Ta-Nehisi Coates defines a new race beat

The Atlantic writer looks to the past to confront contemporary racism

(Philip Habib)

He is the most celebrated journalist writing about race today, and yet Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ideas are surprisingly unoriginal. He would be the first to say so. Consider, for example, “The Case for Reparations,” Coates’ 16,000-word cover story for The Atlantic, where he is a national correspondent. Published online in May, it was a close look at housing discrimination, such as redlining, that was really about the need for America to take a brutally honest look in the mirror and acknowledge its deep racial divisions.

The story broke a single-day traffic record for a magazine story on The Atlantic’s website, and in its wake, Politico named him to its list of 50 thinkers changing American politics. Coates has been on a whirlwind speaking tour, from Cleveland to Cornell, where listeners crouched outside an open window of the filled-to-capacity auditorium. He broke from the circuit only once, for a seven-week retreat to Middlebury College, where he spoke only French. The reparations essay has prompted thinkpiece upon thinkpiece, either praising or rebutting Coates’ case. How, many marveled, did he take on one of the nation’s most politically toxic issues and singlehandedly thrust it into the national conversation?

He did it without providing readers much new information. The piece was more history than storytelling. Cinematic scenes seldom enliven it; extended passages from contemporary sociology are used instead. Its intellectual backbone—research by Yale historian David W. Blight, for instance, and Columbia professor Kenneth T. Jackson’s history of the suburbs—has existed in public for years. Coates, who used to write poetry, knows how to use his words, but this opus reads more like an elegant dissertation than the kind of groundbreaking work that typically makes people sit up and take note.

True equality, Coates says, will mean ‘black people in this country have the right to be as mediocre as white people. Not that individual black people will be as excellent, or more excellent, than other white people.’

The rise of 39-year-old Coates, though, is about more than his observations of contemporary black America—on housing policy, on comedian Bill Cosby, on Malcolm X, on himself. To understand Coates’ position requires knowing that four years ago he opposed the idea of reparations, and then explained to readers how his thinking evolved. It requires knowing that he leads a book club on his blog for his online following, which he christened “The Horde,” after a faction in the online fantasy game World of Warcraft. It requires tracking the lively discussion section on TheAtlantic.com, where Coates himself is the second-highest-ranked commenter.

Coates’ rise corresponds, not coincidentally, with a watershed moment in the story of race in America. The arrival of the country’s first black president and attorney general, and the phasing out of race-based affirmative action, created a sense that the country’s deep racial divisions were finally healing. Millennials, studies tell us, consider race a non-issue. Cultural observers, in the media and elsewhere, raised the possibility that America was “post-racial.” This narrative, like President Barack Obama himself, was hopeful. It suggested that racial parity required little more than waiting for the ideas contained in the Civil Rights Act to percolate through society.

But alongside these important markers of progress, a cycle of disturbing racial incidents has persisted: the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin; the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates after he was wrongly suspected of breaking into his own home; the bigoted remarks of, Donald Sterling, the former owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, and others. If the close of Obama’s second term was supposed to be a touchstone for progress, the narrative reads more like a nation struggling to find its footing as it careens toward a majority-minority future.

The media are struggling, too, as they try to clarify this muddled racial topography. Far from the newspaper race beats of the late 1960s and ’70s—which focused on protests, affirmative action, and integration—today’s race beat lacks a consensus on how it should be covered. NPR’s Code Switch blog, for instance, dissects how racial tropes are perpetuated in pop culture. Tanzina Vega, meanwhile, who covers The New York Times’ new race and ethnicity beat, tries to capture the shifting day-to-day cultural lives of minority communities as they begin to outnumber whites.

Coates believes that if there is an answer to contemporary racism, it lies in confronting the past. He doesn’t ignore the periodic eruptions of racial violence, such as the most recent one in Ferguson, MO, but his focus is on the less visible systemic roots of these incidents. He nudges the conversation about race forward by helping readers see an old problem in new ways. He is no soothsayer, telling people what to think from on high, but rather is refreshingly open about what he doesn’t know, inviting readers to learn with him. Coates is not merely an ivory-tower pontificator or a shiny Web 2.0 brand. He is a public intellectual for the digital age.

‘How big-hearted can democracy be?’ Coates wonders. ‘How many people can it actually include and sustain itself? That is the question I’m asking over and over again.’

A caveat: Coates says he doesn’t write about race, but about racism and black America. “I write about the force of white supremacy in American history and what it means for democracy,” he says. It is a balmy Saturday in September, and Coates is at his regular writing spot—the back corner table of a boisterous café with small tables and no Wi-Fi in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. The area is the home to Columbia University, three seminary schools, and a music conservatory, all sitting on a hill overlooking Harlem. Coates has lived in both neighborhoods.

His interest in black America goes back to his West Baltimore upbringing, where he attended the middle school that was featured in the fourth season of HBO’s The Wire. His father, Paul Coates, was a Vietnam veteran and former Black Panther who founded a publishing house for Afrocentric literature in their basement. Paul fathered seven children by three women, including Coates’ mother, a schoolteacher. Ta-Nehisi, the second youngest of his father’s children, is named after an Egyptian word for Nubia, an ancient region of northeastern Africa.

As a kid, Coates collected comics and played Dungeons & Dragons, but he also got into fights. When he was a freshman in high school, he “mushed” his English teacher in the face after the man scolded him, an encounter that ended with handcuffs and a suspension. He started his senior year with a 1.8 GPA.

Early on, Coates saw his father’s collection of Black Nationalist literature as one way to escape the self-destructive impulses of his neighborhood. But his experience at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, DC, tempered his racial pride. He started at Howard trying to “discover the nobility of black people and make it known,” he says now, with a whoop of laughter. “Just total bullshit.” He began to look past race and think more about racism. Eventually, he came to see black respectability—the idea that, to succeed, African-Americans must stoically prevail against the odds and be “twice as good” as white people to get the same rights—as deeply immoral.

It’s an idea that has permeated his work ever since: the absurdity that having a black president somehow indicates that the country has transcended race, when African-Americans get longer prison sentences than whites for committing the same crimes. For Coates, true equality means “black people in this country have the right to be as mediocre as white people,” he says. “Not that individual black people will be as excellent, or more excellent, than other white people.”

One of Coates’ recent intellectual obsessions is the American Civil War, and unpacking just how deeply slavery—and racism—is embedded in the foundations of our history. In “The Case for Reparations,” for instance, he cites research that in 1860 slaves were the largest asset in the US economy. “It is almost impossible to think of democracy, as it was formed in America, without the enslavement of African-Americans,” he says. “Not that these things were bumps in the road along the way, but that they were the road.”

Another term for that road is “white supremacy.” This refers not so much to hate groups, but, as Coates defines it, a system of policies and beliefs that aims to keep African-Americans as “a peon class.” To be “white” in this sense does not refer merely to skin color but to the degree that someone qualifies as “normal,” and thus worthy of the same rights as all Americans. Reading Coates’ work you feel that his ideas—about blacks needing to be “twice as good,” about the force of history, about white supremacy—all cascade, one into another, permeating both his tweets and his cover stories, whether he is discussing the presidency or housing policy. The pool where all these ideas eventually arrive is a question: “How big-hearted can democracy be?” he says. “How many people can it actually include and sustain itself? That is the question I’m asking over and over again.”

Fundamentally, it is a question of empathy. Are humans capable of forming a society where everyone can flourish?

Journalism is often criticized for the paucity of context in its coverage, but the absence of context in race stories has an acute effect. Think about how the media framed the story of Donald Sterling, the former Clippers owner who told an acquaintance to stop bringing black people to his games; or that of New Hampshire police commissioner Robert Copeland, caught using a racial slur to refer to President Obama in a restaurant; or of singer Justin Bieber, caught on video telling a racist joke. The common storyline in all these cases was one of prominent figures revealing their bigotry.

Then there was the coverage of Michael Brown (or Jordan Davis, or Renisha McBride, or Eric Garner): unarmed African-Americans killed by police or others under controversial circumstances. In each case, the storyline was that these horrific encounters were caused either by genuine provocation, or by race-fueled fear or hatred. Either way, they were stories of personal failings.

When an event becomes news, there is often an implication that it is an exception—that the world is mostly working as it should and this event is newsworthy because it’s an aberration. If the race-related stories we see most often in the media are about personal bigotry, then our conception of racism is limited to the bigoted remarks or actions—racism becomes little more than uttering the n-word. If we see each shooting as an isolated case of fear or provocation, without being told that young African-American men are 21 times more likely than their white counterparts to be shot dead by the police, according to a recent ProPublica report, then we miss the real question of why there is a systemic, historical difference in the way police treat blacks versus whites.

Coates, who majored in history at Howard, sees a lack of historical perspective in the media’s approach to race. “Journalism privileges what’s happening now over the long reasons for things happening,” he says. “And for African-Americans, that has a particular effect.”

Among pundits, discussion about race is often locked into a political binary in which conservatives say inequality is a problem of black culture, while liberals say it’s a systemic problem. Even the very existence of racism is questioned: A recent study published by the Association of Psychological Science has shown that whites think they are discriminated against due to race as much if not more than blacks. Meanwhile, only 25 percent of African-Americans think their community is portrayed accurately by the media, according to the American Press Institute. “Journalists have a high bar for saying something exists,” says Eric Deggans, the author of Race-Baiter: How The Media Wields Dangerous Words To Divide A Nation. “So when you’re talking about something like institutional racism and prejudice, how do you talk about that as an objective reality?”

Coates doesn’t claim to have the answers; indeed, he disdains the trope that writers can pluck insight out of their heads at will. Coates’ strength is in connecting contemporary problems to historical scholarship. “I think if I bring anything to the table it’s the ability to synthesize all of that into something that people find emotionally moving,” he says. The irony of the reparations piece, as unoriginal as it may have been to scholars, is that it was news to many people.

Reporting on race requires simultaneously understanding multiple, contradictory worlds, with contradictory narratives. Widespread black poverty exists; so do a black middle class and a black president. It requires both a hypersensitivity to peoples’ different lived experiences, and a frankness when telling hard truths. Reporters need to be able to see both how far America has come, and how far the country has left to go.

On this new race beat that Coates is helping to pioneer, the media’s job is to delineate the middle ground between these different worlds—to look beyond the dichotomies and unpack the root causes of racial inequity. Progress is key to the myth of American Exceptionalism, and the notion that America is built on slavery and on freedom are discordant ideas that threaten any simple storyline. Coates, together with others who join him, is trying to claim the frontier of a new narrative.

Though some of Coates’ most intellectually formative years were at Howard, he never graduated. After six years on and off—much of it spent at the school newspaper—he dropped out and joined Washington City Paper under editor David Carr, now a media columnist for The New York Times. “If you had told me he would be a big deal, I would have said, ‘Get real,’ ” Carr told The New York Observer last year. “He needed work. He was not a great speller. He wasn’t terrific with names. And he wasn’t all that ambitious.”

After leaving Washington, Coates spent the next seven years bouncing between freelance jobs, alt-weeklies, and magazines—Philadelphia Weekly, The Village Voice, Time—but never for more than two years at a time. In 2008, he published his coming-of-age memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, and then landed at The Atlantic primarily as a blogger. He would write short posts on the NFL, politics, or hip-hop. He started his Civil War book club, and would leave an “Open Thread At Noon” to discuss any and everything with his followers. The Horde grew, and grew dedicated.

Coates, who describes himself as “platform agnostic,” was now managing a lively online community. To read his posts is to see his views form in real time. The daily news cycle is folded back into Coates’ intellectual preoccupations, and reading Coates is like building a worldview, piece by piece, on an area of contemporary life that’s otherwise difficult to grasp.

He applies the journalist’s maxim to show, not tell, to his online discussions. “One way to help people understand and learn is to open up the floor,” says Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, a sweeping account of the Great Migration which Coates called one of the biggest inspirations for his reparations piece. “To come and tell someone may not be as effective in convincing them as allowing them to learn on their own. If you believe you come to a conclusion on your own, you’re more likely to agree.”

Coates’ online community and his longform writing are inextricably linked. The discussions on social media and the blog are testing grounds that point him toward new ideas. It’s a fertile environment: “Black Twitter” and the hashtag activism of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #bbum are some examples of how frank discussions about race thrive online, giving voice to people who aren’t routinely included in traditional media.

It’s brave to bare yourself intellectually on the Web, and to acknowledge mistakes, especially when the capital that public intellectuals appear to have is their ability to be “right.” Jamelle Bouie, a friend of Coates who writes about race at Slate, says: “It’s that thinking out loud in an intelligent but somewhat vulnerable way that’s really attracted people to him.” Coates is equally demanding of his followers. Online he is blunt, and willing to call people out. He cares enough to be rigorous. He will mercilessly ban people from comment threads for rudeness. Yet despite being a master of online engagement, Coates insists he does not write for others, an idea he explained in a recent post: “I have long believed that the best part of writing is not the communication of knowledge to other people, but the acquisition and synthesizing of knowledge for oneself. The best thing I can say about the reparations piece is that I now understand.”

As Coates’ understanding of the country’s racial dynamics deepens, it does not make him an optimist. To him, it’s an open question whether or not America will ever be capable of fostering true equality. “How big-hearted can democracy be? It points to a very ugly answer: maybe not that big-hearted at all. That in fact America is not exceptional. That it’s just like every other country. That it passes its democracy and it passes all these allegedly big-hearted programs [the New Deal, the G.I. Bill] but still excludes other people,” he says. “It’s deeply disturbing. That doesn’t just undermine the fundamental sense of journalism; that undermines the fundamental sense of America itself.”

But this is why the race beat matters—because America is in the middle of its history. Where it goes next, and whether it has the reckoning that Coates desires, will be influenced by the media. After all, journalism’s highest calling is to hold uncomfortable truths up to a public that may prefer to ignore those truths, and thereby (hopefully) convince the nation to do better.

In a 2010 post about antebellum America, Coates mentioned feminist and abolitionist Angelina Grimke. “Suffice to say that much like Abe Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant, Angelina Grimke was a Walker,” he wrote.

“What was the Walker reference?” Rosemartian asked in the comments section.

“Just someone who spends their life evolving, or, walking,” Coates replied. “Grant and Lincoln fit in there for me. Malcolm X was another Walker. Walkers tend to be sometimes—even often—wrong. But they are rarely bigots, in the sense of nakedly clinging to ignorance.”

For now, Coates has been running another book club—this one on mass incarceration of African-Americans in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. He is writing a book that was inspired by his reparations piece. The blog discussion section, which has swelled since May, might not continue to exist. But Coates will continue to walk.

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Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw. This story was published in the November/December 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "Right man, right moment."