Tah Nahisi Coates Comes to Vanderbilt

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On March 27th renowned writer and civil rights activist Ta-Nehisi Coates came to have a conversation with the Vanderbilt Community about race in America. In addition to being a frequent contributor the The Atlantic magazine, he is the author of several well-regarded books including Between the World and Me-the winner of the 2015 National Book Award. In his remarks, Coates spoke about the current state of racial affairs, covering topics such as the differences he has observed between predominantly white and black schools to prevalent, but misguided views on the Civil War. In his books, Coates writes about his aversion to formal schooling, a surprising stance from an academic. When asked to clarify, Coates shared how when he was in school fear was the overriding emotion. He feared both his teacher’s discipline and his classmates bullying. In a telling anecdote, Coats shared how he has had the privilege of speaking at both predominantly white and black high schools. In black highschools he felt that an unnecessary amount of effort was put toward keeping students in lines and other disciplinary actions. In contrast, the white students thew their bookbags around and generally showed a lack of respect towards their surrounds. Coats observed that the white students were just as academically prepared as their black counterparts, so to what end was all of this stifling discipline serving other than to stifle a love of learning? This contrast between Coate’s experiences with African-American and white academic culture was useful in understanding his worldview

Coats also spoke on his views of how race is a social construct. He points out that the criteria and features which we have used to determine race have changed over time, and this change proves that race is not some preordained truth. He also made the claim that race was a tool used by those in power to allow racism to exist. For as Coates said “there is no race without racism.” By extension, Coates expressed his hope for a post-racial world. By this he did not 

mean for a world where the cultural differences between ethnic and what we currently refer to as racial groups do not exist, but rather vanquish the racism that makes race matter. 

Although Coates is a widely respected figure in the national conversation about race and society, he is not without his critics. He has been criticised, notably by Cornel West, a fellow author who claims Coates is too “neoliberal,” which is this context refers to his hesitancy to criticise President Obama and other alleged proponents of the status quo. In addition, Coates has been accused of using white supremacy, both current and historic, as a blanket cause for many of society’s ills. Writers such as Thomas Chatterton Williams would prefer that Coates take a more nuanced look at  society’s problems and recognize that there is more than one underlying cause. Despite these criticisms, Coates’s voice is vital in the ongoing debate in our country over race and I applaud Vanderbilt for bringing such an important speaker to our school. 

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