Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book, “Between the World and Me,” and his 2014 article, ”The Case for Reparations,” continue to draw attention and criticism. This blog already has criticized both the book and the article.[1] Here are additional reflections on these writings.

“Between the World and Me”

In November 2015 the New York Times named the book as one of the 50 notable nonfiction books of 2015. A week later the editors of the Times Book Review proclaimed that it was one of the 10 best books of the year with these words: “Structured as a letter to his teenage son, this slender, urgent volume — a searching exploration of what it is to grow up black in a country built on slave labor and ‘the destruction of black bodies’ — rejects fanciful abstractions in favor of the irreducible and particular. Coates writes to his son with a clear eyed realism about the beautiful and terrible struggle that inheres in flesh and bone.”[2]

Also in November the book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for 2015. The citation stated the book is “a brutally honest portrayal of the plight of the African-American male in this country. Composed as a letter to his adolescent son, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes with chilling bleakness and precision about racism in America. This is no simple account of racism, but rather a concise attack on a system which has consistently rendered black lives worthless. Incorporating history and personal memoir, Coates has succeeded in creating an essential text for any thinking American today.”[3]

Coates dedicated this award to the memory of his friend, Prince Carmen Jones, a young black man who was killed by a policeman, saying, “I have waited 15 years for this moment. I’m a black man in America. I can’t punish that [policeman]. I can’t secure the safety of my son. I just don’t have that power. But what I do have the power to do is say, “You won’t enroll me in this lie. You won’t make me part of it. We are not enrolled in a lie. We are not part of it.'”

In January 2016 the National Book Critics Circle made the book one of five nominees for its 2015 award for criticism. The actual awards will be announced on March 17, 2016. [4]

Jonathan Orbell, a self-described white evangelical Christian and graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary, says the book “offers white evangelicals yet another opportunity to reflect on issues that have gone unaddressed in our congregations for far too long. . . black Americans’ subjugation to a regime of brutal and systematic racial injustice. “[5]

Not all comments about the book were laudatory. Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review and columnist, called the book “profoundly silly at times, and morally blinkered.” Coates “has to reduce people to categories and actors in a pantomime of racial plunder to support his worldview. He must erase distinctions and reject complexity.” In his view, Coates “gives the impression of denying the moral agency of blacks, who are often portrayed as the products of forces beyond their control.” The book “feels nihilistic because there is no positive program to leaven the despair and the call for perpetual struggle.”[6]

Another pointed criticism of Coates was leveled by a columnist for the New York Post, Kyle Smith, who accused Coates of “harboring . . . suspicion, fear, mistrust, distaste, and unease about [all] whites.” Yet “Coates has found himself crowned America’s leading civic thinker.”[7] Coates himself is baffled by this positive reaction by many white readers. He said, “I don’t know why white people read what I write. I didn’t set out to accumulate a mass of white fans.” Indeed, he said he did not want “the burden [of explaining the ills of black people to white people]—it alienated him. And so he writes with a tone that is blunt, authoritative and unapologetic” while harboring “no malice toward white people, and that he speaks to them from the heart.” [8]

An African-American writer living in Paris, Thomas Chatterton Williams, says Coates left out “an essential part of the story of black life today – the only black life I have ever known. . . . The capacity of humans to amount to more than the sum of a set of circumstances is ignored. The capacity to find gratification in making a choice – even if it’s the wrong one – is glossed over.” Williams concludes, “The crisis of the black intellectual now, if there is one, isn’t that he lacks the means or the platform to represent his people but that it is too easy to cleave to a sense of resentment and indignation – even now that he has found himself, after all these years and all this struggle, in a position of strength.”[9]

Coates has said that the book is a “complete rejection” of the notion that the   current plight of blacks in the U.S. “is not really tied to our long history . . . of policy directed toward African-Americans .. . [and that it] is our fault, or partly our fault. . . .[It] may well be our responsibility, but it certainly is not our fault.” The book, he said, reflects his “process of getting conscious . . . [which] was a very, very uncomfortable, disturbing and sometimes physically painful process.” Yet “black experience is big and it’s nuanced and it’s broad, and no one person should be the spokesperson for that experience, or no one person should be the oracle or be the articulator.”[10]

Darryl Pinckney, an African-American novelist, playwright and essayist, places Coates’ book into a broader perspective. Pinckney asserts, “The black struggle in the US has a dualist tradition. It expresses opposing visions of the social destiny of black people. Up, down, all or nothing, in or out, acceptance or repudiation.” According to Pinckney, Coates believes “it’s too late [for an end to America’s racial nightmare], given the larger picture. He speculates that now that the American Dreamers are plundering “not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself,” “something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas.” Coates in this book refuses “to expect anything anymore, socially or politically. Coates is . . . fed up, but his disillusionment is a provocation: it’s all your fault, Whitey. This is a rhetorical strategy of the [black writer’s] tradition but to address an audience beyond black people is to be still attempting to communicate and enlighten.”[11]

“The Case for Reparations”[12]

My earlier post argued this Coates-article was not well written; that he hid in generalizations; that his discussion of black contract-for-deed discrimination was sloppy and perhaps erroneous; that he mentioned certain scholarly discussions of how reparations might be implemented without endorsing any of them; that he failed to mention U.S. presidential l and congressional statements about reparations as well as other countries’ approaches to reparations; and that his grand conclusion was the mere urging adoption of a bill for a federal study of the issue of reparations without examining the details of the bill or the arguments advanced for the bill by its author, Rep. John Conyers (Dem, MI).[13]

Immediately after the release of Coates’ article, David Frum, a neoconservative commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, pointed out that Coates “disavows any consideration of the single most important question about the restitution he has in mind: How would it work?” In addition, Frum asserts, “Coates’s essay is built on an unstated assumption that America’s racial composition is essentially binary, a white majority that inflicts inequality; a black minority that suffers inequality.” Coates thereby ignores the probability of groups other than blacks’ making similar claims for reparations and of the many financial and political problems that would create.[14]

“Another huge problem with any reparations program [for Frum] would be who qualifies.” For example, would a mixed-race individual qualify? A new immigrant from Africa? And so on. In addition, any program would create side effects, anticipated and unanticipated.

The next day, Coates responded to Frum’s criticism by arguing that reparations for African-Americans would not expand to other groups because the actual reparations for Japanese-Americans who had been interred in World War II did not expand to other groups. Coates concludes his response with these words:

  • “The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history. . . . In other times banishment has been our priority. The mature citizen, the hard student, is now called to choose between finding a reason to confront the past, or finding more reasons to hide from it. [Frum] thinks [the congressional bill to create a study commission] … commits us to a solution. He is correct. The solution is to study. I submit his own article as proof of why such study is so deeply needed.”[15]

Rich Lowry in his previously mentioned article also has harsh words for Coates’ opinion on reparations. Lowry asks the rhetorical question of whether any recipient of “a modest, roughly $1 trillion program of reparations, which would be more than $20,000 for every black person in the country, regardless of his or her family’s personal history or current financial circumstances” would be transformed. Lowry’s answer to this question is a resounding “No.” Instead, Lowery says, “For poor blacks to escape poverty, it would still require all the personal attributes that contribute to success. So Coates is selling snake oil. Even if he got his fantastical reparations that he has poured such literary energy into advocating, real improvement in the condition of black people would still require the moral effort that he won’t advocate for.”

Coates responded to these criticisms by meekly saying he was offering a “case” for reparations, not a “plan” for such a program and that he had mentioned–without endorsement–several plans proposed by academics. Now he points to what he calls an “excellent paper” on the subject by Sandy Darity, a Duke economist and “tireless reparations proponent.” [16]

Last month the issue of reparations resurfaced with Bernie Sanders’ comment that he did not favor reparations for slavery because there was a nil chance of congressional approval and because it would be “very divisive.” [17]

Coates responded by saying that all of Sanders’ own proposals for economic and financial reform had a nil chance of congressional approval. Moreover, “[o]ne of the great functions of radical candidates [like Sanders] is to war against equivocators and opportunists who conflate these two things. Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.”

Conclusion

I do not find Coates’ responses to these criticisms convincing. I still am uninspired with his writings and arguments. I do not think his many awards are justified.

In contrast, I applaud the amazing work for social and racial justice being waged by Bryan Stevenson, an African-American attorney and advocate. As discussed in an earlier post, Stevenson has obtained release from prison and death row for African-Americans who had been unjustly convicted. He also is creating various ways to remember and honor victims of lynchings and other crimes and to inspire others to join the effort for social and racial justice.

======================================================

[1] Reactions to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” (Aug. 13, 2015); Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations (Oct. 18, 2015).

[2] 100 Notable Books of 2015, N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review (Nov. 27, 2015); The 10 Best Books of the Year, N.Y. Times Sunday Book Review (Dec. 3, 2015.

[3] Nat’l Book Foundation, 2015 National Book Award Nonfiction; Alter, Ta-Nehisi Coates Wins National Book Award, N.Y. Times (Nov. 18, 2015); Dwyer, Adam Johnson, Ta-Nehisi Coates Win National Book Awards, NPR (Nov. 19, 2015).

[4] National Book Critics Circle, National Book Critics Circle Announces Its Finalists for Publishing Year 2015 (Jan. 18, 2016); Manly, National Book Critics Circle Announces Award Nominees, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2016).

[5] Orbell, Why Christians Need Coates, Sojourners (July 29, 2015).

[6] Lowry, The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Politico (July 22, 2015).

[7] Smith, The Hard Untruths of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Commentary (Oct. 1, 2015),

[8] Coates, Ta-Nahisi Coates On Why Whites Like His Writing, Daily Beast (Oct. 25, 2015).

[9] Williams, Loaded Dice, London Rev. of Books (Dec. 3, 2015).

[10] Ta-Nehisi Coates On His Work And The Painful Process Of Getting Conscious, NPR (Nov. 23, 2015).

[11] Pinckney, The Anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates, N.Y. Rev. of Books (Feb. 11, 2016).

[12] Lowry, The Toxic World-View of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Politico (July 22, 2015); Martin, Ta-Nehisi Coates on His Work and the Painful Process of Getting Conscious, NPR (Nov. 23, 2015).

[13] Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory Case for Reparations (Oct. 18, 2015). Kevin Drum, a liberal American blogger and columnist, was similarly unimpressed with Coates’ mere calling for a study of the issue of reparations. Drum, Should Bernie Sanders Support Reparations? Mother Jones (Jan. 19, 2016).

[14] Frum, The Impossibility of Reparations, The Atlantic (June 3, 2014).

[15] Coates, The Radical Practicality of Reparations, The Atlantic (June 4, 2014).

[16] Coates, The Case for Considering Reparations, The Atlantic (Jan. 27, 2016).

[17] Coates, Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations? The Atlantic (Jan. 19, 2016).

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

3 thoughts on “Additional Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates”

  1. Comment: Caveats to Coates’ Love of Paris

    In “Between the World and Me,” Coates tells of his love of Paris (pp. 122-27).
    Yet he also recognizes that he named his son after an African man who opposed French colonization and that French wealth was built, in part, on its involvement in black slavery (pp. 127-29).

    The latter point was emphasized by this month’s announcement by French President François Hollande of the establishment of a major foundation to create a slavery memorial and museum in Paris.

    According to an article about this announcement, in “the 18th and 19th centuries, France was among the major European slave-trading nations, capturing and selling an estimated 1.4 million people before leaders outlawed slavery in 1848.”

    “The country’s coffers grew rich from colonial conquests in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, where slave labor generated the commodities that French merchants then sold in Europe.”
    “When metropolitan France finally outlawed slavery — a generation before the United States — liberation brought freedom only in theory for many blacks in French territories overseas.”

    “’Slavery was abolished, and the old slaves became citizens,’ said the historian Frédéric Regent, a renowned expert on the French slave trade. ‘They even elected deputies. But the plantation economy continued with the same masters, who then became ‘employers.’ ”
    ========================================================
    McAuley, France confronts slavery, a demon of its past, Wash. Post (May 28, 2016),
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/france-confronts-slavery-a-demon-of-its-past/2016/05/28/0bf61b3e-2128-11e6-b944-52f7b1793dae_story.html

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