Apparently Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magic has worn off. Several writers have recently taken issue with his ideas about race relations and whiteness (and white superiority). Thomas Chatterton Williams, who was one of the first black authors to take Coates on, returns for another at bat under with the approval of editors at the New York Times (not the New York Post or the Washington Times). This must be serious.
At the Atlantic though, where Coates writes regularly and achieved some of his fame, his editors still think Coates is brilliant and that they bask in the brilliance by publishing and endorsing his ideas. For instance, on a recent podcast about Charlottesville and the Confederate Monuments, Jeffrey Goldberg described President Trump’s reaction, in which he wondered if taking down Robert E. Lee leads to Jefferson and Washington, in cataclysmic terms:
It is an amazing moment when the president of the United States can’t delineate the difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. I think this is a breakpoint in modern American history.
Hasn’t Goldberg read Coates? Someone well before Trump showed a lack of nuance in describing white supremacy in U.S. history:
For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to ta social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization. “The two great division of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is — the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.
You and I, my son, are that “below.” That was true in 1776. It is true today. (Coates, Between the World and Me, 104-105).
So what do the editors at the Atlantic think of a staff writer who cannot tell the difference between the Civil War and Revolutionary War?
John Piper tells us never to give up in the pursuit of improved race relations:
No lesson in the pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity and harmony has been more forceful than the lesson that it is easy to get so wounded and so tired that you decide to quit. This is true of every race and every ethnicity in whatever struggle they face. The most hopeless temptation is to give up—to say that there are other important things to work on (which is true), and I will let someone else worry about racial issues.
The main reason for the temptation to quit pursuing is that whatever strategy you try, you will be criticized by somebody. You didn’t say the right thing, or you didn’t say it in the right way, or you should have said it a long time ago, or you shouldn’t say anything but get off your backside and do something, or, or, or. Just when you think you have made your best effort to do something healing, someone will point out the flaw in it. And when you try to talk about doing better, there are few things more maddening than to be told, “You just don’t get it.” Oh, how our back gets up, and we feel the power of self-pity rising in our hearts and want to say, “Okay, I’ve tried. I’ve done my best. See you later.” And there ends our foray into racial harmony.
My plea is: never quit. Change. Step back. Get another strategy. Start over. But never quit.
While Piper thinks there’s hope, Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t (as summarized by Thomas Chatterton Williams):
It’s not just black kids in tough neighbourhoods who are hapless automatons. In Coates’s view, no one has agency. The young black shooter doesn’t have to think too hard about what he might do because ‘the galaxy was playing with loaded dice.’ What’s alarming, though no doubt comforting to his white readership, is that in this analysis whites aren’t individual actors either. When an irritable white woman leaving an Upper West Side cinema pushes the young, ‘dawdling’ Samori and impatiently screams, ‘Come on!’ Coates, who is a tall, imposingly built man, erupts:
There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body … I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defence. I experienced this as his attempt to rescue the damsel from the beast. He had made no such attempt on behalf of my son. And he was now supported by other white people in the assembling crowd. The man came closer. He grew louder. I pushed him away. He said: ‘I could have you arrested!’ I did not care. I told him this, and the desire to do much more was hot in my throat.
Coates sees this woman not as a morally fallible person with her own neuroses, but as a force of nature, she is ‘the comet’ in his scheme. It doesn’t occur to him that she may not be an avatar of white supremacy but just a nasty person who would have been as likely to push a blonde child or a Chinese one. Coates doesn’t realise that his disproportionate reaction – ‘my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history’ – is bound to be seen as objectionable to those ‘standing nearby’. And it doesn’t strike him that as long as black people have to be handled with infantilising care – for fear of dredging up barely submerged ancestral pain – we’ll never be equal or free.
Whom do you believe? The white pastor or the black author? The earnest New Calvinist or the recipient of the MacArthur genius award? (Odd how Coates sounds far more deterministic than the Calvinist pastor? But just because it’s depressing doesn’t mean it’s false.)