Melissa Murray and Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss the law, race, journalism, and Black Panther

On January 31, even in the polar vortex chill, Tishman Hall auditorium was packed with audience members who came to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates—Atlantic national correspondent, celebrated author of Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power, and distinguished writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute—in conversation with Professor Melissa Murray. Hosted by the Brennan Center for Justice, the discussion covered issues including criminal justice and the upcoming 2020 presidential election, the roles of journalists and the #MeToo movement, and the power of myth and culture in shaping policy. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates

The event started with a discussion of politicians and policy, touching on Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez as well as Senator Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign. Of Ocasio-Cortez, Murray said, “Her Twitter game is incredibly strong”; although Coates agreed, he noted that he worries for her, because “the most brilliant person in the world eventually says something stupid.” Gaffes would make her vulnerable to attack, and he added: “I want her to be around for a while.” 

Coates expressed concern about Harris’s record as a prosecutor; before her tenure as a Senator, she served as San Francisco’s district attorney and as attorney general of California. In particular, Coates cited a 2010 video of Harris discussing a proposal to threaten the parents of truant children with jail time. 

He observed that this program would primarily affect mothers, and it would likely be most harshly enforced in communities of color. “Minus a world of racism,” Coates said, “I am not convinced that we would look at a mother… and say the best way to deal with this is through prosecution.”

Melissa Murray
Melissa Murray

Murray added that truancy laws are elements of the criminal justice system that, like mass incarceration, disproportionately affect black communities. Murray asked Coates how candidates in 2020 should be addressing issues of criminal justice reform and mass incarceration. Coates said that he cannot envision how to “unspool” a system that has become so entangled with society: “I fear that what you are now seeing is going to become a permanent feature of America.” 

Coates’ writing—including his widely-read Atlantic essay on “The Case for Reparations” and his 2015 book Between the World and Me—has been critical in chronicling and analyzing systemic injustices. In conversation with Murray, Coates said that the role of journalism is to open readers’ eyes to issues they might not have experienced viscerally themselves. The journalism of the #MeToo movement, he said opened his eyes to the experiences of women, particularly those of his journalist colleagues. 

“The power of journalism is how it can turn ideas into reality,” he said. “It can confront you with the way to make you realize something that maybe you kind of knew as an idea, or as a notion, but do not understand as a reality.”

Melissa Murray and Ta-Nehisi Coates
Murray and Coates

Other forms of culture also play a critical role in expanding people’s view of the humanity of others, he suggested. In response to a question from the audience about why he decided to write the Black Panther comic book series—the basis for a 2018 movie—Coates said: “Those Marvel movies are defining for people who is going to be human, and who is not. So if you give me the opportunity to author some of the source material for that, as somebody who is concerned about the humanity of black people, about the humanity of all people, about the policy that comes out of it, why would I not take that?”

And ultimately, the question of “who is human and who is not” has a critical effect on law and policy, Coates said: “Those of us who are in the world of policy deeply often underestimate the power of myth… Symbols define what your imagination is, and your imagination therefore bounds what possible policy you can have.”

Posted February 20, 2019