The Audacity of Reality
Ta-Nehisi Coates at Davidson College: No sugar-coating of America and race
Ta-Nehesi Coates levels with you. Do not look to him for easy assurance, or any other kind. The day a grand jury in Missouri chose not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, Coates tells us in his book Between the World and Me, his teenaged son, Samori, retreated to his room in anguish.
“I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay,” Coates writes. “What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” Reading and listening to him demands the same steel-tipped determination of us—that we stop pretending the arc of the moral universe is something that exists outside the choices we make.
During the question-and-answer session after Coates’ Reynolds Lecture at Davidson College on Monday, a young male student took the microphone and asked a standard, earnest 20-year-old’s question: How do we educate people about structural, institutional racism? How can we make them understand?
Coates—directly, but not meanly—responded with an answer no one particularly wanted to hear. “Embedded in your question,” he said, “is the notion that people want to know.” He used a perfect phrase—“opportunistic ignorance”—to evoke a phenomenon that’s gained astonishing currency since the election of Barack Obama as president: The idea that recognizing race at all, acknowledging that the election of a black president isn’t the penance that washes away the sins of slavery and Jim Crow, is the real racism. It’s an especially cynical—opportunistic—formulation that works to discharge the debt of centuries, Coates argues: “The stories we tell ourselves are not mistakes.”
Obama himself has, to his face, taken offense to Coates’ refusal to soften his blows. “Don’t despair,” the president told Coates after a meeting at the White House two years ago. Coates didn’t think he had. “I have a reputation of being somewhat pessimistic,” he told the crowd of 4,000 at Davidson’s John M. Belk Arena on Monday. “I don’t know how pessimistic I am.” Coates, who grew up in the urban war zone of West Baltimore, aims to describe his world as it is. The audacity of hope? Coates offers the audacity of reality, uncut, and his sudden celebrity across racial, generational, and class lines demonstrates our hunger for someone brave and direct enough on race to regard his audience, respectfully, as intelligent adults.
Coates has been touring to promote Between the World and Me, which was published in July and debuted at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. His address at Davidson covered territory familiar to anyone who’s read the book: His intellectual awakening at Howard University in the mid-1990s; the birth of his son; and the galvanizing effect of another police shooting—of Prince Jones, a Howard classmate, in suburban Washington in 2000.
It was a simple case of mistaken identity; the officer thought Jones was someone else. Jones’ family eventually won a civil case against the sheriff’s department in Prince George’s County, Maryland. But the officer was never charged. His case was never even brought before a grand jury. Coates began asking why. One of the answers he reached strips bare the common deflection after every incident of police violence against black people, “But what about black-on-black crime?”
“The horrible thing for me,” he said Monday, “is that it’s one thing to deal with the violence of criminals, another to deal with the violence of the state.” This is not a metaphysical issue. One of the strengths of Coates’ work is that it steers clear of the narrative that infused so much of the civil rights movement and lives on in the black church (and the presidency of Barack Obama). At base, it’s the Exodus story: An enslaved people enduring their time in the desert, trudging toward the Promised Land under the guidance of a powerful but beneficent God.
Read closely what Coates has written, in his recent book and in his celebrated piece for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” You’ll find former sharecroppers from Mississippi, subprime mortgages, cotton fields, distortions of the New Deal, and a menacing child pulling a handgun out of his ski jacket in a 7-Eleven parking lot in West Baltimore. You won’t find God anywhere. Coates’ atheism may be the most astonishing aspect of his work, more even than his dismissal of the idea that America has made any meaningful racial progress. It jars because from colonial days, black Americans have flocked to Christian churches for spiritual strength, fellowship, organizing power, and the promise that their enslavement meant something—that history, guided by the hand of God, would eventually redeem and justify their suffering.
Forget it, Coates says. America’s original sin isn’t a sin but a crime, and that crime extracted and extinguished “life, liberty, labor, and land”—his phrase from the book—that has tangible, specific value. America’s racial legacy isn’t a spiritual offense against God and the African-American soul; it’s a systemic heritage that, then as now, is as abstract as a bullet to the back.
“[A]ll our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this,” Coates writes. “You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
To take the discussion into religious territory turns victims passive and lets offenders past and present off the hook. There’s less need to act if God is history’s engineer. But to see institutional racism solely as a complicated system conceived and enacted by people for human aims—that’s when you understand the depth of the problem, because it’s solvable only by us. With that realization comes not despair but freedom—from delusion, from the self-imposed burden to try to convert the throngs of people who don’t want to know. Writing, Coates said Monday, lends him “some degree of liberty from the lie.”
So, you might ask, how is it that Ta-Nehisi Coates—who grew up in the ghetto, who never graduated from the college he reveres—thrive in such a racist environment? The question’s been asked, believe me, and in predictable quarters answered. “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the literary version of Kanye West, an absurdly privileged second-generation radical stuck on self-pity, touring European capitals while whining about racism, responding to white liberal adulation with fresh reserves of victimhood,” a FrontPage Magazine column decreed after “The Case for Reparations.”
That’s another common dodge, the notion that the existence of rich, successful black people not only disproves institutional racism but demonstrates the market value of black victimhood and liberal white guilt.
Except you keep running into stories like this, from this morning’s Washington Post, by a black businesswoman whose white neighbor thought she was breaking into her own home and called the cops:
Later, I learned that the Santa Monica Police Department had dispatched 19 officers after one of my neighbors reported a burglary at my apartment. It didn’t matter that I told the cops I’d lived there for seven months, told them about the locksmith, offered to show a receipt for his services and my ID. It didn’t matter that I went to Duke, that I have an MBA from Dartmouth, that I’m a vice president of strategy at a multinational corporation. It didn’t matter that I’ve never had so much as a speeding ticket. It didn’t matter that I calmly, continually asked them what was happening. It also didn’t matter that I didn’t match the description of the person they were looking for — my neighbor described me as Hispanic when he called 911. What mattered was that I was a woman of color trying to get into her apartment — in an almost entirely white apartment complex in a mostly white city — and a white man who lived in another building called the cops because he’d never seen me before …
I introduced myself to the reporting neighbor and asked if he was aware of the gravity of his actions — the ocean of armed officers, my life in danger. He stuttered about never having seen me, before snippily asking if I knew my next-door neighbor. After confirming that I did and questioning him further, he angrily responded, “I’m an attorney, so you can go f— yourself,” and walked away.
There’s a loud echo here of the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., another successful black person who seems to have played by every rule his society set up for him and still found himself under suspicion and arrest by a white man, invested with state power and a gun, who had trouble believing Gates lived in that home in that neighborhood. (Not to mention the unhinged reaction of white conservatives to Obama’s public contention that the officer “acted stupidly,” which he did.)
This is what Coates referred to Monday as “the presumption of black criminality.” Success is no hedge against it, or money, or fame. In that moment, Gates wasn’t a Harvard professor, filmmaker, and author of 19 books. He was another African-American whom an agent of the state assumed to be a criminal.
To another student’s question Monday—How do we stop the criminalization of the black body?—Coates responded, “The first step is to admit it’s been criminalized in the first place.” Note the language: the first step. I’ve never been able to measure the curve of the arc of the moral universe, or the length of the road to the Promised Land, but I know both might as well be endless if we deny our obligation to build them ourselves.