Something I have always said about Ronald Reagan is that his “greatness” depended largely on the haplessness of his opponents. Whether it was a fading Gov. Pat Brown, whom Reagan defeated in a nearly one million vote landslide in the 1966 California gubernatorial election, or former Vice President Walter Mondale, whose 1984 annihilation by Reagan is unlikely to be repeated by any presidential candidate, the Gipper had a talent for drawing the weakest opponents as he blazed his path through American political history.
If the incoherent balderdash that the New York Times published from Thomas Chatterton Williams is any indication, Ta-Nehisi Coates has much of the same kind of luck.
Williams places his piece within the German concept of sonderweg, the notion that the German people traveled a particular path on the road from a collection of nation-states to the democracy that it would eventually become. While this was seen as a positive thing prior to World War I — in that Germany did not experience the kinds of sociopolitical upheavals that, say, characterized France’s transition from monarchy to republic to empire and back again — the rise and fall of the Third Reich transformed this historiography into a profoundly negative inquiry with a simple question: what prompted Germany’s turn towards fascism? It is hard to disagree that such a discussion casts a pall over German life as a whole since the war, as the debates around the rise of far-right formations such as PEGIDA and the Alternative For Germany party continue to show.
Williams argues that Coates is at the helm of such a push in the United States, except that the all-encompassing issue is white supremacy. It is from here, however, that Williams’s argument goes terribly awry.
The first sign of trouble surrounds his description of gentrification.
In my own young black life, I have done my part to gentrify a half-dozen mixed neighborhoods ranging from Spanish Harlem to Fort Greene to the ninth arrondissement of Paris. Many of my well-educated black, Latino, Asian and Arab friends have done the same. Most of us harbored conflicted feelings about the processes we were engaged in, but few of us considered advancing white supremacy to be one of them.
Gentrification is, of course, a process. Regardless of whether people of color are beneficiaries of this process — and if you ever want to see how this can happen show up to a Detroit City Council meeting on housing sometime — the fact is that the process differs little from its predecessor, redlining, in its intent and outcomes. The desire to see an area “cleaned up” or “developed” always involves changing the literal face of those who reside in such an area. The fact that Williams and his friends have been a small part of this process obviously does not change its character.
The glistening turd center of this piece, however, is the notion that Coates’s writing on whiteness mirrors that of white supremacists such as Richard Spencer. He prefaces this with the predictable qualification that the two are “not morally equivalent”, but he then goes on to state that:
[I]t is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural.
In this, Williams states, white people, “are preordained to walk that special path,” and worries that Spencer’s hope to flip those “woke” white allies could come to pass.
It is true that there are essentializing elements in Coates’s writing. Black people do not experience racism in uniformly the same way and, more often than not, such experiences are mediated by class. Surprisingly enough, in this entire article, Williams gives space to a discussion of class for exactly one sentence.
But the comparison between Coates and, well, the Klan falls apart at any point past that. The “specialness of whiteness” that Williams attempts to connect Coates with Spencer is contextual: Spencer sees this specialness as a positive; something that divines white people with the ability to rule over all people, even if such privileges can only come about through the violent extermination of all who do not share such specialness. Coates’s focus on whiteness seeks to distill that extreme violence as the essence of what whiteness is and could ever be. The two visions of how whiteness operates could only ever be similar if you flatten that context, ignoring the ends that each viewpoint seeks to promote.
In that way, Williams is engaging in exactly the same kind of reductionism that this piece claims to be against in the first place.
All of this might sound like a defense of Ta-Nehisi Coates; it is not. In fact, the worst part about all of this is that there’s plenty of gristle available for critiquing Ta-Nehisi Coates from the left.
For example, in his description of Donald Trump’s mission in the White House, Coates boils it down to an attempt to erase the legacy of Barack Obama’s “nigger presidency”, as the power of whiteness, he states, rests on the “idea of not being a nigger”. But the truth is that the “nigger healthcare” that Coates describes has still left nearly 30 million people without access to health care. The “nigger climate accords” left huge gaping loopholes big enough for your friendly neighborhood polluter to jump through and kill you with poisoned air and water (of course, it kills “niggers” at a far higher rate than anyone else). And what is a “nigger justice reform” that sees this “nigger presidency” end with our television screens filled with the blood of “niggers” while the police stand over their bodies and watch as they take their last “nigger” breaths?
(Remember when the first Secretary of State of this “nigger presidency” stated that Africans should “get over” the legacy of colonialism and slavery? When you find Barack Obama’s condemnation of that, please let a nigga know.)
Williams touches on Coates’s defeatism — much like he touches on his discussions of class — as an afterthought, simply quoting from Between The World and Me without exfoliating the consequences of such a disposition. That is a mistake, because if you do not believe that white supremacy can be defeated, then that will shape the way that you relate to various policies and political events.
This much was evident in Coates’s discussion of Bernie Sanders during last year’s presidential contest, particularly after Sanders came out against the idea of reparations. In one article, Coates states that:
Some months ago, black radicals in the Black Lives Matters movement protested Sanders. They were, in the main, jeered by the white left for their efforts. But judged by his platform, Sanders should be directly confronted and asked why his political imagination is so active against plutocracy, but so limited against white supremacy. Jim Crow and its legacy were not merely problems of disproportionate poverty. Why should black voters support a candidate who does not recognize this?
To be sure, they were jeered by more than just the white Left. And that is because the protesters sought to do the same thing that Coates was doing, which is separating the ill effects of plutocracy and white supremacy. Which is weird for Coates to do, considering that his previous paragraph said:
To briefly restate it, from 1619 until at least the late 1960s, American institutions, businesses, associations, and governments—federal, state, and local—repeatedly plundered black communities. Their methods included everything from land-theft, to red-lining, to disenfranchisement, to convict-lease labor, to lynching, to enslavement, to the vending of children. So large was this plunder that America, as we know it today, is simply unimaginable without it. Its great universities were founded on it. Its early economy was built by it. Its suburbs were financed by it. Its deadliest war was the result of it.
Race and capital, as Coates noted repeatedly in his article making the case for reparations, have inextricably intertwined since Day Zero. So why would we separate such plunder from the economic system that directly benefited from it? Why is that the only way we can discuss the economic liberation of the Black working class is to explicitly talk about targeted programs? Coates brings up affirmative action repeatedly in his arguments against Sanders, even going so far as to say that Sanders’s elevation of class as a policy consideration made him comparable to the likes of Thomas Watson — the Populist Party’s presidential standard-bearer in 1904 who would later become an enthusiast for lynching — and Ron Unz, the financier of California’s Proposition 227 which mandated that most public school classes be taught in English.
Without going into the history of why such comparisons are wrong — the Black people who organized under the Readjuster Party in Virginia and the Fusionist alliance in North Carolina in the late 19th century might be shocked to hear about how one white man in Georgia negated all of their efforts — the arguments flow from Coates’s pessimism about the prospects for change. This is not really about Sanders — I have my own issues with him and his political direction, and the never-ending Sanders vs. Clinton bullshit continues to take up way too much of our time — but it does say something when the guy who states:
So I think what we should be talking about is making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino.
…somehow becomes another populist who “has failed Black people”.
(And before you tell me that Coates stated that he would vote for Sanders, it is worth noting that a) he did so on Democracy Now, which probably has a fraction of the reach that his column does, and b) he hurriedly disavowed any notion of an endorsement the day the interview was aired.)
This pessimism has also manifested in the lack of concrete prescriptions that Coates offers for the problems that he outlines. Even in his magnum opus thus far — the case that he makes for reparations — the only kind of prescriptions that Coates can offer is to support U.S. Rep. John Conyers’s H.R. 40, which would study reparations and come up with proposals. Which might be a good thing if the economic impacts of slavery had not already been studied and various reparations programs not already been outlined.
Back when I did the Twitter thing, the amazing prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba once told me that the stuff of policy specifics is not for everyone, and that it is fine to be someone who describes the world in arresting detail so that we may know what the problems are in the first place. I agree with that to a large degree, but one of the good things about having specific ideas about the world you want to see is that it gives people something to chew over and, eventually, to take action on. Ta-Nehisi Coates gets a lot of shit for the enthusiasm of his white liberal fans; to an extent, that is not really fair. It is worth interrogating, however, whether Coates would have gotten the kinds of reviews that he did from folks like Sally Kohn or Aaryn Belfer had there been more than description in his work.
Both reviews center the notion of white people being uncomfortable, but what worth does that actually have for marginalized people? Because right after she tells her readers to get “knocked the fuck out” by Coates’s book, Belfer urges them to:
Call/write the local city officials in any of the cities where violence against black people is documented (there are so many). Urge them toward systemic change and accountability.
What does systemic change and accountability look like? Who knows! But that is the hard part of all this stuff, right? The crafting of prescriptive change and the process of making that real for people. Otherwise, why are we at this daily, burning our passion down to the wick in the hopes that future generations will not have to do the work that we are doing, and that our ancestors did?
That kind of change needs more than vivid description. It needs revolutionary prescription and action.
Our debates rarely get the interlocutors that they deserve.
While I disagree with him on a range of issues — strongly at times — Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer whose discussions about race and American society deserve stronger consideration and debate than they have mostly gotten thus far. In that way, Coates ends up hosed in a way similar to Paul Robeson or W.E.B. Du Bois. This is a point that was made by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom three years ago while discussing the pisswater criticisms of Coates by sentient bowl of unseasoned mashed potatoes Jon Chait:
I said on Twitter that I cannot recall a single black intellectual that was not condemned by white liberals for their paucity of hope. DuBois was crazy for embracing communism when empirically it would be crazy to have embraced his America where Ida B Wells was documenting the regularity of black lynchings. Crazy, he was, for not having hope in the face of those empirics!
Paul Robeson was consistently the smartest person in any room he inhabited. When his nation recalled his citizenship he made a powerful case for the benefits of socialism. He may be remembered today as a black history month milestone in the sanitized march of America’s progress, but at the time his sanity was questioned. What could be wrong with that brilliant, ostracized, stifled black genius that a little hope wouldn’t cure?
And do not even get me started on the women who are not only crazy for questioning the white man’s hope but who are crazy by function of their biological penchant for hysterics. The relatively privileged Mary Church Terrell had an education few blacks of any gender had at the time. But she had to fight first her father’s dismay at her wasting her lady breeding to pursue formal education. She went on to do just that, making friends with powerful white women in the suffrage movement only to have them warn her to not make her speeches too “harsh”. Harsh isn’t hopeful.
This is where I fundamentally differ with Coates. I am not an especially hopeful person when it comes to American politics, but I do have hope. Hope for the working-class communities that nurtured me and told me to make them proud and taught me how to be Black in a country that has lashed people like me into servitude through slavery and Jim Crow. Hope for the activism coming out of such communities, that they will lead to our collective liberation. And hope that, when I am rocking back and forth on my stoop in the days before I take my last breath, that I can look back over the course of my life and say that we banished the likes of Richard Spencer to the unforgiving Hell that they came from.
It was that same hope that animated Sol Dacus to join with J.P. Bouchillon and Stanley O’Rourke on the streets of Bogalusa, Louisiana to fight against the bosses and white supremacy. It was that same hope that kept my grandmother Dorothy Marie Boone-Anderson and the Wilroy Civic League going until that fateful day in front of Driver Elementary School, when they integrated my hometown’s school system. And it was that hope that kept my father going after he was laid off from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in October 1993, pushing forward to the present day as he works to ensure justice on the job for the workers he represents and organizes.
Coates’ work, as I read it, lacks that kind of hope, the kind of hope that animates the emancipatory political work I strive to do. Without it, we are left with nothing to sustain us in our struggles when our efforts hit bumpy patches or dead ends, and we face dark hours when all seems lost.
And that ain’t something I can cotton to.
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