It’s been difficult keeping up with the hundreds of emails responding to the highly-charged thread, and even more difficult finding ones that represent the many sides of the debate while moving it forward. But here is our final attempt to best represent the views coming through the in-tray:
There is something rich about a bunch of Dishheads diagnosing and psychoanalyzing a writer for getting too emotional, losing perspective, and listing toward despair. How overwhelming could the racial bias of stand-your-ground laws possibly be compared to the disappointment of Obama’s first debate performance? Or the creep of sponsored content? The thinly-veiled evil of Sarah Palin (or Hillary Clinton, depending on the year)? Hopefully these people writing in will give TNC the same courtesy that they’ve clearly given you, and keep reading even through the blue periods.
I liked the bit you wrote about gays moving on up, but I’d like you to consider something: A gay man or a lesbian woman can appear in any white family. They can appear in a Christian family, a wealthy family, a powerful family. In other words, being gay definitely puts you in a group that doesn’t have privilege, but it also can happen to people with remarkable sources of privilege. It can happen to the daughter of Dick Cheney and it can happen to a news anchor on CNN and it can happen to a fantastic blog writer capable of living well in PTown.
Being black, on the other hand? Well, not many families of extraordinary privilege can say that they have a black son. Not many white Methodists have a black uncle. Not many U.S. Senators have a black daughter, at least not one they acknowledge (looking at you, Strom).
In short, while the analogy works on one level, just remember that gay people largely were able to come out and succeed because gay experience cuts across huge demographic swaths.
That’s a truly important point, and it was in my first draft but I excised it for space and concision. And it means something else as well: history is therefore far more plastic for gay people than for African-Americans. One generation can experience growing up in an entirely different atmosphere than another. Not so with African-Americans, who are far more tied by the pull of history and the cultures that history spawned. And, of course, many gay people experience discrimination or judgment less baldly than African-Americans, because they can fly under the radar. That’s also a key difference. And it reinforces Coates’ larger point. Another:
Let’s turn “the culture of poverty” around and talk about “the culture of affluence” instead.
Belonging to the professional middle class, one knows many in our cohort who drink too much, or go through a messy divorce, or get laid off, or have a scrape with the law, or become mentally ill, or get unintentionally pregnant, or need emergency surgery. Yet these behaviors are not labeled as social pathology.
What happens to these people instead? They all too often have an affluent family safety net to lend them some money, or to put them in contact with a good lawyer, or to ensure the best possible medical care, or to offer a spare bedroom for a couple of months, or whatever. The reason that poor black people – even poor white people – are subjected to so many sanctimonious sermons instructing them to lead spotless, high-achieving lives is that they do not have such an affluent system of supports to prevent disaster when they do mess up. The thing about being poor (and especially poor and black) is that you pay a much higher price for failure.
On that note:
Regarding the ongoing TNC/Chait debate, I’d like to point out that the President discussed this very issue in David Remnick’s New Yorker profile “On and Off the Road with Barack Obama“:
He talked about a visit that he made last year to Hyde Park Academy, a public high school on Chicago’s South Side, where he met with a group of about twenty boys in a program called Becoming a Man. “They’re in this program because they’re fundamentally good kids who could tip in the wrong direction if they didn’t get some guidance and some structure,” Obama recalled. “We went around the room and started telling each other stories. And one of the young men asked me about me growing up, and I explained, You know what? I’m just like you guys. I didn’t have a dad. There were times where I was angry and wasn’t sure why I was angry. I engaged in a bunch of anti-social behavior. I did drugs. I got drunk. Didn’t take school seriously. The only difference between me and you is that I was in a more forgiving environment, and if I made a mistake I wasn’t going to get shot. And, even if I didn’t apply myself in school, I was at a good enough school that just through osmosis I’d have the opportunity to go to college.
“And, as I’m speaking, the kid next to me looks over and he says, ‘Are you talking about you?’ And there was a benefit for them hearing that, because when I then said, You guys have to take yourselves more seriously, or you need to have a backup plan in case you don’t end up being LeBron or Jay Z . . . they might listen. Now, that’s not a liberal or a conservative thing. There have been times where some thoughtful and sometimes not so thoughtful African-American commentators have gotten on both Michelle and me, suggesting that we are not addressing enough sort of institutional barriers and racism, and we’re engaging in sort of up-by-the-bootstraps, Booker T. Washington messages that let the larger society off the hook.” Obama thought that this reaction was sometimes knee-jerk. “I always tell people to go read some of Dr. King’s writings about the African-American community. For that matter, read Malcolm X. . . . There’s no contradiction to say that there are issues of personal responsibility that have to be addressed, while still acknowledging that some of the specific pathologies in the African-American community are a direct result of our history.”
Another digs up some of Ta-Nehisi’s writing:
No one is denying that there is still a lot of work to do and that racism and its ugly history still impact Black Americans, but the progress made is undeniable.
I’d like to bring up a few vignettes from Coates’ own life here to demonstrate this. Coates grew up in inner city Baltimore, never finished college, but based on his talent and the recognition of that talent by a number of writers and editors in the “establishment” ended up writing for a premier establishment institution. Through this work, he found a following among them an author living in Paris who started communicating with Coates. The two eventually agreed to swap apartments for a summer, and through this arrangement last year, Coates and his family came to spend a summer in Paris, where Coates spent his time learning French, writing, and enjoying Parisian life. I submit to you that the vast majority of Americans will never have the pleasure of this experience.
Even more importantly, shortly before leaving, Coates was on a train to Boston where he ate a bad nut and went into anaphylactic shock. He wrote movingly of this experience in The Atlantic:
A doctor who happened to be seated nearby shot me up with an epipen. The train made an emergency stop in New London where the paramedics were waiting….The paramedics came in and took my blood pressure. They were moving to get me on a stretcher. I told them I could stand. They told me I could not as my blood pressure was such that I would likely faint. So they hauled me up and off, got me to the hospital, ran some oxygen through my nose and put an IV in my arm. When I got the hospital the doctors took great care of me.
Two points: First, my theory of assholes clearly should be revised; the kindness of strangers is always amazing. Second, America, whatever its flaws, is very often amazing in its efficiency and compassion. It did not escape my mind that in some other place I might have died. This is not chest-thumping or jingoism. It is a fact of my residency.
Something is happening in this world. I think of my grandfather, lecturing from the daily newspaper, drowning in alcohol, addicted to violence. I think of my father, working all summer as a child, saving his funds for a collection of recordings that promised to teach him French. He didn’t learn French, but he learned to compel his son to want to learn French.
I think of what these folks might have been had they not lived in world intolerant of black ambition. The world has changed. It has not changed totally, but it has changed significantly. When I fell out on the train, everyone on the car was white. So were all the paramedics and all the doctors and nurses. The challenge for someone trying to assess America, at this moment, is properly calibrating how far we’ve gone with how far we have to go. Too much optimism renders you naive; too much pessimism makes you cynical. What I know is I live in a time that people who made me possible only dreamed of.
Hate to use his own words against him, but it seems to me in calibrating how far we’ve gone with how far we have to go, he is definitely being too pessimistic.
One more reader:
I am 100% sympathetic with TNC. I am white, but went to a racially-mixed elementary school and high school in New York, and my current girlfriend is African-American. I grew up being comfortable and exposed to black culture since the age of 5, and have been acutely aware of how black Americans are treated differently than whites in myriad ways and how it can affects one’s perspective. So I was good with both Martin and Malcolm.
It is very easy for me to imagine TNC’s experience with his children and the taxi cab happening every day. After a while a black person has just had enough of it, as there is no morally justifiable reason or explanation for it. TNC is obviously aware that articulating this perspective can be a double-edged sword, that can exacerbate these problems makes it even more frustrating for both blacks and whites. But how frustrating is it when your white friends who mean well don’t understand what you go through. It is a lot like being Muslim or Arab in America. The pre-conceived notions held by kind well-intentioned white people in both cases is maddening and reflects an inability to understand what it feels like to live life in their skin. Whether it is dealing with the police, employers, store clerks and taxi drivers, the indignities never end. TNC’s recounting of what kind-hearted white people in the 19th Century thought about black culture still exists today, and these were white people who volunteered to help and educate black people out of the kindness of their hearts and a sincere sense of mission and service to others. What could be more selfless and well-intentioned? This conundrum is enough to move one to tears.
Look, Chait is great too and I can’t argue with his perspective either. I am reminded of the experience of reading a Brian Green physics book that addresses how the objective and scientifically verifiable truth of two individuals having different perspectives (e.g. if one is moving close to the speed of light) can be completely different yet each can still be objectively measured “truth.” That is the nature of the universe, whether it is physics or one’s political perspective. Understanding and respecting both Chait and TNC’s opinions and experiences is not that difficult for me, but the great sadness of racism’s persistent shadow does color everything for black person. It can be extremely difficult to calibrate how to express this reality to others. That doesn’t mean their perspective is incorrect, but it still may be better to train young blacks (or Muslims) that they do have to be supermen to overcome and deal with these recurrent upsetting experiences in order to overcome these obstacles. Most white people can only quasi-experience this through movies like “12 Years a Slave” and “The Butler.”
The saving grace is that many college-educated young Americans have no trouble absorbing these differing truths with a sensitivity that is also quite moving. Consider how so many young people find denying marriage equality to all to be irrational and incomprehensible, and the opponents’ bigotry is self-evident to them. You can see this perspective at work with race; when a parent tells a positive story and mentions that the person is black, the child immediately responds “why did you have to mention their race?” Even though it was in a very positive context. They get it more than most. They are the hope for a better future. Until then, the more one reads and absorbs what it feels like to be black, muslim, gay, latino etc the better.
In the end, Chait and TNC are on the same side, and so are good folks like you and I. Their different valid perspective and experienced truths better enrich all of us.
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