United States

Ta-Nehisi Coates on race, reparations and not ‘playing nice’

Photo: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

A few days after the U.S. Department of Justice released its damning report on the racially biased policing in Ferguson — a report that concluded the police systematically mistreated the community's black population and used it as a source of revenue — I sat in a packed McGill University auditorium to listen to the author of what is probably 2014’s definitive piece on race relations.

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A forgotten history of slavery in Canada

As the national correspondent for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reflections on culture, politics, and social issues are always insightful and thought-provoking. But his tour de force, The Case for Reparations, which methodically and painstakingly explains point by point how 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow laws, and 35 years of racist housing policies have had devastating consequences for the black community, is a must-read for anyone trying to comprehend Ferguson and racial tension in today’s America.

Discourses of Race: The United States, Canada, and Transnational Anti-Blackness, a panel discussion organized by the McGill Black Students’ Association and moderated by Coates’ friend, PhD candidate Rachel Zellars, was a unique opportunity to see and listen to the writer flesh out some of his own ideas, read from his book The Beautiful Struggle, and answer questions from a captivated audience.

‘People underestimate the violence’

Describing growing up as a black kid in Baltimore, Coates explained to the audience that “people underestimate the violence black children grow up with. It compounds and affects everything about you.” He also talked about the death of a friend (in a case of mistaken identity) at the hands of police as a teenager. “He did not need to shoot. He had affirmed my place in the order of things. . . . I came to understand my country was a galaxy. My portion was black. Some inscrutable energy preserved that breach.”

Whiteness is the right to plunder, and then to wag my finger at the people I’m plundering.

He referred to Ferguson as “old news” and explained how, despite the national attention it’s garnered, this violence has been happening for a long time. “We can use abstract, academic terms, but at the end of the day, we’re dealing with repeat violence and the destruction of someone’s body. Racism is a physical, visceral experience.” Recently he tweeted that it's “important to understand Ferguson Report not as an aberration, but how white supremacy actually works.”

Coates had harsh words for those who live their lives in denial of racism in order to uphold their own definition of whiteness and supremacy. “Not knowing is willful. How do you even have a conversation when so many are unwilling to accept reality? I have searched for answers. . . . The question is unanswerable, which is not to say futile.”

Discussing the often violent and destructive protests at Ferguson, Coates dismissed the notion of “playing nice.” “Bless Martin Luther King Jr. and his stance on passive protests, but the Civil Rights Movement public narrative has often skewed the truth. No one should think emancipation in America happened non-violently.” Criticizing the hypocrisy of those looking down at the Ferguson protesters as hoodlums disturbing the public peace, and not as people who’ve reached the breaking point, Coates said, “Whiteness is the right to plunder, and then to wag my finger at the people I’m plundering. Often times, those condemning violent protests are totally okay with dropping bombs on Muslim wedding parties.”

Coates' main criticism of the United States is that it aims to present itself as a bastion of freedom. “If you claim to be extraordinary, then you should be extraordinary. One cannot at once claim to be superhuman and then claim error. You can’t only choose to remember and acknowledge history when it credits you, but dismiss it when it discredits you. The uncomfortable truth is that the policy of America has been plunder. And when you take things from people, you should at least make an effort to give them back.”

U.S. president Barack Obama seemed to echo those words during his speech at the 50th anniversary of Selma. “Loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.”

But Coates went beyond politics and happily discussed how hip hop taught him “to be skeptical of the world” and that “words are beautiful and powerful.” When asked about his New York Times mentor, the recently deceased David Carr, Coates spoke about him with reverence and love. “Working with Dave was a deeply painful — in all the right ways — transformational experience for me.”

A sense of hope

Asked if he was hopeless, he responded no. “The question is where do you obtain your sense of importance from? I love to write and to give talks, but at the end of the day, my sense of importance and sense of hope comes from my relationships, my family, my wife, and my son. I am hopeful for that.”

Most importantly, and perhaps the source that gives Coates’ writing such profound and empathetic insight into humanity, he spoke of the need to acknowledge and value our own and each other’s individuality. To live in a world that so often reduces us to our gender, our race, or our religion is to ignore everything else that makes up who we are.

Coates summed up the quest in one simple and eloquent question. “Does what you are talking about, does what you believe in, have room for the broad variegated span of humanity?”

Coates’ talk was one of the most profound, insightful, eloquent, and honest talks on race I’ve heard in a long time and I felt privileged to be in the room that evening.

Asked why he writes, Coates left us with one final gem. “I write to clear my conscience. The world may well go to hell. I write to know I wasn’t a part of it.”

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