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Friday, January 18, 2019

Congratulations to Ta-Nehisi Coates. His meditation on race in America has hit No. 1 in its first week on the New York Times‘ bestseller list. Race relations may still be a mess, as his book suggests, but at least people are interested in reading about it.

Good timing helps. In the age of smartphone cameras, police dashcams, and Twitter activism, the nation is abuzz with talk of minor encounters between police and black Americans that suddenly escalated into fatalities. Locations are as varied as Staten Island, New York; North Charleston, South Carolina; Waller County, Texas, and most recently, Cincinnati.

In those places, video has validated much of what black communities have been complaining about for decades. Video has become what Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law School and a former prosecutor, has called “the C-SPAN of the streets.”

Amid this heightened conversation, Coates, a national editor at The Atlantic, offers a brief but elegantly provocative 152-page book, Between the World and Me. It could just as easily been titled The Talk. That’s what many of us black parents call the chat that we have with our children about how to behave on the streets — between the perils of armed gangbangers on one side and touchy police officers on the other.

Coates offers his searing reflections on race in the form of an open letter to his 14-year-old son, Samori. His approach, inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 classic, The Fire Next Time, and titled with a line from a Richard Wright poem, puts us inside the world of black parents and their children trying to navigate the world that, as Coates describes it, poses pervasive threats to the black body.

He describes the fear he felt growing up. Police, he cautions his son, “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body,” and commit “friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.”

Street gangs — “young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage” — might also break your body or “shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies.”

The “need to be always on guard” can be exhausting, Coates writes, but death might “billow up like fog” on any ordinary afternoon.

I’ve been a fan of Coates’ work for years as a fresh voice in social commentary and he offers many valuable observations here. Yet I also was disappointed by the pervasive sense of pessimism in regard to America’s ability to redeem itself from past sins and provide opportunities for more progress — if we all work at it.

I heard in his impatience the voice of my own son, who tends to be far more eager to gripe about how far we have to go as a nation than to express appreciation for how far we have come. That’s OK, I have reasoned. It is the job of each new generation to express impatience with the present. It is up to us older folks who remember how bad things were in the days of Jim Crow segregation, for example, to tell the youngsters not to abandon hope.

To test my theory, I called Coates’ father, W. Paul Coates, a former Black Panther in Baltimore who now is founder and director of Black Classics Press. He was predictably proud of his son’s success with a book that was not expected to make him rich but mainly to “let what was inside of him out.”

But, unlike me, the elder Coates refused to acknowledge any daylight at all between his son’s outlook and his own. We may have moments of progress, including the election of an African-American president, Coates said he told his son, but “we must continue to struggle,” he said.

“Much of what he’s writing sounds like what I told him,” he said, “only less eloquently and with a lot more repetition. I don’t believe the arc of justice bends our way. I think we have to go out and bend it our way.”

With that, the father raises a good point. His son offers an eloquent diagnosis of what ails us about race and racism these days. But it mostly leaves prescriptions for the rest of us to find and to fill.

(Email Clarence Page at

Photo: Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking, January 21, 2015 (Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan via Flickr)

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20 responses to “A Fresh Voice For An Impatient Generation”

  1. Dominick Vila says:

    Honestly, the fact that Mr. Coates’ meditation on race has hit Nr. 1 on the front pages of the New York Times, at a time when Donald Trump dominates the media, public attention, and controls the agenda, is nothing more than a desperate attempt to demonstrate a challenge than a demonstration of relevant reality. The sad truth is that the voice of a generation is currently being articulated by the Donald, and neither the GOP establishment, nor us, know what to do about it.

    • RED says:

      The generation that Donald is the voice of is a very ignorant generation.

      • Dominick Vila says:

        I respectfully disagree. I think this generation has a better education than previous generations of Americans. I believe that most Trump supporters are people frustrated by what they perceive as moral or economic decay, which includes anything and everything that differs from their preferences or values. They are tired to vote for politicians who they believe represent their values, only to see them turn into elected officials focused on governance, even if the latter is sometimes hard to discern. Their vision of what is best for America is influenced by fear of change, intolerance, compassion, arrogance, narcissism, and greed. That’s what makes them so dangerous. An ignorant person can be educated, but it is not easy to change the minds of ideological zealots or bigots.

        • Insinnergy says:

          I agree, but I’d add that the subset of the generation that the Donald truly appeals to is not very self-aware, educated or smart… and is highly likely to be rural, religious, and largely immune to considering points of view “alien” to what they were told growing up.

          These the children of the bubble. They elect people like Yoho, and Gohmert. They believe in faith not fact. They believe strongly in American exceptionalism despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And they most often (as shown in this forum and elsewhere) cannot actually manage to confront arguments and evidence that conflicts with their deeply held beliefs… they avoid, detach, spin, change the subject and so on.

          An excellent article in Politico (can’t find the ref on cursory glance sorry) pointed out that the passionate GOP base (including the Tea Party) have been carefully nurtured to be exactly this. A definitive voting block, inured to anything not republican in name, despite loving programs that are democratic in political leaning. Fed on lies, soft racism, and the ultra-partisan scaremongering and demonisation of the opposition.

          This is the same base that provided the political capital to shutdown the Government, write letters to Iran, ignore the sitting President to invite the Israeli PM to speak in Congress, constantly vote down the healthcare law they actually liked and wanted to keep… and so on.

          The Donald has cunningly (or accidentally) gotten in front of this crowd and turned the same strategy up to 11. His hyperbole, and calls for American greatness, and “gutsy” extremist slams for anyone (including his own ‘team’) who dare contest his own exceptionalism mirror all the things this ignorant group want, and have been told they deserve.

          And they are far more likely to vote in the GOP primary.

          To quote Maximus, and Jon Stewart…
          “Are you not entertained?”

          I’m loving it.
          This is the schadenfreude of deliberately keeping your base ignorant, religious and fed on a steady stream of hate, fear and lies.
          And it’s beautiful.

          Who knew? 😉

          • Dominick Vila says:

            Ignorance and fear have allowed the privileged few to dominate the masses for millennia, and by the looks of it, the trend will continue for many more years.
            Many far right voters are also single issue voters. I have members of my own family whose top priority is abortion. Everything else takes a back seat to it. The fact that successive Republican administrations have done nothing to reverse Roe V Wade, even after ultra conservative Justices like Scalia, Alito, and Thomas joined the Supreme Court, is of little interest to them. They blame the Democratic party for our pro-choice stand and its consequences, and nothing we do will alter their negative opinion of our agenda, regardless of how beneficial it may be to them.

  2. ikallicrates says:

    Page is “disappointed by the pervasive sense of pessimism in regard to America’s ability to redeem itself” which he finds in Coates’ book. It reminds him of his own son, “who tends to be far more eager to gripe about how far we have to go as a nation than to express appreciation for how far we have come”. I share the impatience of Page’s son, and the pessimism of Coates. I see no reason to congratulate ourselves on “how far we have come” in regard to race relations. It’s nowhere near enough. I say this as a white man.

    • RED says:

      Absolutely!! Are we supposed to be celebrating that police are only killing 1 person a week? Yeah, it’s progress but not anything to celebrate.

  3. Eleanore Whitaker says:

    It’s hard to believe that it was JFK just prior to his assassination who proposed the Civil Rights Act. It’s also hard to believe that there was ANY opposition to the Civil Rights Act. It took LBJ, an honorable man, to demand the Civil Rights Act be passed in the days after JFK’s untimely death.

    One of the things today’s political tyrants forget is that their policies have hurt and hindered the younger generations who are fed up with stonewalling on issues they consider important. They are rightfully impatient. Their futures depend on equality in religion, race, gender, age and sexual orientation. When your future is at stake, you don’t play a waiting game.

    • CPAinNewYork says:

      Eleanor, you’re just a fat old slob who hates men.

      • Eleanore Whitaker says:

        I’ 4’10” tall, weigh 128 very sleek pounds and judging by the vast number of men who ask to be friends with me on Facebook, I’d say you are an out of work, loser CPA very likely who got caught padding the books and no longer has a CPA. So..tell us…since all CPAs have public information on their certification…where is yours? If you really are a CPAinNooYawk, that explains your arrogant Noo Yawkah attitude and ideas that you are somehow soooooo elite.

        All I see is a man with too much befrigged free time on his hands.

        • CPAinNewYork says:

          You’re still a fat old slob who hates men.

          • Insinnergy says:

            I find it amusing that you feel it’s more important to criticise Eleanore with a selection of women-bashing attacks (as opposed to actual arguments), than to hide your rampant misogyny.

            The first is just your opinion of someone on the Internet that you don’t know (and a rather sad one at that), and as such readers can take or leave it, as it carries little weight.

            The second shows you as you are, from your own mouth, and as such can be truly and seriously believed. It’s a very open look into your personality and beliefs.

          • Eleanore Whitaker says:

            Unfortunately for his type of male mentality, I have lived my entire lifetime since birth surrounded by men. I may be petite; but, thanks to 5 brothers and half brothers, 1 ex, 2 sons, 11 nephews and an army of male engineers, chemists, salesmen, accountants and auditors, I know a phony when I read his posts.

            Sadly, some men in the US will NEVER and I do mean never consider ANY woman their equal in intelligence. But, once you figure out that is how these gamers keep control of women all you see is their desperation to remain fanatically in control of the entire world around them.

            A CPA, as I knew them before I retired, was bogged down in work from sun to sun. That’s how I know this guy is a phony. Even the corporate auditors I worked with always had their noses to the grindstone. These were working men …not lazy, slugs like this guy.

          • CPAinNewYork says:

            It all started when I posted a comment that Eleanore didn’t agree with. She posted insulting personal comments about me, althought we had previously not exchanged any comments.

            Her posting was foulmouthed, as are her present comments. In my opinion, she’s a mean spirited bitch who has no redeeming qualities.

      • jmprint says:

        CPA, you are a bald, toothless asshat, who hates the world, period.

        • CPAinNewYork says:

          Wrong. I just hate a$$holes, which means that I hate you.

          • jmprint says:

            Well, I don’t hate you CPA, I don’t care much for your type, but, you are just a lonely old fool, with no love or faith in your heart. That’s a tough place to be, I say this because I have read your post in the past and that’s what I make of you.

      • Insinnergy says:

        Congratulations on your truly eloquent rebuttal.
        Once again you absolutely missed the low bar of quality I’ve come to expect from your dribble.
        You never fail to amaze.

        • CPAinNewYork says:

          You should read some of Eleanore Whitaker’s past comments if your want to see invective from a powerless old bitch who hates men.

          As for you: I think that you’re an asskissing shithead whose balls were taken by women years ago.

  4. pisces63 says:

    As a black woman with a now, 42 year old son, my husband and I had to teach him
    these things. Plus, I instilled in him to tell police NOTHING but his name and depending on his age at the time, ask for his parents or an attorney. Then say
    nothing else. My son is a college grad and it wasn’t until AFTER he married and bought a home in a predominantly white eighborhood that he had his run in.
    This officer would stop to ID him walking into his home. His and his corporate trainer wife. Driving home. Going to work, they would stop to ID him. I figured this country had grown up with the election of Obama but the following morning while readying for work I found out it was far from over. The frumps whining on television they wanted their country back. e isn’t like us( I read that to mean proudly, no white massah in the
    wood pile). He wasn’t raised like us. Neither was I. The determination to will
    him to fail due to his race and don’t bother to tell me otherwise. Mitch McConnell saying as much and to make him a one term president and make sure not to allow anything he wants to succeed. The blatant disrespect and treating him like a waiter and expecting him to act like a shoe shine boy by rawling to republicans and begging for their attention or bipartisanship. If I hear one more person say he did not cross their aisle, as other presidents, I will scream. My one point of disgust is when
    my now 9 year old granddaughter said at 3 not the like the nasty people. The nasty people do not like the brown eople. They say bad things about the
    brown president and his brown wife and brown children. They do not like the brown people like us. They show dirty pictures. Use dirty words. She saw this on BBC during the time of his inauguration and saw the signs and heard the hate speech. She is well read. Highly intelligent and remembers everything. She once spoke to everyone
    she met. Outgoing with anyone. Wants to be an architect/engineer. Learning and already comprehending German, Russian and Italian from lessons I bought her for Christmas. Now, even today, she won’t really speak to white people any longer.

    She, her two sisters and brother attended the Cultural Fair in Cleveland’s Rockefeller Park Cultural gardens, Sunday with their dad and she watched everything and took it in, she did not participate like her youngest sister 6, who made lots of acquaintances. The middle girl loved the bands. She is a rocker at 7 and loves groups like Metallica and Joan Jett. My grandson turns 13 on the 12th. We are preparing him, now, also. This computer genius who is ahead of millennials when it comes to computer comprehension.
    He wants to build his own program and game. He upgrades Minecraft. With the shootings in south Carolina and burnings of black churches, restriction of voting rights as much as possible, to me we have come full circle and are headed back to 1965.

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