“Race is the child of racism; not the father,” author Ta-Nehisi Coates said to 5,548 people during his speech at the Matthew Knight Arena on Friday night.
“We [Americans] have gone through the process of making Black people into a race,” he said. Coates argues that race is the byproduct of pigeonholing a group of people to take advantage of them — a shade of slavery or scapegoatism.
He sees similarities in President Trump’s recent “Muslim-ban.” Coates said that as an African American who carries the burden of history, watching policy being passed to segregate groups of people hurts, and it’s surprising how quickly it’s normalized.
“I’m with you,” he told the Muslim community. “It would be contrary to history to not be with you.”
Coates writes for The Atlantic magazine and has authored two books about racial issues in America. He also writes the Black Panther comic books for Marvel. The University of Oregon gifted every first-year student a copy of Coates’ book Between the World and Me as part of the Common Reading Program.. Every year, the program gives out a free book addressing relevant issues to first-year students.
Coates delivers a powerful perspective in his book, which is written as a letter to his son. The book focuses on the institution of racism and his experiences with it in America, something reflected in his speech.
Knight Arena is where Coates’ held his fifth talk in five days, he said.
He also directly addressed UO and the wealth it gains from its sports programs. “University systems should spend time thinking about wealth they’ve accumulated that was drawn from black bodies,” he said. “Make sure you’re giving back as much as you’re taking.”
According to the UO Athletic Department website, the department drew $103.4 million in revenue in 2016.
In the speech, Coates explored the growth of America since its birth in 1776. Slave labor was then the most valuable asset. He said there’s a difference between the general belief that slavery was America’s only flaw and the historical reality.
“Slavery isn’t a bump in the road; slavery is the road,” he said. “You can’t make America without slaves.”
He also referenced the Articles of Confederation — the document that acted as the first constitution of the United States of America — and its view on African Americans as the only “fit” people to work slave labor.
Coates made clear the importance of voting, but said voting doesn’t always mean you get to vote for whom you want. Coates told students in the crowd that making a choice anyway is part of growing up.
“Your vote matters,” he said.
Coates was born in 1975 in Baltimore, Maryland. He earned his undergraduate degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and soon after he became a reporter for three different newspapers. But according to a feature in Observer, shortly after each reporting stint he was “released,” for unknown reasons.
Coates now works for The Atlantic, and lives in New York with his wife, Kenyatta, and his son.