A Conversation With Ta-Nehisi Coates

By Justin New, Harvard Class of 2019

This past summer, I read Atlantic Media journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book Between the World and Me. To say it had a profound impact on me and the way I understand race relations in the U.S does not do the piece justice. I finished it with a dropped jaw.

It's hard to imagine how a book like Coates' ended up in the hands of an 18-year-old white male, much less how it elicited the response it did. Hard to imagine, that is, unless you've read it yourself, or attended his event at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on November 11 as I did.

Did you know that the U.S. represents 5% of the world population, but 25% of the world's incarcerated population? Did you know that the ratio of blacks to whites incarcerated in America is roughly 7:1? Stained by the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation, the U.S. criminal justice system still fails African-American citizens on a daily basis. But the question, Coates argues, isn't how do we police areas with violence better to curb crime, but rather what is the root of these issues, and how do we attack and rectify the fundamental disadvantage citizens of color bear.

Take, for example, the Spring Valley High School resource officer who slammed a female student to the ground this past month. Coates acknowledged the counter-protests by students who pleaded that Deputy Ben Fields often breaks up fights; but Coates also observed that "we begin our debates with 'should the officer have done X, Y, and Z' instead of asking why he was there in the first place?" Why was he there in the first place? Why is it that Baltimore, Detroit, and Ferguson have some of the highest concentrations of crime in our country? Most importantly, why is it that the crime exhibited in these areas have become a reflection of the minorities who live there and not of the oppressive history white Americans have been forcing on them since before we were even technically Americans?

Coates raises these types of questions in his book and at the forum, ultimately making a case for reparations. He said, "Lynching was not simply done to be mean to people." Lynching, as well as slavery, segregation, poll taxes, and racist housing policy are all "plunder." They are, over the course of hundreds of years, the taking from African-Americans of what certainly does not belong to the takers.

What are we to make of all this? First we have to understand that "much of what people look at in Black America and construe as anger is in fact deep, deep fear" rooted in a need especially unique to African-Americans to "protect your body". Black parents are scared more than anyone for their children when gang violence, gun violence, and drug violence are all right around the corner. It's time we start addressing why all those things are right around the corner in Compton and Camden and not Greenwich and the Hamptons.