Reporter portrait: Ta-Nehisi Coates

By Alasdair Wilkins

Born: 1975

Nationality: American

Works predominately in the United States as a national correspondent for The Atlantic, with some overseas assignments

Ta-Nehisi Coates is America’s most incisive writer on race; he may also be its foremost public intellectual. Coates’ own words make the case for both claims far better than mine could, but perhaps the overriding theme of his work is the commitment to not turn away from the conclusions of his arguments—arguments rooted in journalistic investigation and historical analysis—no matter how uncomfortable the implications might be. More than that, Coates’ writing refuses to take refuge in intellectualism, to render into abstraction issues that can be matters of life and death for his subjects.

The following small sample of his writing is intended to illuminate his journalistic perspective and approach, particularly with respect to many of the ethical issues the FASPE journalism fellows have spent the last two weeks investigating.

It feels appropriate to begin with words that Coates wrote in memory of his mentor, David Carr. The late New York Times media reporter had, in his earlier capacity as editor of the Washington City Paper, brought Coates into journalism. In the obituary, Coates describes how Carr had pushed Coates and other young writers to view journalistic inquiry. Fealty to some abstract notion of objectivity mattered far less than the dogged pursuit of the truth, and the best way to reveal that truth lay not in philosophizing but in reporting. Facts persuade where opinions falter.

Virtually the entire staff at Washington City Paper was liberal. That included David, but he was deeply skeptical of lefty activism concealed as journalism. David had no interest in objectivity, but he always believed that the truest arguments were reported and best bounded by narrative. Narrative was the elegant Trojan horse out of which the most daring and radical ideas could explode and storm a great city. An 800-word column demanding or rejecting reparations is easily repelled. Clyde Ross isn’t.

Clyde Ross, who grew up in Depression-era Mississippi under Jim Crow and later spent years fighting racist housing policies in Chicago, is one of several subjects of Coates’ magnum opus, the June 2014 Atlantic cover story “The Case For Reparations.” The sheer breadth of the piece defies easy summation, but Coates presents several carefully reported accounts of black individuals whose lives have been shaped by America’s systemic racism, tracing a narrative that runs from slavery and Jim Crow to more insidious modern manifestations that are no less destructive for their relative subtlety.

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The act of contextualization is key to Coates’ process, and “The Case For Reparations” uses the tools of journalistic and historical inquiry to demonstrate the pervasiveness of America’s legacy of racism. While the discussion of reparations suggests a political call for action, his analysis is both deeper and more immediate than mere politics.

Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. “The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,” Clyde Ross told me. “It’s because of then.” In the early 2000s, Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the survivors of the 1921 race riot that had devastated “Black Wall Street.” The past was not the past to them. 

“The Case For Reparations” represents the culmination of years of reporting and decades more of lived experience, but the power of Coates’ voice is just as apparent in topics on which he cannot claim expertise. Indeed, it is his very willingness to admit the limits of his own knowledge that animates “I Might Be Charlie,” a January 2015 piece Coates filed from Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Coates eschews the topics—religious extremism, the limits of artistic expression—that so dominated reactions to the attack, arguing that these issues cannot be properly examined without first understanding the context surrounding the event, particularly in terms of the history of France and its turbulent, often violent treatment of its minority populations at home and in former colonies like Algeria. Coates closes by again acknowledging his uncertainties and his need to educate himself further, in the process revealing some profound advice for journalists grappling with big narratives.

I don’t yet know how all of this connects to the events we are seeing today. But I proceed from the working theory that all nations like to begin the story with the chapter that most advantages them and the job of the writer is to resist this instinct. And I proceed from the working theory that the story of black people in America is an excellent launchpad for a larger investigation into the limits of democracy and compassion throughout the West. It is not the sole launchpad, and the investigation must, ultimately, go beyond the simple drawing of parallels.

For all Coates’ eloquence and rigor, he never loses sight of the human stories that lie at the heart of the issues he examines. To understand this, it is instructive to consider a negative example, one Coates himself offers in his reaction to the mass exodus of New Republic writers in December 2014. He notes that the magazine, despite its stated liberal perspective, had a long and well-documented problem with race, and only so much of that could be traced to the well-documented bigotry of the magazine’s longtime owner, Marty Peretz. Coates argues that the problem lay also with the overwhelming whiteness of the magazine’s staff. He notes that The New Republic “made a habit of ‘reflecting briefly’ on matters that were life and death to black people but were mostly abstract thought experiments to the magazine’s editors.” Virulent hatred was never as dangerous as apathetic distance.

TNR did not come to racism out of evil. Very few people ever do. Many of the white people working for the magazine were very young and very smart. This is always a dangerous combination. It must have been that much more dangerous given that their boss was a racist. (Though I am told he had many black friends and protégés.) Peretz was not always a regular presence in the office. This allowed TNR’s saner staff to regard him as the crazy uncle who says racist shit at Thanksgiving. But Peretz was not a crazy uncle—he was the wealthy benefactor of an influential magazine that published ideas that damaged black people.

A writer for TNR told me how, in the mid-’90s, Peretz would come down to the office from Cambridge and lobby young writers to write what turned out to be the fictional “Taxi Cabs and the Meaning of Work.” The writer told me that the young interns and fact-checkers would squirm in their seats. But no one took a stand. And perhaps it is too much to expect writers in their mid 20s, with editors in their late 20s, to say to Peretz, “Please stop shopping this racist bullshit.” But the task was made infinitely easier by a monochrome staff that could view Peretz’s racism as an abstraction, and not something that directly injured their families.

The most rigorous skeptical inquiry must be guided first by self-examination. It is to this end that Coates wrote “The Cosby Show” in November 2014, writing less on the dozens of rape allegations against Bill Cosby and more on his own failure to report on such allegations in his 2008 profile of Cosby, the piece that made his career.

In that essay, there is a brief and limp mention of the accusations against Cosby. Despite my opinions on Cosby suffusing the piece, there was no opinion offered on the rape accusations. This is not because I did not have an opinion. I felt at the time that I was taking on Cosby’s moralizing and wanted to stand on those things that I could definitively prove. Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists. But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person’s word over another—it requires you take one person’s word over 15 others.

Coates locates his own failure to report out the allegations in practical concerns, noting his struggles to remain employed and make ends meet while raising a child. He ultimately compromised and opted for expediency, assuming that Cosby’s fame meant someone else would surely write the big investigative piece that he, even then, realized he should have. The piece he did write, which excoriates Cosby’s self-appointed status as the arbiter of conservative black morality, is far from a failure; it was, Coates reflects, “the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I’d ever written.” And yet: “It was not enough.”

While Coates largely keeps the focus on explaining his own journalistic failures—a self-critique that few other journalists attempted—he does again offer insight on just why Cosby had so many defenders, at least initially. His analysis speaks to the same kind of cultural myth-making Coates outlined in “The Case For Reparations” and “I Might Be Charlie,” and so too does it speak to issues FASPE has spent the past two weeks reckoning with.

It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn’t just indict Cosby, it indicts us. It damns us for drawing intimate conclusions about people based on pudding-pop commercials and popular TV shows. It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality. And it forces us back into a world where seemingly good men do unspeakably evil things, and this is just the chaos of human history.

That chaos can be disconcerting, even overwhelming. The sheer complexity of the human experience, with all its contradictions and nuances, can make it so tempting to look away, particularly from its worst aspects. Pat, often self-glorifying narratives can offer refuge to those privileged enough to be able to shield themselves from reality. For those who are not so fortunate, it falls to journalists to shine beacons upon that which society desperately seeks to conceal.

In this respect—and in so many others—Coates’s work stands as an inspiration to his fellow journalists. His example is not one born of perfection. Rather, the conclusion to his essay is a reminder that it is in our failures—be they personal or cultural, individual or societal—and our willingness to grapple honestly with the root causes of those failures that we find the tools to build a better world.

I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality—and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible.

I don’t have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.


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