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The Sunday Conversation
Mon November 4, 2013
Racial Profiling A Lifelong Reality For Ta-Nehisi Coates
Originally published on Sun November 3, 2013 10:18 am
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in Baltimore, and it was there, as a teenager, when he first felt like he was being singled out for his race. He and a friend walked into a store, and the employees followed them the entire time as they shopped.
"At that time, I laughed it off," Coates tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "It sort of is the air, as sure as, I don't know, apple pie is good? Black men, and sometimes black women, get followed. And so, I just took it for granted."
When he started driving, he says, he really started noticing that racial profiling was a fact of his life as a young black man. He got stopped repeatedly, even when he hadn't done anything, and says he was treated "like a suspect," whether he got a ticket or not. Either way, "it was never ever a pleasant interaction."
Coates thinks it ties into a bigger reality about being black in America. "There's a social contract that we have with this country where we all pay our taxes, we agree to obey the law," he says. But "when you are black, you do not expect equal treatment under the law."
So when episodes of racial profiling make headlines, as incidents at department stores Barneys and Macy's have recently, Coates says it's not surprising, particularly in New York City.
"We live in a city in which stop-and-frisk is the law. That's the way police have decided to interact with African-American communities," he says. "That sends a message to everybody else. There's no reason why any big retailer should do anything different, if the state's going to do that."
Coates says that as his hair has begun to gray, his run-ins with the police have become less frequent. But even as he ages out, as he puts it, he worries about his own son. "My whole job is to tell him, just because you think X, Y and Z is right, it doesn't mean you say it in the moment, especially when you're dealing with people who can kill you."
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TA-NEHISI COATES: I lived in West Baltimore and I had a friend who lived in East Baltimore and we would hang out in each other's neighborhoods. And he said we're going to go in the store. Watch this. And we walk in the store and there were two gentlemen out behind the counter. And there weren't a bunch of people in the store. Literally followed us through the store. Like it wasn't even sly. You know, you're used to people trying to hide or whatever. It wasn't sly at all.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That was the first time African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates felt like he was being singled out for his race. Ta-Nehisi Coates is our Sunday Conversation.
COATES: At that time, I laughed it off. I probably was about 15 or 16 years old and, you know, it sort of is the air, as sure as, I don't know, apple pie is good - black men and sometimes black women get followed. And so I just took it for granted.
MARTIN: In your early 20s, does this just continue to be, as you say, in the air or did you start to resent it?
COATES: Yeah, very much so. I mean, when I started driving was when I really noticed it. And I think the worst part about it wasn't so much that I was being stopped. I mean, there were times when I knew I hadn't done anything, but it was that they treat you like a suspect. At least that was my experience. And, you know, whether I got a ticket or no ticket at all, it was never, ever a pleasant interaction.
MARTIN: How did that affect your perception of authority or the police in general?
COATES: Well, I think this ties into a bigger thing about being black. OK. So, we all live in America and we expect equal treatment under the law. When you are black, you do not expect equal treatment under the law. So, there's a social contract that we have with this country where we all pay our taxes, we agree to obey the law, we agree to not do certain things, to do certain other things, but we get less out of it. I mean, you're much, much more skeptical of your country. And I think that's deeply unfortunate.
MARTIN: So, when we've seen all these headlines about episodes of racial profiling with big retailers - Macy's and Barneys - stores that have since apologized and are reviewing their policies. But when you saw these stories, you just said, what's the big deal? This happens all the time. Why is this surprising?
COATES: It is a big deal. It's not surprising. In this country, we tell young people: study hard, work hard, go to school, get a good job, take care of your family, everything will be all right. People, you know, will treat you accordingly. You know, as these cases show and I think this is the most dangerous part. It's not true. It's not surprising though because we live in a city in which stop-and-frisk is the law. That's the way police have decided to interact with African-American communities. And that sends a message to everybody else. There's no reason why any big retailer should do anything different if the state's going to do that.
MARTIN: What about now? You're a grown adult. You've got a child of your own. How often do you find yourself in circumstances like this?
COATES: Well, less so. I'm sprouting a little bit of a gray, so.
COATES: So, over the past five years, less and less so. And my interaction with the police, you know, has changed quite a bit as I've gotten older. My son I worry about. My son is 13. And the last time I got stopped I want to say was about four years ago. Coincidentally, I was coming from an interview at NPR. And I was walking down the street and it just so happened that - as I was told later - the police were looking for a tall, Latino gentleman. I'm not Latino, but be that as it may - who was wearing the same color shirt as I. And, again, these exchanges are not pleasant. They don't tell you why. I was not in Harlem, by the way. I was downtown on 23rd Street.
MARTIN: And you were detained?
COATES: Oh yeah, until they figured out that it wasn't me.
MARTIN: How long did that take?
COATES: Probably about five or 10 minutes. Probably about five. It wasn't a long time. But it was, you know, humiliating, you being called out in front of everybody else on the street. They treat you as though you are suspect. And so, even as I'm aging out of that, I worry about my son. I worry about my son, who's very intelligent and sometimes is too smart for his own good. And so my whole job is to tell him, you know, just because you think X, Y and Z is right, it doesn't mean that you say it in the moment, especially when you're dealing, you know, with people who can kill you.
MARTIN: Do you see any utility at all in profiling, racial or otherwise? Especially when it comes to policing, when cops have to make snap judgments all the time about people they may deem suspicious.
COATES: So, I would say that racial profiling is probably unavoidable. If we're being honest here. I mean, there's a natural human tendency when you see crime happen among a particular group of people to make assumptions as an individual. OK. That's one thing. To adopt it as a policy is another thing entirely.
MARTIN: Have you found yourself racially profiling internally?
COATES: Oh, of course. I can't sit here and tell you that if I see, you know, a group of young black men standing on the corner in Harlem I look at them the same way as I look at, you know, a group of young white women standing on the corner in Chelsea. Of course. And, of course, race is part of that. But I have to have a conversation with myself. Because I'll tell you, there have been several times when I thought one thing was going on and it was another thing that was going on. It happens a lot. And I would hate to think that I was working on that kind of logic and I was carrying a gun. But it's not the impulse that bothers me, which I feel, you know, none of us are perfect. But to adopt it as policy; when policymakers decide to reward our worst impulses, I think we're in trouble.
MARTIN: So, what do you tell your son?
COATES: I tell him be careful. I tell him, you know, what my parents told me: no sudden movements. I tell him speak respectfully, speak clearly, like he has nothing to hide. And then I tell him if he has a problem that the way to deal with that is not in the moment but afterwards and to tell me, and then I'll deal with it.
MARTIN: How does he receive that information? I mean, essentially, you're telling him his life will in some ways be harder than maybe some of his friends.
COATES: Yeah. See, there's all this business about the talk, right, which does happen in African-American homes. But I think one of the things that's missing - this is the air. It's very hard to grow up to reach my son's age - age 13 - as an African-American and not know that. So, I say that you have to understand that that's my conversation with him. That's being verified in events all around. My son is aware of Trayvon Martin. My son, you know, knows what happened there. I mean, not just 'cause I told him. It's really, really difficult to be black and not get that message.
MARTIN: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer and senior editor for The Atlantic. He joined me from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for talking with us, Mr. Coates.
COATES: Thank you for having me.
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MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.