Over 300 people filled Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall Friday night to hear acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose controversial analyses of race in America have appeared on the cover of The Atlantic and in the pages of the The New York Times.
The talk addressed many of the same issues of race relations in America as his June 2014 Atlantic feature article “The Case for Reparations.” In the talk, Coates traced what he called the “plunder” of black people by whites throughout American history, ending his talk with a call to rethink the meaning of white and American identities. Coates questioned how Ivy League schools like Yale were complicit in this plunder, citing the slave-based economy that funded the University for many years. Yale students said they thought Coates’s visit was important in light of recent events surrounding race that have occurred on campus.
Coates argued that the presence of racist property laws throughout history — what he described as “the plunder” — is the root cause of racial differences seen today.
“This is plunder and this is plunder that is made possible by U.S. policy,” he said, referring to what he described as discriminatory federal government housing laws. “It’s a way of doing business.”
Coates added that experiences during his childhood in Baltimore in the 1970s made him realize the material differences between many blacks and whites in America. The vast majority of white Americans had a childhood that was free of violence, he said. Coates said that while growing up, he made every decision based on his concerns for his own physical safety.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who introduced Coates, said Coates’s message of white identity relying on the plunder of blacks is difficult for many people to hear. However, Holloway added that he thinks it should be understood not as an accusation of white people, but as an assertion that race is a human construct.
Near the end of the talk, Coates said that if he were an activist student at Yale he would question why the University has been complicit in the “plundering” of black people throughout history, a comment that sparked both students and faculty to question Yale’s role in the larger national dialogue on race.
“At its founding and for its first 150 plus years, yes, Yale, like so many other institutions of the era were complicit in plunder because their finances were interwoven with the global slave economy,” Holloway wrote in an email to the News.
Students who attended the talk said they thought Coates had furthered the conversation of race on campus, and were glad that Coates had been invited. The talk was part of the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism and co-sponsored by the Yale College Dean’s Office, the Office of the President and the Department of African American Studies.
Vice President of the Black Student Alliance at Yale Eshe Sherley ’16 said she thought it was important for black students to shape the direction of race conversations at Yale. Sherley added that these conversations were especially important given recent news stories relating to racism, including the racist chanting of a University of Oklahoma fraternity, the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin and the Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson’s policing.
“[Coates is] calling on a nation that justifies itself to itself with lies, to actually have the bravery to face the truth. It’s not just Yale, it’s white people,” said Edward Columbia ’18, who attended the talk.
Still, Coates criticized many of the ways race is discussed across the country, calling the recent anniversary ceremonies in Selma “pageantry.”
“All these conversations about race are a waste,” Coates said. “It’s become a self-congratulatory kind of thing.”
Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations,” brought more unique visitors in a single day to The Atlantic’s site than any previous story for the magazine.