When I walked into Gannett Auditorium, just about every seat was filled with students, professors, and members of the Saratoga community eagerly awaiting Ta-Nehisi Coates’ keynote address. Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He won the George Polk Award for commentary for his 2014 feature “The Case for Reparations,” which was the subject of Thursday’s talk. The evening began with an introduction from Hope Spector, chair of the SGA Speakers Bureau and Dr. Jenny Mueller, Assistant Director of the Intergroup Relations program at Skidmore.
Coates began the lecture by discussing one of the most relevant instances of racism in America today: the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Coates explained that citizens see the police force in Ferguson as a gang as opposed to an authority, due to their fining of citizens for financial gain. This corrupt relationship breaks the unwritten contract that exists between the government and its people.
Coates claimed that in order to truly change the state of race relations in America today, it is important to understand its origins. “People say that slavery is a bump in the road,” Coates said. “But slavery is not a bump in the road, slavery is the road.” He went on to explain that during the 19th century, slaves were human property worth 3.5 million dollars, more than the production of banks, ships, and railroads combined. The period of American enslavement lasted longer than the period of freedom in America has thus far.
And while blacks in America are of course freer than they were during the Civil War era, there is certainly much more work to be done. Coates explained that the dialogue about race that we have initiated is based on manners. The real problems are found in the discussions we aren’t having.
“We have a choice,” Coates tells us. “We can continue to pretend that everything is okay, or we can start doing the hard work.” Coates compared the love of our country to the love of a family. “Love demands hard conversations and even harder actions.”
But how can we turn these actions into a reality? Coates urges America to stop making jokes about racism and discrimination. He tells us to start informing others about the issues surrounding race in the United States. The sooner we know what exactly is wrong with our nation, the sooner we will be able to fix it.
However, Coates recognizes that what he is proposing is not an easy task. He has accepted that we are several generations away from a society free of racism. He knows that he will probably never live to experience a free America, and he is okay with that. The reality, he tells us, is that “very few people live to see the fruits of their struggles.” But he continues to fight for freedom today so that future generations might one day know the liberty and equality that America was supposedly founded on.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has challenged us to begin to initiate these difficult conversations, and we must rise to the occasion. In our society, we are often more inclined to fight for our own rights than to protect the rights of others. But whether we choose to realize it or not, racial discrimination in America is something that impacts us all. It has injured the way we view our country and our relationships with one another. It has divided America rather than united it. With every racist action, with every racist word uttered, with every racist thought, the citizens of this country continue to distance themselves from true unity. The issue of racism in America is not just something we should talk about; it is something we must talk about.