To skip to the most recent post in this thread (4/8), click here.
I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates for many years now. He was a former colleague of mine at the Atlantic (where he still writes) and, in my view, has one of the best blogs on the web. Jon Chait, for his part, is the sharpest liberal writer of his generation – a devastating critic of the right’s blind spots and a merciless stylist. You know this, of course, as their work has enriched the Dish for years. So when they engage in a high-level debate about a deeply important question, you want to sit up and notice.
So if you haven’t, catch up on the full debate they have been having. It’s a sign that in an age of sponsored content, newspapers as ad agencies, sharing rather than reading, and quizzes rather than arguments, the blogosphere is still invaluable at its best. Here’s TNC’s original post, Chait’s response, and then TNC’s rebuttal. Chait’s final take is here. The debate is about the role of culture in perpetuating some of the profound problems afflicting black America. Are these problems fundamentally caused by racism, by the logic of white supremacy … or have they become their own independent impediment to black advancement?
I have to say that TNC has shifted my understanding of black America more than any other writer. His passion is supercharged by his scholarship. I come with some disadvantages because I was not born in America and did not grow up here. It has taken me three decades to really grasp the racial resonances that come so easily to the native-born and to see them penetrate the decades and centuries. I was way too naive about the legacy of slavery and segregation, and way too ahistorical in engaging the problem. No conservative, properly speaking, should doubt the power of history:
Society is indeed a contract … As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
That classic statement by Burke kept occurring to me while watching Twelve Years A Slave.
How can I have a “partnership” with proud, defiant and violent slave-holders? How on earth could an African-American? And yet that is where we are. America can no more shrug off its early existence as a genocidal gulag for African-Americans than it can ignore its first existence as a British colony. And a central part of that partnership with the past has been what TNC rightly calls white supremacy.
But it seems to me that in this debate, TNC is almost willfully blind to the truth that historical legacies can create self-sustaining cultures of poverty that have a life of their own. And I think Chait is equally too pessimistic about the ability of people to transcend the circumstances into which they were born. There comes a point at which any community, which has been historically suppressed and vilified, simply has to believe that the future has potential. That’s certainly how I see the gay community in my lifetime. You can acknowledge the psychic toll of homophobia and heterosexual supremacy all you want, but it won’t help people overcome it. In fact, you run the risk of so emphasizing the crushing burden of the past you entrench the very sense of helplessness that perpetuates the problem.
Which is why TNC’s recent turn toward profound gloom seems – no, is – out of place. Blacks and Hispanics are more hopeful about the future than whites, as Chait notes. By the middle of this century, whites will be in a minority in this country. The potential for America to transform itself again through the arc of history is real. Burke’s social contract, after all, was not just with the past. It was with the future as well, with the black America yet to be born.
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 readers add their perspective to the thread:
Even those born and raised here do not always readily grasp the “racial resonances” you write of. I’m a 40-year black man who was born and raised in the suburbs, to parents who came here from Jamaica. That upbringing shaped my view of the United States into one that may share many characteristics with other immigrants to this country. I was raised to see this country as a place where you could accomplish whatever you wanted if you worked hard, studied hard, and did well in school. I had that luxury because of the environment my parents created, despite the fact that they didn’t have much money.
That’s where the problem with using a term like “culture of poverty” comes in. Such a term assumes that a group of people thinks and behaves in the same way because they are poor. Not very far under the surface of that assumption is the older, uglier one that those who are poor are somehow less industrious, moral and virtuous than those who are not. There is an intellectual laziness in the use of that term. It’s an attempt to shift responsibility from government institutions who have done very little to prevent the continued shrinkage of the middle class in general (and blacks in particular).
Whether you call it pessimism or gloom, I would not be so quick to brand it as out of place. Growing income inequality is a quantifiable reality, as is the increasing lack of economic mobility. It is difficult to believe that decades of government policy that tax investment at significantly lower rates than wages (under presidents of both parties) don’t play some role in that. For all the real progress this country has made, whether we have a black president or not, the United States is still a country where one political party actively strives to make it harder for citizens of color to exercise their right to vote. It is also still a country where someone at a hotel can assume I’m a valet (instead of a guest) or ask me if I’m a chauffeur when they see me parking my wife’s luxury car. My hope for a better future is paired with an awareness that only concrete actions will bring that better future about – and that my actions alone are not sufficient. The majority of society needs to see the advancement of minorities as somehow in their interest in order for lasting and sustainable change to occur.
A different emphasis from a bi-racial reader:
It seems like the Dish posts on school suspensions and the argument between Coates and Chait regarding are linked. Let me share an example. My kids go to a small Catholic school in the south suburbs of Chicago. I personally chose the school because it provided a solid Catholic education and it is diverse. Many of the schools in this area are all white or all black. I didn’t like either of those options for my kids. I grew up in a very diverse area and want my kids to experience the same thing.
Unfortunately, discipline problems had progressively been on the rise before the principal resigned last summer. Also unfortunately, many of the kids who have been involved in these discipline problems are African American. They range from calling a teacher a bitch to bringing a knife to school to assaulting a much younger (and white) child in a bathroom.
I’m bi-racial, so I have a kinda distinctive view of the dynamics within the community of the school, which unfortunately is often self segregating. I remember a school function where most white parents sat on one side of the gym while most black parents sat on the other. Since I hadn’t grown up around here and wasn’t used to such a thing, it was very jarring for me. I walk with comfort on both sides of the spectrum, but I would say most here don’t, for whatever reason. It has sometimes been very difficult to get black and white parents together for social events, such as fundraisers.
The parents of students who live in the neighborhood of the school – which is upper-middle class to downright rich and mostly white – have been very disturbed by the recent discipline issues. There has been a call to be much harsher with punishment, and some want to make the school exclusively Catholic. But that really isn’t workable, because the school has suffered through enrollment declines in recent years due to the economy, and shutting some kids out would probably mean shutting down the school. Catholic schools all over the nation are shutting down in alarming numbers.
Here’s the problem if you are a non-African American parent: how do you voice your concern with these issues without being viewed as a racist by some (though not all) black parents at the school? Is there an underlying cultural issue that makes it more likely that kids who are non-Catholic and who come to the school from outside the neighborhood will end up having discipline problems? I don’t know the answer, but it is worth thinking about. There are parents here who are racist, who revel in bringing up such issues behind closed doors at parties and such. But I’m not one of them. How do I demand safety for my kids without being tarred with the ugly “racist” label? It really is a tight rope walk.
This is why I welcome the president making these speeches. He has a credibility that people like me can’t possibly have, despite the fact that I’m very active at the school with both ends of the spectrum. At some point, people like me who are not racist should be able to point out issues like discipline problems at school or poor service at business establishments on the merits without having to worry about the race issue hanging over our heads. I don’t see that happening in the near future. Maybe Barack Obama can help. He’s surely trying, which I appreciate. I voted for the man twice on issues that have nothing to do with this one, but I do like his personal responsibility stance on this.
I’ve always been a fan of TNC and his writing, especially his historical perspectives. But it seems to me lately that he has fallen to the Jackson/Sharpton point of view, which I find disappointing. Racism is definitely everywhere. I’ve seen it personally, having a father who was DARK brown. I’ve seen it in my own neighborhood from people who I’m friendly with (and from BOTH races). Still, it would seem like blaming the plight of African Americans today solely on white supremacy would be like blaming WWI on one cause. There can be more than one cause.
TNC grew up in a tough neighborhood. Barack Obama spent a lot of time in a tough neighborhood on the South Side as an adult, so he is hardly insulated from the issues. Maybe Obama’s perspective is worth exploring rather than just derisively shoving it aside because it isn’t wrapped in the cloak of the white supremacy cause. Maybe it’s time to actually judge someone not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, while still taking into account our nation’s tainted history.
Racism still needs to be fought and uprooted, but I think today’s generation is well on its way to that. Maybe as they get older, it will truly be time to say goodbye to all that.
Readers continue the aforementioned “Pre-K Prejudice?” thread:
The reader responses to black suspension rates actually brought tears to my eyes. As a black woman who is the proud mother of six-month-old black son and the proud wife of a black man whom I love dearly, it breaks my heart that people are so quick to blame the statistics on extreme misbehavior by black kids. Essentially, their argument is black kids may just be that bad. I understand that’s not the way it’s stated and it’s always cloaked with the caveat that this is likely because of socioeconomic factors and single mothers. etc, but it stings nonetheless.
The anecdote from the reader with the daughter at the suburban school was a perfect example. Even accounting for “cultural” differences, does it really make sense that every single black male at that school had serious behavior problems? 100 percent? How is that even possible and what must it have been like to be a black male at that school? It sounds to me much like the situation with black men and cabs in urban areas. It’s hard for black men to catch a cab anywhere, presumably because cab drivers assume they might get robbed. Now, granted, there are some black men who may have robbed cabbies. But the vast majority of black men are not thieves, and yet men like my husband get punished for the sins of the few. That’s the nature of racism; black people are not fully realized individuals, but instead just a part of a dysfunctional mass.
I have to wonder if that wasn’t the case at this school. I would bet that there were some black boys at that school that had serious behavior problems, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other black boys were just engaging in routine misbehavior when they were lumped in with those with real social problems. And the bit about the black fathers who are “degreed professionals” actively encouraging their sons to be “black and stand their ground aggressively” doesn’t represent any reality I’ve been exposed to. Are we to believe that these black professionals, who did not get where they are by cursing out their superiors, would teach that to their sons. Why? It makes no sense, unless you just buy into the idea that black men are randomly angry.
A counterpoint from another reader:
Regarding your skeptical reader who wondered about whether racial disparities in student discipline are still different after accounting for student behavior, the answer would appear to be yes. For just a starter, here’s a 2011 article from School Psychology Review. It notes that the factors contributing to discipline disparities are numerous and complex, but that there is still a racial component to this. For example, in their literature review (citing multiple past studies), they note, “[R]ace continues to make a significant contribution to disproportionate disciplinary outcomes independent of SES [socioeconomic status],” and “Investigations of student behavior, race, and discipline have consistently failed, however, to find evidence of differences in either the frequency or intensity of African American students’ school behavior sufficient to account for differences in rates of school discipline.”
In their own analysis, based on a nationwide data sample, the authors find, “[A]cross an expansive national sample, significant disparities exist for African American and Latino students in school discipline. Patterns are complex and moderated by type of offense, race/ethnicity, and school level. Nevertheless, the overall pattern of results indicates that both initial referral to the office and administrative decisions made as a result of that referral significantly contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in school discipline.” This is much more rigorous than “unequal outcome = racism,” as your reader put it, though they are also correct in pointing out that the Department of Education’s argument was much less nuanced.
If you want another layer of complication, check out a different 2011 article from Economics of Education Review (published paywalled form here, earlier working version accessible for free here). Its author, looking specifically at a sample of schools in North Carolina, found that the black-white disparities come from differences between schools in how they responded to misbehavior. In other words, schools treated their own black and white students roughly equally for equal infractions. The statewide disparities are a result of African-American students being clustered in schools with stricter discipline systems. The author does not speculate in great detail about why this might be.
A separate, but related question, is whether conventional exclusionary punishments like out-of-school suspensions are the right approach to misbehavior in the first place. To many people, these look like a law enforcement approach emphasizing punishment and isolation, and they question whether we want to subject our students to that in school. An alternative practice, based on a response to racial disparities in the law enforcement, court, and prison systems, is to adopt a restorative justice framework for addressing misbehavior. I’d also add a call for more support professionals in schools who can help students work through issues before they manifest in disruptive misbehavior. Too many schools don’t have enough nurses, counselors, or school social workers for their students’ needs, and the result is loss of learning and safety for all.
Another counters with another study:
Many commenters on the pre-school discipline rates seemingly could not wait to say that disproportionate numbers do not mean that there is disproportionate treatment. They are logically correct. However, a major study of school discipline disparities published this month found no evidence that racial disparities in discipline are due to higher rates of misbehavior by Black students. And, if anything, those students are punished more severely for similar or less serious behaviors than their peers. Some quotes from the attached paper:
“Studies comparing the severity of behavior by race have found no evidence that students of color in the same schools or districts engage in more severe behavior that would warrant higher rates of suspension or expulsion.” It goes on to say, “even controlling for teachers’ own ratings of disruptive behavior, race remains an independent predictor of office referral and suspension. In short, the data are consistent: there is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races.” The conclusion: “Research has failed to support the common perception that racial and ethnic disparities in school discipline stem from issues of poverty and increased misbehavior among students of color.”
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.
A reader dissents:
It is hard to know where to respond to TNC. His essays and rebuttal were powerful in so many ways, talking about the values and strengths of African Americans, white American hypocrisy, the way pathology becomes the dominant narrative over the factual evidence of strong values. Yet traps abound. Words like any angry, gloomy, unbalanced come to mind, but he is entitled to his gloom and anger, and who says balance in history or journalism is somehow more accurate. What is a balanced story on slavery, tobacco, or creationism for that matter?
Yet something is off. His claim to the “unvarnished truth” gives away the game for me. It is very hard to respond when someone lays sole claim to the Truth. For all the complexity and nuance in his writing, at moments he sounds like a college freshman after his first consciousness raising social history class quoting and listing his favorite authors. I don’t quibble with his facts or even many of his conclusions. I find the cleansing of our history and the triumphal happy talk despicable at best. By laying claim to the Truth, however, he’s not offering an interpretation to debate but rather challenging readers to decide which side they are on. Oddly in such vulnerable essays, he wraps his arguments in a security blanket: I know the Truth – if you disagree that exposes the real you. He may dislike Ryan, but he’s really mad at progressives.
To challenge his interpretation feels like being a fraternity brother pointing to all his community service and high GPA to justify his drunkenness and general harm to the quality of life of other students. His subtext is that challenges makes one an apologist. Just look at you. How cautious you were in your last response to his essays! Andrew, if you had grown up in this county, you would have had this experience at university in black-white encounter session and maybe have been less shaken. So I was surprised how much he put you off you guard. Look, I liked and agreed with so many of his points, and he made me think about issues in a new way. But his framing is the kind of bullshit you wouldn’t have put up with from anybody else – but he now has you “needing to re-visit a huge amount of my previous convictions and understandings.” Wow. I’m looking forward to your recanting the Reagan years in the Deep Dish next!
Lord knows we need more civility and receptiveness to other views in our politics, but cautiousness and a false politeness is poison for discussions of this import. Otherwise everyone starts posturing and pulling their punches. I loved the way he showed the continuities for elements of racist thought and practice through the time, but calling American a White Supremacy is bullshit. The word tilts the debate. Our world is categorically different from 50, 100 years ago, despite all the real problems and remaining racism. This is more than some insipid argument about “progress.” Our capacity for change – and for good and ill – is astounding. We are a great country in the Greek sense of the hero with great flaws. His important points on the politics of “pathology” get weakened by his posturing. He hates blaming culture (which he underappreciates), but he sure likes historical determinism (which his oversells).
If someone made the same kinds of factual arguments about the Catholic Church’s manifold sins and wickednesses over the millennia culminating with the recent child molestation scandals, and then said that history defines the core of your religion, you would say no, that’s not right, even while acknowledging all the sordid facts. You might talk about meaning of the Eucharist to you, the transcendence of faith in your life made possible by the Church and its history. There’s a broader, also legitimate perspective that’s lacking. A writer of TNC’s thoughtfulness and insight deserves stronger engagement from you to enrichen the debate. I’m looking for you to get back on the horse.
As I said, I’m not done.
(Photo: the lynching of Jesse Washington. Taken by Fred Gildersleeve on May 15, 1916.)
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.
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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