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How Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Letter to his Son About Being BLACK in America Became a Bestseller


How Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son about being black in America became a bestseller

Between the World and Me is a vital analysis of America’s race problem. Here Coates explains how James Baldwin and his own father inspired his powerful message
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – extract

 | Sunday 20 September 2015 

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates’s book is a profound and angry address to a nation that refuses to prosecute police officers who kill innocent black men and women; that pursues a policy of mass incarceration hugely weighted towards its black population; and that routinely seems to think nothing of it. It is also an intimate confession of the fears of a black American father, fears that whatever positive values he gives his son, however hard he encourages him to work in school and do the right thing, out on the streets his body, the colour of his skin, will make him vulnerable to state-sanctioned attack. Coates has heard Samori weeping in his bedroom after watching the night-time news. The book is a response to the sense of powerlessness, and fear, that evokes in him.

“I write to you in your 15th year,” Coates explains by way of introduction. “I am writing to you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child they were oath-bound to protect. And you know now, if you did not know before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding… Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. All of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”

It is Coates’s contention in the book that despite civil rights, despite the symbolism of Obama, violence towards, and subjugation of, black men and women remains ingrained in American culture from slavery. The denial of that fact is part of the “Dream” by which, in a phrase borrowed from Baldwin, those “who believe themselves to be white” maintain power and righteousness. The book is extraordinary both for the depth of its feeling and the unusual power of its writing – Coates is an atheist, but inhabits the cadences of the great religious orators as well as the voices of his literary heroes, Baldwin and Richard Wright, and mixes in some of the verbal inventiveness of hip-hop with which he grew up. Toni Morrison, who knows something about the language of provocation and wisdom, suggests that “its examination of the hazards and hopes of the black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.”

I met Coates a couple of weeks ago in a cafe in Paris, where he has decided to live for a year with his wife and son. It is his son’s first day at his new school and Coates is a little preoccupied by the fact that he will be the only English-speaker in his new class. One of the conclusions of his book, its pessimism about the circumscribed nature of black American life, is that escape is one option. He remembers nearly a decade ago his wife wondering aloud if they should consider a move to Paris. She subsequently took a trip and came back full of hopes and stories and with a stack of photographs of the French capital’s enormous doorways, with which she had become fascinated. Coates, who at the time had never had a passport himself, examined these pictures in their cramped Harlem apartment. “It had never occurred to me that such giant doors could exist, could be so common in one part of the world and totally absent in another…” The doors looked a lot like a symbolic way out. Some years later, while writing his book, Coates made a trip himself, and was entranced above all by the freedom, the absence of fear (“because my eyes were made in Baltimore, because my eyes were blindfolded by fear”) that he felt as an “alien American” in Paris. The family came over for a summer, and now they have moved here.

I wonder first, if that original liberating feeling persists? “It does,” he says. “I fell in love with it here and I still feel that. I like the distance. It’s helpful for me. It is interesting for me to be here and to be seen just as an American, primarily that. I talk and that’s my identity. It is a very different mask to back at home.”

BALDWIN<br>Author James Baldwin, author of the influential 1963 book The Fire Next Time.
Author James Baldwin, author of the influential 1963 book The Fire Next Time. Photograph: Associated Press

It took James Baldwin, another exile in Paris, that same distance to reveal a truer understanding of his native country. Coates only did the final edits of his own book in Paris, but was that context part of the appeal too?

“It was, and it is helpful,” he says. “The lines around race are much, much harsher at home. I am not saying they don’t have issues around racism here or in London or wherever, but racism in America is very, very sexualised.

“I haven’t fully worked that out but I think the way people actually came to be in America, through sexual violence, really has affected how black folks are seen. It is not the same as an immigrant population, as someone who just happens to be from somewhere else. Especially down south. There was no United States before slavery. I am sure somebody can make some sort of argument about modern French identity and slavery and north Africa, but there simply is no American history before black people.”

I guess one other aspect of his chosen exile is that it removes him somewhat from the attention his book has afforded him. That attention has gone right up to the White House, where Coates has been invited a couple of times to put his views to the president. He has taken Obama to task for not being more vocal on race issues; the last time they met the president took him to one side to deliver a simple message: “Don’t despair.” He tries not to; instead he trusts in his writing to make a difference. He has a vivid blog about the issues he sets out in his book, and continues to write for the Atlantic – this week a long story about American prison policy has, he hopes, “kicked up some more dust” – but he has no wish to be a talking head. He wrote the book, he says, because he felt he had no option not to, the news of last year being so bad.

“I am a little surprised to be honest by the scale of the reaction to it,” he says. “My editor said he had never seen anything like it. I can’t explain it. Expecting a reaction is almost contrary to the idea of writing over a long period of time. I don’t know. I was like a doctor trying to deliver a baby – you can’t imagine that kid at 18. I just wanted to deliver the baby successfully.”

It is, I say, a different kind of voice to most of his journalism, that richness of language; it almost demands to be spoken out loud. Was that the plan? “I didn’t start off as a journalist, I started off as a poet,” he says. “My ambition was to practise poetry. Then I found journalism but that other voice never fled from me. See, everybody makes the James Baldwin comparison, and they think it is a political comparison. They say you are saying the kinds of things he was saying. But it’s not that. Or at least that is not the thing about Baldwin that inspired me. It’s more Baldwin understood that if you are going to say something important about the world it is best if you try to say it beautifully. I don’t mean like picking flowers or writing on fancy stationery. I mean how you say it actually makes it a more meaningful piece of writing. I am going to push that further. It makes it a truer piece of writing. What you are saying is: ‘Can I make somebody feel this in a deeper way?’ That was what I was obsessed with.”

Did that voice come easily? “Hell no. I wrote at least three complete drafts.” Was he adding poetry or taking it away? “It was stripping away. The early drafts were more flowery. The effort was to say more with less.”

The fact was, though, that he felt he had no choice but to do it. One impulse was a proper response to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and New York and elsewhere – that and the fact he returned to reading The Fire Next Time, on its 50th anniversary, and found it spoke differently to him, more urgently perhaps than it had done before. “It’s easy to forget Baldwin was a journalist,” he says. “I mean he is interviewing [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Mohammad and others in that book. It is not him sitting on his ass in Paris saying this is how I see the world.”

I point out that Baldwin was 39, like him, when he wrote it. Coates Googles to check; he thought Baldwin was younger. And I suggest that both books feel like mid-life books, not only in the sense of personal crisis, but also in that they are expressions not of the anger and hope of youth, but of the realism and anxiety of pushing 40.

Protests in New York
Coates was motivated to write about race by recent events such as the killing by police of Eric Garner, which sparked protests in New York (above). Photograph: Yana Paskova/Getty Images

“That’s about right,” he says. “I mean I read Baldwin when I was at Howard [the predominantly black university in Washington DC that counts many civil rights heroes and intellectuals among its alumni]. But it has taken until now to really get it. At the time, people were very excited about that crop of black intellectuals, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates. They were wonderful thinkers but no one would claim they were beautiful writers. I read Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Sonia Sanchez. I would think about that shit for days. Those phrases stayed with me in my head you know, like Sanchez: ‘Do not speak to me of martyrdom/of men who die to be remembered/on some parish day./I don’t believe in dying/ though I too shall die/and violets like castanets/will echo me.’

“I mean: wow. It was so beautifully said. It took me a while to realise she was talking about Malcolm X. They shot him. There is immense grieving in that. And that seemed very relevant.”

University seemed to have offered Coates a way out of the quite brutalised life he had known as a child in Baltimore, where, as he recalled in his first book, a memoir called The Beautiful Struggle, a large part of his mental space was occupied by how to get safely to and from school in neighbourhoods where murderous gang violence had become the norm. As it was, he realised that escape was not so simple: a friend and peer of his at university, Prince Jones, a straight-A student, hoping to be a doctor, was shot in the back and killed by a plainclothes policeman in a case of “mistaken identity” in 2000. The officer was not prosecuted and kept his job. The sanctioned murder of Jones haunted Coates’s understanding of American life, and resurfaced with the spate of police killings in recent years. Some of the most moving passages in his book involve him going to see Dr Mabel Jones, his friend’s mother, whose loss and anger remain raw. It took all of that for him to get James Baldwin, nearing 40, and to fear for his own son’s life as he had once feared for his own, and to write.

“It’s like that phrase of Baldwin’s I use in the book,” he says: “‘Those who believe themselves to be white’: because once I got it, once I understood what he was saying, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I ever heard. What it does is introduce the idea of human agency into race. This shit isn’t natural, and it’s not accidental. There was a decision that was made here. And I realised beautiful writing could make you feel a certain way and you could carry those feelings in you for a long, long time. I really, really wanted to do that.”

What does Coates’s son make of the book that is addressed to him? “He likes it. It was not like it was a finished book and I handed it to him. He read it. He read a draft even before I turned it into a letter. And I asked him about doing that and he said sure. I would not have done it without his saying yes. I can’t yet see what he will make of it or do with it. He’s too young. I will know in 10 years.”

One of the reasons Coates thinks a lot about fathers and sons is that his own father, Paul Coates, tried to school him in similar ways. The substance of The Beautiful Struggle – a kind of hip-hop Portrait of the Artist, denser in its poetry than the new book – is the story of their relationship. Paul Coates was a Vietnam veteran and member of the Black Panther party, a follower of Malcolm X, a self-taught historian of black struggle in America and an obsessive collector of books that told the story of that history. When Coates himself was a boy, his father started a printing press and cottage publishing industry in their house to disseminate some of these stories in Baltimore and beyond. Paul Coates had six other children, practised free love, but unusually among his schoolfriends, Coates recalls, his father was ever-present in his childhood, encouraging him to read, encouraging him to write, and occasionally delivering brutal beatings when he strayed, justifying himself to Coates’s mother by asking: “Would you rather I did it or the cops?”

Coates with his son, Samori, in the summer of 2001.
Coates with his son, Samori, in the summer of 2001. Photograph: Ta-Nehisi Coates

“My dad always associated information with liberation,” Coates says. “He was very much in that Malcolm X tradition. I mean the story of Malcolm’s life was almost mythical. This guy goes into prison and he liberates himself through knowledge, finds a profound understanding of himself and his situation. That was an immensely powerful idea for men like my father. It was his version of the story of Jesus. He talked about it the way people talk about the crucifixion. You may not be able to change the course of government, but you can achieve some peace. And books were the path to that. I grew up in a house where books were everywhere. The authors my dad liked, the authors he likes, were all, like him, self-taught. He is talking about retiring at the moment but I think he might do it till the day he dies.”

His dad must be proud of Coates’s achievements? “Yes, he is very proud. And I am extremely pleased to have made him proud.”

You have become what he hoped you would become? “I don’t think he had any idea this was possible. I think he would have told you Ta-Nehisi is a smart kid he could get somewhere. But this is certainly beyond my imagination, and his.”

I wonder how much Coates felt himself in the tradition of that Black Panther movement that his father helped to organise, which advocated armed struggle as one means to achieve fuller liberation? “Violence was definitely part of it,” he says. “And that was powerful for me as a child, as I say in the book. Guns were romantic, right. But they were also part of the language that I recognise my country speaks. That is how we talk in America. The memoir was an attempt to take everything I was as a child, everything I had seen by the age of 19 or 20 and mash it together and try to find some kind of creative voice out of that.”

His experience of Baltimore at that time, he says, was very similar to that portrayed by David Simon in The Wire, a city falling apart because of the arrival of crack cocaine and abandonment of whole neighbourhoods by civic authorities. One way out was music: Coates’s first aspiration was to be a rap artist.

“Hip-hop was really the first literature I studied,” he says. “I tried to do it. But I wasn’t very good. It is extremely hard, it is not just a question of coming up with words that rhyme. When I first read Shakespeare, I fell in love with Macbeth. There was a particular scene where Macbeth is talking to the murderers, trying to get them to kill Banquo and they agree. ‘I am one, my liege, whom the vile blows and buffets of the world have so incensed that I am reckless what I do to spite the world.’ That sounded to me just like a rapper would describe his life. I’m just so beat down I don’t give a fuck. Bring it on. That is the core message of hip-hop right there. That realisation said to me there is something human in this, that desperation that is expressed there can’t be bounded by time, or place, or society, or race. It is a deeply human feeling.”

Coates with his father Paul. "Dad had been a captain in the Black Panther Party".
Coates with his father Paul. “Dad had been a captain in the Black Panther Party”. Photograph: Ta-Nehisi Coates
The act of articulating that feeling is, in a sense, the only hope that he offers Samori in his letter to him. The necessity is to understand the nature of the struggle, the way the land lies, and to be able to express it. Did he himself feel better for doing so? “Was it cathartic? I don’t know. I felt better that it was said. I didn’t want to walk around with it.”

In person Coates is warm and relaxed, full of intellectual energy, but his book is short on solace or solutions or much in the way of optimism. It preaches a gospel of brutal truths about race, and stresses the importance of acknowledging them as an aspiration in itself. Despite the fact of a black American president, despite the media focus on the protest against police killings, he sees no prospect of much change, at least not until America acknowledges the facts of its history. It is, I suggest, an argument above all against the requirement to be hopeful.

“Yes,” he says. “But I’m a writer. I have no responsibility to be hopeful. This is literature. I don’t need to be arguing that in five years we are going to turn a profit. I don’t need to look for redemption.”

But in America in particular, doesn’t that need for redemption, for optimism, run deep? “Yes and I think that it is deeply injurious to us all. If all your movies and all your stories have to end with the good guy winning on some fundamental level, your culture is not being honest about the world. My job is to look out and see what I see and to be just as honest as I can.”


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is published by Text Publishing (£10.99). Click here to order a copy for £8.79


Ta-Nehisi Coates: ‘In America, it is Traditional to Destroy the BLACK Body’


Ta-Nehisi Coates: ‘In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body’

Ta-Nehisi Coates | Sunday 20 September 2015 


Son,

The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are. I think of that summer that you may well remember when I loaded you and your cousin Christopher into the back seat of a rented car and pushed out to see what remained of Petersburg, Shirley Plantation, and the Wilderness. I was obsessed with the civil war because six hundred thousand people had died in it. And yet it had been glossed over in my education, and in popular culture, representations of the war and its reasons seemed obscured. And yet I know that in 1859 we were enslaved and in 1865 we were not, and what happened to us in those years struck me as having a certain amount of import. But whenever I visited any of the battlefields, I felt like I was greeted as if I were a nosy accountant conducting an audit and someone was trying to hide the books.

I don’t know if you remember how the film we saw at the Petersburg battlefield ended as though the fall of the Confederacy were the onset of a tragedy, not jubilee. I doubt you remember the man on our tour dressed in the grey wool of the Confederacy, or how every visitor seemed most interested in flanking manoeuvres, hardtack, smooth-bore rifles, grapeshot, but virtually no one was interested in what all of this engineering, invention and design had been marshalled to achieve. You were only 10 years old. But even then I knew that must trouble you, and this meant taking you into rooms where people would insult your intelligence, where thieves would try to enlist you in your own robbery and disguise their burning and looting as Christian charity. But robbery is what this is, what it always was.

At the onset of the civil war, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies – cotton – was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi river valley and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. The first shot of the civil war was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” declared Mississippi as it left the union, “the greatest material interest in the world.”

Coates with his son, Samori, in the summer of 2013.
 Coates with his son, Samori, in the summer of 2013.

But American reunion was built on a comfortable narrative that made enslavement into benevolence, white knights of body snatchers, and the mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honour and élan. This lie of the civil war is the lie of innocence, is the Dream. Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories. I, like every kid I knew, loved The Dukes of Hazzard. But I would have done well to think more about why two outlaws, driving a car named the General Lee, must necessarily be portrayed as “just some good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm” – a mantra for the Dreamers if ever there was one. But what one “means” is neither important nor relevant. It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labour – it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible – that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And these fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.

It had to be blood. It had to be nails driven through a tongue and ears pruned away. It had to be the thrashing of a kitchen maid for the crime of churning the butter at a leisurely clip. It could only be the employment of carriage whips,tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights or whatever might be handy to break the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation. And the bodies were an aspiration, lucrative as Indian land, a veranda, a beautiful wife, or a summer house in the mountains. For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break bodies was the mark of civilisation. “The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is – the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

You and I, my son, are that “below”. That was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism. But because they believe themselves to be white, they would rather countenance a man choked to death on film under their laws. And they would rather subscribe to the myth of Trayvon Martin, slight teenager, hands full of candy and soft drinks, transforming into a murderous juggernaut. And they would rather see Prince Jones followed through three jurisdictions and shot down for acting like a human.

Coates during his time as a student at Howard University in Washington DC.
 Coates during his time as a student at Howard University in Washington DC.

It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country. It breaks too much of what we would like to think about ourselves, our lives, the world we move through and the people who surround us. The struggle to understand is our only advantage over this madness. By the time I visited those battlefields, I knew that they had been retrofitted as the staging ground for a great deception, and this was my only security, because they could no longer insult me by lying to me. I knew – and the most important thing I knew was that, somewhere deep with them, they knew too. The struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of the world under your control.

I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe themselves white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real – when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities – they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees that is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.

I am speaking to you as I always have – as the sober and serious man I have always wanted you to be, who does not apologise for human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people feel comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.


This is an edited extract from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published by Text Publishing (£10.99). Click here to order a copy for £8.79


Let’s Stop Pretending There’s NO Racism in India


Let’s stop pretending there’s no racism in India

 MAY 29, 2012 01:52 IST | UPDATED: JULY 12, 2016 03:03 IST |
Yengkhom Jilangamba


Most Indians think racism exists only in the West and see themselves as victims. It’s time they examined their own attitudes towards people from the country’s North-East

The mysterious death of Loitam Richard in Bangalore, the murder of Ramchanphy Hongray in New Delhi, the suicide by Dana Sangma and other such incidents serve as reminders of the insecure conditions under which people, particularly the young, from the north-east of India have to live with in the metros of this country. What these deaths have in common is that the three individuals were all from a certain part of the country, had a “particular” physical appearance, and were seen as outsiders in the places they died. These incidents have been read as a symptom of the pervasive racial discrimination that people from the region face in metropolitan India.

An institutionalised form

Quite expectedly, such an assertion about the existence of racism in India will not be taken seriously; the response will be to either remain silent and refuse to acknowledge this form of racism or, fiercely, to reject it. Ironically, most Indians see racism as a phenomenon that exists in other countries, particularly in the West, and without fail, see themselves as victims. They do not see themselves harbouring (potentially) racist attitudes and behaviour towards others whom they see as inferior.

But time and again, various groups of people, particularly from the north-east have experienced forms of racial discrimination and highlighted the practice of racism in India. In fact, institutionalised racism has been as much on the rise as cases of everyday racism in society.

In a case of racial profiling, the University of Hyderabad chose to launch its 2011 “initiative” to curb drinking and drug use on campus by working with students from the north-east. In 2007, the Delhi Police decided to solve the problems of security faced by the north-easterners in Delhi, particularly women, by coming up with a booklet entitled Security Tips for North East Students asking north-eastern women not to wear “revealing dresses” and gave kitchen tips on preparing bamboo shoot, akhuni, and “other smelly dishes” without “creating ruckus in neighbourhood.”

BRICS summit

Very recently, in the run-up to the BRICS summit in New Delhi, the Delhi Police’s motto of “citizens first” was on full display, when they arrested or put under preventive detention the non-citizens — the Tibetan refugees. But the real problem for the security personnel cropped up when they had to identity Tibetans on the streets of Delhi. This problem for the state forces was compounded by the fact that Delhi now has a substantial migrant population from the north-east whose physical features could be quite similar to those of Tibetans. So, the forces went about raiding random places in Delhi, questioning and detaining people from the region. North-eastern individuals travelling in vehicles, public transport, others at their workplaces, and so on all became suspects.

Many were asked to produce their passports or other documents to prove that, indeed, they were Indian citizens and not refugee Tibetans. In some cases, “authentic” Indians had to intervene in order to endorse and become guarantors of the authenticity of the nationality of these north-easterners. The situation became farcical and caught the attention of the judiciary reportedly after two lawyers from the region were interrogated and harassed. The Delhi High Court directed the Delhi police not to harass people from the north-east and Ladakh. How much easier it would have been for the Delhi Police, if only citizenship and physiognomy matched perfectly.

But should one expect otherwise from these state and public institutions, given the fact that racism is rampant at the level of societal everyday experiences? For north-easterners who look in a particular manner, everyday living in Indian cities can be a gruelling experience. Be it the mundane overcharging of fares by autoricksaw- wallahs, shopkeepers and landlords, the verbal abuse on the streets and the snide remarks of colleagues, friends, teachers, or the more extreme experiences of physical and sexual assaults. It is often a never-ending nightmare, a chronicle of repetitive experience.

One also wonders if racial attitudes, if not outright racism, influence many more aspects of life than one imagines. For instance, whether there is any racial profiling of employment opportunities, given the concentration of jobs for north-easterners mostly in the hospitality sector, young women in beauty salons, restaurants and as shop assistants.

Visible and unseen

Of course, racism is difficult to prove — whether in the death of Richard or in the case of harassment of a woman from the north-east. And it should not surprise us if racism cannot be clearly established in either of these cases because that’s how racism works — both the visible, explicit manifestations as well as the insidious, unseen machinations. Quite often, one can’t even recount exactly what was wrong about the way in which a co-passenger behaved, difficult to articulate a sneer, a tone of voice that threatened or taunted, the cultural connotations that can infuriate.

How does one prove that when an autorickshaw driver asks a north-easterner on the streets of Delhi if he or she is going to Majnu ka Tila, a Tibetan refugee colony, that the former is reproducing a common practice of racial profiling? This remark could be doubly interpreted if made to a woman from the region — both racial and gendered. How do I prove racism when a young co-passenger on the Delhi Metro plays “Chinese” sounding music on his mobile, telling his friend that he is providing, “background music,” sneering and laughing in my direction? And what one cannot retell in the language of evidence, becomes difficult to prove. Racism is most often felt, perceived, like an invisible wound, difficult to articulate or recall in the language of the law or evidence. In that sense, everyday forms of racism are more experiential rather than an objectively identifiable situation.

Of course, every once in a while, there will be an incident of extreme, outrageous violence that is transparently racial in nature and we will rally around and voice our anger but it is these insidious, everyday forms of racial discrimination that bruise the body and the mind, build up anger and frustration. Fighting these everyday humiliations exhausts our attempts at expression.

If one is serious about fighting racial discrimination, this is where rules must change — by proving to us that in Richard’s death there was no element of racism. Given the pervasiveness of racism in everyday life, why should we listen when we are told that those who fought with him over a TV remote were immune to it?

To recognise that racism exists in this country and that many unintended actions might emanate from racism can be a good place to start fighting the problem. To be oblivious of these issues or to deny its existence is to be complicit in the discriminatory regime. Also, the reason for fighting against racism is not because it is practised against “our” own citizens but because it is wrong regardless of whether the victims of racism are citizens of the country or not. One way to be critical of racism is to recognise and make visible the presence of racism rather than merely resorting to legalistic means to curb this discrimination.

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(Yengkhom Jilangamba is a Visiting Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.)


 

Anti-African Racism in India


Anti-African Racism in India

Submitted by Sputnik Kilambi on Tue, 02/19/2013 – 15:55

Black Agenda Report
News, information and analysis from the black left.


Indian society appears to be confronting the horrors of rape – except the “rapes that have happened and keep happening to women somehow not considered “daughters of the nation.” Brutal assaults against Africans go largely unreported in the nation with the most thriving press in the world. 

Anti-African Racism in India

by Sputnik Kilambi

The attackers were quoted as saying they wanted to ‘punish the black.’”

On December 3 last year, five men robbed and gang raped a 24 year old Rwandese woman as she was returning home one evening to her home near Delhi University. The story was reported, though not widely, like so many others which have come before. And it was soon forgotten. Then came yet another gang rape and this time the story gripped the nation. India was shaken to its core as details emerged of how a young medical student was repeatedly raped and mutilated by a gang of drunken youths in the heart of the nation’s capital. 

Protests erupted on the streets of major cities with women and youth in the forefront, forcing the country to finally examine the shameful way it treats its women. The media blitz that followed was in sharp contrast to the silence or news-in-brief attitude to the thousands of other rapes that have happened and keep happening to women somehow not considered “daughters of the nation.” 

A similar hands-off attitude can be detected in mainstream media coverage – or, to be accurate, the lack of it – of a worrying number of cases of discrimination and violence against African students in India.

The muted coverage of the gang rape of the young Rwandese woman, who was ironically seeking asylum in India, is evidence of this selective approach to what is perceived as unacceptable. The Delhi police registered the crime three days after the rape and robbery and this only under pressure from an NGO which came to the help of the 24-year-old woman. It turns out that one of the rapists is well connected. Whether this is linked to the delayed police response is unclear. In a bizarre twist, the car used to abduct the Rwandese woman was reportedly a wedding present from the father-in-law of one of the rapists. An enquiry was ordered, four of the five rapists were arrested, and a police inspector was suspended. 

The Rwandese High Commission has now warned its citizens to be extremely cautious in their interactions with local people and especially to avoid friendships with the opposite sex.”

End of story, it would seem – no deep soul searching, no follow-up, and not even a mention of the case during the endless debates that followed the Delhi gang rape, which occurred after the sexual assault on the Rwandese student. 

While a reluctant Delhi police force had to be egged on to investigate the rape of the Rwandese student, it took the Jalandhar police no time at all to arrest three male Rwandese students on “eve-teasing” charges after an incident the Rwandese High Commission said was a misunderstanding. The students said they were asking for directions in a market, but the woman to whom they turned was frightened. 

The fear, like the misunderstanding, was probably genuine. Most women are doubly cautious since the Delhi gang rape, but it would be interesting to know how much the wariness of the woman in the market was heightened by the skin color of the men who approached her. The students have since been released on bail after an intervention by the Rwandese High Commission, which has now warned its citizens to be extremely cautious in their interactions with local people and especially to avoid friendships with the opposite sex because of Indian “attitudes.” So much for foreign studies being an opportunity to broaden one’s outlook and make new friends!

When the beheaded body of Imran Mtui, a young IT student from Tanzania, was found near the railway tracks in Bangalore in 2010, the coverage and investigation was sketchy and a racist motive dismissed out of hand. The case didn’t make national news despite vigorous protests from the victim’s family and the Indian High Commission in Dar-es-Salaam demanding a proper investigation into the murder. Local newspapers merely repeated the police line that the death was accidental. The fact that two other African students were reportedly killled in Bangalore prior to Imran’s murdercould have at the very least prompted closer scrutiny. Needless to say, Imran’s family is still bitter about their experience of “Incredible India.”

The latest horror story concerning African students made headlines briefly in January when 24-year-old Burundian student Yannick Nihangaza emerged from a nine-month coma after being savagely attacked by a gang of Punjabi youth in Jalandhar. Yannick was an IT student at the incongruously named “Lovely University,” which incidentally has one of the biggest foreign student intakes in the country. A passing auto rickshaw driver took the unconscious Yannick to hospital, where he remained on life support for weeks. Despite numerous complaints from his friends and family, and even two letters from Yannick’s father to the Punjab chief minister, there was no action from either the police or the state machinery until the national media took up the story three months later. 

Three other Tanzanian students died in Bangalore in the three months prior to Imran’s murder.”

The self-congratulatory tone taken by the media about its role in forcing the Punjab government to finally do something about Yannick Nihangaza, who will probably never live a normal life again, is somewhat hypocritical, given the length of time they took to report the attack in the first place

There were ingredients enough to make it more than just a “news” story – a foreign student has his head smashed in with a boulder and remains between life and death for weeks on end, no action gets taken, he comes from a country whose 13-year-civil war claimed more than 300,000 lives, and there are the familiar Indian elements of feudal and financial power. Why did a desperate father have to go looking for the media instead of the other way around, as would have been the case had the victim been considered more worthy of attention?

The flurry of reports that followed Nestor Nihangaza‘s appeal to the media last July subsided as abruptly as they appeared, until his son opened his eyes for the first time since the attack.

Reporting on the day Yannick emerged from his coma, NDTV called it a story of a miracle and of compassion. It was indeed a miracle, but the only real compassion came from some of the staff and students at Lovely University, who raised Rs 6 lakh to cover some of his medical treatment. 

Nestor Nihangaza says the report he was shown by the Punjab police showed that his son was clearly targeted because of the color of his skin (the attackers were quoted as saying they wanted to “punish the black”). The state government had to be pressured into paying compensation and picking up the medical bills. Nestor also complained that Lovely University authorities had been unforthcoming when he approached them for help. 

Students from the North-east can empathize with Africans in this country – they are stigmatized because they look different and are vulnerable to verbal, physical and sexual attack, attacks that get as little media attention as those against blacks. 

Of the estimated 50,000 foreign students that swell the coffers of private and public educational institutions, the majority are from neighboring countries and Africa and the Indian government has announced a further 22,000 scholarships for Africa in the coming three years.

However, the few reporters who have ventured into their world show that African students face similar problems wherever they might be in India – difficulties in finding accommodation and often being charged double the normal rent, regular run-ins with the police, not being allowed into pubs and discos, as was reported in a Bangalore tabloid sting operation. The prevalent attitude, according to the tabloid, was that Africans were perceived as a “security concern” and as “drug peddlers”, “scamsters” and “troublemakers” and that women didn’t feel safe around them. 

African students face similar problems wherever they might be in India.”

t is stating the obvious to say that the overwhelming majority of African students are here to get the quality education advertised in their home countries by Indian educational institutions. Many are from middle-class backgrounds and their families have made sacrifices to give their children a chance at getting on in life. Many others are on Indian government scholarships. 

Few saw any irony in the timing of the Burundian president’s state visit to India while his countryman Yannick Nihangaza lay in a coma in an Indian hospital. If the issue was raised at all during meetings between Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza and Indian leaders, this was not made public and nobody asked any questions. It is highly improbable that such a scenario would have played out had the student been from a wealthy nation. 

Irony knows no limits, it appears; at the height of the protests two years ago against repetitive racist – and sometimes murderous – attacks on Indian students in Australia, a group of youngsters thrashed a Congolese student to within an inch of his life in a posh Delhi mall while other shoppers looked on. The 25-year-old management student from Kinshasa was told by his attackers that no foreign student should be allowed to stay in India since Indian students were being beaten up in Australia. The Indian media, especially the electronic version, which stridently took up the clamor for justice for Indian students being attacked in Australia, never once thought to look at the glass house from which they were hollering. 

Africa remains the proverbial “dark continent” for most Indians, whose prejudices and attitudes are uncomfortably similar to western perceptions of Africa, indeed of India until not so long ago. 

The media could play an important role in deepening mutual understanding and appreciation, but they shy away from their obligations.

A group of youngsters thrashed a Congolese student to within an inch of his life in a posh Delhi mall while other shoppers looked on.”

One starting point could be a follow up to the story of Yannick Nihangaza, who is still in hospital. The media could do one of their famous “what was promised, what was delivered” pieces and ensure that his case remains in the news until a just settlement is reached. It would be too much to expect a campaign calling for justice for Yannick – the only online petition started by a concerned citizen in Bangalore closed with just 24 signatures. 

Delhi-based writer Namrata Bhandare is eloquent in her letter to Yannick’s father, cautioning him against expecting any justice“On April 21, the night your son was attacked in Ludhiana, a student from Odisha, the same age as your son, was shot dead in Boston. We shouted ourselves hoarse with outrage over his killing. We shouted ourselves hoarse when Indian students were attacked in Australia. And we shout ourselves hoarse when Ashton Kutcher makes fun of our accent and way of life. Will we shout ourselves hoarse over what happened to your son? I fear we will not. I hope you will get the justice you desire. But more realistically, I pray that your son will find a better place than the one he had here in my country.”


Sputnik Kilambi is a veteran electronic and print journalist in both the anglophone and francophone media. She can be contacted at sputnikkilambi@gmail.com.


The Dark Art of Racecraft


The Dark Art of Racecraft

Jason Richwine’s place in the long history of research on race and IQ

 TA-NEHISI COATES | MAY 13, 2013 | U.S.

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Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, the first black president of Howard University

 

Dave Weigel is one of my favorite reporters, but I think this piece on Jason Richwine, intelligence research, and “race” deserves a closer look:

Academics aren’t so concerned with the politics. But they know all too well the risks that come with research connecting IQ and race. At the start of his dissertation, Richwine thanked his three advisers — George Borjas, Christopher Jenks, and Richard Zeckhauser — for being so helpful and so bold. Borjas “helped me navigate the minefield of early graduate school,” he wrote. “Richard Zeckhauser, never someone to shy away from controversial ideas, immediately embraced my work. …”

Anyone who works in Washington and wants to explore the dark arts of race and IQ research is in the right place. The city’s a bit like a college campus, where investigating “taboo” topics is rewarded, especially on the right. A liberal squeals “racism,” and they hear the political-correctness cops (most often, the Southern Poverty Law Center) reporting a thought crime.

It is almost as though the “dark arts of race and IQ” were an untapped field of potential knowledge, not one of the most discredited fields of study in modern history. We should first be clear that there is nothing mysterious or forbidden about purporting to study race and intelligence. Indeed, despite an inability to define “race” or “intelligence,” such studies are one of the dominant intellectual strains in Western history. We forget this because its convient to believe that history begins with the Watts riots. But it’s important to remember the particular tradition that Charles Murray and Jason Richwine are working in. A brief reminder seems in order.

Here is antebellum “race realist” Josiah Clark Nott writing in 1854 to justify slavery:

That Negroes imported into, or born in, the United States become more intelligent and better developed in their physique generally than their native compatriots of Africa, every one admits; but such intelligence is easily explained by their ceaseless contact with the whites, from whom they derive much instruction; and such physical improvement may also be readily accounted for by the increased comforts with which they are supplied. In Africa, owing to their natural improvidence, the Negroes are, more frequently than not, a half-starved, and therefore half-developed race; but when they are regularly and adequately fed, they become healthier, better developed, and more humanized. Wild horses, cattle, asses, and other brutes, are greatly improved in like manner by domestication : but neither climate nor food can transmute an ass into a horse, or a buffalo into an ox.

Here is an excerpt from Madison Grant’s 1916 study The Passing of a Great Race:

These new immigrants were no longer exclusively members of the Nordic race as were the earlier ones who came of their own impulse to improve their social conditions. The transportation lines advertised America as a land flowing with milk and honey and the European governments took the opportunity to unload upon careless, wealthy and hospitable America the sweepings of their jails and asylums. The result was that the new immigration, while it still included many strong elements from the north of Europe, contained a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken and the mentally crippled of all races drawn from the lowest stratum of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, together with hordes of the wretched, submerged populations of the Polish Ghettos.

Our jails, insane asylums and almshouses are filled with this human flotsam and the whole tone of American life, social, moral and political has been lowered and vulgarized by them. With a pathetic and fatuous belief in the efficacy of American institutions and environment to reverse or obliterate immemorial hereditary tendencies, these newcomers were welcomed and given a share in our land and prosperity….

The result of unlimited immigration is showing plainly in the rapid decline in the birth rate of native Americans because the poorer classes of Colonial stock, where they still exist, will not bring children into the world to compete in the labor market with the Slovak, the Italian, the Syrian and the Jew. The native American is too proud to mix socially with them and is gradually withdrawing from the scene, abandoning to these aliens the land which he conquered and developed.

The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by these foreigners just as he is to-day being literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews. These immigrants adopt the language of the native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals and while he is being elbowed out of his own home the American looks calmly abroad and urges on others the suicidal ethics which are exterminating his own race.

Another from Lothrop Stoddard’s 1922 work The Revolt Against Civilization and the Menace of the Underman:

In Massachusetts the birth-rate of foreign-born women is two and one-half times as high as the birth-rate among the native-bom; in New Hampshire two times; in Rhode Island one and one-half times, the most prolific of the alien stocks being Poles, Polish and Russian Jews, South Italians, and French-Canadians. What this may mean after a few generations is indicated by a calculation made by the biologist Davenport, who stated that, at present rates of reproduction, 1,000 Harvard graduates of to-day would have only fifty descendants two centuries hence, whereas 1,000 Rumanians today in Boston, at their present rate of breeding, would have 100,000 descendants in the same space of time.

To return to the more general aspect of the problem, it is clear that both in Europe and America the quality of the population is deteriorating, the more intelligent and talented strains being relatively or absolutely on the decline. Now this can mean nothing lees than a deadly menace both to civilization and the race.

More from Lothrop Stoddard‘s 1921 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy:

In the United States it has been the same story. Our country, originally settled almost exclusively by Nordics, was toward the close of the nineteenth century invaded by hordes of immigrant Alpines and Mediterraneans, not to mention Asiatic elements like Levantines and Jews. As a result, the Nordic native American has been crowded out with amazing rapidity by these swarming, prolific aliens, and after two short generations he has in many of our urban areas become almost extinct.

The racial displacements induced by a changed economic or social environment are, indeed, almost incalculable. Contrary to the popular belief, nothing is more unstable than the ethnic make-up of a people. Above all, there is no more absurd fallacy than the shibboleth of the “melting-pot.” As a matter of fact, the melting-pot may mix but does not melt. Each race-type, formed ages ago, and “set” by millenniums of isolation and inbreeding, is a stubbornly persistent entity. Each type possesses a special set of characters: not merely the physical characters visible to the naked eye, but moral, intellectual, and spiritual characters as well. All these characters are transmitted substantially unchanged from generation to generation.

To be sure, where members of the same race-stock intermarry (as English and Swedish Nordics, or French and British Mediterraneans), there seems to be genuine amalgamation. In most other cases, however, the result is not a blend but a mechanical mixture. Where the parent stocks are very diverse, as in matings between whites, negroes, and Amerindians, the offspring is a mongrel — a walking chaos, so consumed by his jarring heredities that he is quite worthless. We have already viewed the mongrel and his works in Latin America.

Here is Karl Pearson in 1925 looking at Jewish immigration into Britain:

What is definitely clear, however, is that our alien Jewish boys do not form from the standpoint of intelligence a group markedly superior to the natives. But that is the sole condition under which we are prepared to admit that immigration should be allowed. Taken on the average, and regarding both sexes, this alien Jewish population is somewhat inferior physically and mentally to the native population. It is not so markedly inferior as some of those who wish to stop all immigration are inclined to assert. But we have to face the facts; we know and admit that some of the children of these alien Jews from the academic standpoint have done brilliantly, whether they have the staying powers of the native race is another question*. No breeder of cattle, however, would purchase an entire herd because he anticipated finding one or two fine specimens included in it; still less would he do it, if his byres and pastures were already full.

Far from being relegated to some musty corner of intellectual life, the Stoddard tradition, the tradition in which Jason Richwine stands, proved to be an influential force in world history. The Stoddard tradition gave us forced sterilization, “euthanasia” programs, miscegenation bans, and, ultimately, the Holocaust.

One might oppose the Stoddard tradition strictly on its tendency to birth suffering, misery, and catastrophe. But one can oppose it for simpler reasons — its practitioners have a nasty habit of being wrong. Harvard still stands. The Jews of Poland seem to understand American ideas quite well. And it was not the darker races who threatened civilization, but the cannibal Nordics rampaging under the Nazi flag. History has been deeply unkind to Jason Richwine’s spiritual ancestors. It’s comforting to think that the academics who show no interest in the “dark arts” do so out of fear of the leftist cabal. More likely, they do so to avoid being associated with a specious field of study whose primary contributions to the world include justifying slavery and inspiring genocide.

Which is not to say these authors should not be read. Pearson is especially instructive. In 1925, he claimed the Jews immigrating to Britain threatened to become a “parasitic race.” Under similar thinking, Jews were subsequently subjected to college quotas throughout America. Today, the descendants of Pearson tell us that Jews are the intellectual cream of the genetic crop.

This is what Barbara and Karen Fields mean when they talk about “racecraft.” Power must justify itself. When it is proven wrong, it simply recalibrates. Conditions and actions are explained away as the inalterable work of genetics. Yesterday’s yellow peril becomes today’s model minority. In the 1930s Jews dominated basketball because of their “Oriental background” and “flashy trickiness.” Today blacks dominate it through their animal strength and agility.

You see this shifting in Weigel’s own article, where we are told that Richwine is looking into “race.” But Hispanics are considered an ethnic group, not a race. That is because we have trouble explaining why Matt Yglesias, Sophia Vegara, Carmelo Anthony, Rosario Dawson, and Charlie Rangel can be said to comprise a separate “race.” One should also have trouble explaining why Walter White, Whoopi Goldberg, Djimon Hounsou, Jay Smooth, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, and I are all the same “race.”

These people do share something in common — their geographic ancestry makes them potential targets of white racism. If there is any fact we are warned away from, this is it. Richwine’s theories originate from a long tradition of white racism, the tradition of Grant, Stoddard, and Pearson.  But to say this is to indict an insupportable portion of our own history and traditions. It is to remind us that the differences between us were constructed by men who sought power, and are maintained just the same.


Ta-Nehisi Coates

TA-NEHISI COATES is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggleand Between the World and Me.

What We Mean When We Say ‘Race Is a Social Construct’


What We Mean When We Say ‘Race Is a Social Construct’

In a world where Kevin Garnett, Harold Ford, and Halle Berry all check “black” on the census, even the argument that racial labels refer to natural differences in physical traits doesn’t hold up.

TA-NEHISI COATES | MAY 15, 2013 |  U.S.
The Atlantic


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Walter White. Chairman of the NAACP. Black dude. (The Walter White Project)

Andrew Sullivan and Freddie Deboer have two pieces up worth checking out. I disagree with Andrew’s (though I detect some movement in his position.) Freddie’s piece is entitled “Precisely How Not to Argue About Race and IQ.” He writes:

The problem with people who argue for inherent racial inferiority is not that they lie about the results of IQ tests, but that they are credulous about those tests and others like them when they shouldn’t be; that they misunderstand the implications of what those tests would indicate even if they were credible; and that they fail to find the moral, analytic, and political response to questions of race and intelligence.

I think this is a good point, but I want to expand it. Most of the honest writing I’ve seen on “race and intelligence” focuses on critiquing the idea of “intelligence.” So there’s lot of good literature on whether it can be measured, its relevance in modern society, whether intelligence changes across generations, whether it changes with environment, and what we mean when we say IQ. As Freddie mentions here, I had a mathematician stop past to tell me I needed to stop studying French, and immediately start studying statistics — otherwise I can’t possibly understand this debate.

It’s a fair critique. My response is that he should stop studying math and start studying history.I am not being flip or coy. If you tell me that you plan to study “race and intelligence” then it is only fair that I ask you, “What do you mean by race?” It’s true I don’t always do math so well, but I understand the need to define the terms of your study. If you’re a math guy, perhaps your instinct is to point out the problems in the interpretation of the data. My instinct is to point out that your entire experiment proceeds from a basic flaw — no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists. The history bears this out. In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson delineated the significance of race:

It is race, is it not, that puts the hundred millions of India under the dominion of a remote island in the north of Europe. Race avails much, if that be true, which is alleged, that all Celts are Catholics, and all Saxons are Protestants; that Celts love unity of power, and Saxons the representative principle. Race is a controlling influence in the Jew, who, for two millenniums, under every climate, has preserved the same character and employments. Race in the negro is of appalling importance. The French in Canada, cut off from all intercourse with the parent people, have held their national traits. I chanced to read Tacitus “on the Manners of the Germans,” not long since, in Missouri, and the heart of Illinois, and I found abundant points of resemblance between the Germans of the Hercynian forest, and our Hoosiers, Suckers, and Badgers of the American woods.

Indeed, Emerson in 1835, saw race as central to American greatness:

The inhabitants of the United States, especially of the Northern portion, are descended from the people of England and have inherited the trais of their national character…It is common with the Franks to break their faith and laugh at it The race of Franks is faithless.

Emerson was not alone, as historian James McPherson points out, Southerners not only thought of themselves as a race separate from blacks, but as a race apart from Northern whites:

The South’s leading writer on political economy, James B. D. De Bow, subscribed to this Norman-Cavalier thesis and helped to popularize it in De Bow’s Review. As the lower-South states seceded one after another during the winter of 1860-61, this influential journal carried several long articles justifying secession on the grounds of irreconcilable ethnic differences between Southern and Northern whites. “The Cavaliers, Jacobites, and Huguenots, who settled the South, naturally hate, contemn, and despise the Puritans who settled the North,” proclaimed one of these articles. “The former are a master-race; the latter a slave race, the descendants of Saxon serfs.” The South was now achieving its “independent destiny” by repudiating the failed experiment of civic nationalism that had foolishly tried in 1789 to “erect one nation out of two irreconcilable peoples.”

Similarly, in 1899 William Z. Ripley wrote The Races of Europe, which sought to delineate racial difference through head-type:

The shape of the human head by which we mean the general proportions of length, breadth, and height, irrespective of the ” bumps ” of the phrenologist is one of the best available tests of race known. Its value is, at the same time, but imperfectly appreciated beyond the inner circle of professional anthropology. Yet it is so simple a phenomenon, both in principle and in practical application, that it may readily be of use to the traveller and the not too superficial observer of men.

To be sure, widespread and constant peculiarities of head form are less noticeable in America, because of the extreme variability of our population, compounded as it is of all the races of Europe; they seem also to be less fundamental among the American aborigines. But in the Old World the observant traveller may with a little attention often detect the racial affinity of a people by this means.

Two years later, Edward A. Ross sought to apprehend “The Causes of Race Superiority.” He saw the differences between the Arab “race” and the Jewish “race” as a central illustration:

It is certain that races differ in their attitude toward past and future. M. Lapie has drawn a contrast between the Arab and the Jew. The Arab remembers; he is mindful of past favors and past injuries. He harbors his vengeance and cherishes his gratitude. He accepts everything on the authority of tradition, loves the ways of his ancestors, forms strong local attachments, and migrates little. The Jew, on the other hand, turns his face toward the future. He is thrifty and always ready for a good stroke of business, will, indeed, join with his worst enemy if it pays. He is calculating, enterprising, migrant and ambitious

You can see more of this here.

Our notion of what constitutes “white” and what constitutes “black” is a product of social context. It is utterly impossible to look at the delineation of a “Southern race” and not see the Civil War, the creation of an “Irish race” and not think of Cromwell’s ethnic cleansing, the creation of a “Jewish race” and not see anti-Semitism. There is no fixed sense of “whiteness” or “blackness,” not even today. It is quite common for whites to point out that Barack Obama isn’t really “black” but “half-white.” One wonders if they would say this if Barack Obama were a notorious drug-lord.

When the liberal says “race is a social construct,” he is not being a soft-headed dolt; he is speaking an historical truth. We do not go around testing the “Irish race” for intelligence or the “Southern race” for “hot-headedness.” These reasons are social. It is no more legitimate to ask “Is the black race dumber than then white race?” than it is to ask “Is the Jewish race thriftier than the Arab race?”

The strongest argument for “race” is that people who trace their ancestry back to Europe, and people who trace most of their ancestry back to sub-Saharan Africa, and people who trace most of their ancestry back to Asia, and people who trace their ancestry back to the early Americas, lived isolated from each other for long periods and have evolved different physical traits (curly hair, lighter skin, etc.)

But this theoretical definition (already fuzzy) wilts under human agency, in a real world where Kevin Garnett, Harold Ford, and Halle Berry all check “black” on the census. (Same deal for “Hispanic.”) The reasons for that take us right back to fact of race as a social construct. And an American-centered social construct. Are the Ainu of Japan a race? Should we delineate darker South Asians from lighter South Asians on the basis of race? Did the Japanese who invaded China consider the Chinese the same “race?”

Andrew writes that liberals should stop saying “truly stupid things like race has no biological element.” I agree. Race clearly has a biological element — because we have awarded it one. Race is no more dependent on skin color today than it was on “Frankishness” in Emerson’s day. Over history of race has taken geography, language, and vague impressions as its basis.

“Race,” writes the great historian Nell Irvin Painter, “is an idea, not a fact.” Indeed. Race does not need biology. Race only requires some good guys with big guns looking for a reason.


Ta-Nehisi Coates


‘India Is Racist, And Happy About It’


‘India Is Racist, And Happy About It’

OUTLOOK INDIA | 29 JUNE 2009 INTERNATIONAL | OPINION

A Black American’s first-hand experience of footpath India: no one even wants to change

In spite of friendship and love in private spaces, the Delhi public literally stops and stares. It is harrowing to constantly have children and adults tease, taunt, pick, poke and peer at you from the corner of their eyes, denying their own humanity as well as mine. Their aggressive, crude curiosity threatens to dominate unless disarmed by kindness, or met with equal aggression.

Once I stood gazing at the giraffes at the Lucknow Zoo only to turn and see 50-odd families gawking at me rather than the exhibit. Parents abruptly withdrew infants that inquisitively wandered towards me. I felt like an exotic African creature-cum-spectacle, stirring fear and awe. Even my attempts to beguile the public through simple greetings or smiles are often not reciprocated. Instead, the look of wonder swells as if this were all part of the act and we were all playing our parts.

Racism is never a personal experience. Racism in India is systematic and independent of the presence of foreigners of any hue. This climate permits and promotes this lawlessness and disdain for dark skin. Most Indian pop icons have light-damn-near-white skin. Several stars even promote skin-bleaching creams that promise to improve one’s popularity and career success. Matrimonial ads boast of fair, v. fair and v. very fair skin alongside foreign visas and advanced university degrees. Moreover, each time I visit one of Delhi’s clubhouses, I notice that I am the darkest person not wearing a work uniform. It’s unfair and ugly.

Discrimination in Delhi surpasses the denial of courtesy. I have been denied visas, apartments, entrance to discos, attentiveness, kindness and the benefit of doubt. Further, the lack of neighbourliness exceeds what locals describe as normal for a capital already known for its coldness.

My partner is white and I am black, facts of which the Indian public reminds us daily. Bank associates have denied me chai, while falling over to please my white friend. Mall shop attendants have denied me attentiveness, while mobbing my partner. Who knows what else is more quietly denied?

“An African has come,” a guard announced over the intercom as I showed up. Whites are afforded the luxury of their own names, but this careful attention to my presence was not new. ATM guards stand and salute my white friend, while one guard actually asked me why I had come to the bank machine as if I might have said that I was taking over his shift.

It is shocking that people wear liberalism as a sign of modernity, yet revert to ultraconservatism when actually faced with difference. Cyberbullies have threatened my life on my YouTube videos that capture local gawking and eve-teasing. I was even fired from an international school for talking about homosociality in Africa on YouTube, and addressing a class about homophobia against kids after a student called me a ‘fag’.

Outside of specific anchors of discourse such as Reservations, there is no consensus that discrimination is a redeemable social ill. This is the real issue with discrimination in India: her own citizens suffer and we are only encouraged to ignore situations that make us all feel powerless. Be it the mute-witnesses seeing racial difference for the first time, kids learning racism from their folks, or the blacks and northeasterners who feel victimised by the public, few operate from a position that believes in change.

Living in India was a childhood dream that deepened with my growing understanding of India and America’s unique, shared history of non-violent revolution. Yet, in most nations, the path of ending gender, race and class discrimination is unpaved. In India, this path is still rural and rocky as if this nation has not decided the road even worthy. It is a footpath that we are left to tread individually.


(The writer is a Black American PhD student at the Delhi School of Economics.)