During his book tour in 2009, TNC talks about the American Dream in the context of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood:
As I wrote last week, I thought Chait had the upper hand in the latest twist of his and TNC’s argument about black culture, poverty and white supremacy. Then he writes a post that takes your breath away with its sweep and passion and vulnerability. It puts his move to more gloom and fatalism in the proper context:
People who take a strict binary view of culture (“culture of privilege = awesome; culture of poverty = fail”) are afflicted by the provincialism of privilege and thus vastly underestimate the dynamism of the greater world. They extoll “middle-class values” to the ignorance and exclusion of all others. To understand, you must imagine what it means to confront algebra in the morning and “Shorty, can I see your bike?” in the afternoon. It’s very nice to talk about “middle-class values” when that describes your small, limited world. But when your grandmother lives in one hood and your coworkers live another, you generally need something more than “middle-class values.” You need to be bilingual.
In 2008, I was living in central Harlem, an area of New York whose demographics closely mirrored the demographics of my youth. The practices I brought to bear in that tent were not artifacts. I was not under a spell of pathology. I was employing the tools I used to navigate the everyday world I lived. It just so happened that the world in which I worked was different. As I said in that original piece, “There is nothing particularly black about this.” I strongly suspect that white people who’ve grown up around entrenched poverty and violence will find that there are certain practices that safeguard them at home but not so much as they journey out. This point is erased if you believe that “black culture” is simply another way of saying “culture of poverty.
Read the whole thing. Meanwhile, many readers shared my concern that his depression about the state of America was weakening his usual strengths. One writes:
Like you, I have been a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates for several years and have been educated and informed by his writings on America’s history with blacks. The remark you made about his recent “profound gloom” is notable. As his writing has delved into specific policies of discrimination in the late 20th century, US drug policy and predatory lending of the 21st century, combined with his recent obsession with the Holocaust and WWII-era oppression, and then the verdicts in the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis killings, his blog has sadly turned into a place of utter depression and despair. His otherwise outstanding and skillfully moderated comments section has morphed into an angry cheering mob where voices of dissent usually have their comments deleted and sometimes their Disqus accounts banned from The Atlantic. This has happened to me in the last year – not for trolling, mind you – but for raising statistical challenges to the broad brush of assumptions he makes about both blacks and whites. He did not even open the comments section for his responses to Chait, if that gives you an idea about his willingness to debate the general public about this.
His general message nowadays is that it’s just not worth it for blacks. His writings suggest it’s racist, in fact, to try to motivate any blacks to do anything good with their lives until all the injustices of the past and present have been avenged. It’s racist to state that, despite the existence of the George Zimmermans and Michael Dunns of this world, a black teenager still has a far greater statistical likelihood of being killed by another black neighborhood teen than some random white guy. And even when black-on-black killings happen, white supremacy is to blame 100% of the time.
It’s hard to see all of this coming from him, especially knowing that he is a parent to a teenager. One of my all-time favorite articles of his is titled, “Earning the Temporary Hatred of Your Children“. The TNC of 2010 who wrote that great piece seemed like the kind of guy his father was. Tough. Strict with his kids. And all because he knew the world out there really is wicked and unfair, but that ultimately you can make it if you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Anyone can rise above it and find their way to a decent life.
I’m now left wondering if that TNC still exists. Does he tell his son to just quit or move to some other country because there is no hope for the U.S.? I would ask him myself, but he does not post his email address, he stopped using Twitter, and the question would surely get deleted by a moderator if I posted it in his comments section. Sad. I hope he comes out of this funk because I do think he’s an outstanding writer who has a lot of good things to say.
A few more readers are similarly concerned:
I agree with your assessment of the quality of TNC’s writings, and I view him as being perhaps the most persuasive writer on race in America. Nobody, in my mind, has been more effective than he on showing just how large the menacing shadow of slavery and Jim Crow truly is. When he illustrates just how true it is that young black men must be “twice as good,” it pushes my thinking on matters such as inequality.
But his turn to the “blue period” is an overreaction to the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis tragedies along with the uglier aspects of the Tea Party movement. He has taken these events and used them as microcosms for America as a whole. This reaction is understandable, but only for a limited time because, at the end of the day, he is overreacting to a pair of jury verdicts that resulted from a complex intersection of a perverted self-defense law and enshrined presumption of innocence. It’s up to writers to rise above our emotional outrage and to not take isolated – yes, these were isolated events – and stretch them until they cover from sea to shining sea.
In short, TNC is angry, and that anger is clouding his vision. From calling the NFL’s proposed idea of banning the word “nigger” as racist, to using a personal anecdote of a taxi choosing to pick up white people instead of him (and saying that, therefore, racism is as prevalent as the wind … really?), TNC’s reasoning and logic have taken a turn for the worse, and, therefore, so has his credibility. And when in doubt, just mention Andrew Breitbart, right? Or just rely on the failsafe of claiming that George Washington’s presidency means nothing more than his being a slaveholder. Then claim that black-on-black crime in a “lie“.
It seems like he is taking a cheap and easy way of confronting our country and its problems, and that he is confronting America at its weakest rather than strongest side while simultaneously exempting all of black America and its culture. At the end of the day, mentioning asshole cabbies and Andrew Breitbart is really not very rigid scholarship, and if that’s all he’s got now, then I wonder if he knows America’s becoming a better place but he doesn’t know how to readjust the rhetoric to fit with his predetermined worldview. Pointing to the Jordan Davis verdict or Breitbart is just as small and slippery as Rush Limbaugh citing Al Sharpton when attacking the modern-day Civil Rights Movement, or Paul Ryan referencing Chicago when discussing urban inequality.
I’ve long admired Ta-Nehisi’s blog and his thoughtful, nuanced essays on race. I’ve worked with him before, we’ve engaged on such topics publicly, and I’m very fond of him personally. So this recent quote from him made my heart sink:
Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies—though not race-specific policies—that address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.
As I read that last sentence, I recalled a quote from Josh Marshall you featured recently:
As Joan Walsh notes here, in the years since publishing The Bell Curve, Murray has slightly softened his argument. He now refers to IQ and what he believes is the mental inferiority of African-Americans not as ‘genetic’ but rather as ‘intractable.’ By this Murray seems to mean that there are too many factors playing into intelligence to definitively say genetics are behind what he claims are the mental/intellectual shortcomings of black people. The deficit is simply ‘intractable’ – by which he means that whatever mix of genetics, culture and circumstance create it, nothing can be done to change it in any meaningful way.
I know Ta-Nehisi would fume at any comparison of him to Charles Murray, but “intractable” and “until this country passes into the dust” are two sides of the same coin – a coin sharing a bleak, unchanging view of race relations, with white oppression and black inferiority the permanent state of things. It’s that kind of fatalism that shuts down constructive debate and invites only despair. I pray my friend circles back to hope soon.
Update from a reader:
I don’t have time to read Ta-Nehisi Coates very often, and I’m not going to try to catch up so I can boost my credibility for this comment. But I don’t necessarily find it depressing that he has stated that white supremacy will continue to afflict black people until the end of time, or something like that. It’s dramatic overstatement, of course, but really Andrew, you’re a writer. Surely you’re familiar with such techniques. In fact, if you examine your conscience (I too, have a Catholic background), I bet you could find multiple examples of similar techniques applied by you only, oh, yesterday.
I, a somewhat aged – 70 – white woman off in a corner of the country where black people constitute some 5 percent of the population, agree with TNC. I also believe, as a feminist and one-time feminist activist, that the same characterization extends to women in our society.
That isn’t the same thing as saying things haven’t changed, and changed a lot, and we might even call those changes progress. Maybe TNC denies progress, but that doesn’t seem to be what you and your commenters are lamenting. You are uncomfortable with his pessimism, which I consider realism. You wish he were more positive. I, on the other hand, appreciate the candor.
Another does too:
That Ta-Nehisi is going through a blue period is undeniable. But I’m surprised by how off base the criticisms from readers are and by how profoundly they misread him. One reader says that his reasoning is so off base that he says: “Or just rely on the failsafe of claiming that George Washington’s presidency means nothing more than his being a slaveholder.”
But if you go through and read the column in question you see that Coates actually says this: “I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson’s genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington’s abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge.”
The difference between the two seems pretty obvious to me. Coates isn’t saying that Washington was nothing more than a slaveholder. He’s saying that being a slaveholder isn’t cancelled out by his role as president. He’s saying the two things are inseparable, in the face of lots of people who try to separate the historical greatness of the Founding Fathers from their faults.
And to people who say that his logic and reasoning abilities have been hurt by his weak examples and weak reasoning, I have to ask who on earth they are reading. Does Coates use examples from his daily life to exemplify what he’s talking about? Definitely. But he’s also diving deep, engaging with serious historical research, coming up with newspaper articles from every decade from the 1850s to today, digging into statistics about the destruction of black property in the Reconstruction, New Deal era, and Post-War period. I don’t know of any journalist who is so publicly engaging with academic scholarship in this way, and this engagement is a large part of what’s fueling the blue period.
I do think he has taken a fatalistic turn, but given how many people seem invested in the idea that racism is something that is no longer a significant force in American life, I can understand his despair. Does he throw the word racism around a lot? Yeah. But the point he is making is that racism isn’t the province of evil people in the past.
More reader reaction here.