American Sociological Association

Ta-Nehisi Coates - 2016 Excellence in Reporting on Social Issues

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Journalist

It is not often that a consensus develops around an award recipient. But for the ASA Award for the Reporting of Social Issues such a tidal wave developed supporting our 2016 awardee. Literally hundreds of A.S.A. members urged our committee to select Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the committee heartily agreed.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a young (born 1975) writer, journalist, memoirist, and public intellectual. He is national correspondent for The Atlantic Magazine. His  many contributions to that magazine include the 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations,” that earned him great attention and set a high standard for a fair and passionate understanding of cross-generational justice.

Coates is the author of two books. His first book, The Beautiful Struggle, published 2008, is a memoir of his own growing up and coming of age in West Baltimore. It is personal but it also a report in which he sees himself as experiencing distinctively African-American challenges, dangers, hurdles, and opportunities, a kind of sociological history. In it, Coates writes of his young, high school age self, “I was, still am, a scientist at heart,” and there was, still is, a truth to that about his work, at the same time that he writes in the vein of memoir, with great passion, and in a rich and evocative style. The Beautiful Struggle is tough on others around him but on no one more than on his own adolescent self. He can see and say hard things. He can also decide he was wrong in past opinions and positions; he can change his mind.  

Between the World and Me, winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, is again a reflection on race in America, written as a letter to his son, with powerful passages on raising young black men in a world of violence where they are all too likely to become themselves the victims of violence. Impassioned and informed, the writings of Coates bring to life what race means in contemporary American life in a way that is sociologically sensitive, bold, and beautifully crafted.

In reviewing Between the World and Me for the New York Times, African-American lawyer, civil rights litigator, law professor, and author of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, spoke of the book with great admiration, including her appreciation that the book is written specifically to and for an African-American audience. But she also acknowledged that she wanted more from it, that she wanted it not to conclude simply that African-Americans can expect little to change in the institutional and cultural racism so centrally and deeply located in the American heritage, but that the struggle against this must go beyond consciousness-raising to political action. The work of Ta-Nehisi Coates does not evoke only admiration, awe, and assent, but also discomfort and objection and conversation – often all from the same reader.

Mr. Coates has received important honors for his work. In 2015 Coates received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” His blog and other writings for The Atlantic and contributions to other magazines and newspapers brought him the Sidney Hillman Prize for opinion and analysis journalism (2012); a National Magazine Award for essays and criticism in 2013 for “Fear of a Black President” (The Atlantic); the George Polk Award for commentary in 2014 for “The Case for Reparations.”

Coates attended, but did not graduate from, Howard University. He has gone on to teach in the writing program at M.I.T. as a visiting professor 2012-14 and to serve as a journalist-in-residence in 2014 at the City University of New York.

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