TNC: a left radicalism ‘that fails to debate its own standards’

Ta-Nehisi Coates, discouraged by the Sanders campaign’s response to his reparations campaign:

Liberals have dared to believe in the seemingly impossible—a socialist presiding over the most capitalist nation to ever exist. If the liberal imagination is so grand as to assert this new American reality, why when confronting racism, presumably a mere adjunct of class, should it suddenly come up shaky? Is shy incrementalism really the lesson of this fortuitous outburst of Vermont radicalism? Or is it that constraining the political imagination, too, constrains the possible? If we can be inspired to directly address class in such radical ways, why should we allow our imaginative powers end there?

These and other questions were recently put to Sanders. His answer was underwhelming. It does not have to be this way. One could imagine a candidate asserting the worth of reparations, the worth of John Conyers H.R. 40, while also correctly noting the present lack of working coalition. What should be unimaginable is defaulting to the standard of Clintonism, of “Yes, but she’s against it, too.” A left radicalism that fails to debate its own standards, that counsels misdirection, that preaches avoidance, is really just a radicalism of convenience.

In the early 2000s well-intentioned straight political hands advised gay men and women to lay off pushing for marriage. Gay marriage polled better than reparations did but not by much. But when I remember that we do better congratulating our good intentions and living up to what we imagine is most noble in us than considering the intellectual and moral rigor of redress, I understand Coates’ resignation

‘”Race is not a sober-minded description of peoples. It is casus belli’

“Race has never been much about skin color, or physical features, so much as the need to name someone before doing something to them,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes. “Race is not a sober-minded description of peoples. It is casus belli.” He refers to the oft misunderstood Toni Morrison line about Bill Clinton as the America’s first black president. Pundits, who don’t read novels and wouldn’t know Toni Morrison except as the originator of that line, still repeat it:

Most Americans understand race as indelible—as a thing which you really are—and thus Morrison’s point went right over the heads of even relatively educated people. This is convenient. As long as “race” can be considered as who you are, and not what someone else did to you, then Americans can see themselves as heroic do-gooders in struggling against our more ignorant and animalistic impulses.

Morrison’s argument sprang from another worldview—one that sees race as a choice, as an action, as a made thing. This worldview is less convenient. For if race in America is a “made thing,” an action, then it is not sufficient for people who wish for a world without such categories to simply sigh in self-congratulation.

Morrison’s clarifications, included in the original link, remind me of a passage in Beloved:

The more colored people spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle the whitefolks planted in them.”

TNC: Dylann Roof ‘correctly understood’ what the rebel flag ‘stood for’

Sometimes Ta-Nehisi Coates interviews provide as much satisfaction as his essays. For example:

Q: Your book is a lot about people who are victims of circumstance and history. Do you ever look at Dylann Roof like that, as a victim of history from the other side?

A: Sure I do. Dylann Roof is not the only person who bears responsibility. The Confederate flag represents an attempt to perpetrate a lie about American history, to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery. That is a part of our history. When you bury that history other people take control of it and use the flag for their purposes, and to ennoble their own hatred. Putting off the discussion allows the narrative of white supremacy. We really empowered that dude. It is very, very sad. But wait, I want to go back and make a point, it is a very important point and I want to make it as clear as I can.

Q: I am going to edit it out.

A: [Laughs]. OK, you see these black folks who are disproportionately poorer and prone to crime and suffering crime, live in neighborhoods where it doesn’t appear that folks are keeping stuff up, and there is a steady background white noise saying that these people kinda deserve it, that they are lazier than you are, not as intelligent as you are, and when you receive some history about how folks ended up in that state you get two things: first, you’re told that it happened a long time ago, and second, that it has no impact on what it does right now. That’s a lie. That’s poisonous. That myth about black people is deeply tied into the Lost Cause. Nikki Haley says Roof perverted the flag. No, he correctly understood what it stood for. It stood for the right to take people’s bodies. We have a responsibility for the perpetration of that lie.

Q: The history of the world is more powerful people repressing less powerful ones, whether it is men and women or colonialism. Do you think America is unique? Is slavery unique? Or is it our version of something every society does?

A: I don’t think it’s unique. I say that in the book. But pleading human error can’t really save America. We have no humility. We believe we are exceptional. That’s fine. But if that is the standard, then I have the right to hold you to that standard. We don’t go to Iraq saying we are doing what every country does. We are the deliverers of democracy. But this is a human problem.

The lyric and gritty Michiko Kakutani

To lapse into Didionspeak, Ta-Nehisi Coates may or may not have written a good book in Between the World and Me, but he doesn’t deserve the fate of a Michiko Kakutani book review:

Sometimes Mr. Coates can sound as though he’s ignoring changes that have taken place over the decades, telling his son that “you and I” belong to “that ‘below’ ” in the racial hierarchy of American society: “That was true in 1776. It is true today.” He writes that “the plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”

Such assertions skate over the very real — and still dismally insufficient — progress that has been made. After all, America has twice elected a black president. At other moments in this powerful and passionate book, Mr. Coates acknowledges such changes. In fact, his book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.

Kakutani reminded me of John McCain’s 2008 concession speech, the one in which he implied that because America elected a black president he doesn’t want to hear any more yapping about racism. Earlier in the review she tsk-tsks Coates’ “hazardous tendency to generalize.” Then, after explaining why this “Manichean tone” is necessary, she circles back to warn him about the dreaded Taken Out of Context routine. Virginia Woolf and E.B. White didn’t have to worry about being taken out of context.

Last week Jody Rosen was on Kakutaniwatch: “‘Expressionistic,'” “‘evocative,'” “‘compelling,'” “’emotional reach,'” “‘gritty prose'” — ALL IN ONE SENTENCE. Also: “‘depth of…emotion,'” “‘searing meditation.'” Today I’ll add “lyric and gritty prose” and “In fact, his book often reads like an internal dialogue or debate.”

TNC: ‘Asserting the moral faults of black people tend to gain votes’

Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ latest post is the kind of cry of despair that one tries to hide with a derisive, sad chuckle. Taking a cue from Barack Obama’s most recent public appearance flanked by E.J. Dionne, Robert Putnam, and Arthur Brooks, in which the president alluded to “job training” and “fatherhood” as if he were Bill Clinton lobbying for passage of welfare reform in 1995, Coates recognizes the scent of what he calls “color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy.” In other words, apply the message of Up From Slavery to Herbert Croly policy:

You will hear no policy targeted toward black people coming out of the Obama White House, or probably any White House in the near future….It is not hard to see why that might be the case. Asserting the moral faults of black people tend to gain votes. Asserting the moral faults of their government, not so much. I am sure Obama sincerely believes in the moral invective he offers. But I suspect he believes a lot more about his country which he chooses not to share….

The aria:

I don’t wish to minimize the difficulty, rhetorical and otherwise, of being the first black president of a congenitally racist country. In that business, Obama has gotten a lot right. But his “both/and” approach has been very wrong. One way around the conundrum is for the president to say as little as possible. I have never been among those who thought President Obama should “say more” about Ferguson, because I don’t believe most of the people who elected him actually want to “hear more.” What these people have never tired of hearing is another discourse on the lack of black morality or on the failings of black culture. It saddens me to see the president so sincerely oblige.

Poverty ‘as a matter of values’


Paul Krugman:

Most notably, mortality among white women has increased sharply since the 1990s, with the rise surely concentrated among the poor and poorly educated; life expectancy among less educated whites has been falling at rates reminiscent of the collapse of life expectancy in post-Communist Russia.

And yes, these excess deaths are the result of inequality and lack of opportunity, even in those cases where their direct cause lies in self-destructive behavior. Overuse of prescription drugs, smoking, and obesity account for a lot of early deaths, but there’s a reason such behaviors are so widespread, and that reason has to do with an economy that leaves tens of millions behind.

It has been disheartening to see some commentators still writing as if poverty were simply a matter of values, as if the poor just mysteriously make bad choices and all would be well if they adopted middle-class values. Maybe, just maybe, that was a sustainable argument four decades ago, but at this point it should be obvious that middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs.

The great sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities. His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.

I’m surprised Krugman would commit the oversight of ignoring what Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have mentioned: thanks to housing practices by the federal government — the only government entity that in other respects was the black man’s only ally — black citizens were driven and priced out of white enclaves.

But his larger point is chilling nonetheless: the whites who suffer most from diabetes, chronic obesity, cigarette addiction, and poor diet are the ones whom GOP state legislators and congressmen want to court.

Solzhenitsyn: ‘Wherever the law is, crime can be found’

NYPD officers detain a protester during a march through the Manhattan borough of New York City

Here’s the problem with a jury trial in the Freddie Gray case:

While Ms. Mosby offered a detailed timeline of the events surrounding Mr. Gray’s death, she did not reveal any of the evidence supporting it. Nor did she say any of the officers personally caused the spinal injury that killed him.

But whatever case prosecutors make will have to overcome the inherent deference to police officers that most jurors take with them to the courtroom, experts said.

“It’s always difficult to get a guilty verdict against a police officer except in the worst and strongest cases,” said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh professor who is a leading expert on racial profiling in law enforcement. “A police officer comes into a courtroom not just presumed to be innocent, but presumed to be the good guy.”

Which dovetails with what Ta-Nehisi Coates notes about our prison state:

And incarceration is, even in and of itself, a kind of euphemism, a very nice word, for what actually happens when they cart you off and take you to jail for long periods of time. Jails are violent. To survive, you use violence. To be incarcerated in this country is to be subjected to the possibility of sexual assault, is to be subjected to possibility of violence from fellow inmates, to be subjected to violence from guards. And the saddest part of this is that this mirrors the kind of violence that I saw in my neighborhood as a young man in West Baltimore.

There’s a phrase I’ve been thinking about a lot recently by the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn has this great, great quote that I think about all the time: He says in his book The Gulag Archipelago, “Wherever the law is, crime can be found.” And I love this quote—it’s a beautifully written sentence—because it hints at, though it does not say, the human agency in law and what we call people. And so, certain things are violence, and certain things are not. Certain things are the acts committed by thugs, and certain things are the acts committed by the law. And in terms of rendering black people illegitimate, in terms of putting black people in certain boxes where things can be done to them, the vocabulary is very, very important—the law is very, very important—in terms of where we draw the line.

Power vs violence


Ta-Nehisi Coates laments the frequency with which American society obliges the police to solve problems abjured by voters and the men and women they elect:

At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems—homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one’s children, mental illness—are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can’t be every place.

When Walter Scott fled from the North Charleston police, he was not merely fleeing Thomas Slager, he was attempting to flee incarceration. He was doing this because we have decided that the criminal-justice system is the best tool for dealing with men who can’t, or won’t, support their children at a level that we deem satisfactory. Peel back the layers of most of the recent police shootings that have captured attention and you will find a broad societal problem that we have looked at, thrown our hands up, and said to the criminal-justice system, “You deal with this.”

Robert Nisbit’s definition of power precedes what I remember reading in Hannah Arendt, who in the wake of campus demonstrations, the bombing of Cambodia, the Plumbers, and Kent State distinguished power from violence when politicians often treat them as synonyms (“Power arises from the consent of groups”). The larger problem here is that with voters electing politicians who deny funding for the programs that examine mental illness, drug use, and so on, the vacuum will get filled by force and violence.

Coates: white supremacy ‘the machinery of Galactus’

I missed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ post on the Justice Department’s Ferguson report. A masochist with a yen for reading insane doggerel so that I can have fictional arguments, I noted responses from the usual suspects questioning the report’s accuracy. Besides! It doesn’t change the fact that those Ferguson blacks are poor and aren’t changing their circumstances, these people suggested. But the cops and administrators, the people from whom we ost often hear accusations regarding Lack of Personal Responsibility, were, to quote Coates, “often busy expunging fines for their friends:

It must noted that the rhetoric “personal responsibility” enjoys not just currency among the white officials of Ferguson, but among many black people (“black-on-black crime!”) who believe that white supremacy is a force with which one can negotiate. But white supremacy—as evidenced in Ferguson—is not ultimately interested in how responsible you are, nor how respectable you look. White supremacy is neither a misunderstanding nor a failure of manners. White supremacy is the machinery of Galactus which allows for the potential devouring of everything you own. White supremacy is the technology, patented in this enlightened era, to ensure that what is yours inevitably becomes mine.

‘The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power’

Bravo to Ta-Nehisi Coates for excerpting Alexander Stephens’ writings. The vice president of the Confederacy, as Edmund Wilson’s chapter in Patriotic Gore makes clear, was no fool. He articulated a rebel creed without equivocation. All whites are equal under the law, Stephens wrote. Not Negroes though:

Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so.

It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.

This leads to TNC’s inevitable conclusion, explained so that anyone with a third grade education can understand:

Now, Christianity did not “cause” slavery, anymore than Christianity “caused” the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslim terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion’s share of American history.

That this relatively mild, and correct, point cannot be made without the comments being dubbed, “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” by a former Virginia governor gives you some sense of the limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism in our politics.

The peril faced by Northern blacks

Racism wasn’t limited to the South. Isabel Wilkerson reminds people of the conditions that blacks fleeing Jim Crow faced in the North at the turn of the century:

Indeed, it was resentment toward the Southerners’ arrival and obstacles to their entering the mainstream of Northern life that helped create the current conditions. Northern cities had had limited exposure to African-Americans. These cities were ill-prepared to absorb large numbers of asylum seekers who stood out from the rest of the population.

And so the newcomers were met with suspicion. Often recruited as strikebreakers, they were denied access to some unions and trades and were paid the lowest wages for the dirtiest work. They were roped off into overcrowded ghettos by means of redlining and periodic firebombings of homes purchased by black residents who breached the de facto wall of segregation.

Unlike the immigrants from Europe, they could not shield themselves from the assumptions about their heritage or blend into the majority just by Anglicizing their names or mastering the senator’s English. They stood out as the children of enslavement and Jim Crow, unable to escape the burden of a pained history.

Indeed, as chronicled in Wilkerson’s own The Warmth of Other Sunsand C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, in the South there at least existed a tense, ambivalent, and dangerous relationship between the freedmen and their former masters, undergirded by years of proximity and sexual and familial intimacy. Nothing of the kind existed in, say, Michigan and Ohio. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal essay last spring detailed how federal housing policy created the white suburbs while predatory mortgages kept black homeowners in a kind of peonage. But these facts aren’t taught in school.

Culture of poverty versus black culture

I choked on the astonishment that is TNC’s final response to Jonathan Chait. Taking him to task for confusing and conflating a “culture of poverty” and/with “black culture,” Coates writes:

Accepting the premise that “black culture” and “a culture of poverty” are interchangeable also has the benefit of making the president’s rhetoric much more understandable. One begins to get why the president would address a group of graduates from an elite black college on the tendency of young men in the black community to make “bad choices.” Or why the president goes before black audiences and laments the fact that the proportion of single-parent households has doubled, and carry no such message to white audiences—despite the fact that single parenthood is growing fastest among whites. And you can understand how an initiative that began with the killing of a black boy who was not poor, and who had a loving father, becomes fuel for the assertion that “nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father.” In his best work, Chait mercilessly dissects this kind of intellectual slipperiness. Now we find him applauding it and reifying it.

It builds to this peroration:

The notion that black America’s long bloody journey was accomplished through frequent alliance with the United States is an assailant’s-eye view of history. It takes no note of the fact that in 1860, most of this country’s exports were derived from the forced labor of the people it was “allied” with. It takes no note of this country electing senators who, on the Senate floor, openly advocated domestic terrorism. It takes no note of what it means for a country to tolerate the majority of the people living in a state like Mississippi being denied the right to vote. It takes no note of what it means to exclude black people from the housing programs, from the GI Bills, that built the American middle class. Effectively it takes no serious note of African-American history, and thus no serious note of American history.

You see this in Chait’s belief that he lives in a country “whose soaring ideals sat uncomfortably aside an often cruel reality.” No. Those soaring ideals don’t sit uncomfortably aside the reality but comfortably on top of it. The “cruel reality” made the “soaring ideals” possible.

Black hands build the Capitol and White House. The miniseries John Adams included a cutaway to slaves laying down marble while the second president looks at them as if realizing the existence of a creature he’d only read about. I used to think it was a throwaway gesture, a bit of tokenism. When I saw the mini series again a few months ago I could think of few more necessary moments.