Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the impact of racism in the United States at Amherst College

By Stuart Foster

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Ta-Nehisi Coates got a standing ovation at Amherst College before his talk on Tuesday, September 13, 2016. (Erica Lowenkron/Collegian Staff)

Ta-Nehisi Coates got a standing ovation at Amherst College before his talk on Tuesday, September 13, 2016. (Erica Lowenkron/Collegian Staff)

Ta-Nehisi Coates described racism in the United States as a structure specifically designed to advance the economic interests of the country at a talk at Amherst College on Sept. 13.

Coates, an Atlantic correspondent and the writer of the non-fiction book “Between the World and Me,” spent much of the talk describing a concept in his book he referred to as the dream. The dream was described as an ideal American society that is ignorant to the impact of racism on  black Americans and how racism has benefited white Americans.

“I was born in a certain portion of America where fear was a defining reality,” Coates said to the roughly 1,000 people filling LeFrak Gymnasium. “It’s striking to be a young kid in West Baltimore in the ‘80s and not just be afraid yourself but to understand that your parents are afraid.”

Coates read an excerpt from “Between the World and Me,” written in the form of a letter to his son about his experience as a black male in the U.S., which illustrated different experiences he had witnessing fear in black Americans. Coates recalled this fear as present in his father, who “beat [him] as if someone might steal [him] away.”

A young boy waving a gun at Coates when he was 11 years old was referred to as the moment when he learned his life “was in constant jeopardy.”

“He had affirmed my place in the order of things, that I could be easily selected,” he said. “Death could easily rise up from the nothing of a boring afternoon.”

Referring to television shows he watched as a child, such as “Mr. Belvedere” and “Family Ties,” Coates said these shows depicted an ideal white suburban life that he could not connect to his own life in Baltimore.

Coates explained that shows such as these could make him less faithful in his institutions, as the world he lived in was so distant from the portrayals he saw on television. He described the schools in these shows as wildly different from his own, where he felt like he was being “taught how to fit into a box.”

“There is a no excuses culture that is put on black and brown kids,” Coates said. “When I got to schools like the one my son goes to now that isn’t the case.”

Coates went on to question the way Americans typically think of racism, particularly as a logical and primitive descendent of the concept of race in general.

Instead, Coates called it a relatively recent invention, and talked about how blacks in the United States first worked alongside white indentured servants, with little racial separation. Coates said that as the history of the U.S. progressed, “a slow legal separation” began to emerge between blacks and whites.

“All of the liberties America was supposed to have had to be secured by having a definitive working class that could always be relied upon,” Coates said about the eventual enslavement of blacks in the United States.

Coates said that while a vast majority of Americans did not own slaves, many were willing to defend the institution of slavery because they believed they could eventually own them.

Many political developments commonly viewed by Americans as important to the progress of the country, Coates said, were designed in specifically racist ways.

“Much of the policy that progressives today uphold from the New Deal was the same,” Coates said, describing institutions such as Social Security. “The dream depended on keeping black people out.”

Coates also talked about the upcoming presidential election, which he said marks a turning point “where we decide whether the dream is going to destroy us or not.”

Particularly disappointing to Coates was what he described as a failure of the mainstream news to report figures that a high volume of Donald Trump supporters believe President Obama is a Muslim or was not born in the United States.

“Looking at all these powerful people handle it, I think ‘What world are you living in?’” Coates said. “You’re living in the world of the dream.”

Coates was greeted with a standing ovation when he walked out to the audience. Amherst College students who attended the talk praised Coates’ discussion of race.

“I thought it was excellent,” said Amherst College senior Brittanie Lewis. “It’s frustrating when people come to Amherst [College] and come in with a huge vocabulary and jargon. He made what he was saying super accessible.”

Takudzwa Tapfuma, an Amherst College senior from Zimbabwe, said that he wanted to better understand the struggles of black Americans, and how they are different from black Africans.

“It was great. I really liked his part on self-reflection and how important that is to forward the conversation on race,” Tapfuma said.

Stuart Foster can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @Stuart_C_Foster.