Writer, journalist and educator Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to a sold-out crowd in Berkeley this week, discussing the ideas and experiences in his best seller, “Between the World and Me,” which he wrote in the form of a letter to his teenage son about growing up in a country where white supremacy is both a heritage and institutionalized reality.
Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, where he writes about cultural, social and political issues, especially as they impact African-Americans.
In a widely read and discussed article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” he examined ongoing institutional racism that maintains housing discrimination.
Speaking at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley Wednesday night, Coates sought to correct some common misconceptions about his new book.
“Its not a literal letter to my son,” he said. “Everything in that book he’s heard (from me) for years.”
He disagreed with top critics who say he is the next James Baldwin, a writer who Coates deeply admires.
“There’s not gong to be the next Baldwin, and there should not be the next Baldwin.”
He said that his book focuses on America’s attack on the “Black Body” because, “There is no America without the physical plunder of Black people. Enslavement is not a bump along the road. It is the road itself.”
The U.S. extols its democratic heritage and fails to accept that slavery, lynching, police violence and theft of Black-owned property is part of that heritage, says Coates.
“The roots of police violence and so-called “Black-on-Black crime” are the same,” he said.
Black people are forced to live in neighborhoods where there are no jobs, extensive poverty, poorly funded schools and widespread violence produced by desperation. The realities that exist in these communities are based on intentional policies, he said.
“Communities look that way because they were planned to look that way,” Coates said, citing the history of government and bank redlining polices. “The police and criminal justice system is our investment in those neighborhoods.”
The school policeman who attacked the teenage girl in a South Carolina is only a manifestation of the policies that say police should be in some schools and not in other schools, he said. There are social policies and institutionalized assumptions that say the way to deal with Black people is with violence.
Coates said he was uncertain about how the U.S. could reach “a critical mass” of people willing to make the country’s profession of democracy a reality.
White people have an “interest” in maintaining white supremacy, he said, and over and over again, they have not supported Black people’s demand to participate in the country on an equal basis.