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Coates, Chait and the Iraq war understanding of gratitude

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?

Reader Comments (4)

Referred to this article from elsewhere, and reading the first paragraphs, I instinctively did a Ctrl+F and typed in "white" (and then read the article). Whiteness and white people aren't really discussed here, but instead "[systemic/instituational/worldwide/adjective/adjective] racism."

Identifying whiteness *itself* as 1. a social construction rather than anything based in biology and then 2. in fact a strategy for the security of advantage in a competitive society allows for the best understanding of what is called "racism" (white people organizing violence against non-white people) -- it gives a name to the real underlying pattern of problems. This is what Noel Ignatiev and his friends did in the late 90's. See: http://racetraitor.org/abolishthepoint.html

With all due respect, progress to me personally would be the destruction of whiteness, as the amount of so-called whites considering themselves apart from white club and dedicated to dismantling it as an oppressive system, becomes too many (or as whiteness is abolished on other terms, whatever they would be)

Systemic racism is whiteness at work, at a scale one would call systemic.

April 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterqwertyuio

"Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II" by Douglas A. Blackmon had the most profound impact on me of any book I have ever read. It was harrowing to read, and it took me months to get through it. Although that was several years ago, it sticks with me.

Thanks to this blog post, next I will turn to Coates' memoir "The Beautiful Struggle."

April 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarla

Thanks for the comment and link, qwertyuio. I particularly liked this from your link:

The white club does not require that all members be strong advocates of white supremacy, merely that they defer to the prejudices of others.

You're also right about this: "Whiteness and white people aren't really discussed here, but instead "[systemic/instituational/worldwide/adjective/adjective] racism." I tried to focus away from culture because it's so hard to pin down and usually serves questionable policy ends; see this from Kathleen Geier:

I have many problems with moralistic lectures to the poor about their personal failings. Perhaps the biggest is that this rhetoric never, ever leads to a good place politically. It misdiagnoses the issue, falsely suggests that the problems of the poor are personal rather than structural in nature, and misleadingly implies that, with a li’l grit, hard work, and determination, they too can realize the American dream of economic success.

The same goes for discussing "white culture" (or the impossibility of such a thing). You can go around and around forever on that and never nail anything down. I prefer to discuss actual policies like school privatization. Addressing the harm actual policies cause seems (to me) to be a better way to confront the problems that particular communities face.

To put it another way: Stop closing public schools, firing teachers, busting unions, and cutting funding; redouble our investment in public schools and in the idea that public education is a right. Do that and you might be surprised at how the "culture" improves.

April 6, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan

...important data pertains to 40 year campaign against public education...which also eviscerates
"opportunity"=racial equality, IF one believes educational "opportunity" is what people seek? Personally, having taught in states and Europe, I perceive education is scapegoated for ECONOMIC opportunity..

How is it we compare test scores with "competitors" but not HOW other systems actually operate, and GOALS?
German Ed. provides 4 year university or vocational equivalent to all, FREE, as GOAL is lifetime taxpayer=payback. They graduate nearly 3 times numbers
from such as does U.S. They INTEND to do so. It is intrinsic within their system of ECONOMICS to do so.

States Washington, Oregon, Idaho, 2005, average wage necessary for family of four middle-class existence was $45,000 per year gross, less in rural Eastern Washington, more in urban Western Washington. While this number rose over years, it is now close to the same-having declined
to $45,000. again. But actual number of JOBS PAYING $45,000. per year is only 20% of those available.

We have an ECONOMIC problem-for which media and moguls scapegoat education, as "provider of opportunity."

April 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commenternonclassical

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