Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses book and race relations in America

AJ Naddaff & Madison Abbott

Guest Contributors

In two weeks, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, you will see a report of another black life lost to police brutality. He claims it is inevitable at this point. This somber thought reverberated across a sold-out John M. Belk Arena Monday evening, where an audience of students, faculty and members of the Charlotte community listened to the journalist Coates, this year’s Reynolds lecturer, speak on the legacy of black criminality and the racial disparities that plague our nation. Coates said the crowd, which neared several thousand people, was the largest group he has seen during his seven-week book tour so far.

Known for a prose as brutally honest as it is lyrical, Coates serves as a National Correspondent for “The Atlantic.” His story, “The Case for Reparations,” published last year, earned him a George Polk Award for Commentary and is one of the most discussed non-fiction works of recent years. His newest book, “Between the World and Me,” made the shortlist for the 2015 National Book Award in the nonfiction category, as he seeks to understand why criminality has been imposed upon black people in a letter to his teenage son, Samori.

The book articulates his conclusions from investigations into how blacks have been criminalized in the United States. The death of Prince Jones, a classmate of Coates’s at Howard University, instigated Coates’s inquiries. Coates described Prince having been incredibly brilliant and charismatic; he was very fond of Prince and had “nothing but love” for him, as he used to say. One evening when driving through Prince George’s County, Prince was followed by a police officer chasing a criminal suspect in a similar Jeep. He was followed across county lines and into the suburbs before being shot and killed mere minutes away from his fiancé’s house. It later turned out the true suspect had dread locks, was fifty pounds heavier, and was a good many inches shorter than Prince, who was 6’4”, had close-cropped hair, and the build of a NFL wide receiver.

Their common denominator, nonetheless, argued Coates, was their blackness. In the tragic tale of  Jones’s death, Coates provided a personal example of the implications of institutionalized racism. Coates said he was convinced that had Prince been white, he would not have been shot. The policies which have criminalized black people are interwoven in our nation’s history, he explained. He spoke about the fugitive slave clause in the U.S. Constitution, old slave codes that forbade blacks to learn how to read, to worship in a church without a white pastor, or to gather amongst other blacks. The justification for lynching was that black men had allegedly raped white women. The criminalization of the black race is part of the foundation of our society. Coates calls it the “heritage that murdered my friend, that endangers my son.”

After the lecture, the floor opened up for Davidson students, and the following day there was a small-group Q&A. Coates shocked his audience with his unconcealed honesty and realistic view of the world. At both Q&A sessions students sought advice on how to change people’s intolerant and dogmatic beliefs and asked if Coates’s attempts to do so were exhausting. Coates responded that writers cannot change the minds of people who are not willing to listen. As an example, he spoke about some people’s denial of slavery’s tie with the Civil War despite documents from the nineteenth century that explicitly stated the purposes of the war. “Be careful of assuming the burden of other people’s ignorance,” he warned. “It does stuff to your humanity.”

Dr. Tae-Sun Kim, Director of Multicultural Affairs, emphasized that Coates provided one of many opportunities for students to educate themselves about racial issues. “I thought Coates made a convincing case for self-directed education and liberation”, Kim said in a written statement. “He described himself as a selfish learner who had the privilege of being raised in a home environment and attending a college that supported his intellectual development and journalistic inquiries. Though many of us in the Davidson community do not share a similar family or educational background as Coates, his point is still well taken. ‘The lack of information’ is not the problem, Coates insisted. For example, several faculty members at Davidson, several core Africana Studies faculty come to mind, have been teaching and preaching on the criminalization of black bodies, educational excellence in black schools, and African American literary masterpieces for decades.”

Coates’s visit to campus came as discussions about systemic marginalization of students of color are pervading college campuses nationwide. Last Thursday Davidson students voiced their solidarity with students at the the University of Missouri in a demonstration. (Read more on Page 1.) Furthermore, SGA Collaborative, SGA’s Diversity Coordinating Board, and Residence Life Office are sponsoring an open discussion about the issues of college protests and anti-racist activism in the 900 Room at 4:30 p.m. today and encourage all those who feel their voice has not been heard to attend.

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