This is point of inquiry for Monday, August 3rd, 2015.
Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Tallahassee Cote’s. He’s the author of the new book Between the World and Me, an extended essay addressed to his teenage son about race, history and navigating the world as a black man. He’s also the author of The Beautiful Struggle. A memoir about growing up in West Baltimore Between the World and Me has garnered rave reviews from Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, The New Yorker’s David Remnick and many others. It has also infuriated Princeton’s Cornel West and demoralized. David Brooks of the New York Times townhouse. He’s a senior editor at The Atlantic. His list of journalism awards includes a Helmund Prize, a National Magazine Award and a George Polk Award after winning the helm in Tallahassee, went on to become a judge at the Sydney Hillman Foundation, a New York nonprofit that honors excellence and socially conscious journalism. Tallahassee, welcome to the program.
Thanks for having me, Rosie.
You’re prompted to write this book by police shootings of young black people. And you’ve a 14 year old son. Do you worry that he could be the next Trayvon Martin or the next Sandra Bland?
Yeah, and I think in a general sense, we worry about violence, period. I mean, whether it’s at the hands of police or whether it’s due to the planning of the state, you know, and according to where we live. And that was one of the things I really tried to get across in the book, that people talk about police shootings as though they’re different than, quote unquote, black on black crime. But the reason why, you know, you have, quote unquote, black on black crime in the first place are such high levels is in fact due to state planning and is, in fact, that, you know, African-Americans living in certain neighborhoods. So, you know, I see this is really the same beast, you know, just working a different way. There is between a sort. And I you know, I don’t own a pistol, you know, but they’re both weapons. And so, yes, I do worry.
Can you expand a bit on the state planning angle? What kind of policies lead to poor majority black neighborhoods where people feel like they can’t trust the police?
Well, I mean, the oldest is obviously I wouldn’t plant housing. You know, a city where I’m from, Baltimore, Maryland, as early as 1910, attempted to literally own the city by race and restrained people, was for black people to, you know, certain neighborhoods when that law was knocked down in 1917 by the Supreme Court, by the way, not to protect black people, but to protect the property interest of white people, wanted to sell their homes. However they please. When that law was knocked down in 1870, the city then moved about as many cities did with restrictive covenants, which kept people from selling certain houses to certain people. Now went on until roughly the 1950s. And concomitant with that, when we began to design our suburbs and we began to design our entire housing policy where we decide to grow our middle class during the New Deal era. We put certain restrictions on who could have access to government backed loans and who could not likely to rely vitalized cut out of that and African-Americans who attempted to buy and other made after the victims of what would be the forerunners of predatory loans. And that was a party of really, you know, that the housing, which really didn’t end until 1968, well within the life span of my parents. My dad was 22 years old, 1968. But, you know, if you stopped that, I would have been bad enough that he we didn’t stop there. What we did after that, you know, after 1960 into the 80s, 70s and 80s, as we began a policy of imprisoning large numbers of people come from these communities were warehousing people, removing people, disrupting the lives of African-American families. We have quite a bit of research to indicate that prisons, as they are designed in this country, do not make people, you know, less violent and make them more likely to commit crime. And so we send folks right back into the community and say nothing about just the scarcity of resources, the scarcity of jobs, inferior education, just a whole assault upon African-American communities, you know, various levels. And so the expectation that all of that will have that you will companioned across generations and that those communities will, you know, somehow, you know, be as peaceful as strolling through or, you know, feel these days. It’s ridiculous. People get frustrated. They develop days.
You grew up in West Baltimore. How did those those factors affect you personally and your own sense of safety in your community?
Well, I mean, those are the most obvious. One is my grandmother had a car and had, you know, was not able to get a loan in a normal way. My grandmother raised two kids in the projects, went to school at night, scrubbed away people’s floors where she bought her house on Tenners Avenue in northwest Baltimore. She was not able to get a loan in a normal way. She could not you know, lenders would not lend her because, as I say, you know, the lending, she was heavily a racist at that time. Then she had to take out what is called a contract loan, which. It also for the Atlantic last year, and this is a situation in which you have someone who specialized in giving, quote unquote mortgages, but not really mortgages to people who care, you know, get them in in any other way. And that person holds onto the deed and you don’t get the deed until you pay for the house out in full. Should you not, you know, should you fail to pay that person who is all the payment she’s made your down payment to? This is a kind of plundering of people’s lives. That was my grandmother. So that was not some abstract black person story.
That was my grandmother’s story. She managed to pay off her house in the end.
She did. She did. In fact, my mother didn’t find balance. So my grandmother what happened was my grandmother went to finally did the deed as she called. My mother has some legal stuff they had to do. She called my mother, my aunt, my aunt to go with her. And my mother was stunned. And my mother thought that she had no hope, you know. And I didn’t even know about this until I wrote the case for that reason. And my mother, you know, told me if this is this is this is not theoretical. This is not a radical. Have my mother and my grandmother been able to buy a home under normal terms like normal people. She would have been able to acquire more wealth. My family would have been able to acquire more wealth. And it wasn’t just my grandmother. I mean, this would have been, you know, any person who was basically trying to buy a house, who was African-American or, you know, a significant number of people who were trying to buy homes as African-Americans at that particular time. Homeownership is a leading means to which, you know, normal people. It’s the biggest source of wealth that most people have. Black people do the intentional policy that this country did not enjoy. Those those means it’s it’s a little things. Lindsay, I was just meeting as a gentleman by the name of Prince Georges in the book, and he winds up being killed by a police officer. And I actually went out last Sunday to spend some time with his mother, his sister and his his daughter. Actually, he’s is now 16 years old. And I went with my wife to my son, and she was in a very, very nice neighborhood, very, very wealthy area just outside of Philadelphia. Then she was explaining to us how high the property tax was when there was a lot of tax Westlife and maintain these high quality schools, except that when her daughter went into high school, she cannot allow her daughter to go to the high school, to the place where she was paying taxes. Like everyone else said, she had to put her kid in to private school. And the reason why is because as early as middle school, she could see that they were actually tracking her daughter into a vocational trade situation. And that’s what they were doing to all the black kids. Now, let’s say, like, I don’t know how much it was. Let’s say she went to a Quaker school. Children wouldn’t make a school for high school. Let’s say she was paying ten thousand dollars a year. Right. Which is, I think, relatively cheap for private school. That’s a tax that otherwise people in their neighborhood did not have to pay. Right.
Only she had to pay it back because the schools were systematically under serving their black students compared to their white standard.
Is that exactly? That’s exactly it. That’s exactly that. That is that is effectively a tax for the same as it seemed by the country of being black. That’s a small example. But that happens when you’re black and a myriad of ways, you know. I mean, what we’re talking about with the police is, you know, normal people pay their taxes. That goes to fund a police department that protects you, OK? Black people pay their taxes like everybody else, but don’t get to feel that way about the polls. Right. They have to go through all sorts of other, you know, machinations just to, you know, do the same thing to everybody else.
And Prince Jones, his mom, was is a really successful lady. She’s the head of radiology at the big hospital, right?
Yes, she was she was the head of radiology gone to get LSU. She’s still a radiologist. Yeah, no, she’s a very, very accomplished woman. You know, I had grown up in absolutely grinding poverty. Her children were very successful at daughter, you know, played basketball at UConn, graduated as a history major, went to grad school for social work and hasn’t had a practice until up until last year. Very, very successful black of a middle class family, you know.
And yet they could not escape. They could not escape this.
It was interesting, you noted in the book that Prince was killed by a black officer in every affluent black neighborhood. What does that say about the dynamics of police shootings?
Well, he said that the problem is not the end. Like is that when you try to go into the person who is you know, if your analysis begins with who pulled the trigger, you’re too late. It’s too late. There are entire series, a suite of policy decisions that led to Prince Jones is that there was, you know, the decision that we would give police officers, the people with, you know, the greatest, you know, arguably, you know, like the right of life and death are employed by the state and we would give them the maximal amount of latitude. So in the case of Prince, we traveled to three different municipalities and jurisdictions. Shoot some. And here’s where it would be taken for. Despite, you know what his record was.
And he’d been cited for for lying about other investigations. The cop that shot.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yeah. And the case has had to be thrown out. So, I mean, like the policy began long before Prince is actually shot. And that’s really, really what it is. It’s not about whom for whom pulls the trigger. It’s about who is also often on the other side. You know the gun. That’s where the discrepancy really is. It’s not, you know, so much white officer, you know. So what is it really a white power? I mean, that guy really is the issue and that can work through any number of agents.
And I mean, is it in the case of Prince George’s County? Is it predominantly white power? I mean, black homeowners want that same sense of security out of the police that they’ve given police so much discretion to use violence to, right?
Yeah, it is. It is. But I mean, I think like African-Americans are caught up in much the same way, you know, I mean, we we don’t really, you know, escape that. I mean, we have the same, you know, to varying degrees, the same sort of fears. You know, the African American you know, our county clerk out there at the same time, it was similar to what happened there. It was absolutely, absolutely senseless. I, I do I do hear what you’re saying. But I think at the end of the day, it was the same sort of situation that that’s we’re those people in Prince George’s County should never have to make. Right. They should not have to think about their police department like that in the first place. That should not be the plight of them feeling safe. If you had an affluent white community, that’s not the price, you know.
I mean, everybody’s trying to outsource their safety to the police. And it’s quite unique inside peoples. And our entire society has decided that we’ve got this war of all against on which we need these incredibly armed, aggressive police forces with absolute discretion. That’s it. You write about the idea that American history is is basically about the systematic plunder of black bodies. Can you expand a little bit more on what you mean by that, specifically focusing on the idea of the body?
And, yeah, I checked in that. And so what I would say is that there is a consistent theme in American history. It’s one of the most consistent and it’s a theme that you can’t imagine America without. OK, so we can begin with is enslavement. And the obvious, you know, the fact that, you know, that the land was taken in this country is needed. You know, people who looked at it and utilized that letter to all ViSalus places about this is not, you know, just a fact that, you know, what was said in slavery at the onset of the Civil War, 60 percent of American exports were cotton. This is Charlene Upholders retiring in their next lesson. Three billion dollars worth of property, the largest asset as it is. This is the body of an African American slave. Blakley is the largest asset in the country with more than all other assets and sources of investment, combined with more than all the bags, all the various things, all the everything, all the nations that we all pull together. It’s the four million enslaved blacks valued at over two billion dollars.
And the cotton that they were producing drove the Industrial Revolution. It was the first global.
Yes, very much so. That’s exactly it. Exactly. So it’s very difficult to imagine America without that that initial that downpayment, that initial source of wealth and enact legislation that would follow the way police was brought about effectively between the north and the south was exceeding, you know, the south with all local control. And with that, with great violence, great violence. What to African-Americans who happen to live in the South? It’s very tough to see a reunion between the north and the south, without the south, without the more feeding. So once again, you see black bodies. I mean, it is not as though the South was, you know, redemption happened. As you know, the scale of what the ice cream. So was a wine tasting. No. Know, it was true. What I had seen some violent coups. I would say the overthrow of government was to massacre. That was how it happened. And you see the destruction of black bodies that the South as taken it, redemption hospital. And then after that, you know, we just spent the second talking about housing policy. But housing policy doesn’t just end. You know, it’s not just the right to buy your home, as I was saying. And you have all of those factors coming together. Black people then tend to live in more violent neighborhoods. We tend to suffer more from violence. Our bodies, again, are more likely to be assaulted than other people because of housing choices made by other people at different times. Very, very tough to imagine the New Deal housing. There is a case. In fact, it’s very tough to imagine that many of the people there see a welfare state. Unemployment insurance is a Social Security without the fact that black people were discriminated against. In every instance, we have to imagine it’s a Southern segregationist senators somehow supporting Roosevelt. Yeah. We’ve seen All Blacks will conclude that that just wasn’t happening. Right. You know, leading up to right now, you know, where we have, you know, the largest prison population in the world, you know, a disproportionate number of people, white or black. That is a singular feature problem or singular discrepancy about our democracy right now is the sheer number of people of what we read. Because freedom from I mean, this is a threat. I mean, it’s a theme. I don’t even know how is arguable. I mean, it does in some cases, like, you know, when you talk about housing, when you talk about the union, you talk about the civil war. It literally is impossible to imagine those events without the disruption of black, that they don’t mean anything. They can’t happen about that.
Racism is a major theme in the book. When did you become an atheist?
Don’t know. I don’t know. I wasn’t raised in a really unbelieving household. And maybe was. They had a vague sort of sense about my spirituality, that sort of thing. But I didn’t I didn’t really celebrate holidays or anything like that. You grew up celebrating Christmas. That’s OCD kind of always there.
I guess if you you’re actually mind maybe about 10 years ago, I would have said I was an agnostic. But, you know, I think that it’s a pretty logical case here. If one believes in God, one must be responsible for proving X. And if you’re telling me to go out of faith that you believe in God or say, that’s fine. I don’t have to go out of faith.
Black Church has been a huge, huge force in the civil rights movement. What are some of the ways you think that Christian faith has influenced the way we conceive of what that struggle should look like or what the outcome should be?
Well, I think like the whole ritual of forgiveness, I think is huge. I mean, I think that God that comes out of the Christian church, that comes out of the African-American are loving the notion that there’s a there’s a piece in the Times about two days ago, it was about a racist neo-Nazi who had come to South Carolina to protest the lowering of the flag. And the guy kind of got sick and he had to be held away by these police officers. Right. A lot of police officers happen to be black. And New York Times for the picture, a whole, you know, sort of profile on it and did the subtext for this. This is some sort of remarkable moment of brotherhood that this black dude who is a police officer, you know, would feel assist this guy, you know, this neo-Nazi notion that that is like something to be celebrated at that black you know, you don’t even have to do that, I think comes out because, like in my world. That’s not to be celebrated at all.
But isn’t it something to be celebrate? I mean, I’m not big on the whole, you know, forgiving murderers for giving hate criminal making families publicly profess their mindedness. But I mean, isn’t that a good thing that people that are democratic institutions are operating the way that they should? And even people who are held in contempt by society are being served by the police in the way the police should serve people. I mean, if you go to a demonstration and you get heatstroke. The police should help you, right?
Yeah, we should. I mean, I’m not arguing that he should. You got to fall there. I’m arguing the fact that he was even in that situation in the first place indicates some sort of failure. First of all, flash in the business. Yeah. You know. You know, they shouldn’t have been a ceremony to begin with. So the gentleman even finds himself in a position. I mean, France is one could celebrate, you know, Mabel Jones, you know, going above and beyond and paying ten thousand dollars for a kid to go to to a decent school that shows how much she valued education. It’s also fucking absurd. Yeah, it’s also absurd. It’s absurd that he has to do that. It’s absolutely, absolutely absurd. This black dude who’s just trying to do his job should have to help out. You know, somebody who’s basically wearing the mantle of a group that would see his entire people extinguished. And, you know, I mean, it’s absurd to do that. But he should have to carry. That is absurd. And people should be embarrassed about it.
Do you think there’s any kind of I mean, we should certainly be embarrassed about the proliferation of neo-Nazis that are coming out to celebrate these things. I mean, why do they exist? But if there’s anything to be said on a secular level for forgiveness in terms of just not letting anger eat away at you, I’m burdening yourself of that kind of a certain kind of toxic anger.
Yeah, I think so. I do. I do. I do. Yes, I do. And I think people have to find a different way of doing it. I think if the churches allows radical Islam and allows that, that that was probably the most salient portion of those folks giving Dylann Roof, they probably were very much giving him. So you know what I mean, for all the anger, letting all that I go on. So, yeah, I see that, you know, other soldiers have other means to deal with.
Do you feel like your racism gives you a different perspective on how civil rights, how the struggle for liberation should be carried out? Does it change the way that that you look at these problems?
I honestly don’t know. I guess, yes, but I don’t know how I would know. I’m not here.
I mean, there’s a passage in your book that I’m really moving. We’re talking about how secular isn’t for you kind of added a certain amount of urgency to the struggle because, you know, this black slave who had his brains blown out as he was trying to escape a life of bondage, you know, didn’t get lifted by angel wings to have. He didn’t he was just another physical and body being whose entire life was snuffed out and there was no consolation of religion or spirituality or transcendence.
Right. Right, right. Right, right. Yes, definitely the absence of religion in my world. You are in how I see that the African-American struggle is what within the afterlife. And my my world view that it is isn’t.
What do you teach your son about life and death and what’s to come? Do you explicitly raise him atheist or are you sort of letting him discover these things like of the others that you’re about to leave for France for a year, which is really exciting. Do you feel different in terms of just being a black man, walking the streets in France vs. walking the streets in New York or Baltimore in terms of how people treat you?
I do. I do. I feel like I have a mask. I feel like I have a mask on.
I feel like I guess maybe not so much when I’m walking when I’m talking to people on the street, I feel like the first thing they see me as an American and then they see black. And if have the most relevant thing that other American. And that is that’s not something one gets to experience even in America.
Does it feel good?
Yes, I very, very much.
I mean, France has its own a lot of issues in terms of, you know, racism and racial hierarchy. How do you see that playing out when you’re there?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Think that’s part of my exploration. I mean, like this far, one of the things that I really, really want to look into. Even if I tell you I feel good, you know, because it’s like a mask. I understand that people want or they don’t want to get access to that mask and see where I got that kind of changed direction a bit.
Do you think that the Black Lives Matter movement is going about its mission in the right way?
I think so. I think so. I think they brought these various killing photos and otherwise it’s it’s up to the mainstream attention. I think so. I think so. I’m hesitant, though, this to to critique them because I’m not an activist. Really, the way you have to start here, people listen to you. And the more she was is very, very different. The way you have to talk to write a coherent magazine article. My book is a different thing.
But as somebody who’s interested in policy and as someone who sees the problem as fundamentally one of structural white supremacy, what do you think the correct policy should be? What should we be advocating for? It seems like body cams aren’t going to be enough.
Right now, we’re trying to navigate.
Yeah, I mean, not necessarily from the Black Lives Matter perspective, but for anyone who wants this to stop.
Yeah, I mean, I, I mean, I think this is reparations, but I don’t think until there is a serious reckoning with history in this country.
And how would that work in terms of distributing the money? Would it be something that would be handed out individually or would it be a fund that would be directed towards social spending?
Well, really, we don’t know. Here’s where here’s what we have here is what we have. We have a model because we did this before. And the first thing that would happen is know John Collegeville personal reality. Well, let’s back up a little bit. The first thing that happened, what happened with the over the next 50 to 100 years to try to create some sort of grassroots movement and you would hope a critical mass of Americans behind this issue. OK. If you could do that, you could do the Congress will actually pass. And then once you have, the Congress will act and testimony, people could testify about what a what exactly happened. And you can make some decisions. Are we making like block neighborhood grants or special homeownership program? Are we telling, you know, this group of people that for the next hundred years they got any public university for free? Oh, I other individual checks, people would join gods. What are we doing to reckon with how what we took from them? All sorts of ways. I mean, it’s something that we know right off the bat that good stuff is what I write about in my book. Housing discrimination. That is not a hard thing to do at all. At all. What you all you need to do is get the redlining maps, look at where people live, and then immediately you will know what what neighborhoods have been discriminated against. And then after that, you can allow anybody who lives in that area who tried to get a mortgage or try to, you know, show you some sort of deal to buy a home in that area. You know, you could allow them to sue for discrimination at that point.
I mean, do you think it would be politically easier? This seems like a really worthwhile thing to do, to call it reparations for housing discrimination rather than reparations for slavery.
No, because I don’t think that because why we call a runaway slave. That’s the first I would call a reparation. Yeah. No, I think there are many. Supposin I see their claim. You know, I strongly suspect that coming out of this criminal I mean, not right now. All. Second of all, three years, for instance, coming out of this mass incarceration, it will be quite liberal. People will look back on this and say, listen, you passed a policy that did something to us and hurt us. It took some from us. We have some reparations, some individual revelations, crimes going on right now for us in the city of Chicago. Forget songbirds for the fourth ring in North Carolina when they were sterilizing women for long periods of time. I think it’s very, very important that it’s fiscal policy that you’d be able to sort of see the damage that was done. And I don’t think you have to restrict that to housing.
Something said earlier that’s really interesting about the idea of testimonials and having kind of a truth and reconciliation commissions where people could go and tell their story.
So I would be part of it. Yes.
Would that be modeled sort of like what they did in South Africa after apartheid? I would be part of it and it would be sort of a huge social codification of all these stories, like what happened after World War Two with Nuremberg, where they just got all this stuff on the record.
Yeah, I think so. I think so.
Do you think that there any more sort of directly criminal justice related policies that need to change in terms of how we train police, how we hold police accountable, structure police departments?
Well, I think the notion that like that the wide latitude given by police officers to kill people and race and to detain people, I think the white police file is given to officers really needs to be investigated. Mm hmm. I mean, I think Sandra Bland is a perfect example. The notion that, you know, you have the most power bear, no responsibility to de-escalate. So, you know, maximum power, minimal responsibility. I think that’s a huge, huge problem. You know, it’s no way to a woman who refuses to put out her cigaret to be I mean, who should be arrested and then held for three days for what?
That’s ridiculous, because it was all captured on video. I mean, the fact that he forced her to pull over, which you would think would not require her to signalmen, the whole thing proceeded from there. And I mean, I think does it speak to the limitations of what body cameras and dash cams can do in terms of protecting people’s right?
Absolutely. Does it? It absolutely does.
It absolutely does, because there are so many experts that look at the video and said, yeah, he’s he’s an he failed the courtesy and respect policy of the department, but he has so much discretion. You know, we have it all in video, but he’s allowed to do whatever he wants.
Basically, he said to us, do you think that there are any sort of specific policies in terms of how police departments should be structured, like to give communities more accountability, more more power, more local control at the community level over police?
No, I really doubt that we would ever more.
So what’s Nick? For you, in terms of your year in France, are you going to be reporting there on French stuff or continuing to report on U.S. stuff? What do you have planned?
I think I’ll be going. But while I think I’ll be reporting on stuff there and I think I’ll be doing some other stuff, too.
And now do you have any do you have another book in the works?
I think so, but I shouldn’t say anything.
OK. And so Samari his really. Is he really excited about going to France? Yes, everyone is.
How’s his French? Is he going to be able to go to school right away in French?
Well, he’s going to go to a bilingual school, so it’ll be some of both, you know. So it’s not as good as it’ll be when he gets back. It’s pretty good.
Do you have any thoughts on how the book has been received in terms of, you know, both the positive and the negative? Do you feel like it’s been gotten a fair hearing, Jack?
I think so. I mean, I think so. I’m I’m a little shocked that there was something I didn’t expect it to be the first. I’m stunned, actually.
And were you surprised besides the scale of the response? Were you surprised at both the positive and the negative? Did any reviews really stand out in your mind in terms of the reaction?
Yeah, I think like Hollywood gender critiques that Mullah Omar and I spent a lot of time thinking about that.
And I think when I came back with was that whenever you have a piece like this and it is anointed in any sort of way, people frame it and they expect it to be more than what it is, which is, you know, just a larger 60 page, 155 page personal essay.
Yeah, I you know, I went through it and tried to think about different ways I could have read my book and I came back with nothing.
What if some of the gender critiques being basically the ones I’ve read of simply said, well, he doesn’t really talk about the black woman’s experience.
Thanks you. That along. What is it? Well, in the book, it does want to not said.
I mean, it does seem to me like it’s a very personal essay about your own experience. You’re trying to live free in a black male body, talking to your son that yes, I do not like anything that you say negates where black women’s experiences are.
No, I agree. I agree. But I think you will see that. And they just don’t know. They take they put too much on it.
A lot of people have talked about the influence of James Baldwin on your work. Was that a conscious decision to model your essay off his famous essay to his nephew about what it’s like to live black on the occasion of emancipation?
I think I took him was a literary influence, he wrote, with so much force and so much power in that. That was the main thing I took. Also took the notion of a really short book, which I thought was really important. I wanted to do it. They wanted to be able to read it in one sitting. That was important.
What’s your son’s take on the book? Has he read it yet? And has he given you any feedback?
Yeah, he read it in several drafts. He likes it a lot. We read it. Laughs Okay.
Did you have any sort of specific comments or responses or thoughts that came out?
Not really, actually. Actually, no, not really.
Have you been getting reader responses from young black male readers? No other kids his age who’ve read the book?
I don’t. Not yet. Not yet.
No, I think that’s all the questions I have. Is anything else you’d like to add?
No, no. I just want to thank you for having me on. It’s an honor to talk to you.
It’s an honor to have you on the show. And I hope you come back and talk about the next book when it comes out.