Coates Speaks on Systematic Racism and the Need for Change
More than 1,000 people filed into the Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University on Nov. 17 to hear the thoughts of Ta-Nehisi Coates as part of the University’s Voices of Our Time speaker series, which exposes students and the community to national leaders discussing timely national and international issues.
Coates, the national correspondent for the Atlantic and author of The New York Times bestseller, “Between the World and Me,” is known for writing about culture, politics and social issues. As part of the WFU speaker series, he focused on the violence against African Americans, primarily by police officers, in today’s society while tying it into America’s history of violence, black criminality and white supremacy against African-Americans and their communities. He said that white America traditionally treated black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Fredrick Douglass, Harriett Tubman and Marcus Garvey as criminals.
“If you have a country that for 250 years conditions itself to black criminality and then for another 100 years through lynching it shows the conditions of criminality.
Those conditions begin to have an effect,” Coates said. “Either your history matters or it doesn’t. And if heritage matters than you have to see that the criminalization of black people killed my friend.”
True to form, Coates’ pessimism and bleak hope for change in racial justice for America came across as he spoke about why he decided to write the book and how it relates to African-Americans in every social class in the world. While he doesn’t think that change will come in his lifetime, he does think that the fight is necessary.
“It wasn’t built in a day and it won’t be broken down in a day. It took 350 to 400 years to build. I think that if you think you can’t do anything because you won’t see it in your lifetime, you are a disgrace to social justice in your country,” he said. “If we only fight for things we can see in our lifetime we should question our commitment to justice.”
He did emphasize that he is using his work to help bring about change and urged listeners to do the same.
“I try to make that work toward some sort of great fight in the world of justice. I think that’s about the best you can do,” Coates said.
Freda Tetteh-Ocloo, a senior pre-med Biology student, said that she enjoyed that advice the most and it showed her that anyone can be an activist when they stand up for the rights of others.
“Being pre-med, I realize that it’s important to know the histories of the people who we are dealing with. A lot of times we focus on just medicine and science and forget that we are treating people, not just working in a lab,” she said.
“Between the World and Me” was written as a letter to his son, Samori, and follows Coates’ journey of being black in America, from the rough streets of Baltimore to Howard University and New York City, before ending in Paris. He speaks of code-switching to meet the social norms of the streets, corporate America and authorities.
Most notably, he speaks of his old college friend Prince Jones Jr., who was tracked through three counties and killed by an undercover police officer despite the attempts of his mother to give the family a better life. Coates uses the story of Mabel Jones, the daughter of a sharecropper who climbed up the economic ladder to give her children comfortable lives. He argues that her story shows that race-related tragedy affects wealthy African Americans as well.
“Knowing that somebody who was killed by people who you pay and we pay to protect you, that burns something inside of me,” he told the audience when explaining why he decided to write about Jones’ death.
When questioned about a blog post he wrote on the unrest in his hometown of Baltimore and the death of Freddie Gray, Coates said that the blog is not an argument against nonviolence but against those who tout nonviolence but don’t practice it.
“When people try to make the comparison of violence by an agent of the state and the neighborhood I don’t understand because they’re two different things. When people bring this up what they’re effectively suggesting is that we should give our police the whole power of the state without the responsibility that comes with it,” he said. “Don’t come into my community lecturing me on the need for nonviolence when you tolerate the kind of institutional violence directed at that community. You don’t have the moral or ethical standing to do so. What you’re really talking about is compliance. You’re saying ‘do what I say.'” He also spoke about the recent attacks in Paris, where he is currently living with his family. He said that they scared him, especially with them living a few blocks away from the subway that was targeted. He said one of the reasons he’s there is to study the notion of exclusion outside of America and fears that those with Muslim or Middle Eastern ties will feel what African-Americans have dealt with in America.
“It’s odd because I think in a way Paris always felt safer to me than America felt. That is not because Persians are better people than New Yorkers. The country made a decision about guns some time ago,” Coates said. “I feared for many things when my son went off for school but I wasn’t afraid of him being shot. It just never occurred to me. It wasn’t really possible in that society.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 18, he was chosen as the winner of the National Book Award in the Nonfiction category and was recently named a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” grant winner. Previously, he was awarded the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.
Coates is the Journalist in Residence at the School of Journalism at CUNY. He was previously the Martin Luther King Visiting Associate Professor at MIT. His first book, “The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood,” is a memoir of his childhood highlighting the impact that his father made as a Vietnam War veteran and former Black Panther.
Jack Rutland, a junior psychology major in the pre-med program, put an informal book club together in anticipation of Coates’ appearance. He said that he felt Coates’ general tone paralleled the book.
“The general tone wasn’t pessimistic but realistic in terms of his expectations and goals. I think he spoke to more of that in terms of the timeline for the issues we are looking at,” Rutland said. “He said it’s not going to happen immediately. Realism is better than false optimism.” !
CHANEL DAVIS, a journalism graduate from N.C.A&T SU, is a freelance journalist based in High Point whose worked in the industry for the past five years.