In the past year or so since I started reading him, Coates has been thoroughly and systematically breaking my heart…
When it comes to public intellectual work, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ June 2014 cover story for The Atlantic—The Case for Reparations—is as good as it gets. It’s true that Coates does not necessarily say anything new, anything that African-American scholars and good students of American history didn’t already know, but this doesn’t minimize the importance of his work. Part of his brilliance lies in his ability to touch the central nerves of our highly ahistorical 21st century debates with the medicine of translated history. Coates disarms the color-blindness of the Obama era with cold-blooded history and the most beautiful of prose.
I believe I was first introduced to Coates via his analysis on race and the Obama presidency, Fear of a Black President. My online education continued when I dug up his 2008 piece on the audacity of Bill Cosby’s conservatism, This Is How We Lost to the White Man. Then, as I started to read more of his stuff, Coates’ words started to jump off of my computer screen…
It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended. To expect our juries, our schools, our police, to single-handedly correct for this, is to look at the final play in the final minute of the final quarter and wonder why we couldn't come back from twenty-four down.
A capricious anti-intellectualism, a fanatical imbecility, a willful amnesia, an eternal sunshine upon our spotless minds, is white supremacy's gravest legacy. You would not know from reading Richard Cohen that the idea that blacks are more criminally prone is older than the crime stats we cite, that it has been cited since America's founding to justify the very kinds of public safety measures Cohen now endorses. Black criminality is more than myth; it is socially engineered prophecy. If you believe a people to be inhuman, you confine them to inhuman quarters and inhuman labor, and subject them to inhuman policy. When they then behave inhumanely to each other, you take it is as proof of your original thesis. The game is rigged. Because it must be.
I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy, and shall not be extricated through the latest innovations in Negro Finishing School. 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. I insist that the G.I Bill's accolades are inseparable from its racist heritage. I will not respect the lie. I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting to which, likely until the end of our days, we unerringly return.
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
For many Americans, it’s difficult to know what to do with these words. They ring true but are also deeply unsettling. I think Coates is kind of a nightmare for both conservatives and progressives; I can see them hand-waiving and emotionalizing but not actually out-arguing him. That’s why some of Coates’ biggest critics have resorted to criticizing his line of thought simply as “pessimistic” or “fatalistic.” Instead of using history and studies to show a viable alternative, I guess it’s easier to say that someone is sad, or angry, or oppression nostalgic.
TNC can be a hard pill to swallow because he cuts through our sentimentality concerning race and reconciliation. We would rather keep our innocence. It would be easier to just talk about racism, the goodness of diversity, microaggressions, and transformed hearts than it would be to talk about the totalizing force that white supremacy has been, is, and will likely continue to be.
Reading Coates’ articles, some themes emerge for me. First, the way in which many debates in America remain deeply ahistorical. Second, the failure of respectability politics. Third, the humanity of black people. This perhaps is most important. I see Coates as re-narrating America’s [theological] anthropology. A classic—and very much traditionally Christian—move has been to blame black poverty on pathology and culture. Within this framework, taking oppression/white supremacy into account leads to victimhood and an overdependence on government. What is needed instead is virtue, private charity, and the transformation of hearts. This view makes some sense—if white supremacy didn’t exist. Coates’ insistence on the humanity of black people, and critique of the double standards placed upon them, is nothing less than a debate about the Imago Dei in the history of America.
When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, I sense something deeply spiritual/theological going on. I’m aware that Coates has identified himself as an atheist. Yet, I’m intrigued that he closes his The Blue Period: An Origin Story with a prayer. Contra conservative criticisms, you hear more than a simple demand for “government handouts” when Coates writes: “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” In 21st century America, Coates is exorcising demons we thought we outgrew or forgot we ever had.