Ta-Nehisi Coates: We accept violence against African-Americans as normal

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: another addition to the NewsHour bookshelf.

Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, just three of the roll call of American cities where deadly violence has been directed against black citizens this year. It's an issue confronted head on by Atlantic magazine columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates in his newest book, "Between the World and Me."

He talked recently with Hari Sreenivasan in our New York studios.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Toni Morrison, someone who knows a little something about literature, says…

TA-NEHISI COATES, Author, "Between the World and Me": Just a little bit.

HARI SREENIVASAN: … this is required reading.

I want to start with one of the quotes in your book. "In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body. It is heritage."

What does that mean?

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's a statement of history.

The African-American presence in this country begins roughly about the time that this country's deep history began, 1619. After that, we had 250 years of enslavement. After that, we had 100 years of Jim Crow. Jim Crow was enforced through violence, through destruction of black bodies, through lynching, through mass murder, through terrorism, up until this very day, where we're in this era right now where we have police forces, you know, who are in our communities.

And we, you know, it seems like every week get a shooting or somebody beaten up or somebody — and as we have with Sandra Bland, somebody who dies under mysterious circumstances, and we accept this as a normal way of doing business. We think that it is OK to have the world's largest prison population. And we think it's OK that one particular ethnic group be over-represented in that population.

Prisons are violent. Incarceration is a violent experience. Bodies are destroyed in prison. There's just no way to get around it, as far as I'm concerned.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You write this as a letter to your 14-year-old son, almost a guide to figure out a way to protect his body.

You had a passage in there where he waited up for kind of the decision on the Michael Brown case, and he went to his room and started crying. But what was interesting is, your response wasn't to go in there and tell him that it was going to be OK. What did you say?

TA-NEHISI COATES: I told him it won't be OK. I told him, this is what it is. This is your country. And you, frankly, better get used to a lot more of this. And you have to figure out how you're going to live. That's your charge.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You're already an Amazon bestseller. That's positive feedback. Were you expecting some of the negative pushback as well?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Not like I have got, because I think, as a writer, I'm in my own head. I was thinking about, like, I just wanted it to work.

So, no, I wasn't prepared. It required me to shift away from the internal process of a writer and to sort of examine some things externally.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Someone we have on the program every week, David Brooks, it was one of the first pieces of critiques that came out. And he said you distort history, that it's unfair to look at America through just the lens of violence, that for every KKK, there is a Harlem school zone, that the American dream is what binds people across race, across caste and class.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, you know, I appreciate David actually reading the book. I appreciate him engaging in the book, engaging with the book, and writing a column about that, and not just sort of ignoring it.

But I obviously pretty strongly disagree with that. The Harlem Children's Zone is a relatively new invention. It's not — it's called the Harlem Children's Zone. There is not a Harlem Children's Zone in every community in America, in every black community in America.

I understand his point. Something like Harlem Children's Zone, there isn't — the Harlem Children's Zone actually represents a fairly unique level of investment in the lives of young black people.

But more than that, let's talk across time. The Ku Klux Klan is the most lethal domestic terrorist organization in American history. That's what they are. They have marked our history for the past 150 years. I believe the Harlem Children's Zone is probably about 10 or 15 years old.

That sort of comparison, I don't think works. His point about, for every Jefferson Davis, there's an Abraham Lincoln, no, Abraham Lincoln is pretty singular. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated for making a stand effectively against white supremacy. There was not another president as progressive as him who made that sort of stand probably for another hundred years, disregarding Ulysses S. Grant, I mean, with that exception.

That's unique. That's very, very, very unique. Jefferson Davis is actually quite normal, regrettably, across American history. So I disagree with that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: At what point does personal responsibility play into this?

TA-NEHISI COATES: I am obviously for personal responsibility. I think there's plenty exhibited by black people across history.

And right now, I think black people are fairly normal. I think we're about as responsible as everybody else. What sets black people apart is not some deficit in personal responsibility. It's the weight on our shoulders. That is what's actually different. We have the weight and burden of history.

How long are we content to have a Sandra Bland and a situation in which her body is detained effectively for failing to signal for a turn and ends up dying? How long are we OK with that? How long are we OK with Freddie Gray basically dying for living in the wrong neighborhood? I don't know. I'm not OK with it. I can't be OK with it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What's the possibility in the future? Let's say you get this, you read the book, you understand it, you become at some level more aware.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right.

The possibility is really, really humility. I don't think America is an especially bad actor. There's no country I expect to go to and find that the people are somehow better. We don't have to be in a world where we look out on our cities, where we look out into West Baltimore and suddenly we see somebody burning down a CVS and we are shocked that that happened, and we act like that that sort of sprang out of nowhere, where we see people on the streets of Ferguson who are totally upset, and it takes a Justice Department report six months later for us to realize that the municipal government of Ferguson was basically plundering those people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why do you think this is happening now, this conversation is gaining this kind of momentum today about race in America today? Unfortunately, it's been on the backs of these tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, right?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I think two things are happening.

One is very similar to what happened during the civil rights movement. There was a technological leap. And so the kind of violence that you saw on Bloody Sunday wasn't particularly remarkable in American history for black people. But suddenly there were news cameras there, the capacity to carry that out all across the world all of a sudden. And everybody could see it blatantly for what it was.

You have a similar revolution with the presence of cameras everywhere. People have the ability to actually see the police officer shoot Walter Scott in the back. I also think having an African-American president, just the mere fact of having the leader of the free world be black has thrown all of this stuff in relief.

The president has repeatedly, time after time, been called upon to respond to this stuff. And there's been some expectation, as an African-American, he will respond in a way that maybe someone else would not, that he would have more insight in a way that someone else wouldn't. And so I think that has ramped up everything.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The book is called "Between the World and Me."

Thanks so much for joining us.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thank you, Hari. Thank you so much.

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