This American Moment For Black Men
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Over the past week or so, we've heard any number of opinions about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It's not over yet. The professor and the police officer meet the president at the White House on Thursday. Many believe the incident began as an example of racial profiling. Many others are just as firmly convinced that it wasn't racial until Professor Gates made it so.
Today, we want to step back from the incident itself to discuss a larger question: What is it like to be a black American male today? Is the daily experience of life different after the election of an African-American president? And is that different depending on your age, your economic class or your accent? Today, we talk about this black male moment. We want to hear from our African-American male listeners today. Tell us your story. What's changed? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We begin with Ta-Nehisi Coates, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and author of "The Beautiful Struggle." Nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. TA-NEHISI COATES (Contributing Editor, The Atlantic; Author): Oh, thanks for having me, Neal.
CONAN: And would you say that what defines your life as a black man, has that changed appreciably in the last five, 10 years?
Mr. COATES: In the last five or 10 years - probably so. But, you know, whenever I get this question, it's very difficult to separate yourself, the individual, from the broader mass. I definitely think the way we talk about race in this country has changed. I actually tie some of that to 9/11, because I think it really kind of backburned(ph) race for a while. So I think the whole conversation has changed quite a bit. But I can't tell how much has changed for me personally, because my son was born in the last 10 years, because I'm a little older, because I'm not quite so poor as I was as a young man.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COATES: It's very difficult to disentangle that from race.
CONAN: And it's interesting, you mentioned 9/11 putting, you know, talk about race on the backburner for a while. Was it that, or was there an element of everybody pulling together for a while, too?
Mr. COATES: Yeah. I think that pretty much was it. And I think across the country, people were just so horrified by 9/11. And beyond that, the subsequent debates that came out of 9/11, the Iraq war, the economy - when we think about the issues for the last 10 years, it hasn't been what it was in the 10 years before that. For instance, crime, affirmative action, those sorts of things, they haven't been as high on the list in terms of what we're seeing as national issues.
CONAN: And again, the election of the first African-American president was not based on issues, as you say, about racial justice, but about the economy and about the Iraq war.
Mr. COATES: Yeah, there is that. And I think that actually helped make him possible. Obama didn't have to come out and have some huge - he had a position, but it wasn't that big of a deal, on affirmative action. The crime bills had already been passed. Welfare reform had already been done. So these sort of hot-buttoned issues that, if not specifically related to race, certainly race-related - race was a part of, excuse me - were not so high up on the agenda. And so most of what he was talking about - the economy, the war, the environment - these are the sort of issues where race has, at best, a kind a tangential relationship.
CONAN: Peripheral. Yet, does any of that make you feel any different if you're walking through a department store?
Mr. COATES: You know what? That's an interesting case, because I was looking at somebody who brought up that example. I don't usually get followed in department stores, I have to say. I mean, I know that's something that black people say all the time, about how they get followed. I did get followed when I was a very young man. But I think - you know, people are individuals. And so while race is a part of that - also, me being a young male in west Baltimore was also certainly part of that. I think there's this assumption that African-Americans are constantly thinking about race, that we sort of wake up in the morning debating affirmative action and go to bed debating reparations, right?
But the only time we actually debate is when we're on shows like these, quite honestly. And that's not to diminish it. Don't get me wrong. I'm not diminishing those issues. I'm certainly not diminishing TALK OF THE NATION. But, you know, during the day when I'm walking down the street, I'm obsessed with the same minutiae that anybody else is.
CONAN: I wonder, do you think this is different - this is a generational question. You think of somebody the age of Professor Gates, who's 58, 59 years old, and somebody who really came of age in the civil rights movement - is that different for somebody of his age and somebody of your age?
Mr. COATES: I would imagine that it may well be. Again, I had the benefit of - you know, I'm one of the few, I think, African-Americans - and this is about age, and it's also about where I was raised, the sort of community I came in. I've never been called the N-word by a white person. I actually have not experienced much really direct, harsh racism. And I think that's actually true for a lot of African-Americans in my generation, because there's this curious thing when you grow up in an environment that's basically segregated, where there aren't that many - where everybody's black. Race actually kind of recedes as an issue, as crazy as that sounds. But the very fact that you're not in contact on a daily basis with people who are different than you sort of makes race go to the backburner.
I think that actually plays into the extent that Henry Louis Gates had a response to his arrest. I think the fact that he lives in the sort of neighborhood where he's going to look a lot different than the rest of his neighbors, that he works at a place where his colleagues are going to look a lot different in general than he's going to look - I think people who are in that sort of situation actually have to confront things that a gentleman like myself - who, you know, lives in Harlem, is walking down the street, everybody pretty much looks the same - is not going to have to confront.
CONAN: We're talking with Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic and author of "The Beautiful Struggle." We're talking with African-American listeners today. What's it like these days? Give us a call: 800-989 - tell us your story. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's begin with Leon, Leon with us from Athens, Ohio.
LEON (Caller): Hi, Neal. I really believe that this moment speaks something to me in terms of, at 56 years old, that I relish the moment because now with the advent of an African-American president, I no longer have to couch things and call things issues that concern me. People are more willing to talk about them in the open. Having said that, there's more pressure in terms of how to deal with it.
For instance, with Henry Louis Gates, what that says to many - I believe - to many African-American people, and males especially - is that no matter what level of achievement you arrive at, there is still this tension because of the color of your arrival. Not the fact that you arrived, but the package in which you arrived. And I think that the whole problem with Mr. Gates, simply reacted to his history as much as the situation itself. And I think the officer probably may have been victimized in the same way.
But I can especially relate with Professor Gates. I live in a college town, and I'm - I don't - I'm not sure that that same sort to thing would have happened in Athens, Ohio, but I'm not sure it would not have happened. I think I can (unintelligible) says that even though you make a level of achievement, that does not guarantee equality, or that race isn't going to override the issue of your life.
CONAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, you, too, are…
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: …a man of achievements, too. Yet you could look at you, and your accent would identify your working-class background.
Mr. COATES: Yeah. And it should be said, not of the achievements that the illustrious Professor Gates…
CONAN: I wouldn't hesitate to put you in the same class.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COATES: What's interesting in what the gentleman said is that I've heard that response quite a bit, and I have to be honest. I can't for the life of me figure out - you know, I just have to be honest. I'm not sure where race actually fits into this. There are two ways that I look at this. The first way is what immediately scares me is the idea that you could be arrested for essentially - if we go by the police report - being rude to somebody, to a cop in your kitchen.
But the second part is something that I heard Eugene Robinson, a columnist at the Washington Post, say. And he said look, could you imagine if that was Larry Summers? Could you imagine it happening that way? And I actually could not. I actually could not.
Now, I haven't figured out what that means. I haven't figured out - you know, I can't know whether he was targeted because he was black. I can't know whether this was an instance of racial profiling or not. But I think what happens is African-Americans, given our history, always have this vague suspicion in the back of our heads - you know, rightly or wrongly - that we're being watched, that someone's looking at us, that people are suspicious of us.
LEON: Neal, I would question whether or not it's - if it's simply a vague suspicion or a reaction to what has gone on a normal basis, gone on on a normal basis. Let's say, for instance, you reverse the entire situation. It's a black officer dealing with a white professor of notoriety. We forget this. Dr. Gates is not just someone around - we're talking about one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in the country and one of the most well-known - he's a national figure.
He's not just a professor that teaches a subject that maybe may not be as well known, but yet is good at what he does. He is good at what he does. He's well-known, well-read, well-spoken, well-exposed. So it is not a question of just the fact that it's - oh, I'm checking someone at this level. It's a question of who it is. It says a lot to African-Americans who know the reputation of Dr. Gates.
CONAN: Yet Sergeant Crowley - for all I know, he's a subscriber to WGBH TV and a dedicated follower of public television. But it's also possible he never heard of Henry Louis Gates.
LEON: But had this been, let's say, Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics, would he have responded the same way?
CONAN: Well, we don't know. We can't know that, I don't think. I don't think we can.
Mr. COATES: Yeah, I would agree. I would agree.
CONAN: Leon, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.
LEON: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Ta-Nehisi Coates. We also hope to talk with Roger Wilkins, from another generation of African men, about what is it like -African-American men, what is it like to be a black man in America today? Yes, the election of Barack Obama, but yes, the incident in Cambridge, too. 800-989-8255. Tell us your stories. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After the controversial arrest of a black professor and the election of the first black president, what is it like to be a black American male today? Is the daily experience of life different depending on your age, your economic class, your accent?
We're talking about it, this black male moment, this hour, and we want to hear from the African-American men in the audience. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, too. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Ta-Nehisi Coates, contributing editor at The Atlantic and author of "The Beautiful Struggle." And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Michael, Michael with us from Milwaukee.
MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, thank you for having me on the show. And I would just like to temper my emotions and make sure that my point is taken across clear. But as you highlight this dichotomy of Gates and President Obama, I think it's all one big joke. First of all, Professor Gates should have been smart enough to know that he should have went to his neighbors that hey, I'm coming home. I've been gone for a week. And even when you look at his shot coming off the porch, he's laughing and he's smiling because he knows he has a lawyer that he can call, and it wasn't really a big deal.
And so the whole I want to say about Obama is that you referred to him, Larry, as being an African-American, the first African-American president. But every time I have heart him hit a race question, he doesn't refer to himself as an African-American in a traditional sense of a descendent of a slave.
And so I think what's really happening here is that white people need to take a step back and that there's a class warfare amongst the blacks. If you went to school, if you don't have a very confrontational personality where you can deal with some of the majority culture's jokes, then you can get a job and you can do well here in America.
But if you care about all blacks, those disenfranchised blacks who rich black folks call country, if you care about them, then you realize that there is a big problem, maybe the biggest problem we have in America in terms of race relations because the blacks who made it are basically trying to sever themselves away from the blacks who didn't make it, either because they chose not to join a majority culture or because they don't have the ability to join a majority culture. And I think the conversation about separate but equal, as outlandish as that may sound, needs to be reintroduced on a national level. And I'll sit back and listen to the response.
CONAN: Ta-Nehisi, I wonder what you think.
Mr. COATES: There was quite a bit there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COATES: You know, I'm suspicious of the idea of a class war among African-Americans any more than there's a class war among anyone else. When I think about black people, the first thing, you know, I think about is, for good or ill, we are Americans. And we take on the behaviors of the broader country.
One thing I will highlight is when you look at African-American leadership, you look at a group like the NAACP, for instance, there are a lot of middle-class black people. And I say, you know, I'm not the guy who usually sits around and stands up for middle-class or upper-middle-class black people. There are a lot of middle-class and upper-middle-class black people who spend their time doing work and volunteering in poor, African-American communities. Barack Obama himself started off as a community organizer. So I'm always leery when we want to write off whole groups of people. I'm deeply suspicious of that.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I mean, first of all, I would like to say an allegory, because I don't want to attack this gentleman. I don't know him personally. But, you know, it's like - if it's a 16-man pile-up, the person at the top of the pile-up can say well, let's take our time and let's get up and let's do this orderly. But the people at the bottom are frustrated and they're kicking and they're screaming. So, you know, everybody knows or I would give common sense to everybody that I'm not saying that every middle-class black person is trying to separate from their black identity. But when you start talking about systems and patterns, that's definitely what's happening.
And then I'll take you back to when Barack Obama gave his speech. CNN did something called "Black in America," and they had this woman professor who was showing pictures going all the way back to 1900s and was talking about how she feels invisible because she's an affluent black and when she deals with the majority culture, everybody think about poverty and disenfranchisement.
And I was thinking to myself, as an American - and I'm as American as they come - with all the white boys losing their jobs in Michigan, is it time for affluent blacks to be talking about how they have money and then how they need to be identified? And that's why I say it's a joke.
Nobody is really talking about the solutions, and the solution is that if President Bush can identify Kosovo as being an autonomous government, we need to look at reservations, or we need to look at the separate-but-equal thing because black men like me, there's not enough time in the day to explain the frustrations that's we're going through.
I went to Marquette, but I've also been incarcerated. I'm at work right now, but I drive by men all day long who have nothing to do because they never understood and never had a chance what it really means to be an American. And what it means to be an American is don't make no excuse unless you have to, put your head down and work.
But President Obama said the other day, he said that the time for the black man to have excuses is over with, and then I want to say tell that to the ninth of 12 kids of a woman who has no man, who has no high school diploma, that he don't have any excuses. There are still excuses out here because people aren't given an equal opportunity to not only succeed, just to make it.
CONAN: Michael, toward the back, I really started to hear you there. Thank you very much for that.
MICHAEL: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's go on now to - this is Nana(ph), and I'm hoping I'm pronouncing that correctly, in Worchester, Massachusetts.
NANA (Caller): Yes, you did. Thank you very much for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure, go ahead.
NANA: I have been listening to the debate that has been going on, and I discuss this with friends of mine who I work with. Incidentally, I'm the only African-American working among white folk, and I love them so much because I haven't discovered any trace of racism towards me.
If they do it behind me, I cannot tell. But right in my face, they love and we work together. And that makes me very uncomfortable when racism is being branded all of the place. I think, you know, when you are an African-American and you are in the country, you are at risk. And I'll be coming to the police issue. I have never been stopped by the police for, you know, (unintelligible). The only time I have been stopped by the police is when I was speeding. So I hear this about how we look to be - we seem to be an endangered species when we come across the police. I think it must rest on us for us also to be able to - let me put it - behave decently so that, you know, you don't put yourself at risk.
CONAN: Nana, excuse me, but I detect from your accent that you're originally from Africa.
NANA: Yes, I am originally from Africa.
CONAN: And do you think it's different for you and people like you and African-Americans who grew up here?
NANA: I think - I have friends who grew up here who are African-Americans, and I think we are a little different, those of us who come from - originally from Africa. It's because we tend to respect the law more. I might be wrong, but most people that I know I came from Africa with, they tend to be very law-abiding - in their response to authority, I mean.
CONAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, I wonder if you detect that.
NANA: I'm sorry?
CONAN: I was asking our guest.
Mr. COATES: You know, I would say two things. First thing, since I've been in journalism, I've always worked around whites for the most part, too, and I've never experienced any direct racism, either. So I don't know that that's exclusive to, you know, African immigrants.
Secondly, you know, I would say - and I'm always leery of this question about African-Americans versus African immigrants because I think the most important part of that is immigrant, and immigrant is a self-selective population from a group of people. And I would simply suggest that, to the extent that Africans are immigrants into this country, they probably share a lot of the traits that other immigrants do.
African-Americans are not immigrants. They're going to have a completely different experience. There are going to be some things in common, but there are going to be some things that are not. So, you know, I'm not necessarily surprised by that. I think if I took a tally of African-Americans - you know, at least in my social circle - who could cite some really blatant, direct, racist thing that happened to them at their job, I don't think many of us actually can. And I'm not sure if that's actually even the complaint.
You know, it's not that you go to work and, you know, you sort of get the stink-eye or whatever, or people calling you N-word all the time. I'm not sure that that's actually what it is. I think that the bigger question is: To what extent does our past and, you know, rather lengthy history about…
CONAN: Well, some might say that Nana and other people from Africa don't bring the same sense of that - well, that sense of history, that long-standing grievance.
Mr. COATES: Yeah, again, I have to, you know, interject this. I think being an immigrant is a huge part of that. I mean, you're talking about a group of people who come to this country directly because of opportunity. They don't, you know, come here thinking that their life is going to be worse. So, it's a totally different mindset.
I don't know how different, you know, the interpretation of race and blackness and how that plays into it. But I think if you're from a group, race aside, that comes to this country specifically for the reason because you perceive that it should be a place that has more opportunity, your interactions with the country are going to be different.
CONAN: And, Nana(ph), thank you very much for the call. We appreciate it.
NANA: You're welcome, sir.
Let's bring in another voice into the conversation. Roger Wilkins joins us now. He's Clarence J. Robinson professor of history and American culture at George Mason University, the author of "Jefferson's Pillow - that's The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism." He's been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Always good to have you on the program.
Professor ROGER WILKINS (Author, "Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism"): It's my pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: And I'm just wondering - we're talking about what has changed for African-American men. You bring a lifetime - a longer lifetime than either myself or Ta-Nehisi Coates, certainly, to this question, what's changed?
Prof. WILKINS: Pride. The whole purpose of segregation as far as I could see - well, there were two purposes - one for the whites who ran the economy to get the most work and value from black workers who were shut aside and white workers who were taken care of. But - and the second thing was that segregation was an assault on your spirit.
As a child, I remember in Kansas City, Missouri, being bussed a long way from my own neighborhood passed nice schools for white kids to a pretty torn-up school for the black kids. And the white kids would pretend they were monkeys as our bus would go by. So this was an enormous assault on us.
And the next thing was we watched our parents. These are the strongest adults that we knew. But when they got together, they would talk often about the weight on their souls that segregation placed, and also the limits on their aspirations.
My parents were both college graduates, both graduates of the University of Minnesota. They were both very smart people. And if they knew that each of them - my mother in her social work box and my father in her - his black press box, and they were determined that their kid would grow up with something better. And they were planning to move out of segregation of the South - into the segregation of Harlem.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WILKINS: But it's - it never goes away. And the fact that the president is a black man is very, very helpful for the psyche of kids and to the psyche of lots of other people.
But to hope that the schisms that have been made in this society would disappear because of a nice-looking black man, smart as heck, became president… My own family has had interactions with white working men on - when we've been moving or they've been doing work at our home and you can see the anger across the class divide, because we are the people who are the upper middle-class and it's our house, and they are the workman and they have to work to our satisfaction. And lots of them really don't like that.
CONAN: We're talking about this African-American male moment with Roger Wilkins and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. This is Merritt(ph). Merritt calling from Little Rock.
MERRITT (Caller): Hey, how are you doing today?
CONAN: Very well. Thank you.
MERRITT: I was listening to some of your callers and it seems like most of the callers are from the North or the Midwest. I am a gentleman from the South and I feel that this incident with Barack Obama and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the same old thing that we've been hearing throughout the past 10 or 15 years.
I realize that not all African-American nor Caucasian-Americans are racists and that we are, a lot of times, generalized. However, we must still deal with some of the vestiges of racism that still resides in our country today.
CONAN: So, it is still overt where you live, Merritt?
MERRITT: Oh, it's - yeah. Very much so. Hot Springs, not too long ago, where the president - former President Clinton was from, had a young man that was hung as we've also know about the Jena and the hanging tree. These themes do not bring us together as a country. They divide us.
And Barack Obama with his mixed ancestry is someone that should bring us all together. He gave a great speech while he was on the campaign trail.
MERRITT: And now, I think it's time after - a little bit after this housing situation and market and stuff clear up, we need to get back to this idea of all coming together as Americans no matter if we're African or caucasian.
CONAN: And we were talking earlier about differences and how this manifests self in terms of age and class and other things, Roger Wilkins. But obviously, region, I guess, we overlook that, too.
Prof. WILKINS: Region is important. It is still different in the South than it is with North. In the North, it's quite insidious. But - and there's also racial profiling.
The interesting thing about Gates episode, if you take Gates' version of it, it is a working class white guy and he's dealing with a black guy who obviously, if this is his house…
Prof. WILKINS: …in quite good shape, financially, and in terms of stature in the community. And I think that rub went both ways, as far as I can see it. But there are other ways. The best is that black males get stopped driving cars um - to a very great degree. But it's the young ones with baseball caps on who really get it.
And a few years ago I went to renew my license and they said, you can't, son. We can't give you a license. You got too many points. And I went back and I realized that in my commute to the university when I usually have a baseball cap on…
CONAN: You get pulled over.
Prof. WILKINS: Yeah. So, I stopped wearing caps and now they see white hair and I just don't - I don't change but they don't stop me.
CONAN: Merritt, thanks very much for the call. Stay with us. We're going to continue this conversation after a short break.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Today we're talking with Ta-Nehisi Coates, contributing editor at the Atlantic and author of "The Beautiful Struggle," and with Roger Wilkins, the Clarence J. Robinson professor of history and American culture at George Mason University.
We want to hear from our African-American male listeners today. Tell us your story. What is it about this American moment? Are things different? What is different about your life on a day-to-day basis? 800-989-8255, email: email@example.com. Jimmy is calling from Boston.
JIMMY (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi, Jimmy.
JIMMY: Yes. I have something to say. I'm 15 years old and I think that - and also an African-American male - and the thing that I think is that - what I recognize as far as what happens with me is my actions are influenced by this racial profiling and racism sometimes.
CONAN: Give me an example, if you would.
JIMMY: I'll give you an example. A few months ago, after Obama was elected and everything, me and my family, we were on a road trip and we stopped at a rest stop.
And me and my brothers get out, my younger brothers. We got out of the car, went into the rest stop. And we haven't been there for five minutes and just looking around at the things.
And the assistant manager comes up to us and he starts interrogating and like harassing us and telling us that we were stealing stuff out of the store, told us to go out of the store, told us that he was going to call the police on us if we didn't leave, and told us we couldn't come back to the store.
And at first I didn't know what to think of it. And so after we went out to the car, then my mom - my mom, she's a very good woman. She was very concerned, rightly and rightly so, that her sons were stealing things out of the store.
And so she started questioning the man and asked - she asked them if she could get the police involved on it, to investigate this more further. And he started getting upset. And then he said - and first, he told us that he had us on video camera putting things in newspapers, getting ready to take them out of the store. And then it turned that he didn't and everything like that.
And what I think is that, that in of itself is not just racial profiling because it's one just - it's one thing just to say that all black people are this way or white people are this way, Asian people are this way, Spanish people are this way. But that - that's taking it to a different level. That's almost racism when you're willing to make up stories on people.
CONAN: I hear Roger Wilkins saying almost racism?
Prof. WILKINS: It is racism. It's not almost. And that is racial profiling. There's just no doubt about it. The idea is you see young African-American males, teenagers - trouble. And trouble comes in many forms. They - well, either they're going to steal stuff or…
Prof. WILKINS: …they're going to make a fuss or - but I think, probably, it is harder to be a male African-American teenager than just about any other kind of American because the conventional wisdom about them is so pervasive and so negative.
CONAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, you have a young son. I wonder what you're teaching him.
Mr. COATES: Not to make yo mama jokes to the police…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COATES: …if he's stopped. That's lesson number one. No, you know, this is a very interesting thing I, you know, I often discuss with my sons. And that is, you know, we had certain lessons that we were handed when we were coming up. And there was a way, you know, that you raise black boys - you got to do that, you got to do that.
What I worry about now, is actually limiting him by giving him rule sets that were true in the '80s and in the early '90s when I was a child that may not be true in terms of his world now in terms of race.
So I came up in a particular time when there was a particular amount of tension. And I'm not saying that that tension is erased today, but his friends - you know, I would say his friends set is certainly much more diverse than mine was, you know, at age eight.
And so, I often worry about passing on my own insecurities to him and limiting him. I'll give you an example. We were in Colorado a few weeks ago. And we were driving through this town, and it was a beautiful, beautiful town and, you know, as a whole family. And we were joking about maybe one day we would move out there. And Tamari(ph) was talking about it - he's my son. He was talking about how much he liked the town. And I jokingly said to him, son, you'd be the only black person out here. And he said, I wouldn't care.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COATES: And I said, that's right. You know, you shouldn't care. You shouldn't care at all. I would care, but you should not care. And I wouldn't want you to care. So…
CONAN: You're a good father. You're a very good father.
Mr. COATES: Yeah. I try.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COATES: I try. I'm trying. I'm trying. I'm in process all the time.
CONAN: He has a good father, too.
Mr. COATES: How do you not pass on your own insecurities, your own stuff? I mean, some of it is wisdom, some of it is, you know, anger and anxiety that we built up. So I worry about that.
CONAN: Jimmy, we wish you the best of luck. Thanks very much for the call.
JIMMY: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Bye-bye.
Prof. WILKINS: Neal, there is something that he brought up - I don't know if it was said before I got here. But when I was in the Justice Department, on three different occasions, I was stopped by policemen who had their guns pointed at me, once here in Washington, D.C., once in a riot in Detroit and once in a riot in Los Angeles.
CONAN: This is back in the '60, in the Johnson administration.
Prof. WILKINS: Back in the '60s. There is one thing that I know and will take to my grave. When you are a black male in America, and there is a white guy whom you don't know, seems like a working class white guy, whether he's a policeman or something, who has a gun, you don't look under that rock. You don't disturb him. You don't make him angry because - and you surely don't talk about his momma because…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WILKINS: …you don't want that man to use that gun.
CONAN: I have to say I grew up as a child of privilege in a leafy suburb. We moved into New York City when I was a teenager and I learned very quickly that the police are different in New York City, even if you live on the Upper East Side.
Mr. COATES: Right.
CONAN: And the fact is, I learned as a professional that the - one of the great lessons in life is to avoid teenagers with automatic weapons.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WILKINS: Indeed.
CONAN: And I think this is universal. I mean, this is…
Prof. WILKINS: Yeah.
CONAN: …this - it may be much more poignant for an African-American. But this - this is wisdom.
Prof. WILKINS: Well, it's - I figured, I said, how - I know Gates very well. I said, how could Skip do that when this guy has got a gun and he hasn't? And I read farther and realized that he had just gotten off an - a long…
CONAN: An airplane from China.
Prof. WILKINS: Yeah.
Prof. WILKINS: And that - as anybody knows, that makes you plenty grumpy.
CONAN: Even if you're off an airplane from Washington.
Prof. WILKINS: Right.
CONAN: Let's get to Bobby on the line. Bobby is with us from South Bend.
BOBBY (Caller): Hi. I'm 50 years old. And I have friends that are of mixed variety, just about everything in the - here in the United States. And I have found that in the older groups that I'm with, there is a hardcore racism that's not going to be erased by any means other than dying out and not passing it on to their children.
But the younger people, I don't know if they're as racist or not. I know that they hide it well. And I don't know - they haven't shown me any differential between the races. But the older guys, they have a very, very, very hard time dealing with the fact that black people do have rights. So…
Prof. WILKINS: What do you see in these white people that leads you that conclusion?
BOBBY: When I walk up in - because I'm (unintelligible) in the work setting that I'm in. I can walk up and I can hear them before they can see me. And some of the conversations, aren't nice toward any minority group here in the United States. And then they see you and they smile. And one will slap your hand and call you brother.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BOBBY: And that's just, you know, and getting with this Skip Gates thing, I found that from the time I was a teenager and started driving, until now when I'm 50, like I said, that when you're stopped by a cop, the first thing he does is suppress your freedom of speech because he tells you to shut up. And if you don't shut up, he will look at his partner and say, oh, we got a smart N-word here, and on go the cuffs. And that's happened to me several times. And my brother keeps telling me, why don't you just up? I told you just…
(Soundbite of laughter)
BOBBY: I said, because I have a God-given right of speech. And - I don't know who is going to solve it or how it's going to end if people keep passing along - just like the guy there that say he don't want to pass along his insecurities to his children. I'm more worried about passing - them passing along their prejudices to their children and the children after that. I want this to go away.
Prof. WILKINS: Well, I agree with you to a certain extent. You really hope that the attitudes of white people, particularly white workers, blue-collar workers, that those attitudes change. But even more important, it seems to me is that we teach our children A, to behave themselves in public, and B, when the problem arises, they don't do things to antagonize the guy with a gun.
Prof. WILKINS: You don't - there's no braggadocio in this world that is worth making an armed person - who doesn't like you in the first place - making them mad.
BOBBY: No. It has nothing to do with disrespect or anything else like that. It's just that when that - when they were approaching me and told me to do whatever they wanted me to do, I did it. And then I wanted to ask him, well, why are you pulling me over. First thing goes out of their mouth is shut up. And that's…
Mr. COATES: Neal, at times…
CONAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, go ahead.
Mr. COATES: I just wanted to interject one small point. You know, I think this is premised on something, and I made a joke in reference to it. It should be noted that Henry Louis Gates himself disputes that he made that momma joke and contends that he was not as aggressive as maybe he was depicted.
CONAN: Or even tumultuous.
Mr. COATES: Tumultuous, excuse me…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COATES: …as he was depicted in the police report. And so I think there is something to be said for not accepting everything that was in that report as necessarily as fact.
CONAN: Okay. Bobby, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
BOBBY: Thank you, and you have a great show.
CONAN: Thank you. We're talking with Ta-Nehisi Coates, I just heard from, the contributing editor at the Atlantic, author of "The Beautiful Struggle," with us from his home in New York. And also, with Roger Wilkins, we mentioned, former assistant attorney general back in the Johnson administration, now, the Clarence J. Robinson professor of history and American culture at George Mason University.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Chris(ph). Chris with us from Columbus.
CHRIS (Caller): Hi, there. Great show. Thanks for doing it.
CONAN: Thank you.
CHRIS: Let me start off by saying I'm 30 years old. My family is from New York City by way of western Pennsylvania. I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood with very dark skin, so I'm kind of agnostic about the whole issue of race, personally. But I've noticed since - I told your screener it was since 2000, 2001, but I think it was since - actually, the - I hate to bring up this thing, but the O.J. verdict. That it seemed that a lot of my white friends feel victimized by the fact that they have to be nice to black people.
I don't know a prettier way to say that. That the legacy of their parents and grandparents' racism weighs heavily on them in so far that when a black person cries racism - rightfully or, you know, just making stuff up - that they feel that that black person is automatically racist for complaining about racism. That's pretty much the story of my - the story of the last, probably 10, 15 years from me.
CONAN: Since O.J. - I think this is probably the biggest racial Rorschach, probably since then, or to some degree, on a different level, to Michael Jackson, I think, too.
Mr. WILKIN: Well, I - clearly, the O.J. thing…
Mr. WILKIN: …lasted and, I think, left its scars, because it was such a horrible crime, and he had been this lovely figure, you know, a great football player, a kind of a folksy sideline commentator and…
CONAN: Star of all those TV commercials, and those movies.
Mr. WILKIN: Right. And then all of a sudden there is this hideous thing that occurs and he says he didn't do it when obviously he did. And it was the murder of a white woman by a black man. It's…
CONAN: Also her friend - we shouldn't forget him, too, Ron Goldman, yeah.
Mr. WILKIN: Right. And it gets to a very deep place in American society, in our culture.
CHRIS: Not the fact - I mean, the facts of the case, I'm sure, are pertinent to a lot of people. I honestly don't care. I mean, there's people that die every day. The point is that I think for a majority of white people in America, the O.J. verdict was the first time they felt discriminated on on account of their race.
CONAN: I want to bring Ta-Nehisi Coates in on this - I'm sorry to cut you off, Chris, but we're running out of time.
Mr. COATES: Yeah. You know, I think it's interesting because this comes up on my blog all the time about to what extent should history and the past weigh on white people. You know, the caller still refer to it as my, you know, my great grandfather wasn't a slave owner; or I, you know, I'm of Italian lineage, I came here after slavery was over - you know, I think the thing that needs to be emphasized here is that we as Americans - you stand on the shoulders of your ancestors - and I say that in the broadest way possible, and you also carry the burdens of their mistakes.
There's really no way to escape that. You can't have a cookout on the Fourth of July and scarf down your hotdogs and then complain that you're under the weight of history. It's one or the other. We take the good and we take the bad too.
CONAN: Well, I think that's as good a point as any to leave it. Chris, thank you very much for the call. And Chris was with us from Columbus. Ta-Nehisi Coates, joining us from his home in Harlem in New York. Nice of you to be with us, as always.
Mr. COATES: Thank you.
CONAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates is the contributing editor at the Atlantic, author of "The Beautiful Struggle." And Roger Wilkins joined us here in Studio 3-A. He's the former assistant attorney general and the Clarence J. Robinson professor of history and American culture at George Mason University.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.