Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Legacy of Structural Neglect in Inner Cities

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is being published this week and examines what it means to black in present-day America.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells has a profile of Coates in New York magazine. Coates has made a name for himself by pointing out how structural racism continues to pervade in the U.S. An example of this can be seen in a debate between Coates and Mitch Landrieu at the Aspen Ideas Festival:

The next morning, Coates debated Mitch Landrieu, the Democratic mayor of New Orleans, on the sources of American violence. The exchange was moderated by Coates’s friend and colleague Jeffrey Goldberg. The mayor — shaven-headed, coachlike — had made crime in black neighborhoods a political focus. It was an issue on which he was accustomed to being the good guy. The search engine Bing had sponsored an app that allowed audience members to rate the speakers in real time. Landrieu said he hoped they liked him. Coates said, a little masochistically, he hoped they hated him.

Landrieu seemed mindful of all the ways a well-meaning white liberal in a situation like this might embarrass himself. He knew all the statistics about the scale of murders in African-American communities and mentioned them; he stated the problem in a way that focused on blacks as victims of violence rather than perpetrators; he told the audience that he had recently personally apologized for slavery; he said the core issue was “a pattern of behavior that has developed amongst young African-American men since 1980.” Coates asked if the change in 1980 wasn’t simply the increased prevalence of handguns. Landrieu said that was part of it. Then he talked about personal responsibility. “If you knocked me off the chair last week, that’s on you, but if you come back and I’m still on the floor this week, that’s on me.”

“It is my fault if I knocked you off the chair,” Coates said.

“I didn’t say it wasn’t,” said the mayor.

“No, it’s never not my fault that I knocked you off the chair.”

Landrieu started to talk about “black-on-black crime,” then retreated, saying he might be using the wrong words. Coates said the term didn’t offend him: “I think it’s actually inaccurate.” The plain fact, he said, was that when black people killed one another, the victims were their neighbors. They didn’t kill their neighbors because they were black. Inner-city violence, he said, had everything to do with the legacy of structural neglect in the inner city and nothing at all to do with culture. Even from the cheap seats, it was clear that Landrieu was struggling, that there was some turn in the politics of race that he had not fully comprehended, some way in which the old Clintonite phrasings were failing. In their place was a more radical language, of structuralism and supremacy. Now that language has a place in Aspen.

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