on the table in 2008, and I have my doubts about the ability of a black president to pass such a program.
     
    More vexing for me is how to think about this as a citizen. The conventional liberal approach says, "Obamacare didn't get all we wanted but it got a lot of it. We took what we could." But what if that logic really does exacerbate the wealth gap? Is it moral to support a program that fails to help those who need it the most? The response might be that -- like Social Security -- eventually all states will adopt the expansion. But this does not address the damage done in the meantime, nor does it address the possibility in increasing if not the wealth gap then the overall gap in life outcomes.
     
    There is a more radical possibility -- Obamacare is ultimately immoral, not because it didn't get "everything" but because it didn't get to those who needed it most. The stated impulse of class-first liberalism is that those who need it most -- measured by wealth and income -- will get the most help. In the case of Obamacare, this may eventually happen, but great damage will be done in the meantime. 
     
    I'm not sure where to go with this. What would Martin Luther King say, faced with the realities of Obamacare? Why is the radical approach -- a health-care expansion for the most vulnerable, or no health-care expansion at all -- ultimately wrong? It certainly isn't a plan for right now. But what do we lose when neglect to even attempt to make the long-term argument?
     
    Lieberman is a supporter of universal programs (as am I) but he argues that we should not fool ourselves into thinking we are implementing those programs in a country where racism is a minor force, easily dismissed: 
    The implication of this analysis for public policy is that broad, universal policies stand a better chance of succeeding if we we pay careful and forthright attention to both institutional structure and racial consequences....
    Lieberman writes this in a critique of William Julius Wilson, who in the '80s argued for the kind of color-blind approach that Obama now touts. But it's worth pointing out that Wilson has changed his mind. He responds to Lieberman in the latest edition of his classic study The Truly Disadvantaged by adding:
    I accept this criticism. Indeed since writing The Truly Disadvantaged my position on framing has changed. In addition to making sure that institutional mechanisms are in place to allow for an equitable distribution of resources, I also feel that in framing public policy we should not shy away from an explicit discussion of the specific issues of race and poverty; on the contrary, we should highlight them in our attempt to convince the nation that these problems should be seriously confronted and that there is an urgent need to address them. 
     
    The issues of race and poverty should be framed in such a way that not only a sense of fairness and justice to combat inequality is generated, but also people are made aware that our country would be better off if these problems were seriously addressed. In other words, I now feel that appeals to America's sense of fairness and justice will be more effective in the long run than attempting to neutralize the effects of racial biases by highlighting initiatives that seem to benefit all groups. 
    That is basically my position. I am fan of universal programs. I am not a fan of lying or self-delusion. I am a fan of Obamacare. I don't know that the president could have gotten more. I am not a fan of defending Obama's record in black America by changing the subject. 
     
    One caveat: This analysis focuses on Obama because he is the titular head of the American state. To some extent, I regret that. What I want people to think about is beyond the president. Obama's "rising tide" thinking did not appear from thin air. It is the result of liberal thinking in sociology and history over the past few decades, as well as the impulses of coalition politics. I want people to expand their thoughts about politics beyond the immediate and the electoral. I am trying to think beyond Obama, as an individual actor, to the inherent biases and predilections of our system. I don't have many answers here.

    UPDATE: I am aware of what happened with the Supreme Court and how the ACA was written. I addressed that critique here.

  • A Rising Tide Lifts All Yachts

    The idea that President Obama has aided poor black people through a broad race-blind expansion of the social safety net deserves some scrutiny.

    When President Obama leaves office there will almost certainly be efforts to ascertain the impact of our first black president on the black community. Defenders of the president's record will likely point to Obamacare as the kind of program that expanded the safety net for everyone but specifically for those in need -- a class in which African Americans are overly represented. 

    I have, of late, been anxious to add an asterisk to this accolade. As I've noted before, black people are also disproportionately represented in many of the states which are refusing the Medicaid expansion. Thus the idea that Obama has aided poor black people through a broad race-blind expansion of the social safety net deserves some scrutiny.

    This morning the New York Times offers us just that:
    A sweeping national effort to extend health coverage to millions of Americans will leave out two-thirds of the poor blacks and single mothers and more than half of the low-wage workers who do not have insurance, the very kinds of people that the program was intended to help, according to an analysis of census data by The New York Times...

    The 26 states that have rejected the Medicaid expansion are home to about half of the country's population, but about 68 percent of poor, uninsured blacks and single mothers. About 60 percent of the country's uninsured working poor are in those states. Among those excluded are about 435,000 cashiers, 341,000 cooks and 253,000 nurses' aides.

    Blacks are disproportionately affected, largely because more of them are poor and living in Southern states. In all, 6 out of 10 blacks live in the states not expanding Medicaid. In Mississippi, 56 percent of all poor and uninsured adults are black, though they account for just 38 percent of the population.

    Dr. Aaron Shirley, a physician who has worked for better health care for blacks in Mississippi, said that the history of segregation and violence against blacks still informs the way people see one another, particularly in the South, making some whites reluctant to support programs that they believe benefit blacks....

    Dr. Shirley said: "If you look at the history of Mississippi, politicians have used race to oppose minimum wage, Head Start, all these social programs. It's a tactic that appeals to people who would rather suffer themselves than see a black person benefit."
    Indeed. Liberals who believe they can fool racists by changing the subject from racism to class underestimate the intelligence of their audience. "All that it would take to sink a new WPA program would be some skillfully packaged footage of black men leaning on shovels smoking cigarettes," writes sociologist Douglass Massey. "Papering over the issue of race makes for bad social theory, bad research and bad public policy." 
     
    To say nothing of morality. Because we live in a segregated country, the people who must bear the burden of the uninsured black poor will ultimately be other black people. This is not just a matter of individual black people not having insurance. It is a shock to the entire system, the entire network of black people who -- because of white supremacy -- live segregated lives, and must bear this on their own.
     
    More later. If you've been reading me the past few months, you know that I am wholly unsurprised.
  • The Shutdown Caucus Explains Itself

    And the mind reels.

    And the mind reels:

    "We're not going to be disrespected," conservative Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., added. "We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is."
    Derek Thompson has more. I do not. 
  • Tales From the Shutdown

    How the nation's flu preparedness and air safety are falling victim to the government's closure

    As always, I learn more from the Horde then they learn from me. First from our own moderator Kathleen:

    I'd like to advise everybody to keep a safe distance from each other until our national public health institute is back up to full strength. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are facing a reduced ability to detect and investigate disease outbreaks. The annual influenza program — the one that tracks the flu and helps people get flu shots has been shut down. The CDC has also stopped offering its usual assistance to state and local authorities, who rely on the agency for help in tracking unusual outbreaks." 
     
    So, the flu program has been shut down right as flu season begins. And we just have to hope there are no unusual outbreaks of disease, since we won't be able to adequately track or respond to them. Gee, what a worthwhile risk to take, even if just for a few days! 
     
    I do appreciate James Fallows' point that: 
    As a matter of substance, constant-shutdown, permanent-emergency governance is so destructive that no other serious country engages in or could tolerate it. The United States can afford it only because we are -- still -- so rich, with so much margin for waste and error.
    However, some of the idiotic and noxious consequences of the shutdown, like our inability to adequately monitor infectious disease, have no respect for wealth. It's a roll of the dice that everything will be fine. I know I'm preaching to the choir, but Lord, what a pointless gamble.

    Some science from the folks who keep us safe in the skies:

    I work as an air traffic controller in a facility just outside of Washington, D.C. Our airspace extends from South Carolina to the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, and then along the southern half of Pennsylvania into New Jersey. By the time an airplane departing an airport in that area leaves 10,000 feet or is more than 30 miles from its departure airport, it enters our area of responsibility. 
     
    Last year, we handled just over 2.5 million flights, which makes us third behind similar facilities in New York and Atlanta for total flights handled. If you are an air traffic controller with a current flight physical and any current position certifications (i.e., the ability to work a given piece of airspace unsupervised), you are part of the exempted or essential employee base, and therefore are expected to come to work. 
     
    However, there is no plan for how we are to be paid during this time, since all of our payroll employees are furloughed (and the Department of the Interior's people who actually cut the checks/EFTs for most of the other federal agencies are too). Any leave for vacations, illness or personal emergencies is to be counted as a voluntary unpaid furlough until the government is funded again. If you had booked a wedding and a honeymoon a year in advance, you can still go, but you apparently won't be allowed to use accumulated leave to ensure that you are paid for that time. 
     
    If a family member is sick and requires your help for an extended period, the same conditions apply. I would imagine this is playing out the same at the FBI, Customs Service, TSA and several other agencies where people are too valuable to furlough but not valuable enough to pay on time and in full. 
     
    Contra Fox News, calling this a "slimdown" is bullshit, and it's dangerous bullshit. I am in a position to go a few pay periods without borrowing money to live, but I don't know that I am the rule rather than the exception among exempted federal employees. If you want to see how well government services function when the providers are worried about paying the mortgage, you need only wait through October 13 to find out.

    More coming. As always if you've got particular experiences, like our commenter above, feel free to email me.

  • Your Shutdown Thread

    Weigh in on what's happening in Washington

    Part of writing is figuring out whether you have anything interesting to say. I'm following the shutdown as much as the rest of you. But it's not my lane. I should not pretend otherwise. With that said, a couple of hits. 

    Check out Terry Gross interviewing Robert Draper a few years back. You can see the seeds of today in Draper's reporting:
    GROSS: You're writing a book about the House. So I'm wondering if watching how the House dealt with, you know, passage of this debt ceiling deal, if a lot of members of the House now admire President Obama for his willingness to compromise with them or if they just see him as weak and easy to take advantage of. 
     
    Mr. DRAPER: I haven't seen any sign of admiration for President Obama in the Republican camps. If anything, there is a belief that President Obama was not always good on his word at the negotiating table. 
     
    There was this suggestion that another $400 billion in revenue should be considered that President Obama sort of sprung on Speaker Boehner, which he felt was untenable, given how — the difficulties he was having in his Republican conference to convince them to accept any kind of revenue package. 
     
    No, I don't see that any of them have viewed Obama's willingness to compromise as a virtue. I think that they recognize it, but they don't see this as something to be admired or even to be emulated. I think that if anything they've calculated it as a kind of weakness.
    And as always, my colleague Jim Fallows is on it. I'd add in this interview with National Review's Robert Costa on what motivates John Boehner. Otherwise, it's yours. Leave the magic. Bring us science.
  • Osama Bin Laden Is Dead; Long Live Osama

    I encourage everyone to check out Sarah Abdurrahman's utterly horrifying tale of being detained, along with the family, at the border. Adburrahman's family was held for six hours. The detention included being held in the cold, being handcuffed, and subjected--repeatedly--to a full body-search. To this day they have no idea why.  

     
    We are six years into the Obama administration and with each report of profiling, with each report of unaccountability, with the scuttling of the Democrats 2008 national security platform, the horrific success and mad genius of 9/11 becomes clearer. Our defeat is bipartisan and broad:
     
    The NSA inspector general, in the letter dated September 11, detailed 12 investigations that found the NSA's civilian and military employees used the agency's spying tools to search for email addresses or try to snoop on phone calls of current or former lovers, spouses and relatives, both foreign and American. 
     
    In one instance, a military member queried six email addresses of a former girlfriend, an American, on the first day of having access to the data collection system in 2005. 
     
     In another instance, a U.S. government-employed foreign woman suspected an NSA civilian employee, who was her lover, of listening to her phone calls. An investigation found the man abused NSA databases from 1998 to 2003 to snoop on nine phone numbers of foreign women and twice collected communications of an American.
    Its true that in times of war civil liberties take a hit. But this war has the potential to last as long as someone, somewhere is claiming the mantle of Al Qaeda. It looks like our next mayor is going to be the progressive Bill De Blasio. But for all the noise made about Stop and Frisk, I've heard very little about shutting down the infamous Demographics Unit, which basically spies on Muslims for the hell of it.
  • Is James Baldwin America's Greatest Essayist?

    His are some of the coldest American sentences ever written. But they're about love.

    Penguin

    I finished The Fire Next Time on a plane to Greenville, South Carolina. I am here to give a talk tonight about the legacy of the Civil War. I probably should not have read Baldwin before coming into the backyard of John Calhoun and Pitchfork Ben Tillman. I'm all on fire and resolved to bring some of that fire forth tonight.  I have come to places like this before. I have never shrunk from speaking my piece, but I dislike making people directly uncomfortable and have a tendency in person to complicate things that I know are not complicated at all. I am resolving to move away from that. Manners have their place. I should not conflate them with cowardice.

    I want to thank everyone who pointed me toward how much Baldwin really does embrace love. I am remembering what I, myself, loved about him as a young man. I came to college a total Malcolmite. I kind of still am. But Baldwin was among a set of influences that talked me out of my younger self. He is tough to pin down, because he understands the anger in black people, he feels it himself, and fears it. There is something of the atheist about him, though he does not directly say it. His encounters with racism leave him on the edge of violence and hatred, but The Fire Next Time is all about why one should walk back, all about why you should never judge yourself by the standards of the owner of the boot presently on your neck. 

    That is how Baldwin got me. He revealed to me that black nationalism is, itself, a kind of philosophical integration. If you listen to any of Malcolm's speeches they sound like they are straight out of the Enlightenment, and Malcolm himself uses the American revolution and the nationalism of whites around the globe as a model. Baldwin's reply is not to interrogate black nationalism in isolation, but to interrogate nationalism—and the nationitself. He hates the hypocrisy and self-congratulation of white liberals and though he loves hard, though he deeply understands that race is a creation, he is never blinded by love:

    The real reason that nonviolence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes—I am not speaking now of its racial value, another matter altogether—is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened. One wishes they would say so more often.
    More:
    Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro's situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them. It must be added that the Negro himself no longer believes in the good faith of white Americansif, indeed, he ever could have.
     
    More:
    Most of the Negroes I know do not believe that this immense concession [Brown vs the Board] would ever have been made if it had not been for the competition of the Cold War, and the fact that Africa was clearly liberating herself and therefore had, for political reasons, to be wooed by the descendants of her former masters. Had it been a matter of love or justice, the 1954 decision would surely have occurred sooner; were it not for the realities of power in this difficult era, it might very well not have occurred yet. This seems an extremely harsh way of stating the case—ungrateful, as it were—but the evidence that supports this way of stating it is not easily refuted. I myself do not think that it can be refuted at all. In any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems.
    More:

    I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now—in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life—expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power—and no one holds power forever.

    White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being. And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks—the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind. Why, for exampleespecially knowing the family as I doI should want to marry your sister is a great mystery to me. But your sister and I have every right to marry if we wish to, and no one has the right to stop us. If she cannot raise me to her level, perhaps I can raise her to mine.

    These are some of the coldest American sentences ever written. When I was a young nationalist, this was the one that really shook me. "I don't what your sisterbut if we wanted each other, no one has the right to stop us." It was something I'd never seen beforethe black pride of nationalism fused to the undeniable morality of integration.

    I don't want to cherry-pick here. On the contrary, my point is that after all of this—after all his hard talk—Baldwin is still talking about love. These essays are amazing acts of intellectual and emotional courage. I got off the plane here in Greenville and called my agent (who knew "Jimmy" as she called him) and asked, "Does anyone still write like this?" The question was rhetorical. No one does. No one had. No one will.

  • A Festivus for the Rest of Them

    I want to do something I've never done--wish Happy Birthday to someone I do not know. Mijin Cha is somewhere out there among the Horde. I am told that on this day, some years ago (never mind how many) Mijin joined the living. And we are most happy that Mijin joined the living and not some other random zygote who might favor cat videos over watching me glummy doom-say everything, fail at French, and otherwise discover at age 37, that which normal people discover 16. 

    I don't much know why people come here to read, but I am happy they do. It's easy to forget that the vast majority of these readers do not comment but sit in their own private spaces quietly taken my measure. The most vocal members of the Horde owe this sprawling silent majority quite the debt. Without out them, I'd be back on typepad counting my hits for the day. (Two--me and my Dad.)

    And so in honor of these lurkers, of who Mijin Cha is clearly Queen, I declare today September 26, the Day Of The Lurker. Let there be song. Let there be dance. Let there be drink. Let there be merriment, for this the day for all those who don't talk, but understand. But mostly this is a day for Mijin. Happy birthday. I hope you have a great one. 

    Happy birthday Mjin. Keep fighting the good fight. We love you much, but Susan loves you even more. 


  • A Rising Tide Lifts All Yachts

    Poverty Neighborhoods.jpg
    So in our continuing run of posts, which The Horde has dubbed "The TNC Futility" series, we have a chart showing the relative poverty levels of the neighborhoods where blacks and whites in America have lived across two generations. One generation was born between 1955 and 1970. The other generation was born between 1985 and 2000. The data was compiled by Patrick Sharkey for his excellent book Stuck in Place. It is pulled from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal study which began in the late 60s. I think I've used this chart before, but it bears another look.
     
    As you can see, the majority of black people live in conditions that very few white people ever experience, and a significant number of black people live in conditions which virtually no white people experience. This has not changed. For the first generation 62 percent of black people, but only 4 percent of white people, lived in neighborhoods where 20 percent or more of the people were poor. In the second generations 66 percent of black people, and 6 percent of white people, lived in such conditions. In both generations a third of all black people lived in neighborhoods where 30 percent of the population was below the poverty line. Only one percent of all white people lived in such situations.
     
    The vast majority of white people live in low poverty neighborhoods. The vast majority of black people live in moderate to high poverty neighborhoods, with the scale tipping toward the high end. Only 10 percent of all African-Americans experience the kind of neighborhood ecology that 61 percent of white people experience. It's interesting that the trend line--even for white neighborhoods--is pointing down. Canaries in the coal mine I guess.
     
    It's important to understand that a direct line from neighborhood poverty to individual poverty can not necessarily be drawn. On the contrary, individual affluent African-Americans tend to live in neighborhoods that are a step below individual affluent whites. [A]lmost half (49 percent) of black children with family income in the top three quintiles lived in neighborhoods with at least 20 percent poverty," writes Sharkey. "Compared to only one percent of white children in those quintiles." The sociologist John Logan found that, over the past two decades, affluent blacks tended to live around more poverty, than poor whites.
     
    So this is not simply a question of "the black poor" or even "the poor." Helping the poor is a noble goal on to itself. But it isn't the same as addressing the effects of a tradition of racist policy. The two are related--much like homophobia and misogyny are related. But just as same-sex marriage and abortion rights are not the same thing, neither is America's toleration of racism, and its toleration of inequality, color regardless.
     
    About those baguettes: I forgot to close out my last post with some sort of notation on the culinary adventures of this particular black family which--for the first time ever--finds itself living in that black ten percent. I tried to teach my son some knife skills in the kitchen this weekend--I started cutting when I was about his age. This ended in bandages. Just a flesh wound, I assure you. But afterward the boy looked at me like I was Jesus walking and said, "If you weren't here, I would have been freaking out." Do not think I have forgotten the importance, and particular magic, of black fatherhood. I think I wanted to be a father not out of any sense of nobility but for that moment, right there. To feel needed. To be singularly important to someone.
     
    After I bandaged him up he sat in the kitchen and watched me cut up a chicken, make a quick stock, and then some noodle soup. I then announced that we would, again, try our hand at a cake--but this time something basic and yellow. The boy went and watched a 20-minute video of Christopher Kimball baking a cake. He then returned and said, "I want to do it." And he did it. It was awesome--light and not overly sweet. The only help he got from me was getting the batter into the pan. 
     
    It was then that I remembered that someday I would not be so needed, not so singularly important. Already he is coming home with notes from girls. One of them is going to sweep him away from me. And then it will just me and his mother again. And France. We'll be free and that will be nice. But we will never again be so terribly needed.
  • Is James Baldwin America's Greatest Essayist?

    Baldwin's genius increases as we grow older.

    I picked up James Baldwin's new collected joint and haven't quite been the same since. I read a lot of Baldwin in college, and basically left with the sense that he was a badass. But I hadn't gone back to Baldwin in many years. Some people who are important to us as young people, wither under our gaze as older adults. And then other people who we know as genius somehow just increase in our estimation. 

    Baldwin is among those people for me. This is not news. You can see him here giving Bill Buckley exactly what he deserves. And smarter people then me can tell you about his genius. What I can say is that this weekend I read his essay "Price of the Ticket" and felt like someone out there—long dead—understood how I felt.

    Here is passage from "Price of the Ticket" in which Baldwin reflects on the mentoring he got from Marion Anderson and Beauford Delaney:

    Because of her color, Miss Anderson was not allowed to sing at The Met, nor, as far as The Daughters of The American Revolution were concerned, anywhere in Washington where white people might risk hearing her. Eleanor Roosevelt was appalled by this species of patriotism and arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This was a quite marvellous and passionate event in those years, triggered by the indignation of one woman who had, clearly, it seemed to me, married beneath her.

    By this time, I was working for the Army—or the Yankee dollar!—in New Jersey. I hitchhiked, in sub-zero weather, out of what I will always remember as one of the lowest and most obscene circles of Hell, into Manhattan: where both Beauford and Miss Anderson where on hand to inform me that I had no right to permit myself to be defined by so pitiful a people. Not only was I not born to be a slave: I was not born to hope to become the equal of the slave-master. They had, the masters, incontestably, the rope—in time, with enough, they would hang themselves with it. They were not to hang me: I was to see to that. If Beauford and Miss Anderson were a part of my inheritance, I was a part of their hope.

    Much of Baldwin's writing is roughly contemporaneous with the Civil Rights movement, but he seems to share none of its hope, none of its belief in the power of love to conquer all. There is something so real about him. He is not a nationalist, but a humanist—and yet he is the most clear-headed humanist I've ever read. He is not here to flatter you. He is not here to make white people better. He is not here to change the world. He doesn't even seem like he's trying to "inspire." He is here to write—because it's what he wants to do. I love that, and I feel it on so many levels.

    I'm often asked what "impact" I hope my writing has. To which I can only respond, "Fuck if I know." I write because I want to, because I can do nothing else. Because I believe they will hang themselves, and this is my attempt to prevent them from hanging me.

  • The Killing of Jonathan Ferrell in Context

    Sharkey Mobility.jpg

    If I sounded a bit glum and fatalistic in my post on the killing of Jonathan Ferrell, and if I sounded glum and fatalistic in my postings on Trayvon Martin, and if I generally have sounded glum and fatalistic—period, you can blame charts like this one. Again, this is from Patrick Sharkey's research in his book Stuck In Place. I would go so far as to call it essential in understanding the profound lack of progress we've seen, over the last forty years, in our efforts to forge an integrated society.

    Much of Sharkey's data is pulled from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. The PSID is remarkable in that it allows you to look at people across generations. Or, for now, just one generation, because the PSID started in the late 60s.
     
    Above, you see a chart looking at blacks and whites born in poor and affluent neighborhoods, and what happened to them across a generation. The chart then shows what percentage of each group's families remained in poor neighborhoods, and which group's did not. It also shows what percent of each group's families born into affluent neighborhoods were able to remain there, and what percent of each group's families were not.
     
    As you can see, the results are glum. Put simply, if you are black and grew up around poverty, your children probably grew up the same way. If you are white and grew up around poverty, your children probably did better. If you are black and grew up around affluence, your children probably didn't. If you are white and grew up around affluence, your children probably did. 
     
    When I talk about terms like "poor" and "middle class" and "elite" not translating when we compare blacks and whites, this is what I mean. Black people living around affluence are not white people living around affluence with a tan. Their lives are different. The prospects of their children are worse, and their presence on the East Side tends to be transient.
     
    The fact of a dual-society has implications beyond the dollar signs. Toleration of black disadvantage, in a world where that disadvantage is rarely forthrightly explained, leads to the toleration of magic. This is true many times over when you consider that America was founded on the magical thinking of white supremacy. Put differently, if a society has a history of believing that black people are less than human, and repeatedly sees black people living in conditions unlike other humans in that society, the original belief is reified. 
     
    And we know this. Beryl Satter documents in her book Family Properties how the racist practice of redlining black people did not just rob black people of wealth, it reinforced racist beliefs already present. Because I am black, my interest rates and my payments are higher than yours. Because my payments are higher I can not keep up my property as well as you. Because my payments are higher, I work a second job and I am not around to supervise my kids. You don't ever see the absurd contract on my house. But you do see my gutters falling off. You see my kids out past the hour of streetlights. No one told you about redlining. But many people told you that I am lazy and prone to criminality. You have been told this since somewhere around the 18th century. And now you see that when I move next door, property values dip, and the neighborhood becomes a ghetto. 
     
    Where science is concealed, magic reigns. And you will be forgiven for believing that the fact of the ghetto is the fact of my lesser humanity. And with that lessened humanity, with all the requisite stereotypes, comes an entire belief system that tolerates the killing of Trayvon Martin by a man who then tours the factory where the weapon he used to slaughter a child was made.
     
    I can only yell so loud when a jury comes back with a verdict we do not like. I can only yell so loud when the police act on magic. The society believes in magic. The institutions reflect this belief. Whoso tolerates a dual-society, necessarily tolerates the killing of Jonathan Ferrell. I see no evidence that the dual-society, nor its toleration, are in decline. Trayvon Martin will happen again. George Zimmerman will be innocent again. Fools will blame hip-hop again. Racists will discover Chicago again. And we will be back in the streets demanding a change in some law which is but the thin branch of a problem that extends down into our country's deepest roots. 
     
    Again.
  • The Killing of Jonathan Ferrell

    I have strong doubts about any efforts towards prosecution in the death of Jonathan Ferrell. A former FAMU student, Ferrell crashed his car, crawled out the back window looking for help, and then knocked on the door of the first house he saw. A woman, thinking it was her husband knocking, answered. When she saw Ferrell she shut the door, hit her alarm and called the police. What happened once the police arrive is not clear. There evidently is dashcam video, but it hasn't been released. Lawyers have seen it and I think this reaction is important:

    "(Ferrell) advanced toward the officers. His hands were not in the air," said George Laughrun, attorney for Officer Randall Kerrick, speaking to reporters about what he saw in footage from a police cruiser's dashboard camera. 
     
    "You see one of his hands partially behind his back, concealed as he ... continued to advance. He was given three commands to 'Get on the ground. Get on the ground.' He did not. And Officer Kerrick backed up and then felt the need to deploy his service weapon."
    Later in the story the police chief makes the obvious point that not complying is not a good reason to try and kill someone. People do not comply for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they mean harm. But they also might not clearly hear you. They might be mentally disabled. Or--having just emerged from a car crash--they might be totally disoriented.
     
    Having said that, it's important to understand that, in America, it is broadly believed that police can--and perhaps should--kill people who do not comply with them. Roy Middleton was shot in his own driveway after a neighbor called the police on him, thinking he was a burglar breaking into a car. The car was Middleton's. When the police arrived, they claim to have given Middleton orders to which he did not comply. Middleton thought it was neighbors playing a joke. The police claim he "lunged" at them."It was like a firing squad," Middleton told PNJ from his bed at Baptist Hospital. "Bullets were flying everywhere."  The local sheriff doesn't believe the police did anything wrong. 
     
    There's been some rage directed at the woman who called the police. I think this is wrong. You may believe racism is an actual force in our interactions--I certainly do--but you don't know whether it was an actual force in this one. It's important to recognize that this is both a woman and an individual. You might speculate about what she thinks of black people. I might speculate about whether she'd been a victim of sexual assault, or any other kind of violence. That also happens in America. But it would be better to speculate about nothing, since all we actually know is that this was a woman who was home with a young child, opened the door in the middle of the night, and found a dude standing outside. 
     
    Her reaction may not have been your reaction. But this woman is not paid by the State to keep the peace. Police officers are trained to deal with situations like this. In too many cases that training does not emphasize de-escalation, but killing people who make them jumpy. Miscommunication is not an excuse. Mental illness is not an excuse. Confusion is not an excuse. If the officer believes you are a threat to their life, they have the right to shoot you--and anyone standing near you
  • Brad Paisley and the Politics of Offense and Offense-Taking

    What he still doesn't get: Wearing the Confederate flag is far worse than "offensive."

    AP

    New York's Jody Rosen has an interview up with Brad Paisley that's worth checking out. When Paisley released "Accidental Racist" earlier this year I got into some conversations on Twitter (I used to live there) with some of his fans. They defended him as a singular figure in the country music scene willing to push borders and challenge all manner of convention. You see that guy on display in Rosen's interview. Usually people who end up on the business end of the barrage Paisley endure come out sounding scornful. Paisley sounds more like he's grappling. We should all be so lucky.* 

    I'd like to focus in on something:

    Some Southerners got very mad it me: "I'm done with you. How dare you apologize for the Confederate flag." But the majority of my fans said, "We know you, we love you -- and we don't understand the controversy, we don't get why everyone is so mad." Which tells you all you need to know, right there.

    There is a gulf of understanding that I was trying to address. The most surprising and upsetting thing was being thought of by some as a racist. I have no interest in offending anyone -- especially anyone in the African-American community. That song was absolutely, earnestly supposed to be a healing song. One hundred percent.

    I don't really doubt that Paisley wasn't trying to be offensive, nor that he really, earnestly was trying to do some good. But I don't think he really gets what bothers black people about the Confederate Flag. It is not simply that the flag is offensive. It is that it is the chosen symbol of slaveholders and those who wanted to live in a republic rooted in slaveholding.

    This warrants clarification. In 1836, cotton from the South accounted for59 percent of this country's exports. Effectively, in the run up to the Civil War, our leading export was produced by slave labor. This cotton enriched our country financially and powered us into the modern world. "Whoever says industrial revolution," wrote the historian Eric Hobsbawm, "must say cotton." 

    The men and women who grew this cotton not only enriched through their labor, but through their very flesh. At the onset of the Civil War enslaved black people were valued at $3 billion, more than all the factories, railroads, and the productive capacity of America combined. This wealth was traded throughout the South regularly, and that trade enriched America even further.

    InSoul By Soul, awesome history of the antebellum slave trade, the historian Walter Johnson takes the measure of the system:

    As those people passed through the trade, representing something close to half a billion dollars in property, they spread wealth wherever they went. Much of the capital that funded the traders' speculations had been borrowed from banks and had to be repaid with interest, and all of it had to be moved through commission-taking factorage houses and bills of exchange back and forth between the eastern seaboard and the emerging Southwest. 

    And the slaves in whose bodies that money congealed as it moved south had to be transported, housed, clothed, fed, and cared for during the one to three months it took to sell them. Some of them were insured in transit, some few others covered by life insurance. Their sales had to be notarized and their sellers taxed. Those hundreds of thousands of people were revenue to the cities and states where they were sold, and profits in the pockets of landlords, provisioners, physicians, and insurance agents long before they were sold. The most recent estimate of the size of this ancillary economy is 13.5 percent of the price per person-tens of millions of dollars over the course of the antebellum period.

    Natchez, Mississippi, a major slave-trading hub, was home to more millionaires per capita than any city in the country. But behind the numbers were the wrecked lives of black men and women. A slave stood roughly a 30 percent chance of being sold away. "Of the two thirds of a million interstate sales made by the traders in the decades before the Civil War," writes Johnson, "twenty-five percent involved the destruction of a first marriage and fifty percent destroyed a nuclear family." 

    I think of Henry "Box" Brown, saying farewell to the family that was sold from him.

    The next day, I stationed myself by the side of the road, along which the slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty, were to pass. The purchaser of my wife was a Methodist minister, who was about starting for North Carolina. Pretty soon five waggon-loads of little children passed, and looking at the foremost one, what should I see but a little child, pointing its tiny hand towards me, exclaiming, "There's my father; I knew he would come and bid me good-bye."

    It was Brown's oldest child. Henry Brown never saw his son or his wife again. In antebellum America, slavery was the enriching of white people through the legalized destruction of black families. And that is the cause of the men who raised the Confederate flag:

    Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

    If you accept that the Confederacy fought to preserve and expand slavery, then you might begin to understand how the descendants of the enslaved might regard symbols of that era. And you might also begin to understand that "offense" doesn't even begin to cover it. Reading Penthouse while having Christmas dinner with your grandmother is offensive. Donning the symbols of those who fought for right to sell Henry Brown's wife and child is immoral. 

    It is important to speak this way. Nothing is changed by banishing the Confederate Flag out of a desire to be polite or inoffensive. The Confederate Flag should not die because black people have come to feel a certain way about their country, it should die when white people come to feel a certain way about themselves. It can't be for me. It has to be for you.

    *I want to be clear that I wasn't being sarcastic. Intellectual grappling is always, always a good thing.

  • A Rising Tide Lifts Mostly Yachts

    Median Household Income.jpg
    Doubling down on our conversation over Patrick Sharkey's work from yesterday, what you have here is chart of real median income over the past forty years or so. You can't really make a hard black and white comparison before the early 70s, because "White"--as has always been the case--is a category in flux. At some point in the early 70s we started tracking Hispanics as either white or nonwhite. At any rate, this study from the Census tells us what we already know about the black-white income gap--that very little has changed:
     
    Comparing the 2011 income of nonHispanic-White households to that of other households shows that the ratio of Asian to non-Hispanic-White income was 1.18, the ratio of Black to nonHispanic-White income was 0.58, and the ratio of Hispanic to non-HispanicWhite income was 0.70. Between 1972 and 2011, the change in the Black-to-non-Hispanic-White income ratio was not statistically significant.11 Over the same period, the Hispanicto-non-Hispanic-White income ratio declined from 0.74 to 0.70. Income data for the Asian population was first available in 1987. The 2011 Asian to-non-Hispanic-White income ratio was not statistically different from the 1987 ratio.
    Again, consider that this stunning lack of change enjoys the black drop of record declines in teen pregnancy and declines in the murder rate in black communities. Also, you should view even small progress in black income with some skepticism.  From the great social scientist Douglass Massey we have this useful perspective, pointed out to me yesterday in comments:
     
    People in Jail and prison are excluded from the data sources used to compare income and unemployment ... mass imprisonment thus renders America's most vulnerable citizens, quite literally, "invisible" to policymakers and the public... Roughly two-thirds of prison inmates were employed at the time of their incarceration, and at the time they entered prison these workers earned systematically lower wages than their non-incarcerated counterparts. 
     
    After adjusting for the selective exclusion of these poorly paid workers from the labor force because of rising imprisonment, Western (2006, 100-1) fount that the apparent improvement in black wages all but disappeared. Relative black wages rose in government statistics during the late 1980s and 1990s not because African American workers were earning higher wages relative to whites, but because those earning the lowest wages were systematically being removed from the labor force and put behind bars.
    So yeah, I think I'll go bake another angel food cake. Or something.
     
     

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