The in-tray had been flooded with responses to the Coates-Chait debate and we will continue to air them as I gather my thoughts. A common sentiment from readers:
I’m glad to read this thread because I didn’t realize others also saw changes in Ta-Nehisi’s writing. Personally, I’m not troubled by his opinions or his anger. What bothers me is his certitude. His blog was so exciting because he wrestled with seemingly contradictory arguments and truths, and resisted being seduced by certainty. He tolerated doubt and wrestled with ideas. He embraced the sentiment of that old H.L. Mencken quote, “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” He had a point of view and opinions but approached the ideas and problems as though his point of view was both valuable and limiting. He never stopped searching, questioning and listening. I haven’t read anything from that guy in a while. I miss him.
I’m an avid TNC reader, but he just went off on a tangent with this back and forth. Obama does talk to African Americans differently – and if he can’t use himself as an example of working hard in spite of the odds (which are always changing, albeit far too slowly), then who could? Obama doesn’t get to pull out a wand and change a history of white privilege or supremacy. There is no executive order for it. But he can say that he’s an example of working hard and finding a place in a new America that isn’t so racist. I can’t say Coates’ rebuttal is an “attack,” but it sure turned into something other than a debate.
Then there’s the “knife in back” line. I don’t grok why someone saying “Hey, things are getting better” (essentially Chait’s point) is so objectionable. The counterpoint of “Yeah, but things are still bad, and the reason they are bad is because things have always been that way” is … well, I don’t know. True, I suppose. But that isn’t really a response to “things are getting better.” It’s a worthwhile history and cultural lesson in search of a pupil.
Rudy Giuliani became a national caricature for his reflexive “noun, verb, 911” spiel. Coates is getting close to doing that on this topic. It isn’t 1850 or 1950, except when it is. In 1950, it was always 1950. In 2014, less so. That seems to be the point Chait got around to.
A different view:
I have read the posts and want to provide some context for what you see as Coates’s “pessimism.” I am an African American in my mid-40s. Several years ago, I was involved in a yearlong series of programs where “big issues” were discussed by leaders in my city. Because race is a thread that touches virtually every issue confronting our city – from education to criminal justice to housing – the very first program focused exclusively on race and racial awareness. About midway into the program, each African American was asked, “Do you think race relations will be better in your lifetime?”
These were people from different corners of the country, with vastly differing life experiences. They were Gen Xers, Gen Yers and Baby Boomers. They all were senior professionals in the for-profit, non-profit and public sectors, all leaders in their respective milieus. Nevertheless, when asked that critical question about race relations improving in their lifetime, not a single person said they thought that they would. I later learned that this question was asked in each year of the series’ existence, and that it was almost always responded to in the negative by the African-American participants.
These weren’t a group of pessimists; in fact, the very reason these people were in the room together was because they thought they could make a difference in their city. And they didn’t mean that nothing would improve. Rather, it was the sincere belief of optimistic people that, in general, the same fights they fought before are the same fights they are fighting now, and on balance, would be the same fights that they’d have for decades into the foreseeable future.
I could point to dozens of reasons big and small why this was the case, some of which touch me personally, and others that do not. It’s Trayvon Martin and all the other black kids who have been killed with no criminal consequences for being somewhere someone else didn’t think they should be and/or holding innocuous items that were mistaken for weapons. It’s the flagrant use of government institutions to try to prevent African Americans from easy access to voting and the representation of their choice (again) and the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights act for its so-called obsolescence. It’s seeing Obama being called “the Food Stamp president” and treated as a pretender who lied, cheated and stole his way to the presidency. Twice. It’s the starving of largely black urban cities of moneys to fund the adjacent white suburbs. It’s black kids having to create “I, Too, am Harvard,” because in 2014, even they are still having to shout from the rooftops that they deserve to be where they are.
It’s the personal indignities big (being detained by the police for asking for directions – at a police station) and small (being repeatedly seated in front of the kitchen door in empty restaurants) that my siblings and I suffer, as my mother and father suffered before me, and that I see my teenage nephew – who looks more man than the child he is – already having to deal with. It’s these things and so many others and being able to draw a straight line between “back in the day” and “how is this happening now?” In other words, there is a clear historical context for many of the issues currently being grappled with that African Americans recognize. However, all too often, when we draw the line between this history and the present, that past is treated as nonexistent, too ancient to count or otherwise somehow irrelevant, and we are accused of being angry, pessimistic, hysterical or even radical.
From its founding documents forward – touting inalienable rights for “all men” while legally conferring none on a group of people based upon their skin color – America has been a place of hope, disappointment and ambivalence for black Americans. It is these experiences and the feelings (and resulting behaviors) that they engender that Coates is trying to convey, grapple with and encourage his readers to think about and better understand.
Another is more optimistic about the future:
Over the years, Coates has provided ample evidence to convince me of his main argument – that white supremacy has been inseparable from the American project, and far more pervasive than either liberals or conservatives wish to acknowledge. But that does not preclude genuine progress. I consider my daughters, now 8 and 10 years old.
To my white daughters, the president of the United States – the most powerful person in the country and the world – looks like Barack Obama. He is essentially the only president they have ever known; the very idea of “President” is inseparable from Mr. Obama. The very idea of “first family of the United States” for them is inseparable from Michelle and Sasha and Malia Obama. To my daughters, the smartest man in the world is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who comes on their TV once a week to blow their minds about the nature of the universe. The fact that he is a black man is not strange or revolutionary to them. From their perspective, it is entirely normal that black people are associated with prestige and power and intellect and public adoration. (FWIW, their elementary school principal is also black.) For them, this is the way things have always been, as long as they have been conscious human beings.
Yes, as my daughters grow older, they will confront the reality of how their society treats their black peers who have not reached such heights as the Obamas or deGrasse Tyson. They will be tempted to imagine that there is no such thing as racism anymore, and it is possible they will cling to this illusion at the expense of seeking to understand their history and society. But it’s also possible that, given the “normal” under which they’ve acclimated themselves to the world, they will more readily identify and respond to racism and its pernicious manifestations.
My daughters are just two kids out of millions growing up as Americans under the same model of what is normal. My sincere question to TNC (which I can’t ask, because there is no way to provide feedback to him anymore): Does this not constitute progress in the long battle against white supremacy in America? And if it doesn’t, what does progress look like?
I can find little to fault in his diagnosis of our past and present. The disagreement boils down to a difference of opinion about what the future will hold. He can amass plenty of evidence to support his assertion that the future will see more of the same injustice, the ongoing prosecution of America’s longtime war against black families. I can appreciate why he is pessimistic on this question. But I look at the world through my daughters’ eyes, and I find reason to hope he is wrong.
(Top photo of a KKK parade in 1926 via Wikimedia Commons. Bottom photo of the First Family from Getty)