Ta-Nehisi Coates: Hold police to a high standard
Author and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke frankly and thoughtfully in Appleton, Wisc., on Thursday on the roots and meaning of what it's like to be black in America.
Recounting the death of his college friend at the hands of police in 2000, Coates told a crowd of more than 1,100 people at the filled-to-capacity venue that police brutality against black people is not new — the cameras documenting it are.
Coates heard of friend Prince Jones' death when his son was a month old. The 25-year-old man who also attended Howard University, was mistaken for a criminal and followed across jurisdictions, confronted and shot dead.
"What was so horrific about that story was I could see myself in Prince's shoes. I could see myself at two in the morning with some folks following me, undercover officers dressed up to be criminals," he said. "And I'm going to my fiancee's home and I have no idea what these dudes might do to me. And see what that imposes on me is a kind of responsibility for my body that I would not have were I white."
Coates, a correspondent with The Atlantic who has become a sought-after voice on issues of race, spoke at an LU convocation, "Race in America: A Deeper Black." His latest book, Between The World and Me, is written in the form of a letter to his son, now 15 years old. The bestseller was recently named a finalist for a National Book Award prize in nonfiction.
Coates addressed a wide range of issues Thursday in his talk and a question-and-answer session.
On black-on-black crime and police
Coates struck down arguments from those who say the focus should be on "black-on-black crime" as much as on police brutality against African-Americans.
"First of all, if you're a police officer, your standard should not be the standard of a criminal," he said to applause. "... When you're a police officer you have been given the power by the state to kill, to use lethal violence at your discretion. ... So there has to be a high standard by which you're judged."
"Don't let people tell you slavery ended in 1865," Coates told the audience.
"At every step in the progress of black people, when they have asked for freedom, the response has been, 'You're a group of criminals and you don't deserve what you get. You don't deserve anything at all.'"
One of the most quoted lines of Coates' latest book reads, "In America it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage."
"I'm not just saying that for effect. It's true. It is our heritage," he said Thursday. "And partial to that is the criminalization of black people."
On the Black Lives Matter movement
Coates explained how racism and the reaction to racist experiences isn't relative to that one moment. Police brutality is just one way the United States has perpetuated the repression of African-Americans, he said. He has documented other forms it takes, including through housing policies and mass incarceration.
"One of the things I really, really want to urge you guys, as young people here today, is to understand that all of us — black, white, whatever — we live underneath of our history. And so when you see these people, you know, shouting 'black lives matter' — which seems like the most obvious thing in the world — they're not just shouting at something that happened on tape. They are shouting at a long, lengthy history that begins in 1619, and has effectively proceeded unbroken."
On heritage, and Donald Trump
A young audience member asked if heritage can be altered or changed.
"Sure it can be altered. Heritage is what you do, you just have to make another heritage. But that is the work of generations. Black people came to this country in 1619; you are talking almost 400 years. ... When you see somebody like Donald Trump demand that the president of the United States show his birth certificate and half of the major political party in our country — one of two major political parties in our country — saying the president is not a citizen, see that's old. That is the message ... literally you are not a citizen. That is, 'show your papers, ... you are not eligible for the same things that other people are eligible for.' That's heritage."
On white privilege
A white audience member asked Coates, "What would you like to see white privileged people do about this issue of the presumption of black criminals?"
"That's up to the white privileged people, I think," Coates said, to laughter and applause. "... You have to want it for yourself. You can't want it because it hurts my feelings. ... You can't want it to not offend me. You gotta say, 'Listen, this is bad for me, bad for my country,' and then start walking.
"One thing not to do is to ask black people what to do. You're passing the burden. It's a burden to figure out what to do."