2010 In Review: The Year For African Americans

In politics, the firing of Shirley Sherrod, the rise of the Tea Party and a wave of Black Republicans took center stage. Outside the beltway, many African Americans questioned the term "post-racial." Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic, talks about what changed for black people in 2010.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And now we continue our series of conversations with people from diverse backgrounds on what's changed this past year.

Today we turn to Ta-Nehisi Coats, a senior editor for The Atlantic, who joins us from his home in New York. Nice to have you back with us.

Mr. TA-NEHISI COATES (Senior Editor, The Atlantic): Oh, thanks so much, Neal.

CONAN: I wonder if there is a story you think that emblemizes, in some sense, how things have changed from a year ago.

Mr. COATES: I, obviously, would pick the Shirley Sherrod story, which was so big this year. And that was the case where Shirley Sherrod was a government official, I believe, at the USDA. Ended up losing her job because of what looks like a racist speech that she had given to the NAACP. In fact, it was find out to be a speech against racism that she had given to the NAACP. She was offered her job back, neglected to take it back.

And I think what demonstrates is this whole sort of strategy of - a kind of racial inversionism that we've seen and that's a deep-seated belief that mostly white public figures, mostly conservatives are frequently and unjustly accused of racism, while the real racist, presumedly(ph) like Shirley Sherrod, actively running around and unpunished.

CONAN: And by direct indirection, they're talking about the president of the United States.

Mr. COATES: They are talking about the president of the United States, who - Glenn Beck, I believe, earlier this year and - good lord, I may have the wrong year. This may have happened last year, these past two years of running together for me, regrettably - but once accused of having a serious problem with white people. And who, Congressman Peter King, did this year, accuse President Barack Obama about taking the side of black people over white people.

CONAN: For many African-Americans, unemployment and the economy dominated this past year. As mentioned, we saw Shirley Sherrod fired, the rise of the Tea Party, a new wave of black Republicans, a white editor-in-chief at Essence Magazine, most recently, South Carolina's Secession Ball.

We want to hear from African-Americans in the audience. Tell us a story about how your life has changed in 2010. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. I should mention that our guest, Ta-Nehisi Coates, is also the author of "The Beautiful Struggle."

And it is interesting, Ta-Nehisi, as we think about the anniversary that we're going to be marking of the Civil War. And that it began with a, well, likely attended, but nevertheless, pretty symbolic Secession Ball in Charleston, South Carolina.

Mr. COATES: Yeah. It's really symbolic. And I think it was pointed out in Washington Post piece. This was the most interesting aspect of this, for me, despite, you know, all the justified coverage and outrage. The Secession Ball commemorated the signing of the Ordinances of Secession, Declaration of Secession, when South Carolina left the Union, became the first state to do so.

When that ceremony took place 150 years ago, there were thousands of people there. This time, in a auditorium designed to hold thousands, there were only 300. And I think, it missed all the outrage, that has to be noted, because I don't think we want to fall in to the trap of making a mistake of thinking this is all of South Carolina or the majority of South Carolina, anything like that. It's a serious issue that needs to be discussed. But I think that, you know, you're talking about things have changed. I think that's a clear-cut case.

CONAN: And you talked about some complaints, at least from certain conservatives, that Barack Obama puts black people ahead of white people. Nevertheless, by the end of this year, we saw at least some black leaders complaining to the president of the United States that if he does not do something about the sources of black unemployment, he's going to lose the black vote come 2012.

Mr. COATES: Right. And they have very much the right to be concerned. Black people are disproportionately affected. But I think one of the things that's changed is Barack Obama is in an interesting position. Because whereas in the past, leaders have been able to carve off specific issues that directly affected African-Americans. What you're talking about right now is issues that affect the whole country but disproportionately affect African-Americans.

Now, that doesn't mean that those issues aren't serious and that solutions shouldn't be looked at that specifically target populations like black people that are more affected than other populations, but it does point to a sort of subtle change in the kind of problems that you are looking at. Unemployment is not a black problem, even though it disproportionately affects black people.

CONAN: Education is not a black problem either...

Mr. COATES: Right.

CONAN: ...but yet African-Americans continue to show very poor results compared with other ethnic groups. And this is a continual problem.

Mr. COATES: Right. And you're now getting close to my heart. I have a 10-year-old son who's headed off to middle school here in New York City, where we lost our chancellor, Joel Klein, and a new one came in. And I think we're going on almost 10 years of school reform. And I think a lot of folks are just worried, when are we going to see actual results of this achievement gap, this test score gap closing some.

CONAN: I wonder, your child heading off to middle school in a place like New York City, are you considering private school?

Mr. COATES: I'm very much considering private school. I'm a product of the public schools. It would be - I would much rather stick with the public schools myself. I think it's important, you know, living in a city, to remain committed to public schools. And I think, before I had kids, I would have been much more doctrinaire about that. But it's something about having a young life right there of being charged and being responsible that makes you consider all options.

CONAN: That story that Ta-Nehisi Coates just told about, his struggle with a decision about where to send his kid to school, well emblematic of the way life has changed in 2010. We'd like to hear from African-Americans in our audiences with similar experiences. What stories do you have to tell us that explain how things have changed since January 1, 2010: 800-989-8255? Email us: talk@npr.org.

And as we look ahead, the situation that we're going to be seeing -we've talked about the permanent campaign. That's since become a clich�...

Mr. COATES: Right.

CONAN: ...in our politics, but there's no question the presidential election of 2010 - 2012, rather, is already well underway and that it's going to be more contentious than ever. It's interesting, we were talking with several other people from diverse backgrounds earlier this year and they say, you know, gay people always seem to be the brunt of, you know, bad - get badmouthed...

Mr. COATES: Right.

CONAN: ...in election year, or Hispanics and immigrants tend to get badmouthed in an election year. Do black people feel the same way, do you think?

Mr. COATES: See now, this has been the interesting thing. I think before 9/11, that was the case. And, you know, I'm sure somebody would dispute this. And I don't know if there's an objective truth here, but one of the things I actually noticed is you've seen a - I don't know if the African-Americans are the choice group to bash. I'm not sure. Well, certainly haven't been for the past decade.

So I think there could strong argument made for our Arab Americans or Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, whatever their religion may be. There's certainly is a strong case to be made of the gays. I think I was just reading yesterday at the SEA-PAC Convention. Groups are pulling out because they've invited this group, Got Proud(ph) to attend.

So I don't know. I mean, and to be perfectly clear here, I don't, you know, buy the whole post-racial narrative that we're beyond that. I'm not putting it that way. But certainly, things have become much more complicated and I don't know that bashing black people is really an electoral strategy choice anymore, if it ever was.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversion. Sam is on the line, also with us from New York City. Nice to have you with us today.

SAM (Caller): Hello, peace, love and light. Greetings. Just wanted to say, what I realized in 2010 was that with all the bailouts and the hidden secret nighttime bailouts and all that kind of stuff like that, that we have a whole lot of money in America. And nobody is addressing reparation, the taking care of the ills that have been done, that are continuously done by jailing our black men and things like that. We're not creating solutions. And the programs that are at present are now being - the money is being taken away from those programs.

CONAN: Reparations have never been funded at all, so money not being taken away, but certainly not appropriated for that purpose. Sam, as you cite that litany, though, I wonder if you've seen any improvements in the past year?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAM: Well, no. It's a whole lot of - ever since President Obama was elected - nominated, elected, you know, everything like that, racism has just - the people have just come out of the closet and they're pretty much blatant now. It's - for many, we thought it was getting better. And it's just really kind of scary.

CONAN: So even scarier with an African-American elected as president of the United States?

SAM: Yes, sir.

CONAN: All right. Thank you very much for the call, Sam. I wonder, Ta-Nehisi Coates, do you agree?

Mr. COATES: Yeah, well think there's something to that. My colleague, Andrew Sullivan, made the case that Obama in his sort of almost conservativeness and his, you know, unwillingness to use fairy(ph) rhetoric really, as he said, would drain the swamp. That he kind of draws it out of people.

And so, yeah, you get people going on TV, you know, literally charging that a man whose mother is white has, you know, has deep-seated issues with white people, charging that he's preferring black people. I think it's just such a big public target. And we've never had anything like that before. You do see it a lot more publicly, I think, now.

CONAN: Let's see if we go to John, John with us from Detroit.

JOHN (Caller): Yep, here I am. I'm an auto executive in Detroit. And 2010, there are a lot fewer African-American executives and women floating around now after, you know, the purge and the government help.

CONAN: Were they the last hired and therefore the first fired?

JOHN: Not in all cases. You know, some of them around since early '70s. I think part of it is, you know, there are different opportunities elsewhere. Part of it is that the culture is changing so radically that there are just opportunities for people to move on. And in some cases it's just maybe not in the most - how can you say it - maybe not in the most direct line of succession. So you know, why stick around?

CONAN: I wonder, do you feel more isolated in your work now?

JOHN: Oh, absolutely.

CONAN: And what does that - what - how does that manifest itself?

JOHN: Well, you, you know, wonder what's going to happen to you. Are you still truly important, you know? Are you part of the team?

CONAN: All right, John. Thank you very much for the call. We wish you the best of luck.

JOHN: Thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Now, let's see if we go next to - this is Danielle(ph), Danielle with us from Benicia. Is - am I pronouncing that...

DANIELLE (Caller): Benicia.

CONAN: Benicia, go ahead.

DANIELLE: Yes, hi. I just want to say I think that life is better. I'm African-American and I started in Detroit, but now I'm in California. And my life specifically and definitely was raising my children. And as far as the opportunities they have for education, I don't have any complaints about their education. They are well-educated. And it's a public school, we're in a charter school, but it's part home school and it's part, you know, a regular school education. And I never had that kind of opportunity when I was growing up. And I had a good education.

I just think that - and my children are bi-racial. I don't have any complaints. I'm tired - I'm going to tell you the truth, Neal, I'm tired of the naysayers. I'm tired of people slamming Barack Obama. He's doing an excellent job. And I think there are too many fair-weather people, and there are too many people that don't want to work hard. It doesn't matter if you are black, if you are brown or if you are yellow. People, and especially parents, they refuse to take responsibility. So I have no complaints. I'm looking forward to 2011.

CONAN: Have a happy New Year, Danielle.

DANIELLE: You too.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And I wonder, Ta-Nehisi Coates, yeah, times are tough and some bad things have happened, but a lot of people getting ahead.

Mr. COATES: Well, I have two response to that. Let me take the last portion of the comment first. I think, actually, a lot of parents would agree with her. I think a lot of parents - it's funny - a lot of parents always say other parents don't take enough responsibility for their children. I rarely meet the parents who say I'm not taking enough responsibility for my children. So I think people are pretty united in that sense.

I think the first part of her comment is extremely important. I grew up in the 1980s. My parents - my father grew up in the 1950s, my mom more so in the 1960s. My grandmother was born in 1917. I spent time talking to all of them about, you know, their time and how it was when they were growing up and considering my own time growing up. And I have to say, you know, you just have to believe that it's better in 2010 than it was 20 years ago, 30 years before that, 20 years before that. I think it's really seductive and dangerous for us to get into a kind of doomsaying that suggests that nothing has changed over the past 40 or 50 years.

I think the point of about school choices is a really good one. When I was a kid, you went to the school where you lived. You know, there was no talk about charter schools. There was no discussion about other options or anything like that. And I think just having a president - I know this is clich� to say - but having an African-American president I think broadens the imagination and broadens the vistas for what our young kids give themselves. So I think there's something to be said for that.

CONAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, thanks for very much for your time today. Happy New Year.

Mr. COATES: Thank you.

CONAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, senior editor for The Atlantic, author of "The Beautiful Struggle," with us today from his home in New York City. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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