By Rick Peterson
APPLETON, WIS. — The destruction of the black body in the United States is “tradition, it’s heritage,” award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates told a standing-room only crowd at Lawrence University Thursday (11/5) morning.
Coates was in Appleton to deliver the address “Race in America: A Deeper Black” as part of Lawrence’s 2015-16 convocation series.
A national correspondent for The Atlantic who writes about culture, politics and social issues, Coates has established himself as one of the country’s leading voices on issues of race.
Citing the deaths of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Gardner in New York City and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, among others, Coates said there is no shortage of examples of violence against blacks these days.
“We’re in an era now where you turn on your TV or go to your Twitter feed or however you get your news, you can, with some regularity, find some police officer doing something brutal to someone who is black,” said Coates, who grew up in what he called “a violent environment” in west Baltimore. “The actions aren’t new, it’s the cameras that are new.”
Coates said it was imperative police officers in the country be held to a standard different than criminals.
“You’re a police officer. Your standard must be a little higher. When you’re a police officer, you’ve been given the power by the state to kill, to use lethal violence at your discretion,” Coates told the Lawrence Memorial Chapel crowd of more than 1,100 members of the Lawrence and Fox Valley communities. “There has to be a high standard by which you are judged. People who are robbing in the neighborhood and shooting people, they don’t have the same kind of protection. They’re not doing it in the name of the state. When you are in a system, where you pay taxes to protect you and those people kill you, that’s a kind of crime that’s a little different than if you’re walking down the street and some random person shoots you.
“That’s bad, but there are levels of bad. There’s bad that’s done among neighbors and then there’s bad that’s endorsed by the state, bad that’s protected. That’s a different sort of anger.”
Lawrence freshman Jordyn Plieseis of Milwaukee, said Coates’ message of higher police officer standards struck a chord.
“It reminded everyone that while police are equally as human as criminals, the public puts their safety in the police and they need to take that power into consideration when on duty,” said Plieseis, a 2015 graduate of Reagan High School. “Talking about race and police brutality is always a really uncomfortable subject no matter what side of the argument you are on. Coates demonstrated there is no need to be uncomfortable because these are lives that are being taken, not possessions or money.”
Addressing the “why” of the equation, Coates turned historian.
The answer lies in our heritage and in our history,” said Coates, whose recent book, “Between the World and Me,” an open letter to his son about his hopes, dreams and what it means to be black in America, was recently named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Awards’ nonfiction prize.
“There is a presumption made about black people in this country, and that presumption is that they are criminals…they are not worthy of the same sort of respect, the same sort of citizenship everyone else is. This goes back to the earliest days of our country.”
He cited Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. as examples of people who, in their time, were considered criminals.
“The highest justice officials in this country, bugged and harassed Martin Luther King until he died. When J. Edgar Hoover went to get permission to do that, he went to the presidents of this country. He went to John F. Kennedy and he went to Lyndon Johnson and they signed off on the bugging and the harassment,” said Coates, who compared a century of lynchings after the Emancipation Proclamation to “terrorism — the attempt to affect political change through killing innocent people.”
Coates underscored the importance of everyone realizing we all live underneath our own history.
“When you see people shouting ‘Black Lives Matter,’ which seems like the most obvious thing in the world, they’re not just shouting at something that happened on tape. They’re shouting at a long, lengthy history that begins in 1619 and has effectively proceeded unbroken.”
Despite recent research on Coates, Lawrence sophomore Raquel Anderson was surprised by the effect the presentation had on her.
“Ta-Nehisi Coates brought something to the Lawrence campus that I haven’t felt in the two years I’ve been here,” said Anderson, a 2014 graduate of Milwaukee’s Northwest Opportunities Vocational Academy (NOVA) charter school. “When he first graced the stage I could feel his humbleness permeate through the audience. As he began to speak, it was as if all the lessons I was taught in my 19 years were touched upon in just one short convocation.”
Highlighting a question-and-answer session following his remarks, Coates addressed a query about what white, privileged community members can do to change the presumption of black criminals.
“That’s up to white, privileged people ultimately,” replied Coates, drawing applause from the nearly-all-white audience. “You can’t really tell people how not to be racist. You have to want it for yourself. You can’t want it because it hurts my feelings. You have to say, this is bad for me, bad for my country, and then start walking.”
For Lawrence anthropology professor Carla Daughtry, who delivered Coates’ introduction, that answer was the take-home lesson of the entire presentation.
“Read for yourself. Learn for yourself. Search your own heart because to be non-racist you have to want it for yourself and your own sake,” said Daughtry. “It’s good for your own moral health and your own self-worth. That was my favorite message.”
About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College” and Fiske’s Guide to Colleges 2016. Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.