Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait have had a fascinating exchange on race over the last couple of weeks. Chait has been arguing from a perspective of culture. Coates, while spending time on culture, has also tried to get Chait to see the connection between culture and the lived history of the African American community. And Chait repeatedly fails to even acknowledge that (large) part of Coates’ thesis.
Coates refers to the “jaunty and uplifting narrative” that Chait believes in: “One can believe in the continued existence of racism and still think that the scale of the evil has fallen enormously since the 19th century.” He has been arguing, with increasing truculence, that the story of blacks in America is one of “steady progress.” It seems to confound him that Coates does not see it the same way. But there’s no reason for Chait to be confused. Coates has laid out exactly why he feels that way, yet Chait seems literally incapable of processing the information.
For instance, on the subject of slavery, Chait has a very simplistic understanding. We “progressed from chattel slavery to emancipation” and that’s about all there is to the story. Coates responded: yes - but look at how it happened.
Our greatest president, assessing the contribution of black soldiers in 1864, understood this:We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.The United States of America did not save black people; black people saved the United States of America. With that task complete, our “ally” proceeded to repay its debt to its black citizens by pretending they did not exist.
Lincoln was very clear elsewhere as well: Preserving the union was his main purpose for the Civil War, and he only changed his mind on emancipation as circumstances dictated. Here’s what the Civil War was not, at least not until it was well underway: The North feeling the great evil of slavery created a moral urgency that the country, in fidelity to the soaring ideals of its founding documents, must act on immediately. Even when the issue was added to the cause, it wasn’t for those reasons. Lincoln just needed the bodies. (He did make the moral case as well though.) Chait sees it as, 1860 - slavery legal. 1865 - slavery abolished. Progress! He can’t seem to understand how Coates could see it differently.
Over and over, Coates tries to show how those who claim to be allies to the African American community have acted in ways more suggestive of political expediency than altruism. Yet instead of grappling with that, Chait just writes it off as a newfound pessimism in Coates. Of course, if that is the problem then Chait doesn’t have to engage what I suspect is an uncomfortable proposition for him: “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.” No, Ta-Nehisi is just feeling blue lately.
Coates has a more historically grounded view of what Chait calls progress. He looks at events not just as data points, but in the context of which they happened. Progress, such as it is, has often happened at a much slower pace and with a more brutal price because nominal allies were absent - or antagonistic. Chait seems to prefer a history with such episodes airbrushed out. Tressie McMillan Cottom characterized it thus: “Black anger about white violence, white racism, and the veneer of white civility is acceptable to white liberals only when it is in service to their role as caretaker.”
Here’s the kicker. Chait praises himself as being concerned only with “the task of designing incrementally more just and effective policies in an unjust world.” Among those “successful anti-poverty initiatives” he numbers KIPP schools. Yet charter schools are just the latest in a long standing project to privatize schools - for profit if at all possible. Across the country - in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark and other cities - the charter movement, funded by wealthy interests, is energetically working to destroy public schools, break teacher’s unions, and replace long-term local workers with short-term temporary ones. Caretaker zeal included.
This is an example of a just and effective policy? Teaming up with wealthy neoliberals to attack one of the most important institutions in black American life? Is he unaware how unpopular the privatization project has become, or does he just think those who oppose it don’t know what’s good for them? His selecting such a contentious issue to hold up as the kind of poverty-remediating program he favors only serves to justify Coates’ and others’ skepticism. Maybe they could be excused for thinking they’d be better off without his brand of urban renewal.
Events like school closings and wholesale disenfranchisement are actual things that are happening right now, and will have a profound and negative effect on the quality of life in those communities. Instead of looking at real events, Chait invokes culture - an empty vessel into which he can pour all his predispositions. Perhaps systemic racism deserves more attention than appeals to an amorphous culture. And maybe it would be good to examine those issues in some depth rather than blandly grade today against a curve of horrific brutality. However much worse things were in the past, things are still pretty bad right now.
The whole debate has been characterized by Coates pointing out historical and contemporary examples of dubious assistance from the improvers, and Chait not noticing. From Chait’s lofty perch he just sees the arc bending beautifully towards justice. Hey, at least you’re not slaves any more (you’re welcome). Meanwhile, Coates is saying: boy it sure could have bent more there and there and there; with allies like that who needs foes? Chait can only respond by complaining that Coates has turned into a real downer - and to sound more and more like George Bush did towards Iraqis: How can you not be grateful after all we’ve done?