Ta-Nehisi Coates

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April 24, 2018 By Mario Salas

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an up and coming writer with more than a string of successful books, articles, and contributions to black liberation theory. It is no wonder, as his father was a member of the original Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. It may be a blessing that one famous scholar, Cornel West, doesn’t like his politics, as West is berated by many for being rude and off the wall at times. Cornel West has failed to understand the details of how white supremacy works. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a native of Baltimore and grew up in a family that honored blacks and taught respect for those that made important contributions to their community. This would turn out to be of vital importance as Coates grew up in a neighborhood that was in the midst of a crack cocaine epidemic. Coates’ mother played an important role in that she forced him to write when his behavior was a problem, something that would develop into a finely honed skill. His understanding the label of “white people” was invented to institutionalize white supremacy. Coates says that before whites called themselves “white” they were Irish, German, and others. This fits with the construction of race as invented by the Spaniards after the defeat of the Moors, and the scientific racism institutionalized by Johann Blumenbach, Carl Linnaeus, and other racists in the 1700s.


Coates attended Howard University and described it as a “Mecca” in his life because of the importance of education for blacks, the books in the library, and the black culture of the school that was able to transcend the white supremacy all around him. Eventually, he started a career in journalism that led him to a writing fellowship in Paris, France. Coates wrote about growing up in West Baltimore in his book “The Beautiful Struggle.” In this book, Coates describes the prevailing crime in the community and mentions this in his other award winning book, “Between the World and Me.”  This book was published in 2015 and draws upon the works of Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin.  Coates also wrote comic book stories about the “Black Panther” for Marvel Comics.


In “Between the World and Me,” Coates says that the massive incarceration of blacks, and the inveighing of it by blacks and others, as well as its opposite, railing against crime in the Black community, points to a larger problem that many do not want to tackle on either side of this divide.  Those that are complaining that we don’t have enough jails and need to build more, and arrest more criminals push their rhetoric for different reasons and across geographic areas. If you live in a border state with Mexico there may be heightened concern with Mexican gangs and drug smuggling than say someone that lives in a dense ghetto in New York. Some of these folks have even bought into the racist ravings of Donald Trump and his “Wall.” Some even want to do away with civil liberties and rant and rave about it might be a good idea to get rid of the 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution. Others want laws that are as strict as they are in Iran and China.  In Coates’ opinion this attitude is poison and self-destructive. In essence, it is but a continuation of the destruction of black bodies and the poor inherited from slavery.


Coates alludes to the destruction of “black bodies” that has always been an issue of safety vs. justice. Historical safety concerns were rooted in the safety of whites from a black presence and black crimes committed or alleged against whites, and the idea that blacks were not entitled to safety from whites or from each other. Many white police officers and black ones as well, view blacks and black communities with the same contempt as the society that sends them into these neighborhoods. The lack of safety in a ghetto is real, but it obscures one’s sense of the bigger picture. This may be hard to see if you are living in a neighborhood with a high crime rate. You may be too close to it to see the bigger picture. The police reflect America and its white supremacist foundations imposed on all of us, criminals and law abiding residents, by a society represented by complete falsehoods.


 Do not confuse what I am saying, that to challenge the police, as criminals do even in the worst ways, is to challenge the society that enforces injustice. Coates would say that criminals are still criminals that prey on the elderly and vulnerable, but our country is still ruled by white supremacist policies and history, and by a majoritarian elite. According to various online definitions: “Majoritarian rule is an established political philosophy that proclaims that a specific majority (in this case from those that Coates says still believe they are white) is authorized to exercise dominance in a society, and has the privilege to make decisions that affect the whole of society.” You can’t have a racist society that built the ghettos and not expect poverty and crime to be a problem! This is the bigger picture that calls for more than locking up people and moaning about crime.  Only being concerned about safety issues is not even half of the analysis needed to struggle against injustice in the black community. Coates argues that justice carries a heavy burden!


There is truth to both sides of this issue; fighting against crime in the community and the importance of justice, but one of them hides and distracts in that it hides a bigger problem. That bigger problem has to do with safety vs. justice.  In communities across the country, especially in those with large black populations, one can hear the grunts and groans of middle-class blacks complaining about their impatience with crime in their neighborhoods.  They are justified in their concerns. I am not mad at those that want to tackle “Black on Black Crime” in the community, in poor neighborhoods were the police are often reluctant to press enforcement in neighborhoods that they do not want to patrol in the first place.  However, one must also look at those in the development community have no interest in curbing crime and may even welcome it so as to eventually gentrify the community for their own economic interest, and those falsely imprisoned or sent to prison for their poverty. This is the bigger issue that many don’t want to tackle.


Safety has become a “kill solution” that allows police officers to destroy lives of people carrying cell phones, claiming they were guns and a black-middle class that is afraid to leave their homes because of burglars and thieves. Often, middle-class folks cheer when a black person is killed even it was just for selling cigarettes like Eric Garner. Safety is given a higher value than justice, and hence many blacks are locked up for invented crimes, crimes that whites are let go for. This does not mean that criminals ought to be allowed to escape justice, but remember justice carries a heavy burden. According to Coates, Raging against crime in the community tells a deeper story in that those who do so are powerless before the great crime of racism that created and brought the criminals to the neighborhood in the first place. I had rather concentrate on the bigger picture. When I lived in neighborhoods like this my position was the same as it is now; the bigger picture is where efforts ought to fall. Don’t stop fighting against crime, but know that the bigger picture must be addressed with greater vigor.


Coates says that fighting criminals and crime and little else, instead of the society that created them, is but self-destruction, for it does not matter if you are a criminal or not, middle-class or not, society still views blacks and others as something in the way of white domination. Building a wall on the border is a continuation of white power just as red-lining, refusal of bank loans, selling land to blacks and poor people in flood zones or in polluted places, slum dwellings, leaded in the water, and more. However infantile it may be, wearing a hoodie or sagging pants is but a victim’s way of rebellion, but it is also a way to die under the boot of a racist society.


Some will argue that I am saying that wearing sagging pants is ok, well, depends on your age, your history, and some ideas that have crossed over from prison to the street. A lot of fads were invented by way of prison, but this does not make one a criminal anymore that hip hop does. Zoot Suits in the 1930s were a fad, but the police identified them as criminals, and some were—but this was something that was not true in origin. Clark Gable worn a baggy suit in Gone With the Wind, but he was white! Baggy clothes is linked to Jazz, artistic people, and not just criminals. Some fads are hijacked by criminals, but that does not mean that young people even know that or care, as we live in a society were freedom to dress as one chooses is granted—except in the ghetto it appears. 


Whites wear hooded clothes all of the time, with purple hair, and body piercing all over the place. They are generally ignored by law enforcement as just “kids having fun.” Some of the worst criminals are dressed this way or in traditional clothing, and a lot of them caught are put on the news with their clean-cut jeans, sweat shirts, and tennis shoes—better be careful about stereotyping folks! African garb, how soon we forget, was associated with bomb making gun toting revolutionaries at one time even though the majority of the people wearing such clothes were African or people expressing cultural pride. They are ignored because white lives are made to matter and criminal activity is more strongly enforced in white communities if it is ever discovered at all.

Written by

Mario Salas