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On Racism: 'This Is Our Heritage. You Can't Get Away From It'

The Lavin Agency

Last month, Michael Dunn was convicted of attempted murder, after firing several rounds into an SUV of young black men. Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old, was killed in the incident. Dunn is 47, and he is white. Dunn invoked the "Stand Your Ground Law" to defend his actions, and the jury was deadlocked on whether to charge him for Davis's murder. He'll face a retrial this summer.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a correspondent for The Atlantic had this to say on the trial:

A very wise man wrote me the other day and said he would have been happier if Dunn had been convicted of first-degree murder, gotten 15 years, and then was released to try to pick up the pieces of his life. And I think that really gets to the point. This is not about the ruination of white people—individual or collective. This is about coping with a heritage of regarding black people as subhuman.

Coates has been one of the foremost voices on issues of race, politics, and the law for the past decade. Tonight, he'll be giving the Robert R. Wilson lecture at Duke University on the topic of racism as a cultural heritage.

Coates sat down to talk with Phoebe Judge a few hours before his talk. They met in the lobby of the Washington Duke Inn, adjacent the school.

"Anywhere you look at domestic policy in this country, you can find it being accomplished, regrettably, on the basis of racism," Coates said. Coates and Judge talked about domestic cotton production, black exclusion from social security, and about redlining in the mid-20th century. "This is our heritage and you can't get away from it."

"The expectation that our citizens will make decisions outside of our heritage, our history, is deeply bizarre."

This idea, that racism is sewed into the very foundation of this country, is what makes decisions like that in the Jordan Davis case so resonant, Coates said. 

"The expectation is that you will get a jury of people who will go into a room, and somehow they will exist outside of America. Or that laws will be past outside of America. As if who you are and your history don't affect anything."

Coates hopes people will walk away from his lecture at Duke with a realistic understanding of the country that we live in. He wants to turn the conversation away from the moral failing of African Americans and towards, "the total and utter destruction of white supremacy."

 Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University Thursday March 20, 2014.

Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Eric Mennel prepares the afternoon/evening "drive time" newscast on WUNC. Previously, he was a producer for The Story with Dick Gordon. Eric has reported for All Things Considered, This American Life, 99% Invisible and other radio programs. He covered protests and security measures at the 2012 Republican National Convention for WUSF Tampa and NPR News. One day, he hopes to own a home with a wrap-around porch.
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