Early on, I thought that the most notable thing about Ta-Nehisi Coates's presence as a senior editor and blogger at The Atlantic was his status as the only black person there. That still stands out. However, on a closer look, his status as perhaps the only editor who is not a graduate of Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, or the London School of Economics may be just as important.
Granted, I began reading Coates early on because of his commentary on African American news and culture. I was reading him back in his Village Voice days, especially in 2003, after the publication of his "Rice, Rice, Baby!" article on Condoleezza Rice. I've kept tabs on his writings over the years, including his short stint at Time, his work for The New Yorker and The New York Times, and of course now his run at The Atlantic.
Prompted by observations made by Coates in writings and various interviews over the last few months, I took a look at the educational backgrounds of his colleagues. Almost all of them attended prestigious universities. Coates, by contrast, attended Howard University (H..U!), but did not graduate. But some hard work here and there, some breaks over here and there, and important networks of support along the way at key moments got him to where he is.
The nature of his work, those breaks and opportunities, and the networks of support certainly deserve more discussion, but for now, I wanted to simply point out the significance of someone, a black person with non-Ivy league credentials appearing on the roster of a major media organization like The Atlantic. When elite or high profile universities and companies seek to diversify or practice some form of affirmative action, they often seek out elite people of color to join them.
Some years ago when a leading administrator at a major university was criticized for not hiring any senior black professors in African American literature, the official became defensive and said "No, but we really tried to get Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He was just unwilling to leave Harvard." The official seemed oblivious to the facts that Gates was hardly the only senior black professor in the country and that searches for black faculty could extend beyond Harvard. Unfortunately, institutions too often compete for only a select group of students and employees with elite credentials.
But what if more universities and companies instituted this "Ta-Nehisi Coates model" that The Atlantic adopted? What if, that is, institutions sought out diverse candidates beyond the ranks of the highly credentialed and once they recruited those candidates they provided them with adequate support?
Related: A Notebook on the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates