A Nation Defined By White Supremacy?

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.