How Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates Defines Today’s ‘Race Beat’

By Carla Murphy Oct 31, 2014

The leading writer on racism in America today is the subject of a cerebral profile in the new issue of Columbia Journalism Review. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who this year resurfaced reparations for African-Americans as a relevant topic in the mainstream, sees himself not as a writer about race but about racism and white supremacy. The interview unpacks some of how Coates came to see and appreciate that difference, which determines how he covers what journalists in the 1960s termed, ‘the race beat.’ Some highlights:

Eventually, [Coates] 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.


[White supremacy] 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?" 

Chris Ip’s profile reveals a man who’s had the time and space to develop his thinking over a long period of time. It’s worth the read.

Read more at CJR.