News | Ta-Nehisi Coates talks race and justice

Renowned Atlantic writer inspires McGill crowd with charismatic address

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ talent for writing has carried him to a senior editor position at the Atlantic, and has made him perhaps the most influential public intellectual on race in the U.S. today. Last Friday, at the invitation of the Black Students’ Network, the McGill Debating Union, and other groups, he spoke about race and violence, and read passages from his upcoming book.

The event was billed as a follow-up to the contentious “Discourses of Race: The United States, Canada and Transnational Anti-Blackness” panel in February, where Montreal historian Frank Mackey reportedly made racist remarks. Mackey had replaced Coates, who had to cancel his appearance on short notice.

On Friday, Coates explained that he was “emotionally devastated” after writing an award-winning Atlantic feature arguing for slavery reparations to the black community. He wanted to express this devastation, as well as his horror at the slew of police killings of black people, in literary form.

“When you see these events, it’s just not a surprise to you,” he said, referring to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. “This [book] is my attempt to tell my son why he should not be surprised [by these events], why he can’t afford to be surprised, and why he has to understand the country that he’s living in.”

“You can use these abstract, academic terms: ‘redlining’ and ‘debt peonage,’ [but] don’t ever forget that at the end of the day you’re talking about violence. You’re talking about the destruction of somebody’s body.”

Coates spoke positively about the anti-racist protests sparked by Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and Eric Garner’s death in New York City, but emphasized that, for him, this kind of racial violence is commonplace.

Prompted by host Rachel Zellars, Coates pointed to the hypocrisy of people deploring ‘violent’ protest. He also drew links between violent protest and the violence inherent to racism.

“While I think that non-violence has its own kind of moral arguments in its favour, I find that very often the people who are making those arguments are people who are okay with dropping bombs on Muslim wedding parties,” he said, to applause.

Coates also argued that academic discourse can paint the black liberation movement as non-violent, but that this reflects “a desire to avoid the reality of struggle.” He explained that academic reluctance to clearly tackle the issue obscures violence from the analysis of race.

“When you say something like ‘white privilege,’ it’s abstract,” said Coates. “What you’re really talking about is the right to go upside somebody’s head.”

“You can use these abstract, academic terms: ‘redlining’ and ‘debt peonage,’ [but] don’t ever forget that at the end of the day you’re talking about violence. You’re talking about the destruction of somebody’s body.”

Drawing vocal approval from the crowd, Coates emphasized that “race does not produce racism,” and that white identity cannot exist without power.

Whiteness is a “dream of immortality, a dream of godhood,” he explained. “[It’s] just one tool in the toolbox of plunder.” He compared this with black identity, which he argued exists in itself because it is formed around a common experience of oppression.

Coates said further that one of most troubling aspects of white supremacy in the U.S. is that most people are ignorant of black experiences, and unwilling to learn about them. “These people are lost in a dream,” he said. “These people are not awake, they’re not conscious.”

After answering questions from the audience, Coates received a standing ovation. Helen Ogundeji, a U2 Sociology student, spoke to The Daily after the talk.

“I thought it was really eloquent and thought-provoking, and I’m going back with a lot of thoughts and discussion topics,” she said.

In response to a question about the value of the talk at McGill, Ogundeji told The Daily that “McGill students are a very particular type of people, and I think that a lot of [them] either know this [already], or of course can benefit [from the talk], and will.”

“But I come from a place where I know many people that are, like [Coates] said, asleep – and probably could have used this conversation more than the people I came here with.”