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Podcast

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Race, the Law, and Politics

In a wide-ranging conversation, the celebrated writer discusses criminal justice reform, the 2020 election, and more with NYU law professor Melissa Murray.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Melissa Murray
March 11, 2020
TaNehisi Coates
©Kahn:Courtesy of NYU Photo Bureau

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This podcast was recorded on January 31, 2019.

Transcript

INTRO 

Michael Waldman: Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of the bestselling books Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power. 

TA-NEHISI COATES: The work should haunt people. If it doesn’t haunt, I don’t know why I’m doing it.

Michael Waldman: Coates is also a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award, and today is the distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. And as you probably know, he is the current author of Marvel comic books Black Panther and Captain America.

Among the topics about which Coates writes is mass incarceration, which hits hardest disproportionately the African American community. He notes that so many times, social problems — when it comes to the Black community — end up pointing at the criminal justice system.

TA-NEHISI COATES: We see chemical dependency issues, we see employment issues, we see education, and we decide that the endpoint for that should be prison.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I fear that what you are now seeing will become a permanent feature in America, that is too much to disentangle.

Michael Waldman: This is Brennan Center LIVE, a project of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. I’m Michael Waldman.

In January 2019, NYU School of Law Professor and Brennan Center Board Member Melissa Murray sat down with Ta-Nehisi Coates for a discussion about politics, #MeToo, mass incarceration, and how to write to maximize impact.  


Ta-Nehisi Coates and Melissa Murray

Ta-Nehisi Coates: ... I started my career in 1996, so it's been about 23 years now, going on 23 years.

Before I was a journalist, I always loved the sound of words, and I actually thought when I was at Howard in my freshman or sophomore year, that I would go on to get an MFA in poetry.

It immediately became clear to me that I did not have the talent to be a poet. It was, you just don't have it. It's like they talk about concert pianists, and at a certain age, it’s like either you got it or you don't. And poetry doesn't get that respect, but it's actually true of poetry.

But I always had that love of words, and I spent a good part of the early part of my career trying to inject that into my writing. And I think — I don't know — but I think to the extent that people respond to what I write, it is not so much the arguments that I make. Well, that's just one part of it. I think the other part is how it's actually said and how it's written. I think like when people have intense emotional reactions to things that I write, I think part of it is like what I'm saying, but I think a less understood part of it is the way it's actually put. In journalism, writing assumes a kind of backseat, because obviously, the basis is your reporting and your research. That's so important. But as I tell my students, I don't want people to read what I write and say, "Wow, this guy, Ta-Nehisi, is technically correct," and then walk away. You know?

Melissa Murray: When you're a lawyer that's exactly what you want.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, you want that, but what I want more than that is, I want them to like put down the article or the book and then go tell their friends. Then I want them at dinner to be talking about it and go to bed thinking about it and wake up ... The verb I always use, I want the work should haunt people. If it doesn't haunt, I don't know why I'm doing it.

Melissa Murray: So I think it's really interesting, because I do think you write things that haunt. You are a beautiful writer. I usually associate journalism with a kind of economy and parsimony, and not necessarily always with the lyricism I associate with your work. I think I just read something that you wrote where you called President Trump orcish, and I was like, yes. Orcish is exactly the word. This sort of flair for language, is not … maybe it's just like stringers on articles, you don't see that, but I take your view of journalism is that you don't sacrifice the beauty and the lyricism for the economy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, that's because I think beauty is actually economical. I don't think ... People believe that, as you say, lyricism and economy are like opposites. But I think that's actually not true. I think beautiful writing, when it's done well, takes the least amount of words possible and puts the most punch it can in. This, again, goes back to my background coming up as a poet. That's what poets are really trying to do. They're trying to shove as much emotion as possible, as much feeling as possible, into as few words as possible.

Melissa Murray: As an African American, regardless of your class, regardless of your station, the impact of mass incarceration will touch your life. Maybe in an immediate way, maybe more remotely, but you will feel the impact of it in some way. So why don't we talk about it the same way we talk about global warming or climate change, which we see as immediate and urgent problems?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know, anybody that's been to a community meeting knows that Black people don't like crime either. Surprise. Because there's this whole meme out, right, that Black people only protest when the police ... And people who say that have never lived in a Black neighborhood and never seen a Stop the Violence march, which you see all the time in Chicago. But I think we haven't had too many tools, right? We take what the society gives us, and if there's more police that's what we have to choose from. So I think there is some degree of tension over this. I actually think this criminal justice conversation around Kamala Harris is going to test that a lot.

Melissa Murray: How so?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I'll be clear. When I watched those truancy videos, there's a huge problem for me. It would not shock me if, when she goes to South Carolina, it's not a huge problem.

Melissa Murray: She's an interesting candidate. She is from the Bay Area, Oakland. I am from the Bay Area, Oakland. I saw her as the DA in San Francisco, I saw her as the AG in California, and then I saw her as the senator. I think there are real differences in her positions in all three of those spaces. Part of me wonders if to be a law enforcement officer, and the DA is a law enforcement officer, the AG is a law enforcement officer, as a Black woman, a single Black woman, in California, do you have to do things that you might not want to do and have the freedom not to do when you're senator?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: And also in the time in which she was one, which is not right now. Kamala Harris at the time, she had this idea that by prosecuting parents for truancy, or threatening to prosecute parents for truancy, in fairness to her, threatening to prosecute parents for truancy, she would be able to connect them with social services in the area.

That that would give a way to getting to the family. And she's very proud of this. In the videos, she's very, very proud of this. It's not like, I just want to be clear, you know, I don't want to bash, because what she's saying is, "I'm trying to help you." It's not, "Lock them up." That's not the rhetoric she's using. And yet, nevertheless, I have a big problem with that, you know?

Melissa Murray: It's very Obama-esque.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: It's very Obama-esque. It's very, very Obama-esque in the sense that they're embedded presumptions of Black people — I would argue of poor people — in that approach. The notion that I have to help you by pointing a gun at you. I mean, I don't know about that. That sounds like Iraq war to me, where I invade your country in order to liberate you. People who are weak, we tend to use, and this is getting back to your conversation about mass incarceration, we tend to use the stick of the state in order to quote unquote “help them.” But we don't do that with people who are strong.

 So like, when I think about … I was reading this piece the other day, and there was a mother who was locked up for 180 days. 180 days. Man, I mean, jail is not fun. Jail is bad. Jail is where Kalief Browder died. Jail is not a good place. You know, and the notion that because somebody's kid didn't go to school, they should go to jail. I mean that's tough. I don't care if the truancy rate dropped to 10 percent. Just from a moral perspective, that's hard for me to accept.

The thing that's happening with Kamala is that the question of law enforcement is so hot right now after Black Lives Matter. You know what I mean? After that period there, I think there's just going to be a harsher light. I probably could be convinced that that's unfair. I'm not sure it is. I also think that if you are going to exalt in your ties to the African American community, if you're going to have the AKAs come out and support you, if you're going to launch at Howard University, if that's going to be your base, and I'm all for that, if you're going to have offices in Oakland and Baltimore, I'm all for that. I don't know that it's wrong that people hold you to a higher standard in terms of what the effects of your policies have been on Black people. I don't know that that's wrong, you know?

Obviously, I hope all of the candidates get a kind of scrutiny. I want to be real clear here, man, because I went through this with Bernie Sanders before. When I offer this critique or whatever it is, it isn't "don't go vote for." That's not what I'm saying. It's not even like Kamala's a bad person. That's not, you know what I mean? I think this is what this period is for. It's for figuring out, how much valence should we give that compared to, say, her position on healthcare? You know what I mean? Which probably a lot of us feel a lot more positive about.

Because it's easy now to give this critique of Kamala, but when you take it from here, and let's take the other side. Are we saying that there should be no Black prosecutors? Is that what we're actually saying? Or do you urge Black people not to be ... And I don't think that's what we’re saying. I think that's a little too crude.

One of my favorite phrases from Frederick Douglass is, and, again, excuse the gendered nature of this. I think I said this at the MLK thing. “A man is worked on by what he works on, for as he carves out his circumstances, his circumstances carve him out.” You started with this notion of law school not being built for you. While it probably is true, and I'm not just granting this, actually true that you need Black folks who are prosecutors ... I guess I should say, my brother's a prosecutor, by the way. My younger brother's a prosecutor in Prince George's County, Maryland. So I have some familiarity with this argument.

It probably does things to you. It probably gets you to a point where you think that pointing the gun of the state at somebody to administer aid is actually a good thing. And maybe judged against what other prosecutors are doing, it is, if you take it in the context of everything else. But I watched those videos, and I was like, man. This is clearly a conversation that's only happening over here. The job has worked on her in a certain way.

If there are certain presumptions already about Black people, not within the legal system, but within the country, embedded in the country itself, and the state then goes out and has to enforce laws that originate and come out of the roots of that, out of the country itself, how does one prosecute and not somehow be part of that? You know? That's tough. That's really, really, really tough.

At the same time, I don't think the answer is to say, we're not going to be ... this kind of complete withdrawal. I don't think that's a luxury that we have.

Melissa Murray: It's a really important point, I think, that bears repeating, there are various technologies of discipline that get imposed on the weak. As you know, the weak are often the underclass. Mass incarceration is one scourge, the foster care system and the child welfare system is surely another, truancy might be a species of that. There are all of these technologies of discipline. But I would suggest that these technologies are not just about disciplining the weak, but about also casting a shadow that in turn disciplines everyone else, or at least everyone who might be associated with the weak. I think about the child welfare system. I know as an empirical matter that I am unlikely to have my children removed from me. Nevertheless, when I'm screaming at my son in the subway, I'm thinking, is someone watching me, is someone observing this? I'm a Black woman and I'm screaming at my kid. Maybe I should stop screaming at my kid. I think that's the point. I know as an empirical matter that I'm not the person that they're likely to look for, but yet.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Set an example? Is that—

Melissa Murray: I mean, I think it is an example setting or at least a way to discipline. I mean, disciplining can happen in lots of ways. And maybe this is the point of mass incarceration, for Black people at least. You know that maybe it's not you, maybe it's your cousin or your brother or whatever, but the system is meant to discipline all of us.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: By the way, I'm going to have to think on that. That idea that something is being said to the larger society, the message. Because I hadn't actually considered that.

But one of the things, I guess, that really bothers me about that is you can see that discipline model extending across the board. One of the things I talk about in Between the World and Me is the schools.

One of the most shocking experiences I had was when it was time for my son to go to school. And we didn't have a lot of money, but we had, I guess, what we would call a lot of social wealth, in the sense that we knew people and knew places to go. The difference between how his teachers talk to him when there was a problem and the way I was dealt with, which was, you know, very reminiscent of this no excuses model. The notion that for Black people, you have to threaten, you have to cajole in every aspect. It's old, man. It goes back to—

Melissa Murray: Slavery?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: It goes back to slavery, but from a liberal perspective, it actually goes back to immediately after slavery with Reconstruction, and these folks coming south and thinking they have to threaten Black people or explain to Black people why they should get married. When these people are dying to get married. Minus a world of racism, minus a world of racism, I am not convinced that we would look at a mother, because it's going to be mostly mothers when you're talking about truancy laws, that we would look, minus racism, I am not convinced that we would look at a mother and say, the best way to deal with this is through prosecution.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I suspect we might try to find out what was going on there. You know what I mean? Before we threaten prosecution. That doesn't mean that Kamala Harris is looking and saying, "I'm trying to go out and get Black women." That's not how it works. You know, it's systemic. Your options are shrank, reduced. You end up operating in a space which goes back to the point you were making at the beginning about what compromises do you have to be to be a single Black woman who's a prosecutor in the first place? Those are the lines within which you can operate. From my perspective as a writer and a journalist, though, my sympathy is with that woman who was in jail for 180 days.

Melissa Murray: Mass incarceration, it seems, is one of these critical issues for you, at least going into the next election cycle.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: We keep getting off that subject.

Melissa Murray: No, no. We can get off this subject.

We have these new candidates that keep popping up every day. Not all of them are talking about mass incarceration. Should they be? And if they should be, what should the nature of the conversation be?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: They should, but I fear what has happened is that, and I'm here, so I guess I'm going to talk. Everybody says I'm pessimistic. You about to catch it now. I fear that what you are now seeing will become a permanent feature in America, that is too much to disentangle. It's been a few years since I looked at these numbers, but I think I'm about right. If you look at the early 1970s, America is basically where the rest of the industrialized world is in terms of mass incarceration. Y'all can yell out and correct me. I know I'm here with a bunch of folks who know this stuff better than me. Feel free if I say something completely egregious. Then you get to 2015, 2016, you're talking about 700, 750, per 100,000. The last I looked it had gone down a little bit.

But we are so far off from where the rest of the world is. I mean, how do you ... The incredible sociologist, Devah Pager, who just passed and who was so influential in my work. You know, in her book Marked, at one point she says, if you opened the prisons and jails today, you would have enough people to fill every fast food job in America five times over. What are you going to do with these people? You have created a structure that is so large, so sprawling, you have created independent interest, unions, across the board, a private prison industry. How does this get unspooled? I'm not convinced that it will be.

Melissa Murray: You make a point in your writing I think is exactly spot on, that the prison has become, since the Great Society, really the only site of broad and holistic social services in the United States.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: That's right. Which takes us back to Kamala Harris and prosecuting, by the way. Because she's prosecuting to administer social service. It's the same thing.

Melissa Murray: It's a great point. I think, again, not only is the United States off the charts in terms of the number of individuals incarcerated. That number reflects the fact that as a civilized society, we do not have the same level of social services that our comparators, the Scandinavian democracies, all of it. Instead what we have is the family, which provides most of the privatization of dependency. When the family fails, we have this criminal model, and it's not just mass incarceration, [crosstalk 00:35:27].

Ta-Nehisi Coates: To some extent, the church. To some extent, the church.

Melissa Murray: Well, I mean, private forums, like the deprivatization of dependency, the family, the church, but then you have the child welfare system, then you have the education system, and then eventually prison. It's a cradle-to-grave system that creates an underclass for whom social services are offered. And you never actually have to offer the social services in the first place.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: You're exactly right. When you're talking about large numbers of prisoners who have some sort of mental illness, you know what I mean, who have some sort of drug addiction, or chemical addiction. You are now talking about a social service provider, whether you like it or not. It's not the kind we would want. It's a punitive one. When you're talking about, God, I can't remember what the percentage was, but when you start talking about Black folks, or Black males, who have not graduated from high school and you see huge numbers of them, you know bound to do some sort of time in prison, that's the way we've chosen to address that population of people. That's what I'm trying to say.

Melissa Murray: You recently gave an interview where you said, where you were asked a question about the #MeToo movement, and you said that this was sort of this eye opening moment for you, and you imagined that your experience of hearing about the #MeToo movement was a lot like the way your white audiences feel about race when they read your books. Like, "I didn't appreciate the extent of the problem." Say a little bit more about this. What do you think about the #MeToo movement?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Actually, I think, taking it back to journalism, I think the power of journalism is how it can turn ideas into reality and can confront you with the way to make you realize something, that maybe you kind of knew as an idea or as a notion, but did not understand as a reality. I'll take this back. When I published “Case for Reparations” in 2014, I would be places, and white people would come up to me and they would say, "I read that article. I really had no idea about redlining. I had no idea at all."

And they meant it. This was like … Like they were serious. Do you know what I mean? And it was clear to me at that time, in the way that they approached me, that it actually would have been deeply malicious to be like, "How didn't you know?" You know what I mean? It was clear these were good, well-meaning folks who just literally did not know about something that, if you're Black, you just sort of take for granted. Right?

So, #MeToo happens and those stories start appearing. And had you asked me before, say, the first Harvey Weinstein stuff came, do I think sexual harassment, sexual violence is a huge problem in Hollywood, I would've said, “Yeah, yeah.” If you said, "Do you think it's a big problem in the workplace in general?" I'd have said, "Yeah." But that's an abstract "yeah." Do you know what I mean? That's not, "Well, you know, he had his assistant, who's also a woman, invite me to the meeting under the pretext of her being there, and that made me comfortable and then she left the room. And this dude could make me or break me in this chosen career." See now, that's institutional. That's systemic. That's a person with an entire operation.

To the point, once I got done with those articles, I was like, well, the movie making was a side business. This is like a kind of trafficking. This guy was a predator. He was in movies to be a predator. It was like his cover story. To be confronted with that in that way, and then when it started getting to journalism, by which I mean my field, when it became people I knew or knew of. Like Matt Lauer has a rape button in the office? Like, uou can have that? It's a thing someone will install, you can literally sit at a desk and lock?

I was like those white people, I didn't know. I was stumbling around. In fact, I called up a couple of my students, women who I was close to from teaching at MIT, because that was the last place I was, I had to talk to them. Like, "Are you okay? Has anybody ever done this to you? Is this a thing that happens?" And they sort of laughed at me.

I think the power of journalism and the power of storytelling is when you see it in a narrative form, somebody who's going through details of how it happened. And dudes always say, "I have a daughter. I have a mother. I have a sister. I wouldn't … Of course, I care about women." But when it's really good, actually you see yourself. Do you understand? Forget my wife, forget my sisters, when you start seeing yourself in it. You know what I mean? The difference between me and you is I just have more power. That's the difference. When you start seeing it like that ... It has been mind blowing, for me personally. It has changed a lot of things.

This is actually why I think beautiful writing is actually important. When people think beautiful, they think flowers and bows and rainbows and angels, but that's not what you're actually doing. You are taking an abstraction and you are making it as detailed and as clear as you possibly can. And if you're injecting rhythm, as I sometimes do, into your sentence, you're not doing that so the person can nod their head. You're doing it so that the actual rhythm that you inject reflects something about the situation you're in.

So like for me, the first thing I do is make sure that I am being as specific as I possibly can and as detailed as I possibly can, because the whole challenge is, again, to take the Me Too thing, to get the person from an abstract idea, like sexual harassment, which a bunch of goodhearted people can say they're against and think is a problem in America, down to an actual person. Down to that actual room, and to paint that room with as much clarity as you possibly can.

The first thing you've got to do is have done the reporting to be able to do that. You've got to get enough on the record and enough clarity from your end, and then you have to write the hell out of it. By which I do not mean overwrite, but in a kind of efficient, packing as much information as you can into every word. I think that matters. I think you've got to listen to people.

I remember when I was reporting “Case for Reparations” and I interviewed this guy, Clyde Ross, and I was sitting in his living room, and he was 90 at the time, 90, 91. And I said, "Mr. Ross, where are you originally from?" We were on the West Side of Chicago. He said, "I'm from Mississippi." I said, "Where?" He said, "The Delta." I said, "Home of the blues." He said, "Yeah." I said, "Why did you come to Chicago?" This was so early. I'll never forget this in the reporting. He said, "Because there was no law." I said, "What does that mean? Of course there were laws in Mississippi." He said, "There were no Black police, no Black prosecutors, no Black judges. That's no law."

And I was like, wow. Yeah, what he's saying is that he was basically subject to anarchy. He had no protection. Anything could happen to him. There was no law, and he explained — he said, "Then I came to Chicago," and as he explained in the story, "I got ripped off. And I found, there was no law here." I never would have thought of that on my own, but it was such a clear explanation of what was going on, and it went from the abstract of racism down to this very specific thing of no law. That's what you try to do when you write. That's what I hope I'm teaching, to get people down to ... To be able to write on that kind of granular, but not tedious, level. I think it's so important.

There are words and phrases that I just basically ban from the classroom. You can't say white privilege in my class. You can't say patriarchy in my class. Not because I don't think those things exist, but because we're writers, right? We're writers. And writers have to get past that assumed phraseology that people have into the granular and the specific, so that you can get the people to come up to you and say, "I didn't know. I didn't know."

Melissa Murray: Is it different from the conversation about race? It seems like something has shifted in the dynamic, that more and more people are talking about this and clearly no longer finding it tolerable. Do you think this is really changing hearts and minds? Or are we going to have a kind of #MeToo redemption in the same way as you chronicle in We Were Eight Years in Power, we have had a kind of redemption and retrenchment on the question of race?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: So, yes. There will be some sort of, I think, backlash, I guess, is the way to put it. And there will always be people who think this is going too far. It's not doing X, Y, and Z. But I think the world is better for it happening, and I think that's just part of it. That's part of every revolution, there are always counter revolutions. You know?

Melissa Murray: Do you think that the nature of the conversation is the right conversation to have? It's incredibly … it’s been framed around issues of desire. When, as you say, it's really about power, which is not about sexual desire at all, and yet that is not a conversation we're having. Nor are we having a conversation about what happens afterwards. I mean, have we missed an opportunity to have a broader conversation about what systemic change would look like in society?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I take your point. I don't know. This is actually where I tap out.

Melissa Murray: You're a structuralist. You care about structural impediments.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I do. I am.

Melissa Murray: And I think this is a place where we have scratched the surface, but not really …

Ta-Nehisi Coates: What I would suspect is when you have people able to do that much evil across fields, you're talking about something beyond the personal evil or the person doing the act.

Melissa Murray: Beyond the bad actor.             

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah. You’re talking about something structural, you really are.

Prison and jail, again, it's a kind of abstract word. Once again, I think it hits people in the brain the way sexual harassment hit me. A thing that's kind of bad, but I don't ... Again, people die in jail. People are assaulted in jail. You are completely in the power of somebody else when you're in jail, when you're in prison.

The notion that you should be subjected to that … In my opinion, there should be a really high burden for that. There should be a really, really high burden for that. It would have to be some sort of mass ... You know what? It would have to go beyond incarceration, right? Because we would have to figure out why we chose this as a solution in the first place. We would have to figure out why we look at certain populations of people, see mental health issues, and decide that the endpoint for them should be prison. You know what I mean?

We see chemical dependency issues, we see employment issues, we see education, and we decide that the endpoint for that should be prison. The word decide is getting a little too much work there, but if you think about the system as an alive thing, because it's not like some white person saying, "This is what should happen." But we make policy choices all the time, and if the system is angling in that way, even if you could decarcerate, how do we know that there wouldn't be some other punitive form of justice that we would choose after that?

Melissa Murray: So I lured both of my children here tonight with the promise that they would meet the Blank Panther. My daughter thinks Chadwick Boseman is here, and my son thinks he's meeting T'Challa, but I appreciate that they've had a very edifying evening, nonetheless.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I think those of us who are in the world of policy deeply, often, underestimate the power of myth. When the Charlottesville stuff was happening, they were trying to get the statue of Lee taken down, I think it was Chuck Schumer or somebody who was quoted, and it was basically like, "We're not going to focus on these symbolic issues, we're going to focus on policy." But, symbols define what your imagination is. And your imagination, therefore, bounds what possible policy you can have.

It's not a mistake that those statues ... And I'm getting to comic books, I promise you. It's not a mistake that those statues went up during the period of redemption and those early days of Jim Crow. It's intentional, it's intentional. It was a statement on what they thought about the humanity of Black people. If I don't think you're a human, there's only a certain amount of range of policy that I'm going to apply to you.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I would argue that myth is ultimately the source, for instance, of this question that we just finished talking about, about punitive justice that's so often directed towards Black people, about why punishment is often seen as a solution. If you believe somebody's less human, that becomes a lot easier to do. How do we decide who's human? How do we reify those beliefs? Where does the dialogue happen? It happens in the world of narrative. It happens in the world of story. When Woodrow Wilson is screening—

Melissa Murray: “Birth of a Nation”?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Thank you, “Birth of a Nation” at the White House, that has policy implications. That means something. Something is being broadcast to the wider world about the humanity of Black people, and policy takes its cues from there. So it's tremendously, tremendously important. For me, in the world of comic books, and I don't know how heavily you follow this, but right now, there's this huge, huge fight about who's going to write the comics, how diverse the cast of the comics is going to be. This ranges all the way into Star Wars. It gets really nerdy. And you can think it's a bunch of nerds over here, until you realize that this is a multi-billion dollar industry they're talking about. Then you realize how central those notions are.

Like those Marvel movies are defining for people who is going to be human and who is not. So, if you give me the opportunity to offer some of the source material for that, as somebody who's concerned about the humanity of Black people, about the humanity of all people, about the policy that comes out of that, why would I not take that? It's right in line with the mission. This is the root of it. The comics are actually ... I can't believe I'm going to say this. The comics and the creative, ultimately, I actually feel like might actually be more important than the journalism.

Because when I get to journalism, I'm dealing with end results, right? I'm dealing with the decision already having been made that somebody isn't human. But where you're over here, when you're at the level of myth, you're actually fighting the battle of who's ... Because people who are kids today, who's going to be human 20 years from now? Who's going to be human 30, 40, 50 years from now? That's why it's so important. That's why this diversity, why Black Panther was so significant. Just to, sorry, I'm ranting this.

But this is really, really important. I'll never forget when Black Panther came out. That right wing dude, Ben Shapiro, he tweets out, "Wakanda is not real." And then somebody went into his Twitter feed. This dude is going off about Game of Thrones and how awesome Game of Thrones is. That's real, though, right? That's real. Of course everybody knows Wakanda is not real, but the statement—

Melissa Murray: Not everyone here knows that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Not everyone here knows it.

Melissa Murray: Ta-Nehisi.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Everyone of a certain age, shall we say? Everyone of a certain age. But of course it's not real, but this is about myth. What he objects to is you creating that myth. You see? He's objecting, and he's right, given his particular political perspective, he is right to fight the battle at the level of myth. We make the mistake of diminishing that battle, and it's a huge, huge, huge mistake. That, to me, is the core. It will bound what policies are possible. If there's any sort of hope for unwinding mass incarceration, for instance, it begins in the comic books.

Melissa Murray: I have one last question. I’ll be really brief. Do you follow Meghan Markle and the British royal family?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: You know what? I didn't, I didn't. For a long time, I couldn't figure out what the significance was of her being Black, and then that wedding happened, and I was like, oh.

Melissa Murray: Because it was kind of the Blackest wedding ever. It was amazing.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: It was pretty wild. But, everybody around me does, so I guess I have to, I do.

Melissa Murray: I think Meghan Markle totally fits in to your whole view of Black exceptionalism. She is this incredibly educated, very attractive, very well spoken, and really committed woman, and she has so married up. Prince Harry is punching way above his weight, and he knows it. She's punching way above the rest of the family. And she's—

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Really, is that true? I don't know. I'm not objecting. I actually don't know.

Melissa Murray: I mean … Yeah. She could run circles around the rest of them. She's being pilloried.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I do know that.

Melissa Murray: It reminds me so much of President Obama, and the only reason she could be in this position is because she is actually exceptional. She's a unicorn. And so having read all of your work, I mean, I read all of your work for this interview, and I have to say, I usually read your work episodically, but for this, I read it all together, which is a very depressing enterprise.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I'm so sorry. I don't know. I wouldn't do that to myself.

Melissa Murray: But I'm left with the weight of Black exceptionalism is so real. You have to be twice as good to get half as far, as you say. Even then, when you get there, just constantly avoiding being torn down entirely. It makes me wonder, maybe the greatest marker of success for Black people would be to have all of the markers of success while also being utterly mediocre.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, I think that's when you will know things are equal. Again, I think the president is a great example of this. I maintain, if Donald Trump was born Black, he would have been killed. I mean that literally.

Melissa Murray: Or in prison.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: No, this is not mocking. I mean that the way those communities work, because that's the flip side of what we just finished outlining, this punitive approach. They punish you. They punish ignorance. They punish it harshly. It would have just ended badly. So, at the point … I can't imagine somebody like that being a mayor, much less a president. You know what I mean? So at the point, I guess, when Black people can be that ignorant, obtain that much power, that will be the end of racism, I guess.

Melissa Murray: To mediocrity!

Ta-Nehisi Coates: That's when we'll know, that's when we'll know.


Thank you for listening to this episode of Brennan Center LIVE, with distinguished author Ta-Nehisi Coates and NYU School of Law Professor Melissa Murray.  

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