Posted: November 12, 2015
Discussed in this essay:
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
he death earlier this year of Freddie Gray, a black man who suffered a spinal injury while in police custody, set off protests and rioting in Baltimore. The New York Times waxed sociological when contemplating the burning city. “The racial comity that the election of Barack Obama seemed to promise has not materialized,” it boldly ventured.
Indeed, that the recently formed protest movement feels the need to call itself “Black Lives Matter” clearly conveys its belief that electing America’s first black president hasn’t mattered very much. The Obama phenomenon that gathered force eight years ago indicated a different, better result. A Gallup poll taken immediately after the 2008 election found that 67% of Americans believed that “a solution will eventually be worked out” for relations between blacks and whites, the highest positive percentage ever recorded in response to that question. Gallup found that 33% of Americans thought that electing Barack Obama was the most important advance for blacks in the past century, and another 38% considered it one of the two or three most important. Those who had voted for the Democratic nominee were especially optimistic: 82% believed his victory was either the, or one of the, most important advances for blacks.
A national unity more fundamental than political and racial divisions has been the central theme of Obama’s career as a national politician, beginning with his 2004 Democratic convention keynote address, whose success ignited a startling four-year ascent from the Illinois state senate to the White House. There’s “not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he told the delegates. “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” a nation where we “are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
Whereas Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton had made central to their campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination the injustices and disparities afflicting blacks, Obama’s shrewdly crafted speech placed minorities’ grievances alongside those of whites in a way that encouraged Americans to demand more government assistance, and to regard the need for such assistance as a common bond more important than racial differences. We “have more work to do,” he said, for “the young woman in East St. Louis, and thousands more like her, who has the grades, has the drive, has the will, but doesn’t have the money to go to college.” But we also have more to do for “the workers I met in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their own children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour.” In the census prior to Obama’s speech, the population of East St. Louis was 98% black, and Galesburg’s was 84% white.
He went on to interpret the political meaning and policy implications of these citizens’ problems:
Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you they don’t want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon. Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. No, people don’t expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.
Whites in the suburbs and blacks in the cities want not only similar but complimentary things—more disciplined welfare programs, better disciplined children. They want government to do more, but not that much more…merely to change priorities. Whites and blacks share a strong desire for opportunity and agree that government programs can never substitute for personal responsibility—above all, for family responsibilities.
The message’s resonance was inseparable from the messenger’s uniqueness, and the calibrated way he presented himself. Obama’s “exotic background,” according to one account of his 2004 Senate campaign, helped “to neutralize race” by making him “an African-American candidate who was not stereotypically African-American.” (In 2007, when they were rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Joseph Biden famously said that Obama was “the first mainstream African-American [presidential candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”) It subsequently turned out that the first black president’s exotic background included two white ancestors who had owned slaves. “We have never had a politician quite like this,” the New York Times marveled after the 2004 speech. “Most people can find something to identify with in Barack Obama, and he can find something to identify with in them.”
A Cynic’s Façade
The carefully laid plans to pre-sent Obama as the rainbow coalition personified were jeopardized in March 2008, when journalists and then millions of YouTube viewers discovered a sermon the Reverend Jeremiah Wright had delivered in 2003. In it, he said that after all the injustices America’s government has perpetrated against blacks, it “then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no,” Wright exhorted. “Not ‘God Bless America’; God Damn America! …God Damn America for treating her citizens as less than human.” Coming from the senior pastor at the church where Obama had worshipped for years, who had married the Obamas, baptized their daughters, and coined the phrase that gave Obama’s campaign book, The Audacity of Hope, its title, the YouTube tirade posed a mortal threat to Obama’s presidential campaign. Just as voters were getting to know the Illinois senator, Wright’s sermon gave them reason to suspect that Obama was, after all, as angry and divisive as Al Sharpton, the Kumbaya rhetoric nothing more than a cynic’s façade.
To rescue his candidacy, Obama found it necessary to give another speech, at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, elaborating more explicitly the themes he had laid out at the 2004 Democratic convention. We “cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together,” he said in the second address. We must “perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes.” Describing himself—in terms few politicians of any nation could employ—as having “brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents,” Obama sought to convey a unique capacity to empathize with Americans of all kinds.
Thus, he contended that the legacy of slavery and discrimination “helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white.” But to say X helps explain Y means X does not simply or completely explain Y. Obama made clear his belief that blacks’ conduct is also part of the equation when he argued that progress requires blacks to take “full responsibility for our own lives—by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism.”
At the same time, “Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race,” because “as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch.” Obama understands and respects their grievances, too. When
they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
The resolution of the “racial stalemate” America has “been stuck in for years” is, by happy coincidence, the one promising path for blacks’ advancement: “binding our particular grievances—for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs—to the larger aspirations of all Americans.” Obama concluded by telling the story of a conversation among some of his campaign volunteers. A white woman named Ashley Baia related in moving detail the financial privations her family had suffered after her mother became seriously ill. Others explained why they were working for Obama. When it was the turn of an “elderly black man,” he said simply, “I am here because of Ashley.” That “single moment of recognition,” Obama concluded, is “where we start” to build a more perfect union.
Menaces of Nature
You campaign in poetry, the late Mario Cuomo often said, but you govern in prose. The prosaic rendering of common hopes and unifying aspirations has, however, eluded President Obama throughout nearly seven years in office. His tireless efforts to make America more like a Scandinavian social democracy—a goal he would clearly desire for its own sake, even if the United States were as monochromatic as Sweden or Denmark—have done little to resolve our racial stalemate. The Atlantic’s David A. Graham covered a recent sermon by Reverend Wright, learning among other things that he now mocks his former congregant as “our Halfrican-American president.” For Graham, Wright’s “message feels far more suited to the times in 2015 than it did to 2008.” In place of “giddy daydreams of a post-racial America,” Wright’s argument “that the United States was structurally racist and conceived in white supremacy” is “now commonly voiced” by white liberals, Black Lives Matter, and Graham’s Atlantic colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Indeed, Coates’s stature—Kyle Smith speculated in Commentary that he might be named “our first Public Intellectual Laureate”—is the strongest indicator of how race relations have worsened in the Obama era. Recently turned 40, Coates has already written last year’s most widely discussed magazine article, “The Case for Reparations,” and authored one of this year’s bestsellers, Between the World and Me. In awarding him one of its 2015 “genius grants,” the MacArthur Foundation praised Coates for bringing “personal reflection and historical scholarship to bear on America’s most contested issues,” and writing “without shallow polemic and in a measured style.”
An example of Coates’s measured style is his reaction, related in Between the World and Me, to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: “[L]ooking out upon the ruins of America, my heart was cold.” September 11 occurred one year after a (black) friend of Coates, Prince Jones, was fatally shot by a (black) undercover police officer from (predominantly black) Prince George’s County, Maryland. There had once been slaves auctioned in lower Manhattan, Coates reasons, so “Bin Laden was not the first man to bring terror to that section of the city.” In the days following 9/11, “I watched the ridiculous pageantry of flags, the machismo of firemen, the overwrought slogans. Damn it all. Prince Jones was dead.” Indeed,
I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature.
Ward Churchill, the comparably temperate ethnic studies professor and activist, wrote after 9/11 that the deaths of the “little Eichmanns” in the World Trade Center were a “penalty befitting their participation” in American imperialism. After all, they “willingly and knowingly” constituted “a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire—the ‘mighty engine of profit’ to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved.” As such, they were “busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind, and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants.” Unfairly and inexplicably, Churchill sits by the phone, awaiting the MacArthur Foundation’s call.
Coates’s preference for reflection in place of polemic was also on display at this year’s “Aspen Ideas Festival.” On a panel with New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, Coates was asked what he would do about crime. (New Orleans, where 60% of the population is black, has one of America’s highest homicide rates.) “I don’t know what I’d do if I were mayor,” Coates said, “but I could tell you what I’d do if I was king.” What he would do is let prisoners out of prison. “And, by the way, I include violent criminals in that…. Gun crime, too.”
Coates is not a political philosopher. Rather than examining abstract or empirical propositions, much of his writing relates his “personal reflections,” as MacArthur noted. Between the World and Me, for instance, is cast in intimate terms as a letter to Coates’s teenage son, preparing him to comprehend and survive America’s deplorable treatment of blacks, especially black males.
Yet, there is an idea that runs through Coates’s writing: people of European ancestry have abused people of African ancestry from the day the first slave arrived right up until the present moment, and this great crime both defines and condemns the American republic. “In America,” he warns his son, “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” In the same vein, the tense relationship between police officers and blacks is easily explained: “The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”
Throughout his writing, Coates elaborates two implications from this axiom. The first is that because whites’ subjugation of blacks is the crux of American history, whites are solely and entirely responsible for every problem or disadvantage afflicting blacks today, which also means that blacks themselves bear no responsibility for any of their difficulties. Last year Charles Barkley, the basketball star who is now a television sports analyst, said on a radio show, “We as black people are never going to be successful, not because of you white people, but because of other black people. When you are black, you deal with so much crap in your life from other black people.” And the crap is all about how black authenticity precludes self-discipline. “If you go to school, make good grades, speak intelligent, and don’t break the law, you’re not a good black person. It’s a dirty, dark secret in the black community.”
Coates vigorously rejected Barkley’s argument, condemning it as an instance of the “respectability politics” that blames black victims for not adopting their oppressors’ norms. If “aliens were to compare the socioeconomic realities of the black community with the history of their treatment in this country,” he wrote, “they would not be mystified.” The only explanation for not grasping the fundamental reality—blacks are “no part of the problem,” which “truly is 100 percent explained by white supremacy”—is “the inability to look into the cold dark void of history.”
Dream and Creed
That every American ought to stare ever more deeply into that void is, in turn, the second implication of Coates’s central axiom. The American polity will never achieve coherence or integrity until it comes to terms with its crimes of plunder against blacks, and the ways that this plunder has been central to the nation’s story and essential to its power and prosperity. Thus, his argument for paying reparations to blacks is less about economic equality than moral clarity. Reparations “is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely,” the only way we can fully accept “our collective biography and its consequences” and thereby “imagine a new country.” Deliberating and then paying reparations would constitute a “national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal,” a “revolution of the American consciousness,” and “a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
According to Between the World and Me, the American Dream is not an aspiration but a comforting, exculpatory fantasy. The Dream—“perfect houses with nice lawns…. Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways”—has “never been an option” for blacks because it “rests on our backs.” America is “a country lost in the Dream,” where “a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream.” They do so hoping for “broad exoneration.”
Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.
Many who admire Coates read him as advocating, simply, that America finally live up to its high standards. His central subject is the severity and persistence of the gap between America’s conduct and its ideals, according to journalist Joel Mathis. In this interpretation, Coates is demanding nothing more than Martin Luther King, Jr., did in the famous 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial: “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
It’s possible that what Coates intends is this simple, this benign. Much of his work, however, supports a very different interpretation: America’s only way forward is not by fulfilling a promise, but by admitting a lie. The nation has never made a good-faith effort to adhere to its creed because the declaration of natural, universal human equality was made in bad faith, and never seriously intended to apply to and elevate blacks.
In an article just before the 2012 election, Coates placed Obama in a line of black leaders, running back to Booker T. Washington, whose prevailing concern is reassuring whites that blacks don’t hold a grudge and will behave themselves. “[W]hat are we to make of an integration premised…on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxtables?” Coates goes on to warmly describe an alternative mode of black politics, one that “casts its skepticism…upon the entire American project.” He cites the writings of law professor Randall Kennedy, whose father “rooted for the foreign country” in “virtually any American conflict.” And Coates favorably cites Jeremiah Wright’s skepticism about the American project, which skepticism grows ever more pronounced. In his recent sermon Wright argued that America must discard its inherently racist Constitution and start over with an entirely new one. To merely amend the existing one, he said, would be like baking a cake without the sugar called for in the recipe, and then attempting to fix the problem by sprinkling sugar on top after removing the cake from the oven.
Coates’s central proposition, as well as the two large, related conclusions he draws from it, requires more scrutiny than it has received from his admirers. Coates would have a prima facie case that America was, from the start, irredeemably bigoted if: a) the Declaration’s self-evident truths—about equality, inalienable rights, and government by consent of the governed for the purpose of securing those rights—really had been considered self-evidently true around the world and throughout human history prior to 1776; and b) chattel slavery was a cruel innovation, categorically different from any subjugation previously known, and more or less invented by the Europeans who colonized the western hemisphere.
The evidence argues otherwise. If slavery is America’s original sin—a formulation Obama used in his 2008 speech on race, and one popular among other rhetoricians, including Coates—it was a strikingly unoriginal one. As historian David Brion Davis wrote in The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), even though “No slave system in history was quite like that of the West Indies and the Southern states of America,” slavery in the United States “was not unique in its central characteristics or in its underlying contradiction.” The institution was brutal nearly everywhere it was established. “A master might kill his slave with impunity…in Homeric Greece, ancient India, the Roman Republic, Saxon England, Kievan Russia, and, under certain circumstances, in China of the Former Han period.” Moreover, the “Roman government tortured bondsmen on the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing.” American slavery was extremely harsh, but by global or historic standards it was not exceptionally harsh.
And slavery is only one institution whereby humans practice exploitation and brutality. The fundamental divide between Us and Them—whether based on religion, nationality, ethnicity, social class, ideology, or some other attribute—has issued in plunder and violence again and again. In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville quotes from letters written to her daughter in 1675 by one Madame de Sévigné. They oscillate between chirpy gossip and approving accounts of commoners being punished savagely for slight offenses or failing to promptly pay new taxes. “The day before yesterday, the fiddler who had begun the dance and the stealing of stamped paper was broken on the wheel; he was quartered and his four quarters exposed in the four corners of the town. They took sixty townsmen and tomorrow they begin the hanging.”
The problem, says Tocqueville, was not that Madame de Sévigné “was a selfish and barbaric creature,” but that she “did not clearly conceive what it was to suffer when one was not a gentleman.” Returning to his central subject, Tocqueville argues that as more people come to dwell in democratic circumstances, wherein the lives they lead are increasingly similar, others’ torments become comprehensible to them, and they “show a general compassion for all members of the human species.” That may be, but the evidence in recent years from such different places as Rwanda and the Balkans suggests that progress along this path is by no means assured, and a reversion to barbaric attitudes and acts can be alarmingly swift.
Coates offers a disclaimer at the beginning of his book. Yes, “violent exploitation” is almost certainly a constant of human history. This massive historical fact, however, constitutes no impediment to his condemning America for pervasive moral depravity. To the contrary, the
banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.
Coates justifies the severity of his criticism on the basis of America’s hypocrisy, not because America’s actual conduct has been distinctively bad. If America had never proclaimed high standards it wouldn’t merit condemnation for failing to meet them. This argument amounts to a reworking of American exceptionalism: America, an ordinary country lost in the Dream that it is extraordinary, is exceptionally wicked for the hubristic crime of thinking itself exceptionally good. And this gap between declared standards and actual conduct can be understood only by concluding that the standard was never intended seriously. The “tie between citizenship and whiteness in America,” Coates wrote is 2012, was “made plain from the very beginning.”
America or Denmark?
A different account is possible, however. Perhaps the more impressive and important anomaly is not that a country dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal did not immediately banish slavery and any ensuing manifestations of racial discrimination. Perhaps it is, rather, that in a world where one or another kind of subjugation had always been the norm, a new country chose a radically different criterion. In declaring that all men are created equal, the signers of the Declaration of Independence “set up a standard maxim for free society,” Abraham Lincoln said in 1857, one that should be “constantly labored for” and “constantly approximated” so that it would enhance the “happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.” In setting the goal, he continued, they intended that “enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”
The fact that we’re still debating this 239 years after the Declaration could mean that Lincoln was wrong and Coates is right: the proposition to which America was dedicated was never meant to apply to blacks. The whites who perpetrated or tolerated slavery and Jim Crow were bad people by virtue of being good Americans.
The process of enforcing the standard of natural equality as fast as circumstances admit has certainly proven to be excruciatingly slow. This fact does not, however, prove that the standard is a sham, or that the nation that has approximated it so imperfectly is and always has been simply bigoted and cruel. It may also be the case—I believe it is the case—that the Declaration’s standard of equality both reflected an advance in humanity’s moral understanding, and was a crucial development in accelerating and extending that progress. Reducing our heritage to racism unfairly disregards the fact that our heritage encompasses this resounding expression of a self-evident truth, one that catalyzed the moral advances that have rendered racism odious. Triumphantly condemning the past for failing to anticipate and adhere to the present’s sensibilities about racism (and sexism, and homophobia) is the moral equivalent, as Martin Amis once wrote, of “a school of sixteenth-century art criticism that spent its time contentedly jeering at the past for not knowing about perspective.”
It’s also fair to say, and important to remember, that achieving equality or even reducing inequality was always going to be very hard. One indication of the severity of this challenge is that there is no long, easily assembled list of modern nations that have simply eradicated tribalism, whether based on color, ethnicity, language, class, caste, religion, or some combination of them. Around the world, domestic tranquility and civic functionality remain strongly correlated with ethnic and cultural homogeneity. In The Origins of Political Order (2011), Francis Fukuyama uses the term “getting to Denmark” to sum up all kinds of societal progress, everything that leads a nation to be “stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and [have] extremely low levels of political corruption.” But it took Denmark itself many long, tumultuous centuries to get to Denmark, and the Denmark it got to is a nation with a population smaller and even less diverse than Wisconsin’s.
“Multiculturalism” is, at bottom, a determined effort to make a virtue of necessity, but one that requires such determination because we remain creatures who are strongly disposed to sympathize and unite with those we take to be like ourselves. For millennia, this disposition has regularly manifested itself in obsessive attention to the characteristics that differentiate Us from Them. Once that line is drawn, the list of possible ways to regard those on the other side of it includes “live and let live.” No reading of history or anthropology supports the conclusion that this gentle option is the default one.
As the constitution’s preamble makes clear, America, too, aspires to stability, democracy, peace, and prosperity, but “getting to Denmark” is a poor description of the American project. There’s no reason to believe that our country—60 times as populous, immeasurably more diverse—can or should simply scale up the other’s model.
Getting to America, with respect to race, means rendering our heterogeneity an asset in, or at least not an impediment to, the pursuit of the preamble’s goals. Among the reasons this task is difficult is the challenge of figuring out and agreeing on what it means. One reason racial equality, for example, is hard to attain is that it’s hard to define. When Coates ascribes all of blacks’ socioeconomic disadvantages vis-à-vis whites to slavery and subsequent discrimination, he implies that: 1) those disadvantages would be negligible today if the world had never known racial discrimination, and 2) finally overcoming the poisonous legacy of past discrimination means arriving at the essentially random distribution of socioeconomic advantages and disadvantages that would have prevailed in the absence of discrimination. This was Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s argument in the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke affirmative action decision: a university that had admissions slots reserved for non-whites was merely trying to redress historical transgressions by putting “minority applicants in the position they would have been in if not for the evil of racial discrimination.”
This tidy counterfactual history, in which discrimination is the sole variable that explains all subsequent socioeconomic differences between groups, is highly dubious, however. Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell, having spent many years comparing different nations, both past and present, concludes that none has ever approximated this purported baseline: each major sub-group has the same proportion of the total population as it has of both the most and least advantageous social berths, from the legislature and executive suite to the prison yard and welfare office. (So, for example, with 13.2% of the U.S. population, blacks would account for 13.2% of professors, state legislators, prison inmates, etc., in an America unsullied by discrimination.) He cites social scientist Myron Weiner, who wrote, “All multi-ethnic societies exhibit a tendency for ethnic groups to engage in different occupations, have different levels (and, often, types) of education, receive different incomes, and occupy a different place in the social hierarchy.”
Moreover, Sowell argues, the hypothesis reducing the complex social processes that determine each group’s fate to a single cause-and-effect relationship—the groups perpetrating discrimination prosper in proportion to the severity of the discriminatory practices, even as the groups victimized by discrimination fall behind pari passu—is undermined rather than vindicated by the empirical evidence. There are too many other determinants, historical and cultural, interrelated in complex and only partially understood ways, to support this thesis. Even ideas about what to aspire to, or how to define success, are shaped by culture. In The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber noted the tendency, within the same nation, of Protestants to prefer eating well and Catholics to prefer sleeping well. That is, in response to similar economic opportunities, Protestants were inclined to take on additional risk and exertion at the expense of security and leisure, and Catholics to enjoy more security and leisure while reducing their exertion and risk. This does not mean the one group is greedy and the other is lazy. But it also does not mean that the empirically observed disparities between them can be explained in terms of discrimination.
It is not uncommon, Sowell contends, for discrimination to be inversely rather than directly related to socioeconomic disadvantage: “periods of advancement have coincided with increasing group animosity.” Japanese Americans, for example, suffered discrimination before 1941 and after 1945, and consignment to internment camps in large numbers during the intervening war years. Their household earnings, however, were roughly equal to the American average by 1959, and nearly one third above the national average by 1969. Coates imagines that space aliens would embrace his preferred causal analysis: blacks’ disadvantages are entirely the result of whites’ depredations. But using the same analytical tools, the Martians hovering over a World War II internment camp would have made exactly the wrong assessment about the depths of its inhabitants’ predicament, and the futility of Japanese Americans relying on their own social capital and self-discipline to overcome the discrimination against them. (The camps’ detainees did receive reparations, but under a federal law passed in 1988, long after Japanese Americans had surpassed the national average in every important socioeconomic indicator.)
Coates’s animus against “respectability politics” is terrible advice, effectively urging blacks to squander their lives by eschewing beneficial habits and dispositions, all for the sake of proving a point. If blacks’ problems are whites’ fault entirely, then the only way blacks can improve their circumstances is to press the moral claims, over and over and over, that rest on their status as a caste of perma-victims. Blacks who Horatio Alger themselves or their kids into the middle class are crossing the picket line, undermining black solidarity, and giving whites the “broad exoneration” they crave but have done shamefully little to deserve.
The strategy of disparaging self-help to make an all-in bet that America will someday, somehow enact the policies that finally and fully atone for slavery and Jim Crow leaves black fortunes wholly dependent on white guilt. There does seem to be a lot of that, as the growing reputation and glowing reviews of Ta-Nehisi Coates suggest. But whether there’s enough for the hazy but monumental project of national redemption he proposes is doubtful.
Apart from the question of whether too many whites will turn out to be too bigoted, selfish, smug, and obtuse to do the right thing, there is a further difficulty. The argument ascribing all blacks’ problems to whites’ racism ends up—when it gets down to it—being too sweeping and protean to be falsifiable, coherent, or compelling. Racism is why whites moved out of the big cities after World War II, and also why their grandchildren displace blacks by moving back in and gentrifying urban neighborhoods. Racism is why redlining and restrictive covenants made it excessively difficult for blacks to get loans and buy houses, and also why zero-down and balloon-rate mortgages made it excessively easy for blacks to get loans and buy houses they couldn’t afford, and went on to lose when the real estate market crashed. Racism is why too little has been done to reduce crime in black neighborhoods, and also why too much has been done, resulting in the “mass incarceration” Coates and others deplore. It depletes the reservoirs of guilt far below the high levels required for a national transformation when people realize that they’ve been placed in a situation where guilt is ineradicable because expiation is impossible.
America still needs a basis for our diverse society to cohere, function, and advance. The Coates solution, a moral division of labor between black aggrievement and white atonement, is unlikely to succeed. The Obama solution, a newer New Deal and greater Great Society so successful that Americans forget old fault lines and animosities as they’re caught up in building the world’s biggest and most diverse Denmark, has also fallen far short.
Coming from a politician rather than a public intellectual, the latter approach at least recognized the need for reciprocal obligations as opposed to endless hectoring for whites to engage in limitless self-abasement. Speaking in 2013 at Morehouse College—the historically black men’s school whose alumni include Martin Luther King, Jr.—President Obama told its graduates that “there’s no longer any room for excuses.” Even though racism and its legacy remain facts of life, a bigger fact is that ours is a “hyper-connected, hyper-competitive world.” In that world, “Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.” Coates, who retains a higher opinion of Obama than does Jeremiah Wright, nevertheless criticized the speech as an example of the first black president being “singularly the scold of ‘black America.’” Obama’s “targeted scorn,” he continued, not only does nothing to “repair history,” but falsely conveys that “the government he represents is somehow only partly to blame” for the black predicament.
Picking a side in this argument between Obama and Coates is one of a CRB writer’s or reader’s least difficult decisions. One of the causes of deteriorating race relations since Obama’s election, however, is that the president agrees with Coates and Jeremiah Wright more fundamentally than he disagrees with them. As Charles R. Kesler argued in I Am the Change (2012), Obama treats the founding principles as vaguely admirable, but “regards the original intention of both the Declaration and the Constitution to be racist and even pro-slavery.”
An orthodox post-modernist, Obama relativizes the Declaration’s self-evident truths in order to regard them as both racist and inspirational. In the resulting hash, served up in The Audacity of Hope, Obama can do no more than urge each of us to “pursue our own absolute truths.” And for an orthodox progressive, the pursuit is all that counts. “Progress” doesn’t mean advancing toward any particular goal or according to any standard. It means a gauzy confidence that our disparate absolute truths will somehow eventually conduce to a world that is more decent in every respect. “America is a constant work in progress,” Obama said at the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. The lesson of Selma for America’s youth today is,
You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be.
Even Bill Clinton, no zealot about absolute standards, preferred a map with at least some coordinates. “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” he said in his First Inaugural. In Obama’s America, a constant work in progress, what’s right with America is the eternal process of revising the meaning of America. Unencumbered by what is, Obama’s America rejects the confining statesmanship Lincoln proposed of constantly approximating a self-evident truth enshrined as the standard maxim of a free society. The vast operational latitude afforded by rejecting Lincoln’s purposeful project in favor of Obama’s unbounded one might conduce to idealism and the audacious, hopeful pursuit of change. That Jeremiah Wright’s message about race relations is more resonant in the twilight of Obama’s presidency than it was at the dawn, however, argues that a constant work in progress, unencumbered by what is, also conduces to nihilism and despair.