Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Problematic Perspective on Racism and Crime
by Myriam Miedzian
ATLANTIC MAGAZINE national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates is a leading, if not the leading, black spokesperson on racial issues. He recently received a MacArthur (Genius) award, bringing his prestige to a new peak. His ascendancy may be bad news, however, for black Americans.
FBI Uniform Crime Reports reveal that since 1980, 315,000 African Americans — who make up 13 percent of the population — have been murdered out of the total of 630,000. Blacks are four times MORE likely to be murder victims than whites! In spite of decreases since the mid ’90s, rates remain high — 12,253 homicide victims in 2013 — and many inner-city dwellers still fear being mugged or murdered. Yet Coates believes that nothing much can be done to decrease the violence short of major structural changes, including reparations for slavery and racism; an end to all discrimination in housing, the workplace, and school; and the release of virtually all African Americans prisoners.
Coates argues persuasively for reparations in his June 2014 Atlantic article; and outlines the disastrous effect on black communities of the mass incarceration of black males in an October 2015 Atlantic article. And what could be more worthy than the goal of ending all discrimination? The problem does not lie in the long-range goals he outlines, but in his lack of interest in and pessimism about what can be done to improve the lives of black Americans, and particularly those who live in our inner-cities, right now. In her New York Times review of Coates’ most recent book, Between the World and Me, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, tells the reader that she had expected Coates to “disabuse [young people] of the prevailing myths that breed complacency, defeatism or inaction.” Disappointed that he did not seem to do this at all, she confesses to having read the book a second time with the hope that she had somehow missed something in the first reading. She goes on to tells the reader that she didn’t. Harvard Professor Randall Kennedy, in his Fall 2015 review of the book in The American Prospect, describes the book as “disempowering.” He points out that he shares this view with several other African-American reviewers including Spencer Overton, Melvin Rogers, and Michelle Alexander. They all find Coates’ pessimism “excessive, his despair disabling, his fatalism disempowering.”
I have for the last thirty years followed the annual U.S. homicide rates reported in the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, and have been dismayed by our rates — the highest by far of any advanced industrialized country. The African-American victimization rates, so much higher than those of the rest of the U.S. population, are even more disturbing. Given this perspective, and the enormous influence Coates wields as leading spokesman on African-American issues — his frequent appearances on TV and radio shows convey his message to a very wide audience — my concern has been that his well-intentioned focus on long-range goals, combined with his disempowering message as to what can be done now, could well mean the loss of thousands of black lives — a loss that may have been prevented — as he tells African Americans that not much can be done in terms of decreasing rates of violence and victimization in our inner cities or decreasing police violence.
Between the World and Me, recipient of the 2015 National Book Award for non-fiction, is addressed to Coates’s 15-year-old son. It was occasioned by the numerous recent incidents of police killing innocent black people and going unpunished. Like so many African Americans, he harbors intense fears for his son’s safety.
Coates describes his own growing up in a high crime neighborhood: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked… before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease.” At age 11, a boy aimed a gun at him — “in his small eyes I saw a surging rage that could in an instant erase my body.” Fortunately, the boy’s friend pulled him away before he pulled the trigger. For Coates, the violence that surrounded him is “the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.” Because racism continues to oppress them, so many young men “transmuted their fear into rage… They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies.” In this deterministic view, there is little room for social intervention and personal responsibility to effect significant change as long as racism prevails.
Coates applies the same deterministic outlook towards the beatings he experienced at the hands of his father. He writes: “My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt…” Since his father’s violence grew out of the same fears as the street muggers and murderers, like them he bears no personal responsibility, and Coates manifests no anger at him.
IN A JUNE 30th Aspen Conference debate between Coates and New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, Landrieu agreed that institutional changes are necessary, but said that as mayor, he had to deal with the immediate epidemic of violence killing young black men. Cutting down on that violence is a major goal of his administration, and has led him to fund state of the art schools; recreation centers with music programs, swimming pools, basketball courts; job training; working with black churches; and connecting police and young blacks in a positive way.
Coates assured Landrieu, who is white,that he totally believes in his sincerity and commitment to saving black lives. But he was skeptical about it doing much good. Isn’t it likely that for mayors who do not share Landrieu’s deep concerns, this skepticism on the part of arguably the leading black spokesperson will reinforce a “do nothing” attitude toward black inner-city problems?
When moderator Jonathan Goldberg, Coates’s friend and colleague at The Atlantic, asked what Coates would do if he were mayor, Coates responded: “I would immediately begin to find ways to get people out of prison… I include violent criminals; I include gun crimes.”
For Coates, black men’s incarceration rates result from structural racism. In an October 21 PBS interview with Gwen Ifill, he points out that European countries and Canada also experienced a sharp increase in crime rates in the 1980s and early 1990s but did not turn to mass incarceration.
But foreign homicide rates and increases were never remotely comparable to the U.S., so there was not the same public clamor for incarceration. It’s one thing to fear having your wallet stolen or car broken into; it’s quite another to fear for your life. Rates fluctuate, but the U.S. is always the front-runner. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, in 2013 the U.S. homicide rate was 3.82 per 100,000; Canada 1.44, France 1.20, Germany 0.70.
According to Michael Javen Fortner, City University of New York Urban Studies professor and author of Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and Politics of Punishment, Coates’s attribution of black incarceration to racism is an oversimplification. Fortner, like Coates, grew up in a crime-ridden black neighborhood, in which one of his brothers was stabbed to death. In the 1960s and ’70s, he points out, crime had become a major concern; in 1969 the Manhattan N.A.A.C.P. warned that the “decent people of Harlem” had become the prey of “marauding hoodlums” and proposed that criminals, including muggers, pushers, vagrants and murderers, be subjected to steep criminal sentences. According to a 1973 New York Times poll, approximately three-quarters of blacks and Puerto Ricans favored life without parole for convicted drug dealers.
African Americans who supported “tough on crime” policies could hardly have anticipated their disastrous effects on inner-city communities, including unequal enforcement of drug laws, movement away from preventive programs in favor of juvenile imprisonment, and growth of a prison-industrial complex profiting financially from mass imprisonment of black males.
IF, AS COATES claims, nothing much can be done to move young black inner city males away from violence and drugs, how did he succeed where so many failed? He explains in an October interview: “I had two tremendous parents… My parents believed in reading… there were books everywhere. The books were, for the most part, about African-Americans and about people of African descent — they were tools for me to understand why my world looked the way it did…” Coates’s father, a research librarian at Howard University and founder of Black Classic Press, was in his youth a Black Panther Party local captain. Coates notes, “I read through all of Dad’s books about the Panthers…”
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s two major demands resemble the Black Panther Party’s 1967 Ten-Point Program which included: “We want freedom for all Black and oppressed people now held in U.S, federal, state, county city and military prisons and jails.” And reparations: “Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as redistribution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities.”
When Gwen Ifill, in an October PBS interview, asked Coates for his solutions to decreasing black homicide rates, echoing his June 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations,” he responded “The first thing to do… is reparations.”
But a demand for reparations will not help inner-city African Americans now. While it is tragic that the end of slavery was not followed by decades of intensive reparations, the likelihood of reparations being enacted in any near future is low. Representative John Conyers has for years introduced bill H.R. 40, Reparations for Slavery and Discrimination. Year after year it has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for ‘further consideration.’
In a Moyers and Company blog post, “The Past Isn’t Past: The Economic Case for Reparations,” Joshua Holland, a writing fellow with The Nation Institute and a contributor to The Nation magazine, starts out with enthusiastic endorsement of Coates’s “historical and moral” case for reparations, goes on to present specific forms of reparation proposed by Duke University William Darity, Jr, professor of African-American studies and economics, and Harvard legal scholar Charles Ogletree — both look at how to alleviate the vast disparity of wealth between white and black families. But then Holland concludes that “a Marshall plan for blacks” proposed by Darity; and Ogletree’s proposal to provide funds for health care, housing, jobs, education etc. would face a significant obstacle: “Sixty years of public opinion research reveals… Most Americans are highly supportive of anti-poverty programs in the abstract, but they take a dim view of those they perceive as helping blacks… But there’s a way to pay our bills that might be an easier life politically: Closing the wealth gap between the haves and the have-nots. After all, people of color make up a disproportionate share of the have-nots.”
I share Holland’s view that while justice requires that African-Americans at long last get the reparations promised to them after the Civil War, the political likelihood of this happening is slim enough that it is in their interest to support more politically likely economic-justice campaigns for all impoverished, exploited Americans. Granted that social programs would be much more effective if the federal government instituted a “Marshall Plan” for African Americans, or even one aimed at all low-income Americans, that does not justify dismissing social programs such as Mayor Landrieu’s as insignificant. In fact, in 2014, after Landrieu had been mayor for four years, New Orleans homicides fell to a forty-three-year low. In spite of a 10 percent increase in 2015, homicide rates are still much lower than they were in preceding years. Even if social programs instituted widely across the country only led to a 10 percent decrease in homicides — a very low estimate — thousands of black lives would be saved over a period of a few years.
IT IS DIFFICULT to understand how Coates can be so very dismissive of measures that have helped back Americans and will continue to help them. He is not an admirer of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent civil rights movement: “Freedom Marchers, Freedom Riders and Freedom Summers” are “ridiculous,” he writes. But while much remains to be done, the civil rights movement brought about steps in the direction of desegregating the South and the nationwide workplace — both private and governmental — as well as increasing black college enrollment. There is a considerably larger black middle and upper-middle class today than there was fifty years ago, and in films and television blacks are frequently portrayed in accordance with these changes. But for Coates, these kinds of advances are insignificant. Instead of learning from his own life-experience, he shows no interest in programs which encourage parents to talk and read to their young children, or in working to get young black males to do as well in school as their sisters (who are far more likely to attend college).
Coates accepts statistics indicating that violent crime is much higher among African Americans than among the rest of the population, but he rejects the term “black-on-black crime.” People commit crimes in their neighborhoods, so whites kill whites and blacks kill blacks, but no one talks about white-on-white crime, he observes. This linguistic point — which ignores that the terminology reflects blacks being four times more likely to be the victims of homicide — combined with his lack of focus on what can be done now, lends support to the aversion that so many progressives, especially whites, have to acknowledging black crime. In a January, 2015 AlterNet blog post, Adam Hudson writes: “Ongoing protests against police brutality have revealed how distorted the American discourse on crime is. The biggest myth animating this discourse is black criminality… the notion that black people commit more crime, and therefore deserve more heavy-handed policing.” Hudson’s contrary-to-fact assertion about black crime is hardly unique. I have frequently heard similar comments from fellow progressives. The “discourse” Hudson refers to is that of rightwingers like Rudy Giuliani who change the topic to the much higher victimization resulting from black-on-black crime whenever police violence is brought up.
For many if not most on the left, the focus is entirely on what to do about police violence against black people. But anyone genuinely concerned about black lives needs to address both police violence and black-on-black violence. Unfortunately Coates has facilitated ignoring the latter.
While Coates occasionally expresses some approval of steps taken or recommended to ameliorate the lot of black Americans short of a complete end to racism, his overarching message is deeply pessimistic. In keeping with this he tells his son, “I do not believe that we can stop them, [powerful white racists]” from continuing the racism that oppresses black people. “And still I urge you to struggle… for the memory of your ancestors…”
Dr. Myriam Miedzian (myriammiedzian.com), a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a former philosophy professor who writes frequently on social, cultural, and political issues. She is the author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence, among other books.