Ta-Nehisi Coates: No ‘5-day plan’ for justice

The vulnerability of African-Americans to violence and poverty isn’t an accident but an intended result of policy, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates told an Indiana University audience today. And behind policy stands the nation’s “long, long history” of slavery and inequality, much of it driven by economic self-interest.

One lesson: Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a society in which little black boys and girls can hold hands with little white boys and girls isn’t enough to create a just world.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

“The problem isn’t getting people to hold hands,” said Coates, author of the bestselling “Between the World and Me.” “The problem is to get people’s hands out of other people’s pockets.”

Coates spoke to a capacity audience in the 1,460-seat Musical Arts Center in a talk sponsored by the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, the Media School, the College Arts and Humanities Institute and the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs. He also met with students attending the Public Policy and International Affairs Program conference at SPEA.

Coates said he was inspired to write “Between the World and Me” by re-reading James Baldwin’s classic book-length essay “The Fire Next Time” and marveling at its power.

“I just wondered why people did not write with that sort of poetry, that sort of fire, that vigor that Baldwin did,” he said.

At the same time, the book resulted from his lingering anger over the senseless death in 2000 of Prince Carmen Jones, a fellow student at Howard University who was followed and killed by undercover police officers who mistakenly thought he was driving a stolen car.

Coates’ son was one month old at the time. “I would look at him and an entire fear would come over me,” he said. “I nursed that fear for 15 years. And ‘Between the World and Me’ came out of that.”

Written as an extended letter to Coates’ now teenage son, the book merges the author’s own personal story with descriptions of the effects of racism and analysis of policies such as crime laws and neighborhood redlining. New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani called it “a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today.”

Coates said the same policies that led to police assuming criminality in Prince Carmen Jones, a college student and a favored child of a highly successful family, also created racially and economically isolated ghettos where people live in fear of crime.

“What I wanted, when I wrote the book, was I wanted you to feel it,” he said.

Pressed in a question-and-answer session on how to pursue social and racial justice, Coates insisted there are no quick or easy answers to America’s racial dilemma.

“There is no five-day plan,” he said. “There is not a five-year plan. I don’t even think there’s a lifetime plan. There’s a next-generation plan and a generation-after-that plan.”

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