|Photo credit: Adam Schwallie, Western Herald|
Here's the article I wrote for the Herald about the event.
On Tuesday, Nov. 3, Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to an audience of 2,500 in Miller Auditorium on race, mass incarceration in the war on drugs, and made a compelling case for reparations.
Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic. His book, “Between the World and Me” was a 2015 National Book Award finalist and he is a recent winner of the McArthur Genius Grant. Coates is amongst the most notable writers on race in America today. His visit to Kalamazoo was sponsored by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and was part of their yearly meeting.
Prior to his speech at Miller, he spoke to student journalists privately at Kalamazoo College about his literary influences, which included hip-hop. “They were making it beautiful, and by beautiful, I don’t mean sexy, I don’t even mean glamorous. I mean showing the life and the humanity under the oppression, and they’re so textured and so layered.”
When asked about his ideas of the future of race relations he admitted to not being able to know. “I have no idea, you know that? It’s very hard to articulate, I mean I wouldn’t have told you we were going to have a Black president, so I’m probably the wrong person to go to for predictions.”
He also mentioned that “Between the World and Me” was the culmination of years of conversations between Coates and his son, who is a teenager. “The process of writing was when I sat down, but much of what was in the book was what we had been talking about for years.”
Later in the evening at Miller Auditorium, Coates centered his speech on the effects of mass incarceration and the war on drugs in African American communities, saying “You guys have heard a lot of words about mass incarceration, but I think it’s very important to contextualize exactly what we mean by that. The United States accounts for only 5% of the world’s inhabitants, and yet it accounts for 25% of the world’s entire prison population.”
He went on to say, “This has had incredible effects on black communities. For black males, prison is no longer a rare experience, it is almost as common, or just as common, or more common as going into the military, as going to college, as joining a labor union. Prison is now normal. It’s just a part of your life cycle. If you’re an African American born in this generation today, and you drop out of school, you have roughly a 60% chance of eventually going to prison. It’s become a rite of passage for black males in this country.”
Coates said that for many people, time in prison causes them be unable to find jobs and to drop out of society. “The problem is, when you drop out of society, you don’t go by yourself. You take your family with you, and so when folks come back from prison, for instance, or if folks are arrested in public housing, depending on where you are...you’re in public housing, your family can be kicked out, your family can be disqualified for food stamp programs. When you come back you can’t get access to food stamps. Perhaps you have some notion of improving yourself when you get out of prison, but you can’t get access to Pell Grants to go to college. A whole suite of programs that we normally allow for American citizens, we immediately disqualify for folks who go to jail.”
Coates explained how mass incarceration has a major effect on families of incarcerated people. “I spent some time here in Michigan, in Detroit talking to families. It was nothing like hearing the mother, as I did, of a 16-year-old boy who’s gone off to jail. The mother I talked to, she was already on disability herself. She’s having to send money into this prison, into this kid’s life so he can deal with his own upkeep. She’s having to pay for phone calls so that she can have basic contact with him. So when he was sent to jail, it wasn’t like the system just punished him, it punishes his mother to. It radiates out.”
Coates pointed out the sharp contrast between the public’s response to growing heroin abuse amongst white people, and crack cocaine in the 1980’s. “There was a piece in the New York Times about a week ago. It was about the rise in heroin among more white people, and there was a kind of humanity that was reflected when folks were asked about these heroin addicts that was totally alien to me. I lived through the era of crack, and I remember what the response was to crack, and it was nothing the humane ‘we need to help folks, we need to be compassionate,’ it was nothing like that.” He questioned this difference, and pointed out that race was the primary difference between crack and heroin epidemics.
Coates then moved onto the topic of reparations, which he has written about for The Atlantic. He argued that for generations, African Americans have been working for and paying taxes into a system that does not serve them equally, and that a long history of mistreatment cannot be ignored.
He said “The notion that black people don’t deserve the same treatment as white people in this country is literally as old as the country itself.”
He also pointed out that much of the wealth in America was built on slavery, and that African Americans who are descended from slaves deserve a portion of that wealth. “The four million black people who were living in the south in 1860, under slavery constituted the largest asset, the largest pool of wealth in any area in this country. So you could have taken, in 1860, all the railroads...all the productive capacity of the country together and put it together, and it would have been worth less than the four million enslaved black people.”