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« And Lucifer stole the show in Paradise lost | Main | When the truth is not enough »

Coates and the racial reckoning

Here in post-racial America a book about race has somehow managed to elicit divided responses along racial lines. Reading the reviews of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” I’ve noticed two types. One comes from people of color, particularly women of color. Britni Danielle, Shani O. Hilton, Syreeta McFadden and Brit Bennett have all praised the book, but found one noteworthy flaw in it: its conflation of the black male experience with the black experience. Black women are largely relegated to the periphery, and when they do show up it is in relation to a black man, not as individuals in their own right. They praise the book overall but they aren’t shy about pointing out that blind spot.

Meanwhile, H. Rambsy observed that white reviewers wrote for what they assumed was an exclusively white audience. Noah Berlatsky noted a hand-wringing quality to some of them as well: “the Economist and the NYT both wrote the same review of Coates’ book in which they flapped anxiously at his lack of respect for 9/11 firefighters and assured him that the world was getting better all the time because of nice establishment folks at the NYT and Economist, why oh why must he be so bitter?”

Carlos Lozada, who appears to be Hispanic so I have no idea where to fit him into this racial framework (I leave that as an exercise for the reader), sounded a similar theme: “the book also reads like an open letter to white America, to the well-meaning sorts who at some point might have said, ‘Yes, things are bad, but they’re getting better, right?’”

I noticed this dynamic last year during Coates’ exchange with Jonathan Chait: White writers wanting to look at the very long arc of history and tell a story of slow but inexorable improvement. There was slavery, then it was abolished, then there was Jim Crow, then civil rights legislation was passed, and now we are at wherever we are today. Progress! Meanwhile Coates was writing about how we haven’t actually tried to account for the damage that was done, and in any event he still has a very real fear that his kid will end up dead if he has a bad encounter with a cop.

As to that first part - accounting for the damage - both Coates and his reviewers of color seem to be on the same page. The historical fact of plunder and the present-day state of violence is a given, something so obvious as to hardly need comment. That’s because what is missing from the narrative of progress is the reckoning. It’s not enough to change the bad laws and walk away; we have to try to account for, and right as best we can, the wrongs that occurred during the bad laws.

America is capable of that kind of reckoning. We paid reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. But of course a comparable reckoning with black Americans would be unfathomably more dramatic. Figuring the cost not of internment but slavery, measured not in years but centuries, would be a fearsome task. It would force us to once again face a grotesque history, and to acknowledge that justice was only partially done by changes in the law. It is much, much easier to just say yeah it was bad then but it’s better now so bygones, OK?

As to the second part - the situation now - it’s a little easier to face since we’re all living through it. But that doesn’t make it comfortable. It’s difficult to know that those we work with (and perhaps live near) are still in very different countries, that the easy familiarity we may have with each other, and certainty of each other’s good character, doesn’t change what happens in a store or at a traffic stop. Because acknowledging that means confronting the institutional forms of racism that still exist - despite the steady march of progress we console ourselves with.

Coates doesn’t give space for those illusions in his writing, and for that he is considered negative or a radical. A lot of people want to look at race from 50,000 feet, and all he does is pull the focus in, over and over again, and say: this is what we’ve done and who we are. It’s uncomfortable because we still haven’t had the reckoning. But maybe if we were to have it, he (and others) wouldn’t have quite the same acute worry that one of his children will meet an umtimely end.

Reader Comments (2)

For those of us who have spent time in other cultures, the racism here in the US seems unusually tenacious. After reading your post (high value), I'm left with that annoying feeling -- ever present and not just about our racism problem -- that we decided years ago to rush forward, ignoring "little" problems like racism. We are all New Yorkers, all the time, always walking past Kitty Genovese being murdered in the street, right in front of us. Like, this is none of our business? Noticing is being "picky"? or too negative? or anti-American? or (like Coates) too "abrasive"? Coates is "going too far"?

So reckoning? Yes, of course.

July 16, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterpw

I've never found Coates as extreme as some of his critics say. I think his refusal to endorse the "always getting better" narrative drives a certain kind of Burkean conservative (Economist, Sullivan back when he was blogging) crazy.

July 16, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan

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