Well before tensions erupted in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, Johns Hopkins asked renowned race and culture writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent at The Atlantic, to serve as the inaugural speaker at their new "Race in America" series aimed at sparking discussion around racism and discrimination. By some force of "cosmic timing," professor Nathan Connolly said while introducing Coates, the talk happened today.
On Thursday morning, Coates, a Baltimore native who has been called the "James Joyce of the hip-hop generation," by novelist Walter Mosley, called on students to recognize that the violence that spilled into the streets of Baltimore is connected to more than protests around Freddie Gray.
"I have a problem when you begin the clock with violence on Tuesday," he said. "The lives of black people in this city have been violent for a long time."
The young black people who have been condemned as thugs and criminals in the past week, he said, live "lives of incomprehensible violence."
And he urged listeners to grapple with the uncomfortable truth that racism and discrimination are systemic, institutionalized in decades of Jim Crow policy that has pervaded at local, state and federal levels.
"Cliven Bundy has never really been the threat," Coates said, referencing the Nevada rancher who notoriously questioned whether African-Americans were "better off as slaves" during an interview last year with The New York Times. "It's the policy that's been the threat."
Overcoming such entrenched policies, he said, is not simply a matter of putting more African-Americans into office and having them do the right thing — it's going to take a much broader conversation.
"Nobody asked to be part of it," he said, "but when you're an American, you're born into this."
Coates called on Johns Hopkins specifically as a seat of power in Baltimore to engage in that conversation.
People shouldn't get into the serious work of moving this country forward to feel good about themselves, he added.
"If white people in your class are feeling bad," he told one of the professors interviewing him, "welcome to the world, we feel bad about it, too."
"Laws do not descend from the gods," he said. "Laws are created by people."
When a young woman asked him about police wearing body cameras, he urged people to back up and look at broader policies like the 1994 crime bill and the fact that after its signing, a disproportionate number of young, black men ended up in prison, instead.
And he cautioned that change will not come fast. Ida B. Wells, he said, pushed fervently for anti-lynching legislation and never, ever saw it. Most of us, he continued, will never see real change in our lifetimes, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't struggle toward it. He will never bend his writing to make people feel good, he said. Feeling guilty, he said, is not helpful.
"We have to adopt a less self-centered notion of struggle," he said.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.