Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks Oct. 4 at the New Yorker Festival  in New York City.

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks Oct. 4 at the New Yorker Festival in New York City.

Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in West Baltimore during the crack epidemic of the 1980s. As a young man, Coates faced the constant risk of violence on a daily basis. He later enrolled at Howard University, where he began to pursue a passion for history and writing. Coates, now a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, argues in his latest piece that mass incarceration of African-Americans exacts a devastating financial and psychological cost on black families. Diane talks with recent MacArthur fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates on mass incarceration, his memoir and America’s long struggle with issues of race.


  • Ta-Nehisi Coates National correspondent, The Atlantic; author of "Between the World and Me"

Read A Featured Excerpt

From the Book BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Copyright © 2015 by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved.

The Black Family In The Age Of Mass Incarceration

The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration

American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that's left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they've failed to reckon with history.

More Author Interviews

Diane and Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates On WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show


  • 10:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Last summer, journalist and author, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece in The Atlantic magazine arguing for reparations for African-Americans. The story touched off a national debate. At times, he's been an outspoken critic of President Obama and a meeting at the White House lead him to write a memoir released just last summer. It's in the form of a letter to his teenage son, all about his own struggle with racism in American society.

  • 10:07:30

    MS. DIANE REHMHis latest Atlantic magazine piece is titled "The Black Family In The Age Of Incarceration." Ta-Nehisi Coates joins me in the studio. As always, you are a welcome part of the conversation. Join us at 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And Ta-Nehisi Coates, welcome. Congratulations to you on your award as a MacArthur Fellow.

  • 10:08:07

    MR. TA-NEHISI COATESThank you so much for having me, Diane.

  • 10:08:10

    REHMTa-Nehisi, can you tell me what that award means to you?

  • 10:08:16

    COATESWell, hey, I, you know, first of all, I'm obviously tremendously, tremendously honored by the award. I feel, more than anything, it charges me. It makes me responsible to go out and do something great, to do the big as my deceased friend, David Carr (sp?) , used to say, to do the big. That's what I feel it means.

  • 10:08:38

    REHMWhat does doing the big mean, do you think? I mean, here and now.

  • 10:08:44

    COATESWell, I mean, I can tell you what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean taking the award and buying a really nice car. It doesn't mean taking the award and adding a fancy addition to the home. It means, you know, looking at, you know, my role as a writer and trying to push to the edges of my imagination and doing projects that exist all the way out there, you know, projects that maybe I thought I did not have the time for, projects that I was afraid of because those are ultimately the projects you really should be doing in the first place.

  • 10:09:16

    REHMGive me an example of a project you might have been afraid of and now this...

  • 10:09:22

    COATESOh, you're very good.

  • 10:09:23

    REHM...this gives you freedom.

  • 10:09:26

    COATESI don't think I can say. I don’t think I can say. I'm so sorry and I feel bad about that. I don't think I can say and the reason why I can't say is because I'm afraid. And I'm afraid by even voicing the project that, you know...

  • 10:09:40

    REHMI understand.

  • 10:09:40

    COATES...you know, I'm just afraid, you know.

  • 10:09:42

    REHMWill you continue to write for The Atlantic magazine?

  • 10:09:46

    COATESFor as long as they will have me. For as long as...

  • 10:09:48

    REHMOh, that's wonderful.

  • 10:09:48

    COATES...my editor, Scott Stossel, James Bennet, Bob Cohn, I will be there as long as they're there.

  • 10:09:53

    REHMDavid Bradley.

  • 10:09:55

    COATESDavid Bradley, yes.

  • 10:09:56

    REHMIt's just a wonderful, wonderful magazine.

  • 10:09:59

    COATESYes, yes.

  • 10:09:59

    REHMWell, whatever big means in the future, I know you'll do it well.

  • 10:10:06

    COATESThank you.

  • 10:10:07

    REHMTa-Nehisi, on Tuesday, the justice department announced it would release 6,000 inmates from federal prisons. What's your reaction to that?

  • 10:10:23

    COATESWell, I think it's a good first step. I think it's a step that, you know, should be saluted and applauded. It's just a first step and it's a very, very small one. When we talk about -- and, excuse me, I talk about this in the piece quite a bit. When we talk about criminal justice reform in this country and our problem of mass incarceration, we tend to focus on a very sympathetic population that being nonviolent drug offenders.

  • 10:10:49

    COATESAnd, you know, obviously, I have no problem with that. I think that for every, you know, individual who'll be released under this, it's an excellent, excellent, you know, thing. I don't want that to get lost at all. But in order to decarcerate in this country, in order to get back to a level where we were before we launched this crusade in the 1970s, we have to release roughly -- or we have to reduce our prison population by roughly 80 percent.

  • 10:11:14

    COATESWe can't get that 80 percent done by just focusing on folks who are automatically sympathetic. The vast majority of people in this country who are imprisoned are, in fact, in the state system. 54 percent of those people have done some sort of crime that we would deem as violent. We have to ask ourselves -- we have to be prepared to ask ourselves tough, tough questions. It's not just a 16-year-old boy who was caught on the corner with a dime bag of marijuana.

  • 10:11:40

    COATESThese are people who've actually done things and we have to have discussions about, you know, how we punish those things.

  • 10:11:46

    REHMWhen you say how we punish those things, if someone has committed a violent crime, doesn't it make sense to put that person behind bars?

  • 10:12:01

    COATESPerhaps or perhaps not. You know, it really, really depend on the crime and I think the way to understand this is that we did not always prosecute violent crime the way we do right now. This is a recent innovation that we began in the early 1970s. For instance, you know, I talk about a gentleman by the name of Odell Newton in Baltimore, Maryland, who, as a 16-year-old, committed a very, very horrible crime.

  • 10:12:25

    COATESHe murdered and robbed a taxicab driver. He was given life with the possibility of parole and that's very, very important. With the possibility of parole. Now, we can talk about the morality of even sentencing juveniles to life, but that was what his sentence was, it was life with the possibility of parole.

  • 10:12:38


  • 10:12:39

    COATES16-years-old. That was his sentence. At the time that Odell was sentenced, it was fairly common that if you served about 20 years, if you kept a decent prison record, if you did what you were supposed to behind bars, you had a shot at parole. But you can see that that slowly, slowly changed from the '70s into the '80s, into the '90s and to this modern era now. It changed for some really real reasons. Part of that is the fact that crime went up, you know, which gave people a certain attitude.

  • 10:13:07

    COATESBut crime has been going down now for some, you know, 15 years. Actually, for about 20 years or so now. Incarceration rate has been shooting up nevertheless. I say all that to say that there was a time, you know, when we punished differently, when we punished people like Odell Newton differently. Odell Newton has been approved by the parole board in Maryland on three separate occasions and yet, not governor, Democrat or Republican, will sign off to allow him to come home.

  • 10:13:33

    COATESOdell Newton is now 58 years old. He's had employers who he's worked with on work release programs who said they would hire him as soon as he got out and, you know, we still have him behind bars. And so sometimes it's appropriate, you know, but I think, like, if we judge ourselves by an international standard and, you know, our rate of incarceration being way beyond anything that you see in anywhere in the world, clearly we're somehow out of whack somewhere.

  • 10:14:02

    REHMOut of whack perhaps going back to the Moynihan Report?

  • 10:14:09

    COATESWell, I think so. One of the other threads that I use in here is a Daniel Patrick Moynihan, his career and his report. And the reason why I did that is because I was very, very interested in how good intentions sometimes go wrong. And so Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for those listeners who do not know, was a senator, a U.S. ambassador for a while and just a scholar, an academic, intellectual, just a man possessed with a constantly moving mind. That's the best way I can put it.

  • 10:14:41

    REHMCame from a very difficult background.

  • 10:14:43

    COATESCame from a very, very difficult background indeed. He identified in the African-American community what he thought was wrong was the absence of the presence of fathers. That, in fact, mirrored his own background where he did not have a father in his life and so I think some of that was read through and so he did this report that was supposed to be private. It was supposed to be this government report about what was wrong with African-Americans.

  • 10:15:03

    COATESHe thought the policy should be run through the family. Now, you know, one can debate that back and forth, you know, but clearly, he was good intentioned and yet, there were things in that report, particularly its perspective on African-American women. There were things that Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote later when he became an aide to President Nixon that give a particular depiction of black people. For me, in tackling this article, the question that I had to answer for myself is how was it that we managed to do this?

  • 10:15:32

    COATESLike, okay, so crime happens and that's clearly true, but crime happened internationally. Crime rose internationally. Why did the United States of America make a particular decision? And it became clear to me that you could not understand that, given the population of our jails and our prisons, without understanding how African-Americans have been historically portrayed by people who, you know, were out and out racists and people who were quite sympathetic. And regrettably, you see that, you know, you see that in the career and in the writings of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

  • 10:16:00

    COATESI did that to show how bone deep it is. Even people who are on your side, you can sometimes see that being made manifest.

  • 10:16:07

    REHMAre you, in effect, saying that prisons have become the new form of slavery going all the way back to our beginnings?

  • 10:16:20

    COATESWhat I would say is that prisons are actually our social service agency. You know, again, going back to Senator Moynihan, the argument he was making in the 1960s was for a vast -- even though it's not in the report, you know, certainly in his mind, he had this idea there should be a vast array of social services deployed to the African-American community for the focus of strengthening African-American families.

  • 10:16:44

    COATESWe made another choice. We made a choice to address the problems in the African-American community through prison. And I just, you know, just to clarify this for you, if you looked at, you know, the state and federal prisons in this country, you would find that some, you know, rather obscene number of people who are in prison actually having some sort of mental health issue, somewhere around the 50, 60 percent. You would find that some obscene number of people who are in prison having some sort of substance abuse issue.

  • 10:17:10

    COATESYou would find that, you know, one of the things that we do in prisons, we put them in locations where industries have been shut down. You know, and that those locations tend to be far away from where the prisoners actually come from. And you can understand that as a sort of a jobs program, you know, effectively, you know. And so what I found was that we were actually using prison to deal with deep-seated social issues in the society. We did not always imprison this way. This was a new policy that we decided at a specific point in time and that we've maintained even as crime had declined.

  • 10:17:45

    REHMTa-Nehisi Coates, the newest article in The Atlantic is titled "The Black Family In The Age Of Mass Incarceration." His new book is titled, "Between The World and Me." Short break. Your calls, your comments throughout the hour. Stay with us.

  • 10:20:02

    REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined me, Ta-Nehisi Coates is my guest. He's a national correspondent and editor and blogger for The Atlantic Magazine. By the way, his most recent article, "The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration" in the October issue, is on our website. Go to drshow.org and you will find it. He's also written a brand new book. It's titled, "Between the World and Me." He has just become a winner of the MacArthur Fellowship and his book is a National Book Award nonfiction finalist. You wrote the book for and to your son. Would you be good enough to read for us?

  • 10:21:06

    COATESSure. "I write you in your 15th year. I am writing you because this is the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes. Because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in this same uniform pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone's grandmother, on the side of the road.

  • 10:21:39

    COATES"And you know now, if you did not know before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is a result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.

  • 10:22:15

    COATESAnd destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations. All of this is common to black people and all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all of our phrasing -- race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy -- serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

  • 10:23:08

    COATES"You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land with great violence upon the body."

  • 10:23:22

    REHMTa-Nehisi Coates reading from his new book titled, "Between the World and Me." The destruction of the body is a theme that goes through the book. Ta-Nehisi, talk about why that has come to feel so threatening to you.

  • 10:23:48

    COATESWell, I think one of the things I wanted to do with this book is I wanted to de-anesthetize, if that's a word, the conversation and the terms that we use. It is easy for us just to think about, say, a phrase like affirmative action and think about it in a very, very abstract way -- who should get into college, who should not, who should be allowed in a certain college, who should not, what criteria we should think about. But what's less, I think, clear, what doesn't occur to people is, for African-American parents who are looking for opportunities to take, you know, to put their kids in certain colleges, you know, they're looking for an opportunity for their kids to live in different neighborhoods, to living a better life.

  • 10:24:32

    COATESAnd a strong part of that is the -- is to live somewhere where they can physically secure their own bodies. That's the strong, you know, that's a big threat for African Americans and the notion of moving up. And that gets lost in an anesthetized phrase like affirmative action. And this is true of virtually any other, you know, phrase that you, you know, might use in the discussion around race. At the end of the day, it really, for African Americans, is a physical, physical ideal. It's about finding some way to safeguard your body in a country where the right to safeguard your body has never been particularly secure.

  • 10:25:08

    REHMThere's a second piece there in regard to what you experienced growing up in Baltimore and the question of safety of the body.

  • 10:25:27

    COATES"And I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age, the only people I knew were black and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I did not always recognize it as such. It was always right in front of me. The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length, full-collared leathers, which was their armor against the world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty or Cold Spring and Park Heights or outside Mondawimin Mall with their hands dipped in Russell sweats.

  • 10:26:13

    COATESI think back on those boys now and all I see is fear. And all I see is them guarding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered around their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away. The fear lived on in their practiced bop and their slouching denim, their big T-shirts, the calculated angle of their baseball caps, a catalog of behaviors and garments enlisted to inspire the belief that these boys were in firm possession of everything they desired.

  • 10:26:46

    COATESI saw it in their customs of war. I was no older than five, sitting out on the front steps of my home on Woodbrook Avenue watching two shirtless boys circle each other close and buck shoulders. From then on, I knew that there was a ritual to a street fight, bylaws and codes that in their very need, attested to all the vulnerability of the black teenage body. I heard the fear in the first music I even knew, the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grant boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrison and Liberty, up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies.

  • 10:27:30

    COATESI saw it in the girls, in their loud laughter, in their gilded bamboo earrings that announced their names thrice over. And I saw it in their brutal language and hard gaze, how they would cut you with their eyes, destroy you with their words for the sin of playing too much. 'Keep my name out of your mouth,' they would say. I would watch them after school, how they squared off like boxers, vaselined up, earrings off, Reeboks on, and leaped at each other.

  • 10:27:59

    COATESI felt the fear in the visits to my nana's home in Philadelphia. You never knew her. I barely knew her. But what I remember is her hard manner, her rough voice. And I knew that my father's father was dead and that my Uncle Oscar was dead, and that my Uncle David was dead, and that each of these instances was unnatural. And I saw it in my own father who loves you, who counsels you, who slipped me money to take care of you. My father was so very afraid. I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger. My father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is what was exactly happening all around us. Everyone had lost a child, somehow, to the streets, to jail, to drugs, to guns.

  • 10:28:52

    COATESIt was said that these lost girls were sweet as honey and would not hurt a fly. It was said that these lost boys had just received a GED and had begun to turn their lives around. And now they were gone and their legacy was a great fear."

  • 10:29:07

    REHMTa-Nehisi Coates reading from "Between the World and Me." You were afraid but somehow you escaped. How?

  • 10:29:22

    COATESI had two tremendous parents who were above and beyond, just, I mean just above and beyond. I mean, they had a deep, deep commitment to children and had, you know, just an incredible commitment to me. That's more than the traditional sense of making sure you do your homework. My parents believed in reading and believed in writing very much. And they didn't just believe in it in the classroom. I grew up in a household where there were books everywhere -- I mean books in the living room, books in the kitchen, books in the bathroom, you know, books in, you know, bedrooms. And so there was something else for me in the house.

  • 10:30:03

    COATESAnd it was also something else, a tool by which, you know, through those books -- because the books were very much for the most part about African Americans and about people of African descent -- they were tools for me to understand why my world looked the way it did. And that -- I think that just allowed a lot, you know? My parents always encouraged, you know, my creativity in terms of writing. And that helped a lot, you know, because I had outlets. My parents very, very much believed in being an entrepreneurial learner, that, you know, learning and education did not end in a classroom, that you had a responsibility to research and understand things for yourself. And that had a lot.

  • 10:30:40

    COATESI was very, very well armed by my household. It's very, very unusual.

  • 10:30:44

    REHMAt the same time, did you ever feel yourself perhaps about to be attacked in Baltimore?

  • 10:30:54

    COATESAll the time. All the time.

  • 10:30:55

    REHMAll the time.

  • 10:30:56

    COATESAll the time. All the time.

  • 10:30:57


  • 10:30:58

    COATESWell mostly by kids I grew up around. I mean, I tell this story, you know, all the time. But when I, you know, went to school, you know, I, you know, in the morning, had all of these decisions to face. You know? I had, you know, decisions about what clothes I was going to wear, how I was going to wear my backpack, who I was going to walk with, how many of us there was going to be, which way we were going to take. When I got to school, I had to think about who I was going to sit with at lunch or whether I was even going to go to lunch, was I going to go to the library and read? After school, was I going to stay a little later, you know, or, you know, was I going to cut across the park? Was I going to catch the bus up to my grandmother's house?

  • 10:31:37

    COATESAnd in each of those decisions, was an attempt to secure my body, was an attempt to protect myself. Safety was at the root of all of those decisions. And I tell people all the time, like, when I went to school, I would say the uppermost concern for me was safety. It was not, you know, what was going on in the classroom. It was safety.

  • 10:31:54

    REHMWas there ever a time when a gang member asked you to join?

  • 10:32:02

    COATESNo. Because, you know, I grew up -- the bottom where I grew up in did not have a big gang culture at that time. You know, you had blocks, you had neighbors, you had crews, which you knew where there were certain lines you did not cross. You know? You just -- you didn't go on the other side of Liberty Heights. You know, you didn't go up to Park Heights. You didn't go out to Cherry Hill unless you knew somebody out there. You know? And if you were, for instance, you know, as a young man, you know, dating a young lady, you know, who lived in the neighborhood, when you went to see her you brought like five other people with you.

  • 10:32:31

    COATESYou know, and in a worst case -- I never did this -- but in a worst case, you know, you might, you know, bring some sort of weapon with you. These people are thinking about, you know, the safety of their body. It's just -- it's uppermost in their heads.

  • 10:32:41

    REHMAnd you're saying that that goes way far back.

  • 10:32:47

    COATESYes. Yes. Yes, it does. I mean, there simply is no point in American history where you can talk about African Americans feeling the kind of physical security that other Americans in this country feel. Now there are all sorts of ways you can cut that. You know, like I think women of, you know, various ethnicities or, you know, any ethnicity, you know, or any race, would look at me and say, Well, I could, you know, make this same sort of argument. You know, and I think that's true.

  • 10:33:13

    COATESBut, you know, African Americans as a segregated community, as a community that, you know, live around each other, that -- what happens is that fear just compounds and everybody feels it. And it's ancient in terms of time but there's also the geographic presence of everyone you know being that way.

  • 10:33:30

    REHMYou're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Has it improved at all?

  • 10:33:41

    COATESYes. Yes, I think so. I mean, you know, if you look at the numbers, Baltimore City, you know, even in the midst of what people are talking about, now is certainly not as violent as it was in the 1980s. New York City is certainly not as violent as it was in the 1980s, Chicago. You know, even as we, you know, have this talk about crime. So, yes, it's less violent. Has it improved anywhere enough for that fear to dissipate? No. No, no. When I go out and talk about this book, people know exactly what I'm talking about. When I talk to high school kids or middle school kids in Baltimore, where I was just on Monday, they know exactly what I'm talking about. So that's still very much present.

  • 10:34:20

    REHMYou actually took your wife and child and lived for a year in Paris to escape all of that and to try to begin to feel a different society and what it would feel like for you. How did that feel?

  • 10:34:44

    COATESWell, I wish it was -- it had been that grand. Actually, so we're living over there right now for a year. But I know what you're talking about, we went over there for eight weeks during the summer. And, you know, to be honest with you, you know, my ambitions were not that big. What I wanted and what I've always wanted is for my son to have more exposure to the world than I had. That was pretty much it. My wife had fallen in love with Paris and had dragged me along. And I had, you know, consequently fell in love with France myself.

  • 10:35:10

    REHMYou learned to speak French or are learning.

  • 10:35:12

    COATESI'm learning. I'm learning. So far I'm not, no. I mean, I'm in the process right now.

  • 10:35:18


  • 10:35:19

    COATESIt's a long process. I mean, I would expect it's probably going to take me about -- maybe -- actually, I think it's a life-long commitment for me.

  • 10:35:24


  • 10:35:25

    COATESThat's what I think.

  • 10:35:25


  • 10:35:26

    COATESSo, and yet there are things that are revealed. I mean, one of the things that became apparent to me immediately with my son going to school over there, you know, just this year, is when he goes to catch the subway to school, the kind of physical fear that I felt as a child, I have to tell you, is not there. It's not, not there because France does not have issues around racism. It's not, not there because France is heaven. It's not, not there because France is Utopia. It's not there because the United States is very unique in terms of how it deals with guns. And the level of gun violence in this country is, you know, when compared to the rest of the world, is just way, way, way off the charts. It's not -- it's just not even comparable.

  • 10:36:06

    COATESAnd so when my son gets on the -- I just never worry about him getting shot. Now I worry about all sorts of other things but I don't -- and that was such a big fear and is a big fear, you know, among African Americans in this country. The absence of that is huge, I have to say.

  • 10:36:23

    REHMIf you could wave a wand, what would you do about guns here in this country?

  • 10:36:30

    COATESI am unqualified to answer that question. I just don't know enough, you know? I've written, you know, pretty, you know, massive articles on housing policy, which I can talk a lot about. You know, I've written about incarceration, which I can talk a lot about. I've written about fear, you know, I researched that. I can talk a lot about that. I have not done the research on guns that would allow me to give a really qualified and informed and scholarly answer to that.

  • 10:36:53

    REHMWhat else is it about Paris that makes you feel comfortable?

  • 10:37:01

    COATESThe bread.

  • 10:37:03

    REHMThe bread?

  • 10:37:04

    COATESThe bread. No, it really is the bread.

  • 10:37:07

    REHMWhat a wonderful answer.

  • 10:37:09

    COATESIt really is the bread. I mean, you know, I feel bad saying that. But a huge part of it is the food. I mean, and, you know, maybe it's, you know, Ta-Nehisi's gone to the Atlantic and gotten all snobby and everything. I'll take that. That's fine. You know, you can say that about me. But I have to say that the way -- I don't have to think about food there the same way that I have to think about it here. And that's just important to me. I'm sorry.

  • 10:37:31

    REHMTa-Nehisi Coates, he's the author of an article in this month's Atlantic, titled, "The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration." Stay with us.

  • 10:40:02

    REHMAnd welcome back to a conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his new book, truly a letter to his son. The book is titled, "Between the World and Me." The book is a National Book Award non-fiction finalist. You write in the piece in The Atlantic that, and I'm quoting here, if generational peril is the pit in which all black people are born, incarceration is the trap door closing overhead. Explain that.

  • 10:40:53

    COATESWell, one of the cool things about being a journalist is you come in with your ideas of what you want to write. And then, you get knocked on your butt. So, I came into this story, and I had a narrative that a lot of people have, and that is that the way to understand some of the things that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was talking about, and that is the lack of presence of males, or should I say African American men in the family life, was that a lot of these people were, in fact, imprisoned.

  • 10:41:24

    COATESAnd through the course of my reporting and researching, I had a lot of interactions with sociologists and one of the things that I got back was the fact that no, that's actually not what's happening. In fact, what's happening is that there are all sorts of things in the society that are making men less marriageable or less eligible as marriageable material. And that incarceration is just the last thing that happens, it's just the final thing, the thing that ultimately knocks you out.

  • 10:41:49

    COATESBut the men who ultimately go to prison, and you know, the vast majority of, I don't want to slight anybody, the vast majority of our prison population, if we talk about African Americans, or any group, it's going to be men. Even, you know, as we see growths in terms of African American women. They've already experienced a number of what Harvard sociologist -- I'm blanking on my friend's name. I'm so sorry.

  • 10:42:12

    REHMBruce Western.

  • 10:42:13

    COATESNot Bruce Western. God, I'm so sorry to do this on live...

  • 10:42:17

    REHMIt's okay.

  • 10:42:18

    COATESAnyway, I'll get his name in a second.

  • 10:42:18

    REHMThat's all right.

  • 10:42:19

    COATESWhat he calls deprivations. And I think like, that's really, really important. So, other things have happened. You've gone to a bad school, for instance, already. You have a history of drug use in your family already. You have employment issues already, in terms of your family. And so you come in and the deck is already stacked against you. In addition to that, you're surrounded by other people -- you live in a neighborhood in which people are suffering from the same deprivations.

  • 10:42:44

    COATESAnd all of that sort of compounds and then prison becomes the final thing that really, ultimately, as I say, it's the trap door closing overhead.

  • 10:42:52

    REHMHere's a question from Tanisha who writes, is there some connection between the civil rights legislation passing in the 60s and crime and incarceration of black communities in the 70s and beyond. I've long felt there was some connection between the two.

  • 10:43:19

    COATESYeah. Yeah, there is. And my friend's name is Robert Sampson. I'm sorry, Robert. If you're out there listening, I really, really apologize for that.

  • 10:43:24

    REHMI'm sure he accepts.

  • 10:43:25

    COATESI'm still a little jetlagged. Yeah, and I think, like, there's been a lot of research, for instance, The New Jim Crow, of course, tries to teach this quite a bit. I think the connection is indirect. It's not as direct -- I think there's one way of looking at this where people say, well, we got civil rights legislation and folks automatically turned and said, okay, well, how can we continue to oppress black people? We'll use the prison system. I don't think it quite happened like that.

  • 10:43:50

    COATESAlthough, I think the line of questioning is exactly right. I think the way -- what you see is that one way of opposing demands for African American, for equality, among African Americans, is pointing to criminality. And that's very, very old and we document it throughout the article. It goes, you know, you can look back, for instance in 1860, folks are looking at population of runaway slaves in Canada. And the argument that they're making in favor of slavery, and against this population of runaway slaves, is that they automatically turned to criminality.

  • 10:44:20

    COATESLynching was effectively crime control, specifically for the crime of rape. But it was, you know, it was, you know, pitched as community's attempt to enact crime control. All the way up through, when we look at our earliest drug laws, in the early 20th century. And folks are talking about when black people take cocaine, they become immune to bullets. And they are possessed by, black men are possessed by an insatiable lust for white women. Again, we see, you know, criminality and the argument for equality linked.

  • 10:44:49

    COATESUp through civil rights legislation, where, you know, you see senators and you see representatives, including, you know, some of our Presidents. Richard Nixon linking the demand for civil rights to criminality. You have the exact quote in this piece from Richard Nixon. He says, you know, the rising crime can be directly traced to the notion that you can obey any law that you choose to, directly targeting civil rights protestors, you know, who are practicing civil disobedience. So, this tradition was already in the bones.

  • 10:45:20

    COATESIt didn't have to -- it didn't require somebody to make a decision in 1968. It was already with us. And so, the tradition of answering the demand, and by the way, we see it today, where people look at the Black Lives Matter movement and say, you know, well, what you really need to be talking about is black on black crime. Or, you're encouraging crime. Or this talk about a Ferguson effect. Any demand for rights is answered with an argument for criminality. So, the fact that the demand for rights in the 60s was ultimately answered with mass incarceration is not surprising at all. It didn't require a smoking gun. It was already there in the DNA.

  • 10:45:53

    REHMAll right. Let's open the phones. We'll go first to West Baltimore, Maryland. And Chris, you're on the air. Go right ahead.

  • 10:46:04

    CHRISGood morning, Diane. And good morning, Ta-Nehisi.

  • 10:46:07


  • 10:46:07

    COATESGood morning.

  • 10:46:08

    CHRISMy question deals with the result of mass incarceration and that being millions of individuals left with felony records, which not only hamper them and their families, but their communities. My question is, do you feel that there should be a national discussion on felony expungement, so that there is a way for people to actually re-enter society without legal discrimination after they've completed their court assigned punishment?

  • 10:46:31

    COATESProbably so. Probably so, but I think this gets complicated. You know, one can say folks, are folks, see, there's a way of looking at this question. Are folks discriminating because of the felony on the record, or are they using the felony record to justify the kind of discrimination that's always happened in this country anyway? I obviously hope it's the former, you know, and I think there should be a conversation to be had. But even, you know, giving somebody, even acquiring a felony record is not just a matter of going out and doing something bad.

  • 10:47:02

    COATESWe decide how we're going to punish. We decide what we're, you know, what we're going to do and how we're going to deal with it. One of the depressing elements in this piece is an argument made by sociologist Devah Pager in her book, "Marked." And what she finds is that even African American males who do not have criminal records are treated like white males who do, effectively. And what that says is that there's a kind of bias already present, that African American who've done absolutely nothing are regarded as criminals already.

  • 10:47:34

    COATESAnd so, you know, while I'm definitely in favor of some sort of, you know, legislation to talk about, you know, what should be available, particularly with juveniles. Particularly with juveniles. I would push the question further and ask, how much of this is just a cover for something else?

  • 10:47:49

    REHMAll right. To, let's see, let's go to Detroit, Michigan. Timothy, you're on the air.

  • 10:48:00

    TIMOTHYThank you. Good morning. Your guest there mentioned, regarding his parents, they went above and beyond. I thought that was just a great definition and I'm all about stopping incarceration before it even becomes a problem. And he had mentioned again, having two parents, and I'm interested in knowing how he feels about the out of wedlock, African Americans, such a high out of wedlock birthrate. And then, the, I also believe that the urban public schools are destroying. They're not teaching kids. They can't read and they continue to pass children on to the next grade level.

  • 10:48:49

    COATESOkay, so I would say a couple of things. Just on the big point of the out of wedlock birthrate, American families in this country, as measured by the idea of marriage, are influx. The out of birthlock, birthrate right now among white families is where it was in the era when Daniel Patrick Moynihan was saying that there was this tangle of pathologies among African Americans. We don't necessarily hear the same sort of cries when we talk about white families that we hear about black families.

  • 10:49:21

    COATESHaving said that, having said that, and also, I would add to that that I was -- even though I had two parents in my home, I was actually born out of wedlock myself. My son was actually born out of wedlock, even though me and his mother have been together now for 17 years. He was born out of wedlock, too. Having said that, I do believe that parenting is labor. And I do believe that as many hands as you can get on deck to make sure that child is safe and that child gets to where he or she needs to be. I think that's really, really important.

  • 10:49:52

    COATESSo, I, you know, I would not want to do this job alone. You know, I know my wife would not want to do this job alone. I know my parents didn't want to do the job alone. So, I think having two parents in the household is a worthy goal and is one that should be endorsed. The question is how do you build a society that encourages that? You know, and I don't know that we've done that.

  • 10:50:13

    REHMTalk about Howard University and what that meant to you.

  • 10:50:20

    COATESHow much time we got? How much? I kicked off the book tour yesterday at Howard University. It was incredible. It was incredible. It was by far the most intelligent, the most learned, the most precise, the sharpest audience, not of students, but of people that I've encountered. I would say, I don't know, certainly since this book came out. But in a very, very very long time. And I think that's because, you know, as I talk about in the book, Howard University is a very, very unique place.

  • 10:50:55

    COATESIt's unique in the sense that it has this long history of distinguished alumni. You know, in terms of, you know, like, where I come from, my profession. Folks like Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton, Mary Baraka, Lane Locke being at Howard University. But on top of that, it pulls from the Diaspora of black people from around the world. And so, you get that. Then, on top of that, it has this, you know, just this distinguished professors who are very, very good at pushing young students to be skeptical of themselves and skeptical of everything else. So, I think it's tremendous.

  • 10:51:26

    REHMSo, question from Nicole on Facebook. Given that the Mecca, Howard University, was positioned second to your son, as the bright spot and hope in your book, "Between the World and Me," what is your opinion on the importance of historically black colleges in today's America?

  • 10:51:52

    COATESThey are deeply, deeply underappreciated resources. A resource of wisdom, a place of, I mean, even for a brief period of time, of safety for African Americans. I have long said that if you do not understand African American history in this country, if you do not understand the history of white supremacy in this country, you actually don't understand the country itself. I have not, you know, been anywhere, you know, where I saw a better understanding of that, than at Howard University. And I think more people should go there and learn some things.

  • 10:52:25

    REHMWhat do you think they can learn from Howard that they can't learn from another racially mixed school?

  • 10:52:36

    COATESWell, what I find, and this is, you know, this is okay, but what I find is when I go out into the world and I have to talk about the book or I have to talk about whatever I'm dealing with, we are, we remain at the level of Intro to Black Studies 101. And there are certain questions that you get when you're doing Intro to Black Studies. And it only allows you to get so far. And so, like, the question I get all the time, and I'll answer it. It's fine. But, you know, how can I be a good white ally for instance? You know? What should we do about white privilege?

  • 10:53:06

    COATESThere's this whole vocabulary that's there. And when you go to an African American, historically black college, where folks have been dealing with these issues all their lives, where they see the issues in the classroom, the conversation is so much more forward and so much more advanced. I think people should just go see, just go watch. You'd be stunned.

  • 10:53:26

    REHMAnd you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. We have a tweet from Alison who says, you talk about books that help you understand your world. What books would you recommend for a white person to read to begin to understand? And also, for her children and we would certainly recommend your own book. And that, of course, is "Between the World and Me." Talk about other books that helped you.

  • 10:54:08

    COATESWell, I could talk about books that helped me, but it's very hard for me to recommend. Because the process, I think, of becoming conscious about the world, the process of understanding your country and where you live, at least for me, was very, very self-directed. It came from within. And I think that's a good thing. You know? So, it's very, very hard for me to like dispense a book list and say, here, you know, read these five books and then you'll understand.

  • 10:54:34

    COATESYou know, obviously, James Baldwin, "The Fire Next Time" is very, very important.

  • 10:54:38

    REHMI'm so glad you brought up his name, because Toni Morrison, whom you did not know at the time, was sent a copy of your book, "Between the World and Me." And what was her response?

  • 10:54:55

    COATESShe said, we have the blurb here, "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly, it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." I don't know if I should be reading this.

  • 10:55:05


  • 10:55:06

    COATES"The language of 'Between the World and Me,' like Coates, his journey is visceral, eloquent and beautifully redemptive and is an examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life, is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading." Thank you. Thank you, Toni Morrison. Thank you very much.

  • 10:55:22

    REHMAnd I happen to know that your response, when you read that, in an email, was "man."

  • 10:55:32

    COATESThat was all I could say. That was really all I could say. I was talking -- my editor sent it to me. That was really, really all I could say. I mean, Toni Morrison is the goddess, you know? You know, I look at that, and I don't know. Again, you know what, it's like everything else. It's like going to Howard University where the spirit of Toni Morrison was very, very much present.

  • 10:55:53


  • 10:55:53

    COATESYou know, was still there when I was, you know, walking, and is still there. It's like, frankly, the MacArthur Fellowship. It just charges you. You know, when people say those sorts of things like, about you, when someone like Toni Morrison says, you know, that sort of thing about you, it charges you to be responsible.

  • 10:56:13

    REHMHave you now met her?

  • 10:56:15

    COATESI have. I have. I have. I have. And I did, I actually, we had a small dinner that was organized. And I saw her before she had actually written this. I knew they had sent the book to her. But we didn't talk about the book. You know, it would be very classless to say, are you going to blurb my book or not? It's totally classless. And it was like the last thing I was interested in. I was much more interested in her time, her relationship with Henry Dumas and her time at Random House as an editor. You know, I was interested in her process.

  • 10:56:38

    COATESAnd so, she was very, very generous with her time. And it was an absolute, absolute honor. I saw her at Howard University 20 years ago, you know, giving our convocation now. Just incredible. Incredible.

  • 10:56:53

    REHMWell, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you are clearly on your way to do something, whatever that is, you are charged and I have the feeling you're going to live up to that whatever it is. Congratulations.

  • 10:57:17

    COATESThank you. Thank you, Diane.

  • 10:57:17

    REHMAnd thank you for being here. His new book is titled, "The Black Family -- sorry, "Between the World and Me." His article in the October Atlantic, "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration" is at our website, drshow.org.

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