Transcript

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, we close with another Brief But Spectacular, our series of interviews featuring insights from artists, authors, leaders and thinkers, telling us briefly about their passions.

Tonight, producer Steve Goldbloom speaks to Atlantic magazine national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates about the role of police in African-American communities.

TA-NEHISI COATES, The Atlantic: I was born September 30, 1975, in West Baltimore.

I grew up in the 1980s and the early '90s in a very, very violent time. And I love journalism, because, you know, it gives you a license to answer, you know, all the questions that you have, you know, in the back of your mind.

What people perceive you as is an expert, but, in fact, what you are, if you're doing journalism right, is you're an actual student. When you write about the impact of white supremacy in this country, there's a great deal of energy spent on making sure that people who are different than you understand what you're saying.

And I actually think that actually corrupts language, because you end up softening things. You actually end up insulting people's intelligence. I'm really not thinking about how to get the average white reader to see my perspective. I'm trying to communicate as directly and forcefully and honestly as possible.

All of these cases where we're seeing this black lives matter movement come up, there has been a great deal of focus on what's being called police reform. My argument is, in fact, we have a much, much deeper problem, and that is that we are asking the police to do certain things that maybe they shouldn't do.

Take that horrible video you see where Walter Scott is shot in the back by an officer. And one of the reasons why Walter Scott was running is because he had been brought up before on child support cases. But what should we actually be doing about this problem of child support?

Is jail actually the answer? Should we actually be jailing people for this? Freddie Gray is another case that you have a situation where a gentleman is in an area that we designate as high crime. He makes the mistake of making eye contact with a police officer, and then he runs.

The reason why Freddie Gray was arrested was because we had made a decision that we're going to pursue our drug policy in a certain way in that area. Why did we have police there in the first place? Why did we have a situation in which we decided the police will be able to arrest people effectively or stop and search somebody effectively because they look suspicious?

Mental health, mental health is probably the biggest one. We have a situation in which, if you have any sort of mental health issue in this country, and you have an interaction with a police officer, you know, you might well end up dead.

Police officers walk around with guns. Do we want our mental health workers walking around with guns? There are other ways that we can think about doing this, but we have decided not to.

The expectation that, you know, catching things on tape is going to save us is, you know, I would say, deeply flawed. Even sometimes when things are caught on tape, like Eric Garner's killing here in New York, that doesn't necessarily mean that anything is going to happen.

You really can't be an African-American in this country and see, say, the Walter Scott video and be completely amazed. You just don't have the luxury of living that way. You have had interactions with police. You know people who bad things have happened to just for being who they are.

My name is Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is my brief, but spectacular take on the legacy of white supremacy and its continuing function in our society today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can get a first look at our series Brief But Spectacular every Thursday on the PBS NewsHour page on Facebook.