Yale students on the march. (Philipp Arndt)

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Campus, on Black Life

We were lucky this week—as American colleges and universities seemed to break a little bit — that Ta-Nehisi Coates came to town.

Not because the influential author of Between The World And Me tried to explain the race tensions roiling Mizzou and Yale or prescribe the right balance of liberty and safety there. He didn’t. He did, though, describe the black dilemma on campus and how it’s possible for a plum spot like Yale to become unbearable: you have to have high expectations.

I don’t particularly get upset about students wearing blackface and that sort of thing. I certainly don’t support it. But, I’m just going to be really honest with you: among certain populations within the African American community…you just have low expectations for white people. There’s no other way to say that. You really do.
[laughter, applause]
Y’all are laughing, but it’s really not funny. Because nobody wants to be that way. And nobody should be that way… But it’s almost like a way of shielding yourself. And you say, “Well, that’s who they are anyway. What did you expect?”
So the kids that go to Yale and protest, they have expectations, and in that sense they’re kind of right. They actually are kind of right, in some sort of profound way. Whereas me, I would probably just walk past: “Listen, I’ll be out of here in four years. I don’t care about this institution, anyway.” That would be my mindset, but that’s not correct! That’s not correct, because you should have the right to belong to the institution just anybody else. You should feel just as at home in the institution as anybody else.

Is he right?

In our podcast, we have more of Ta-Nehisi Coates at Harvard with Bruce Western, the sociologist you may remember from our show on Attica.

Listen also for Daunasia Yancey, the founder of Black Lives Matter Boston, and Harvard’s first ever African American house masters (residential deans) Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson. The law professors, who are friendly with the Christakis’s at Yale, are trying to help their students feel strong at Harvard and wherever they go after that.

Professors Stephanie Robinson and Ronald Sullivan at Harvard this week.

Let us know what you think. And if we made progress on our big questions for the week: How did a bunch of students, called “shrill” and “millennial”, topple a major public university and grab the mic on the biggest issue of our time. Now that #BlackLivesMatter is playing out on campus, will it strengthen or sputter?

Talking to students outside Coates’s lecture gave us confidence. One student, an African American woman, said she’s got “a sense of hope”:

What has changed is there is a new generation coming of age that’s truly dissatisfied with the barriers. The burden is on us to articulate the fact that we’re not where we should be after so many years.

A Native American student talked about duty — of being at Harvard…

This is the belly of the beast and galvanizing here is going to be harder than it might be elsewhere. This is privilege incarnate. We’re at Harvard University and I think that places like Yale and Harvard can lead, but they’re leading with one hand tied behind their back. And I’m a lot more hopeful for things like Missouri.

..and, yes, of being a millennial:

I don’t think millennials have a choice. Everything is coming to a head; whether it’s climate change, race relations, campaign finance. All of these things are at our feet whether we like it or not. And they can write us off as whiners but we don’t have a choice. We’re dealing with it. And we’re going to be running the show whether they like it or not.

Thanks for listening, commenting, and subscribing on iTunes.

— Pat Tomaino