Ta-Nehisi Coates on the roots of racial violence

The fear in Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book is pervasive. It almost perceptibly coats the pages and clings to the skin.

The Baltimore-born Coates fears for himself, as a black man living in America in 2015. He's afraid for his 15-year-old son, Samori. And he's terrified because there's no guarantee of safety and security for even those educated, successful, well-to-do black people who follow society's rules. There's no guarantee even for someone like him, an award-winning author who has been anointed as the intellectual heir to James Baldwin by none other than Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison.


The dread was evident during a recent telephone conversation with the author, and it was apparent last week at Union Baptist Church, during the national launch of Coates' new book, "Between the World and Me."

During the event, Coates, 39, read a chapter about his meeting with Mable Jones, a Philadelphia radiologist whose son, Prince, was fatally shot in 2000 by an undercover Princes George's County police officer. The officer claimed that the unarmed man — the author's friend and former classmate at Howard University — had tried to run him over.


"My son was a month old at that point, and I couldn't distance myself from what Prince had done," Coates said. "If I'd been followed through three jurisdictions by someone who didn't identify himself as a police officer, by someone who was dressed as a criminal and by someone who pointed a gun at me, I might have done just what he did. It's very, very easy for me to see how I could have been killed that day."

"Between the World and Me," which is written in the form of an open letter to Samori, is a 152-page meditation on the nature of violence against African-Americans, which Coates sees as a systematic and deliberate attempt to destroy black bodies.

Below is an edited synopsis of remarks that Coates made at his book launch and during the interview:

What message were you trying to communicate to America by writing this book?

I was really thinking of a black audience. I wanted to say to the community: "I see your pain, and you're not crazy." There's racism, and then there's the mind tricks people play on you by telling you that the racism isn't real.

Reading the book, I got the feeling that you think of the world as occupying two camps: "us" and "them." I think the fear you so eloquently describe would also be familiar to some folks who aren't black — women, gay people and senior citizens, among others.

What I'm against is race supremacy and all of its flaws. I'm not against any one group of people.

It's a question of power. A woman could have written the same book about men and made the same arguments. The system is larger than all of us, and even those of us men who don't want to be involved in the system are involved.


The point I'm making in the book is that the whole notion of race, of whiteness and blackness, can't be divorced from the notion of power.

The following passage in the book gave me pause, and I'm wondering if you wished you'd softened it. You were living in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and you write:

"I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white or whatever; they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could, with no justification, shatter my body."

No, I wouldn't soften it. That was a state of my raw emotion at that time. Later, I came to grips with the fact that each of the folks who died were individual humans with likes, dislikes, hates, loves, etc., and I was able to grieve for them.

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Didn't you get push-back from President Obama about a blog item you wrote in which you characterized him as believing that black people are the agents of their own doom?

He's part of a strong strain in the black community that thinks that personal responsibility and virtue is a way out of our problems.


I don't think greater personal responsibility is the answer. Black people are already plenty responsible. In Charleston, people forgave the gunman who came into their church and murdered their relatives in cold blood. I don't see how anyone could be any more responsible than that.

Where do we go from here?

I think you have to understand that the history of enslavement in this country is older than America itself. It's older than emancipation. We have a large task in front of us, and it probably won't get completed in our lifetimes. Hopefully, in three, four or five generations we will see a world that has purged itself of racism.

But for now, we can do one very basic and tangible thing. We have to stop arresting people just because they see a police officer and run.