Ta-Nehisi Coates’ eloquent, angry polemic on racism in the age of Trump

Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photo (cc) 2015 by Sean Carter Photography.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For liberals and progressives trying to make sense of President Trump’s victory last November, the role of race has posed something of a dilemma. On the one hand, Trump’s racist rhetoric clearly played into pre-existing resentments on the populist right, thus boosting turnout among his more deplorable (to coin a phrase) supporters. On the other hand, if an African-American could be elected president twice, how could a white woman have lost because of racial animosity?

The answer, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that Trump — unlike all previous presidential candidates — campaigned specifically as the candidate of white identity politics. Unlike Barack Obama’s opponents, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump rallied supporters who believed that white people comprised an oppressed group under siege. Thus it was Hillary Clinton rather than Obama who reaped the whirlwind of white backlash. As Coates puts it: “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

Coates carefully builds his case in an 8,200-word essay in The Atlantic titled “The First White President.” It is, in some respects, a companion piece to his 2012 article “Fear of a Black President,” in which he argued that Obama was not as effective on issues of race as he could have been because he dared not show any real emotion lest he frighten White America. Even so, Coates wrote, simply having a black president served to racialize virtually everything that Obama touched, including his embrace of a health-care plan that had previously been associated with Republicans. Glenn Beck went so far as to castigate Obamacare as “reparations” for slavery.

For a white liberal like myself who wants to believe that racism, though ever-present, is in long-term decline, Coates’ new essay makes for painful reading. Littered with the N-word and informed by historical fears about white slavery (too complex to get into here), the article makes a thorough and devastating case that Trump won because he was supported by an overwhelming majority of white people — and not just the white working class, but whites across the educational and economic spectrum. “Trump,” Coates writes, “assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker.” Citing the magazine Mother Jones, Coates points out that if only white voters had been allowed to cast ballots, Trump would have won the Electoral College by a margin of 389 to 81.

Although Coates reserves his real outrage for Trump, he is not especially kind to Clinton or her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders. Coates criticizes Sanders for his naive view that economics are more important than race, answering Sanders’ assertion that not all Trump supporters are racist or homophobic with this: “Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” As for Clinton, Coates credits her for acknowledging “the existence of systemic racism more explicitly than any of her modern Democratic predecessors.” But he attributes that mainly to her need to atone for her own and her husband’s rhetoric and policies, which, among other things, led to an increase in the incarceration rate.

With his long, deeply researched essays on race, politics, and history, as well as a well-regarded series of books (his Trump article is excerpted from his forthcoming “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy”), Coates has established himself as a leading intellectual on American social culture. He is not admired in all circles, of course. Ben Shapiro, an anti-Trump conservative, wrote several years agoin Breitbart News (then in its pre-Trumpist phase) that Coates espouses a “nihilistic and counterfactual viewpoint” that “demonstrates the media’s obsession with racism as a point of American conflict — a conflict that must be kept fresh, an open wound, so as to maximize the power of the government.”

Far more sympathetic is the liberal journalist Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. But even he has reservations. Though Marshall agrees with the thrust of Coates’ argument regarding the continued centrality of race in politics and culture, he finds something tonally off about “The First White President” — namely, the conceit that Coates, and Coates alone, has identified race as the true reason that Trump prevailed in the 2016 election. “Coates’ piece is a great essay that brings together a wealth of data and characteristically penetrating analysis. I recommend it highly,” Marshall writes. “But I could not read it without thinking there are a lot of voices — hardly little heard or without megaphones — he’s simply not hearing.”

“The First White President” is an important piece of work that Democrats should examine carefully as they look ahead. White resentment is a powerful force. It’s been present in Republican politics for a long time, from Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” to Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” to George H.W. Bush’s infamous exploitation of a black criminal named Willie Horton. Now Trump has upped the ante considerably. How effectively Democrats will respond remains to be seen. But as Coates shows, anyone who thinks that the problem can be solved merely through efforts to win over the white working class is sadly mistaken.

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Remembering the nine victims of the Charleston shootings

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Look at this image of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church‘s home page. Nothing has changed since the horrifying murders of nine people Wednesday evening. The site also includes this quote from Sister Jean German Ortiz, who, I assume, is or was a member of the church: “Jesus died a passionate death for us,  so our love for Him should be as passionate.”

They died passionately for our sins — we, the inheritors and conservators of a Confederate-flag-waving, gun-drenched culture that has only partly come to terms with our legacy of slavery and racism. The Washington Post has sketches of each of the nineSharonda Coleman-Singleton, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson. Sadly, with the possible exception of Rev. Pinckney, we’ll have an easier time remembering the name of the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof. There’s only one of him, and in any case evil holds our attention more easily than good.

I’m not sure why this terrible crime would spark any disagreements other than the inevitable disagreement over guns. But for some reason people are debating whether this is a “hate crime” or an act of “terrorism.” It strikes me that it’s obviously both — a home-grown act of terror committed by someone filled with hate.

But enough bloviating. Here is a short list of articles I’ve read that I hope will broaden our understanding.

I begin with our finest essayist, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who has written an eloquent demand that South Carolina remove the Confederate flag immediately. He writes:

This moral truth [a reference to a speech by a Confederate politician] — “that the negro is not equal to the white man” — is exactly what animated Dylann Roof. More than any individual actor, in recent history, Roof honored his flag in exactly the manner it always demanded — with human sacrifice.

Too bad Gov. Charlie Baker’s initial reaction to a question about the Stars and Bars was so clueless. Dan Wasserman of The Boston Globe does a whole lot better.

The New York Times publishes a piece by Douglas R. Egerton, the biographer of Emanuel AME founder Denmark Vesey, on the history of the church — a history marred by numerous racist attacks, the most recent coming in 1963. Here’s Egerton:

For 198 years, angry whites have attacked Emanuel A.M.E. and its congregation, and when its leaders have fused faith with political activism, white vigilantes have used terror to silence its ministers and mute its message of progress and hope.

Egerton also links to a 2014 Times article on the unveiling of a statue of Vesey, who, along with 34 others, was executed following a failed slave rebellion. Incredibly, there were those who opposed the statue on the grounds that Vesey was a “terrorist.” Think about that if you hear anyone deny that Roof carried out an act of terrorism.

I’ll close with my friend Charlie Pierce, who posted a commentary at Esquire on Thursday that demonstrated tough, clear-eyed thinking at a moment when the rest of us were still trying to figure out what had just happened. Pierce writes:

What happened in a Charleston church on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unspeakable.” We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was. We should speak of it as racial violence, which is what it was.

Please keep the nine victims and their families in your thoughts today.

Blog like a journalist

The revolutionary gleam has faded. Yet blogging remains at the center of the digital media toolbox.

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Previously published at Medium.

From the vantage point of 2014, offering advice on how to write a blog feels a little like telling people how to write a proper newspaper article in 2005. “Blogging is dead,” says the (ahem) blogger Jason Kottke, overtaken by social-media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

But if the revolutionary gleam has worn off, blogging nevertheless is still a valuable tool for anyone practicing digital journalism, whether it be commentary, original reporting, photography, or video. I’ve been blogging since 2002 — on my own at first, then as the media columnist for the late, lamented Boston Phoenix, and since 2005 as the publisher and almost-sole author of Media Nation.

These days there are many places online where you can share your work — not just social platforms but also online publications such as the Huffington Post and Medium, which combine paid content with unpaid blog posts. (God help us, but such hybrids are known in some circles as “platishers.”) So why set up a solo blog?

The reason is that you need an online home that is controlled by you — not by Mark Zuckerberg or Arianna Huffington or some other digital mogul seeking to get rich from your content. Moreover, you need to establish an online identity. If you don’t, others will do it for you. “You can’t allow others to define who you are, or control the way you are perceived. This is especially true today for people in the public eye, but the more we do online the more it’ll be true for the rest of us, too,” writes Dan Gillmor in his book Mediactive. “To the extent that it’s possible to do so, you should control the reference point for people who want to know more about you and your ideas.” (In 2006 I profiled Gillmor for CommonWealth magazine.)

Dan Gillmor
Dan Gillmor

Yes, I’ve uploaded this essay to Medium. I also occasionally self-publish at the Huffington Post and am a (too-) active member of Twitter and Facebook. But I’ll repost this article at Media Nation, as I do with all my work to which I have retained copyright. I don’t have complete control — I use the free blogging platform WordPress.com, and I must adhere to its policies. But I can back up my work and take it with me, and it would be easy to switch to self-hosting using free WordPress.org software if I felt the need. Just as important, the URL for Media Nation is my name: dankennedy.net.

So what is a blog? Taking the most expansive definition possible, a blog consists of content, usually text or mostly text, that is published online in reverse chronological order. That would include everything from the Washington Post’s breaking-news blog to Lisa Bonchek Adams’s diary-style blog about living with metastatic breast cancer. Dave Winer, an early Internet thinker and coder who writes the blog Scripting News, has a more specific definition, which he first gave voice to in 2003. Winer writes:

A blog is the unedited voice of a person.

The lack of editing is central, because it’s one person who’s responsible for every word. When you click the Publish button you should feel butterflies, at least sometimes, because there’s no one to pass the buck to. If someone else wrote the headline, or did a copy edit, or even reviewed what you wrote and critiqued it before it went out, it’s still writing, but it is not a blog.

I don’t believe we need to think about blogs quite that narrowly. For instance, if a journalist asks her editor to read a sensitive post before publishing, that doesn’t mean she’s not writing a blog. Still, there’s no question that a journalistic blog — which is what we are concerned about here — is different from other kinds of journalistic writing: less formal, more conversational, often with no traditional reporting (but never without research), and aimed at a small but passionate audience. (As David Weinberger and others have said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people.”)

How to write a good journalistic blog post

There are many ways that a journalist can go about writing a good blog post. It might be a sentence or two. It might be 500 words. But I think the essence of a worthwhile post can be boiled down to several elements:

  1. Call your audience’s attention to something it doesn’t know — for instance, an environmental blogger might write about a new study regarding electric cars. Above all, don’t be boring. The lede you write for a blog post might be different from what you would write for a news story, but you still need to grab the reader by the throat and not let go.
  2. Link to the source of your information, which could be a news article or possibly the study itself. Quote a bit from the source, keeping in mind that most of your readers won’t actually click. Shorter quotes can be put in quotation marks; longer quotes should be blockquoted. (Please note that I’m not talking about the sort of blog post that summarizes a news story so thoroughly that there is no incentive to click. I’m talking about a true value-added post. Keep reading and you’ll see what I mean.)
  3. Bring in other sources of information. Although there’s nothing wrong with a short one-source blog post, you add value when you pull in other sources, link to them, and attempt to make sense of them.
  4. Offer your own perspective and analysis so that your readers take away something of value that goes beyond the sources you’re quoting. If you are working for a news organization that does not normally allow you to express your opinion, then don’t. But a first-person conversational tone is appropriate. If expressing opinions is part of your job description, then have at it. In all cases, though, your tone and approach should remain journalistic. One good question to ask yourself: Is this something I would want to show a prospective employer?

Here is a blog post I wrote earlier this year about the sale of the Providence Journal that encompasses all of the elements I discuss above. Please note, though, that you could scroll through many pages of Media Nation and find only a few that are as thorough.

Some additional guidelines to keep in mind:

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Ta-Nehesi Coates

Choose a beat that is narrow — but not too narrow. The best blogs are specialty sites where you can learn everything there is to know about a subject and where the blogger’s enthusiasm comes through. That is what you should aspire to. But if you pick too narrow a subject, you may find yourself hard-pressed to find enough reading material on which to feed. Boston restaurants? No problem. Ethiopian restaurants in Boston? Eh, probably not. You might make it through a week. But what are you going to do after that?

Compile a wide-ranging reading list. And keep compiling. If your blog is about climate change, you are going to want to put together a list of blogs, websites, and Twitter feeds related to that topic that you check every day. If your blog is a supplement to your regular work as a beat reporter, you might be doing what is sometimes called beat blogging — sharing short stories that might not be of general enough interest for your news organization, keeping on top of developments in your field, and interacting with your audience. (Steve Buttry offers some worthwhile thoughts about beat blogging; he has also written a good beginner’s guide to blogging.)

Maintain a conversation with the “former audience.” Dan Gillmor coined the phrase, and Jay Rosen has written about “the people formerly known as the audience.” They were referring to formerly passive news consumers who have been empowered by technology to talk back to us and among themselves. Your audience is a valuable resource. Tend to the comments on your blog. Always posts links to your blog posts on Facebook and Twitter, which is not only a good way to promote your work but is also where much of the online conversation has migrated in recent years. Remember the Dan Gillmor adage that your readers know more than you do — which is not to say that collectively they know more than you, but that someone in your audience might. Much of reporting consists of finding people who know more than we do and talking with them. Your blog (and your social-media presence) can make that easier.

Don’t try to read people’s minds. This is specialized advice, but since I write opinionated media criticism, it’s something I wrestle with from time to time. Another way of putting it is that you shouldn’t ascribe motives unless you’re willing to pick up the phone and do the reporting. For example, it’s fine to observe that the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox is soft (if you think that’s the case and can offer evidence) and that the Globe’s owner, John Henry, is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. But it’s out of bounds to speculate without interviewing the principals that Globe staff members are afraid of angering Henry, or that Henry must have sent out an edict of some sort. Facts are facts and opinions are opinions, and each has its place. Speculation is neither fact nor opinion and has no place in your blog.

Learn to use photos within the bounds of copyright law. I like to run photos with my blog posts, but I know I can’t run a photo that is the copyrighted property of, say, the Associated Press or the New York Times. Fortunately, there are troves of photos online that you can use without payment, many of them through Wikimedia Commons and Creative Commons. Be respectful of the photographer by crediting it as he or she would like and by linking to the photo. Here is an example of how I handle such credits. (You may be interested in this Q&A I did with the photographer, Gage Skidmore, for the Nieman Journalism Lab.)

Some bloggers worth paying attention to

The best way to become a good writer is to read as much good writing as you can. The best way to become a good blogger is to study blogs by people who know what they’re doing. Here are some examples from my own personal list and from my followers on Facebook and Twitter. You’ll find a range of approaches and topics here.

Note: This is just a tiny sample. I’ve left out many people, including friends, especially if they are white men writing about politics — the single most common type of blogger. If you’d like more recommendations, please take a look at the blogroll on Media Nation — and see who the people below are linking to.

Andrew Sullivan. A pioneering blogger and a former editor of The New Republic, Sullivan’s The Dish is a model in terms of linking, quoting, offering his own commentary, and posting with the regularity of a Stakhanovite. Sullivan writes most frequently about politics, but nothing is off limits. He is not on my daily must-read list, but strictly in terms of craft and discipline, he may be without peer.

Jay Rosen. The New York University journalism professor’s blog, PressThink, is perhaps the most influential in future-of-journalism conversations. Rosen writes a type of blog that I particularly admire — long, well-thought-out posts in which he attempts to make sense of many strands of information. His attention to comments is impeccable as well.

Adam Gaffin. The founder and editor of Universal Hub, which tracks and excerpts from several hundred blogs and websites in the Boston area, as well as from mainstream news sources. Updated multiple times a day, the emphasis is on the sources, not the writer — although Gaffin’s wicked sense of humor often breaks through. In 2008 I profiled him for CommonWealth magazine.

Ta-Nehisi Coates. A national correspondent at The Atlantic and an occasional columnist for the New York Times, Coates blogs powerfully and intelligently on issues related to race and culture. Beyond his blog, his essay “The Case for Reparations” may be the most important magazine article published so far in 2014.

Meg Heckman
Meg Heckman

Meg Heckman. A journalism professor at the University of New Hampshire whose blog, A site of her own, focuses on “women, tech, journalism.”

C.J. Chivers. A war correspondent for the New York Times, his blog is called The Gun.

Virginia Postrel. A libertarian and early blogger, Postrel writes the Dynamist Blog, which is worth a look.

Jim Romenesko. The original media blogger, Romenesko moved from blogging on his own to working for the Poynter Institute, and is now on his own once again at JimRomenesko.com. Essential news-biz gossip.

Ian Donnis and Scott MacKay. Their On Politics blog is a good example of a beat blog, as Donnis and MacKay cover politics for Rhode Island Public Radio.

Michael Marotta. His blog, Vanyaland, is a respected guide to alternative rock.

Marjorie Arons-Barron. Former editorial director at WCVB-TV (Channel 5), she writes a blog — often with political reporting — on politics and public affairs.

Mark Garfinkel. A staff photographer for the Boston Herald whose website, Picture Boston, is an excellent example of a local photojournalism blog.

Photo credits: Blogger (cc) by European Parliament; Dan Gillmor by Joi Ito; Ta-Nehesi Coates by David Shankbone; Meg Heckman by Dan Kennedy. All photos published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Richard Cohen, piled high and deep

If you read only one commentary on Richard Cohen’s wretched Washington Post column of Tuesday, in which he appears to endorse the view that people with “conventional” views are nauseated at the sight of interracial couples, read this, by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic.

As Coates reminds us, Cohen has stepped in it over race again and again over the years, and invariably tells us that his feelings are hurt at the idea that anyone might think he holds racist views. Time for the gold watch, Mr. Cohen. Actually, no — just leave, OK?