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Racial Profiling A Lifelong Reality For Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in Baltimore, and it was there, as a teenager, when he first felt like he was being singled out for his race. He and a friend walked into a store, and the employees followed them the entire time as they shopped.

"At that time, I laughed it off," Coates tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "It sort of is the air, as sure as, I don't know, apple pie is good? Black men, and sometimes black women, get followed. And so, I just took it for granted."

When he started driving, he says, he really started noticing that racial profiling was a fact of his life as a young black man. He got stopped repeatedly, even when he hadn't done anything, and says he was treated "like a suspect," whether he got a ticket or not. Either way, "it was never ever a pleasant interaction."

Coates thinks it ties into a bigger reality about being black in America. "There's a social contract that we have with this country where we all pay our taxes, we agree to obey the law," he says. But "when you are black, you do not expect equal treatment under the law."

So when episodes of racial profiling make headlines, as incidents at department stores Barneys and Macy's have recently, Coates says it's not surprising, particularly in New York City.

"We live in a city in which stop-and-frisk is the law. That's the way police have decided to interact with African-American communities," he says. "That sends a message to everybody else. There's no reason why any big retailer should do anything different, if the state's going to do that."

Coates says that as his hair has begun to gray, his run-ins with the police have become less frequent. But even as he ages out, as he puts it, he worries about his own son. "My whole job is to tell him, just because you think X, Y and Z is right, it doesn't mean you say it in the moment, especially when you're dealing with people who can kill you."

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