Pascal Robert: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Danger of the Black Cultural Tour Guide

by Pascal Robert

In mainstream media, both print and televised, there are certain Black folk who serve a role that is historical–going back to Booker T. ta-nehisi coatesWashington–and consistent, but still profoundly damaging to the sensibilities of the Black masses, particularly the Black poor. That person is the black cultural tour guide. The name “Black cultural tour guide” is often too benign a description for this ilk. In reality they sometimes act like the zoo keeper taking the nice sub-urban White family into the exhibit of all the REAL DANGEROUS animals. The lions, tigers, bears, and gorillas. They interpret the signs and signals of these species for the White onlookers, let them know when certain movements mean danger, and also inform them when it’s safe to toss a banana or piece a fruit at the big ape with the scowl. This often is how their depictions can be translated in the worst and most racist extremes in their attempts to convey “authentic blackness.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates is not of that more extreme variety–the zoo keeper. But make no mistake that he is the new favorite Black cultural tour guide of the chattering class.

In a recent piece in the New York Times entitled “Beyond the Code of the Streets,” Coates discusses how his upwardly mobile middle class college educated Black friends have this inner “code” that represents their authentic instincts as a product of growing up in the mean streets of the “hood” and how the wrong kind of interaction can bring them back to the “code” resulting in tragic if not life threatening circumstances.

For black men like us, the feeling of having something to lose, beyond honor and face, is foreign. We grew up in communities — New York, Baltimore, Chicago — where the Code of the Streets was the first code we learned. Respect and reputation are everything there. These values are often denigrated by people who have never been punched in the face. But when you live around violence there is no opting out. A reputation for meeting violence with violence is a shield. That protection increases when you are part of a crew with that same mind-set. This is obviously not a public health solution, but within its context, the Code is logical.

As someone who grew up in Jamaica, Queens and has lived in rough urban environments from Boston to Miami, I can say emphatically that Ta-Nehisi Coates has been listening to way too much hip hop music.

This phenomenon he refers to as this “code” is a product of a concept called hyper-masculinity, and there is nothing particularly “black” about it. The Italian-American, and Irish-American white kids I went to Catholic High School with in New York City often exhibit this “code.” If you ever played high school football or any physical sport as a young man you’ve experienced a similar “code,” regardless of if you’re black or white. If you spent time in the military, particularly in certain branches known to play heavily on notions of hyper-masculinity such as the Marines or Navy Seals, you know the “code,” as well. So there is nothing “black” about the code.

The only thing Black about it is that  writers like Coates essentialize this behavior as a “black thing you wouldn’t understand,”—unless of course you read his articles in The Atlantic or The New York Times–it legitimizes the view that those Black male youth are so dangerous, don’t you see? Even one of their own, this young brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates tells us that even their educated ones, doctors and writers, succumb to it when provoked. Now you understand why we must have policies like Stop and Frisk to target these people, don’t you see.? Ta-Nehisi has shown us the way!! How could you possibly call us racist? This is the perfect example of how racial essentialism—basically meaning that all Black people are essentially the same ideologically, culturally, and politically–enables thinking that leads to the most dangerous policy prescriptions. And at the same time Ta-Nehisi Coates will wax rhapsodic in pieces for The Atlantic highlighting the racist injustice of New York City’s Stop and Frisk Policy.

I read Ta-nehisi Coates as a good writer and limited thinker who hasn’t had the indulgence to engage in the intellectual heavy lifting to be anything but today’s favorite Chocolate boy wonder who talks about racism in a way that makes White Liberals feel good. He challenges the status quo about as much as Jiffy Peanut butter. In fact, he enables the most noxious forms of racial essentialism and repeatedly speaks in this annoying voice of “authentic blackness” that comes out of a Tribe Called Quest CD. The fact that this guy is considered the “the best writer on race today,” is only further indication on how pathetic writing on race today really is.

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  4. I cannot stand him. He is a lightweight who doesn’t know it yet and the darling of those who like to pay lip service to diversity and intellectualism without actually having to deal with someone who can bring the noise, so to speak.

  5. Spot on perspective about Coates the latest designated Black literary muse of white folks. Coates of course loves his mascot role and he salvates with ego and pride in his blog.

    He often appeases his white chatter class gallery with cheap shots and censorship of Black bloggers who dare to question his hollow drivel about Black folks. Coates intellectual cowardice of course is rewarded by gullible white lemmings who like it when he puts the street negroes and malcontents in place.

    At the end of the day Coates brilliant ability to cut and paste words does not advance the ethos and genius of Black folk his talents are not directed at the Black community Coates efforts exist to appease and seek applause from white folks in the chatter class. So sad!

  6. Do you think the New York times posted that piece because they just wanted to hear the meanderings of a kid from Baltimore talking about hanging out with his buddies from the hood? Let’s please stop being naive and myopic. They published that piece because Coates made a convenient comment about ALL BLACK MEN FROM THE INNER CITY of his age group who grow up in the crack era. Coates is 37 I am 44. GUESS WHAT that includes me. As well as my fraternity who grew in the Rochdale Projects that is now a partner at a Wall Street Law Firm. Or my Line Brother from the South Bronx who is now a leading partner at a CPA firm in New York. Or my other line brother who grew up in the rough and tumble streets of Mount Vernon New York who is now a Baptist Minister. ALL grew up in Crack infested New York at the HEIGHT of the crack game. Thanks to this IDIOCY Coates wrote, White folk can now say, well maybe we can’t get too candid with these New Money Black professionals they might go “wilding.” So though I despise the trite rags to riches bullshit narrative used by the neuveux riche formally broke but now petite-bourgeois Black professional to say, “Guess what, America is great, if I can make it anyone can,” Coates does nothing but make the effort of common working class and poor folk to send there kids to college to try to better their lives basically worthless because their kids are always gonna be expected to revert back to some ridiculous hip hop induced imagery their white cohorts have in their head. That is the SHEER DAMAGE this little piece enables.

  7. Loved the article, but I have to ask: Where is the danger? Ta-Nehisi doesn’t seem to be talking about anything new. I think some people just read his writings for confirmation of their established thinking. And unfortunately, if he wasn’t the one writing this baloney, it’d just be another nonsensical type writing it in his stead. We ought to continue combating these attacks on the black community with positive forward thinking black commentary like what is offered on Let us keep up the good work.

  8. Ta-Nahesi Coates has a well-deserved reputation as the stupidest writer in popular currency today, barring perhaps only Thomas Friedman. His empty-headed racist tripe sells to left-liberals because the Democrat Party cannot survive without racism. He is forced to ban commenters that disagree with him because his racist nonsense is so easily debunked.

  9. For me, it was impossible to read beyond the first paragraph of this hatchet job on Coates without realizing that that is exactly what it is – a hatchet job.

    It’s short on specifics and long on ad hominems.

    Coates, to my mind, is one of the best of the so-called, culture writers. There may be areas to critique him – no – I’m sure there are.

    But this article reads more life a smear campaign launched by a seethingly jealous wannabe who has a long way to go and to grow before he’s earned the credibility to criticize the likes of Coates.

  10. Someone who starts his column off specifying the importance of properly seeing black culture and then calling another black writer “chocolate boy wonder” cannot see the beam in his own eye.

    This entire article screams “sour grapes” with an embarrassing boldness.

    Seriously…check yourself.

  11. Kenneth Carroll

    Pascal’s attempted response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Beyond the Code of the Streets reads like a petulant response from a sub-standard writer who wished that he had Coates writing skill and entre’ to the publications where he is published. As the previous comment by Brian Gilmore states, Pascal’s response is an ankle deep ad hominem on Coates, rather than a refutation of his ideas, which one might imagine there is room for critique. Pascal in his jealous hissy fit, seems to miss completely the point Coates was making. Pascal talked about other races and ethnicities had the “code” also to show how wrong Coates is, but that wasn’t the point of the NY Times piece. The point is how and why that code is retained by successful Black men, and the psychological requirements that make it’s retention important in our society. Pascal could have benefitted from an editor willing to work with him on focusing on challenging the ideas of that Mr. Coates revealed rather than this raw display of envy and poor writing skills.

    • “A raw display of envy and poor writing skills” would be a more accurate description of Coates’ article, which like every other piece by the Stupidest Writer Alive consists of whiny racist navel-gazing.

  12. Coates is being paid to do what he does, not unlike all of the other black media talking heads, whether they be “liberal” or “conservative”. Let any of them “get off script” and you’ll see how quickly they’d become yesterday’s news. There need be no confusion about who Coates or any of these other guys serve. There’s only one question that need to asked to clear that up—who pays them? Do “we” pay them or does someone else? If it’s the former, you might get genuine analysis, whether or not you agree with it. If it’s the latter, it’s manufactured for consumption. Applying that litmus test to most individuals and organizations who purportedly represent us would reveal that we frequently don’t truly control even the debate around the issues that concern us. Given that, no one should wonder why the conditions exist as they do within our communities. Addressing many of the things that ail us require a degree of independence in thought and action–and both of those have economic independence as a precursor.

  13. I found this essay, while opening a relevant discussion of the NY Times piece, does not go very far in the critique. It reads more like a hatchet job on Coates than on what he said in that particular piece.