The Clock Didn't Start With the Riots

Black people in Baltimore are subjected to violence all the time.

David Goldman / AP

On Thursday, April 30, Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke at Johns Hopkins University in his native city of Baltimore, at the inaugural Forum on Race in America. This article is an edited transcript of his remarks.

About a year ago, I published “The Case for Reparations,” which I thought in many ways was incomplete. It was about housing and how wealth is built in this country and why certain people have wealth and certain other people do not have wealth, and the manifold implications of that, and the roots of that, through slavery, through Jim Crow, indeed through federal, state, and local policy.

The buzzword in that piece was “plunder.” If you want to understand the relationship between African Americans and the country that they inhabit, you must understand that one of the central features of that relationship is plunder—the taking from black people in order to empower other people. Obviously, enslavement, which lasted in this country for 250 years—the period of enslavement in this country is much longer than the period of freedom for black people—is the ultimate plunder. It is nothing but plunder; it is a total of your body, of your family, of your labor, of your everything—of your very essence.

And that plunder enriched this country such that in 1860, at the time of Civil War, the enslaved black population in this country—one-third of which constituted the amount of people living in the South—was worth something on the order of $3 billion, more than all the combined capacity of the nation. All the assets, all the banks, all the railroads, all the nascent factories and businesses in this country put together, were worth less than enslaved black people in this country. So plunder is not incidental to who we are; plunder is not incidental to what America is.

When you think about the period of Jim Crow and the stripping of black people’s right to vote, this is not the mere stripping of some sort of civic ceremony. It’s the stripping of your ability to have any sort of say in how your tax dollars are used. It’s this constant stripping, this taking away of rights that allowed us to enter into a situation that I talk about in “The Case for Reparations,” where—within the 20th century—you have programs being passed by which white families can accumulate masses of wealth through housing. The main group of people who are cut out of that are black people.

That’s federal policy. It’s not just a matter of private evil individuals. We get this picture of these white racists walking around with horns, you know, who use the “n-word” all the time, and I guess look like Cliven Bundy. That’s what we’re looking for, for a bunch of Cliven Bundys. But Cliven Bundy has never really been the threat; it’s the policy that’s the threat. And many of those people, are people who look like you and me—or maybe not quite like me—but who are like me in terms of they’re human beings. They’re mothers and fathers—good people, nice to their neighbors, but these are people who are responsible for policies in our country that leave us where we are.

Now, the reason why I say that piece was incomplete was because there is a methodology, a tool that has been used to make sure that black people are available for plunder. And a major tool in making that process happen has been the criminal justice system. It’s very, very important to understand. I read the governor in the New York Times today and he was saying in the paper that—you know, because it’s going to be a big day tomorrow—he was saying “violence will not be tolerated.” And I thought about that as a young man who’s from West Baltimore and grew up in West Baltimore and I thought about how violence was tolerated for all of my life here in West Baltimore.

When I was going to school, I thought about every little article that I wore when I walked out the house. I thought about who I was walking with. I thought about how many of them there were. I thought about what neighborhoods they were from. I thought about which route I was going to take to school. Once I got to school I thought about what I was going to do during the lunch hour—was I actually going to have lunch or was I going to go sit in the library. When school was dismissed I thought about what time I was going to leave school. I thought about whether I should stay after-school for class. I thought about whether I should take the bus up to my grandmother’s house. I thought about which way I should go home if I was going to go home. Every one of those choices was about the avoidance of violence, about the protection of my body. And so I don’t want to come off as if I’m sympathizing or saying that it is necessarily okay, to inflict violence just out of anger, no matter how legitimate that anger is.

But I have a problem when you begin the clock with the violence on Tuesday. Because the fact of the matter is that the lives of black people in this city, the lives of black people in this country have been violent for a long time. Violence is how enslavement actually happened. People will think of enslavement as like a summer camp, where you just have to work, where you just go and someone gives you food and lodging, but enslavement is violence, it is torture. Torture is how it was made possible. You can’t imagine enslavement without stripping away people’s kids and putting them up for sale. And the way you did that was, you threatened people with violence. Jim Crow was enforced through violence. That was the way things that got done. You didn’t politely ask somebody not to show up and vote. You stood in front of voting booths with guns, that’s what you did. And the state backed this; it was state-backed violence.

Violence is not even in our past.  Violence continues today. I was reading a stat that the neighborhood where the “riots” popped-off earlier this week is in fact the most incarcerated portion of the state of Maryland. And this is not surprising. We live in a country where the incarceration rate is 750 per 100,000. Our nearest competitor is allegedly undemocratic Russia at 400 or 500 per 100,000. China has roughly a billion more people than America; America incarcerates 800,000 more people than China. And as bad as that national incarceration rate is, the incarceration rate for black men is somewhere around 4,000 per 100,000. So if you think the incarceration rate for America is bad, for black America it’s somewhere where there is no real historical parallel.

And incarceration is, even in and of itself, a kind of euphemism, a very nice word, for what actually happens when they cart you off and take you to jail for long periods of time. Jails are violent. To survive, you use violence. To be incarcerated in this country is to be subjected to the possibility of sexual assault, is to be subjected to possibility of violence from fellow inmates, to be subjected to violence from guards. And the saddest part of this is that this mirrors the kind of violence that I saw in my neighborhood as a young man in West Baltimore.

There’s a phrase I’ve been thinking about a lot recently by the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn has this great, great quote that I think about all the time: He says in his book The Gulag Archipelago,  “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.” And I love this quote—it’s a beautifully written sentence—because it hints at, though it does not say, the human agency in law and what we call people. And so, certain things are violence, and certain things are not. Certain things are the acts committed by thugs, and certain things are the acts committed by the law. And in terms of rendering black people illegitimate, in terms of putting black people in certain boxes where things can be done to them, the vocabulary is very, very important—the law is very, very important—in terms of where we draw the line.

My words, particularly here at Johns Hopkins, and since I’m here at Johns Hopkins—and I’m not out in West Baltimore and I’m not on North Avenue and I’m not at Mondawmin Mall—my words for Johns Hopkins is that you are enrolled in this. You are part of this. You are a great institution here in this city. And I know that the president of Johns Hopkins didn’t ask for this. None of us individuals asked for this. Nobody asked to be part of it. But when you are an American, you’re born into this. And there are young black people who folks on TV are dismissing as thugs and all sorts of other words (I know the mayor apologized, I want to acknowledge that), but people who are being dismissed as thugs—these people live lives of incomprehensible violence.

And I know this! This is not theory here. I’m telling you about what my daily routine was, but I went to school with some kids who I can’t even imagine what the violence was like. It was just beyond anything. You know, I had a safe home, I had people who loved me and took care of me. I can’t imagine how crazy it actually can get.

So when we label these people those sorts of things—when we decide we’re going to pay attention to them when they pick up a rock, and we’re going to call them “violent” when they act out in anger—we’re making a statement. Again, being here in a seat of power, being here at Johns Hopkins—where I’m happy to be, thank you for hosting me—it’s a very influential institution! You’re a part of that! There are powerful people here sitting in the audience who can talk to folks and say, “Maybe we need to change our vocabulary a little bit.” What are we doing to actually mitigate the amount of violence that is in the daily lives of these young people? Let’s not begin the conversation with the “riot,” let’s back up a little bit. Let’s talk about the daily everyday violence that folks live under.