I’m sorry if some were confused a little by my last post on the TNC-Chait debate (a bad case of pronoun vagueness). If I’m being completely honest – and Coates makes such honesty more possible by such intense vulnerability and candor in his own prose – I still haven’t recovered from TNC’s last post. I don’t even know quite what to do with it. But I’m going to sit with it for a while, turning it over in my head, wondering if I need to re-visit a huge amount of my previous convictions and understandings. It makes me uncomfortable. It makes these abstract debates real. It’s what writing can do.
We can and should have much more debate about how to tackle the culture of poverty, period. Ross today points out that there have indeed been discussions of white poverty on the right, and that the current state of play is indeed focusing on white poverty as much as black poverty, in fact, seeing both as a function of a relatively new kind of pan-racial culture of poverty that is entrenching social disadvantage and inequality:
The story that some of us on the right, at least, would tell about that crisis is one that’s actually reasonably consonant with Coates’s grim account of the African-American experience on these shores. Beginning in the 1960s, we would argue, a combination of cultural, economic and ideological changes undercut the institutions — communal, religious, familial — that sustained what you might call the bourgeois virtues among less-educated Americans. Precisely because blacks had been consistently brutalized throughout their history in this country, they were more vulnerable than whites to these forces, and so the social crisis showed up earlier, and manifested itself more sweepingly, in African-American communities than it did among the white working class and among more recent immigrants …
We don’t have a black culture of poverty; we have an American culture of poverty. We don’t have an African-American social crisis; we have an American social crisis. We aren’t dealing with “other people’s pathologies” (the title of Coates’s post) in the sense of “other people” who exist across a color line from “us.” We’re dealing with pathologies that follow (and draw) the lines of class, but implicate every race, every color, every region and community and creed.
And what can we do about that? In many ways, the relentless pragmatism of Obama is the only response. If we know that certain behaviors do indeed lead to worse outcomes, and if we can somehow encourage more productive ways of living, then we surely should, regardless of the burden of history and white supremacy. To surrender to total determinism is too bleak. There is, of course, an ocean of injustice in that “regardless”. But the fate of a minority is not to live in a world in which racial difference (or any distinguishing difference) is erased, but one in which it can be fought against. Interminably. Always. And in the full knowledge that racism and homophobia and sexism and so much else will never end.
It was, to take a proximate example, deeply unfair that gay people had to assert our basic humanity, to explain ourselves as human beings first to heterosexuals, to jump through hoops that were and are deeply humiliating, to be vulnerable in ways no straight person needs to be, to insist simply that we are capable of love and family, and not intrinsically morally subhuman, because our natures somehow compel us to iniquity. There have been times when the double standards have been close to psychologically crippling.
Not so long ago, the lives of gay men were not regarded as equal to straight ones, and the society reacted at first with simple complacency as hundreds of thousands of us died in agony in front of them. When I arrived in America, I had to sign an immigration form declaring that I was not a homosexual. For almost two decades, I had to fight for a chance just to stay in America because this gay disease marked me for deportation, if detected by the authorities. My marriage was trumped by absurd defenses of “public health” and remained vulnerable years after it happened. The spiritual, psychological, emotional desolation of those years made me who I am, for good or ill.
And yet, somehow, a critical mass of gay people were able to master their utterly justified rage to insist on progress and justice and fairness. We have come a long way – but even this week, we read of a new law in Mississippi that would empower individuals to fire or refuse to serve or interact with any homosexual on the grounds of religious belief. We see state-backed pogroms against gays in Russia and untold terror in Uganda and Nigeria. We know, as surely as African-Americans know, that this prejudice, this hatred, will course through humanity for as long as humanity exists on the planet.
I feel sure that TNC sees the necessity of perseverance even if it is deeply unfair, even maddening, and even if, as I believe, the predicament of an African-American in a country built on slavery is deeper than that confronting gays. I guess at some level, that is where my religious faith kicks in. Perhaps it is only psychologically possible to resist evil even knowing that evil will often have the last word on earth if there is some spiritual dimension to relieve the pain and injustice in your soul. Rationally, what King and others did may not have been humanly possible without a faith that prevents you from going mad. It never surprised me that the civil rights movement was a religious movement at its core. How could it have endured without it?
But Coates is not a spiritual leader; he is a writer. And a writer does not need – and should not try – to offer a solution. He is entitled to describe the predicament, to voice the darkness, and has no obligation to put this to practical or pragmatic ends. Which is why Ta-Nehisi’s latest post is, to my mind, as important as anything he has written in this debate:
I am a writer. And that is not a hustle. And this is not my “in” to get on Meet The Press, to become an activist, to get my life-coach game on. I don’t need anymore platforms. I am here to see things as clearly as I can, and then name them. Sometimes what I see is gorgeous. And then sometimes what I see is ugly. And sometimes my sight fails me. But what I write can never be dictated by anyone’s need to feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Amen. And I am simply glad to be a reader. Or perhaps not glad as such. Just deeply uncomfortable in the face of honesty and argument and perspective. And thinking, like TNC, and thanks to TNC. And not done.