Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Absurdity of Hope

How Obama and Trump destroyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ faith in racial progress.

Salim Muwakkil October 5, 2017

(Illustration by Narciso Espiritu.)

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Pow­er col­lects eight essays pub­lished in The Atlantic over the course of the Oba­ma pres­i­den­cy, along with new intro­duc­tions designed to pro­vide con­text, cri­tique and even some cor­rec­tion. The mélange of mem­oir, essay and report­ing ful­ly dis­plays Coates’ tal­ents, posi­tion­ing him as a sort of bard of the Oba­ma era.

Coates rejects the likelihood of racial progress. White supremacy created America and is likely here to stay.

Yet, as read­ers watch him come into his full pow­ers as a writer, a more sub­tle trans­for­ma­tion unfolds: In America’s racial land­scape, Coates finds an insur­mount­able moun­tain. The book crys­tal­lizes his role as the nation’s most promi­nent skep­tic of racial progress.

He came to that skep­ti­cism reluc­tant­ly, he writes. Much of this book traces his tra­jec­to­ry from a tepid believ­er that Barack Obama’s elec­tion had made it pos­si­ble that white suprema­cy, the scourge of Amer­i­can his­to­ry, might well be ban­ished in my life­time” to one who believes no one — not our fathers, not our police, and not our gods — is com­ing to save us. The worst real­ly is possible.”

The book’s title is derived from an 1895 speech by black South Car­oli­na Con­gress­man Thomas Miller lament­ing the death of the eight-year Recon­struc­tion-era inter­ra­cial gov­ern­ment. Coates goes on to bor­row W.E.B. Du Bois’ expla­na­tion for the rejec­tion of Recon­struc­tion: If there was one thing that South Car­oli­na feared more than bad Negro gov­ern­ment, it was good Negro gov­ern­ment.” In the book’s epi­logue (pub­lished in The Atlantic as The First White Pres­i­dent”), Coates extends that quote to account for the back­lash to Obama’s pres­i­den­cy and the reac­tionary elec­tion of Trump, all part of this nation’s rou­tine racial chore­og­ra­phy: one step toward racial progress, two steps back.

His skep­ti­cism shares fea­tures with the writ­ings of Der­rick Bell, whose 1992 book, Faces At the Bot­tom of the Well: The Per­ma­nence of Racism, argues that racism is indeli­ble. Bell’s analy­sis helped estab­lish the the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work (and aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­pline) of crit­i­cal race the­o­ry, which holds, among oth­er things, that anti-black­ness is not a case of bad behav­ior by indi­vid­u­als; it’s some­thing deeply root­ed in Amer­i­can atti­tudes and institutions.

But even adher­ents of crit­i­cal race the­o­ry believe that racial progress is pos­si­ble through find­ing points of mutu­al inter­est with spe­cif­ic seg­ments of white Amer­i­ca. Coates rejects the like­li­hood of progress. Per­haps his view can best be described as Sisyphean: There’s not much the his­tor­i­cal­ly plun­dered caste of black Amer­i­cans can do except keep on push­ing against the prodi­gious rock of racism. White suprema­cy cre­at­ed Amer­i­ca and is like­ly here to stay. 

Although Coates was raised in a black nation­al­ist fam­i­ly and nur­tured in an envi­ron­ment of skep­ti­cism, he was seduced by the pro­gres­sive visions boost­ed by a suc­cess­ful main­stream career.

At the onset of these eight years,” Coates writes, my own views on what was so often and obscene­ly called race rela­tions’ were not so dif­fer­ent from those of any oth­er lib­er­al.” Coates sup­port­ed the Key­ne­sian solu­tions implied by the research of soci­ol­o­gist William Julius Wil­son, who argued that the decline of the kind of indus­tri­al high-pay­ing, low-skill jobs that built America’s white mid­dle class had left large num­bers of young black men unem­ployed, and the gov­ern­ment made no real effort to ame­lio­rate this shift. An array of unfor­tu­nate con­se­quences issued from this shift — fam­i­ly pover­ty, vio­lent streets, poor schools.” Wilson’s diag­no­sis led to the ris­ing tide lifts all boats” and prime-the-pump lib­er­al­ism that serves as the gen­er­al­ized solu­tion to this prob­lem, and Coates was a tac­it subscriber.

In the intro­duc­tion to his wide­ly her­ald­ed 2014 Atlantic essay, The Case for Repa­ra­tions,” Coates explains how he devel­oped his cur­rent bleak prog­no­sis. Research­ing the piece led him to con­clude that there would be no hap­py end­ings” to America’s racial sto­ry. I believed this because the repa­ra­tions claim was so old, so trans­par­ent­ly cor­rect, so clear­ly the only solu­tion, and yet it remained far out­side the bor­ders of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics,” he writes.

When Coates first read Ran­dall Robinson’s 2001 pro-repa­ra­tions book, The Debt, he agreed it made sense, but like most peo­ple who agreed with the idea in prin­ci­ple, I thought it was a wild­ly imprac­ti­cal solu­tion.” Exten­sive read­ing on issues of dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work of Ira Katznel­son and hous­ing poli­cies in Beryl Satter’s research helped Coates refine his grow­ing con­vic­tion that white suprema­cy was a foun­da­tion­al fea­ture of Amer­i­can soci­ety and that repa­ra­tions was so clear­ly the only solu­tion.” His pes­simism ulti­mate­ly fol­lows. He believes the pri­ma­ry cause of our racial impasse — the rea­son the rock keeps on rolling down the hill — is America’s refusal to pay a his­tor­i­cal debt, and that it’s twist­ing itself into destruc­tive knots try­ing to stave off a ter­ri­ble account­ing.” And yet, he argues, an Amer­i­ca capa­ble of imple­ment­ing repa­ra­tions is almost inconceivable.

Many crit­ics take Coates to task for a laser focus on his bête noire of white suprema­cy. When you con­struct an entire tele­ol­o­gy on one cause — even a cause as pow­er­ful and abid­ing as white racism— you face the temp­ta­tion to leave out any­thing that com­pli­cates the the­sis,” writes The New York­ers George Pack­er in a let­ter to The Atlantic, after Coates had crit­i­cized a piece Pack­er wrote on the white work­ing class. At the heart of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics there is racism,” Pack­er agrees. But it’s not alone – there’s also greed, and bro­ken com­mu­ni­ties, and par­ti­san hatred, and ignorance.”

A relat­ed charge against Coates, often heard in left cir­cles, is that he is too dis­mis­sive of class-based struc­tur­al fac­tors. Charisse Bur­den-Stel­ly, pro­fes­sor of Africana stud­ies at Car­leton Col­lege, cri­tiques Coates for this in a recent edi­tion of Black Agen­da Report. Coates dis­as­trous­ly employs white­ness’ as a type of meta­physics that is nei­ther con­tex­tu­al­ly spe­cif­ic nor his­tor­i­cal­ly sit­u­at­ed and that defies any ground­ing in social rela­tions,” she writes.

Coates is jus­ti­fi­ably impa­tient with the Left’s tra­di­tion­al de-empha­sis of racial con­cerns (often dis­missed with the slur iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics”) and writes scathing­ly that, to many left­ists, all pol­i­tics are iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics — except the pol­i­tics of white peo­ple, the pol­i­tics of the blood heir­loom.” Coates’s views are well-informed by eclec­tic schol­ar­ship, but he’s seen as a dilet­tante by hard­core black nation­al­ists and ide­o­log­i­cal leftists.

My gripe with Coates is not that. In fact, I admire his syn­the­sis of influ­ences. My gripe is his dis­missal of white supremacy’s impact on black cul­ture. In Notes from the Sixth Year,” Coates rejects the idea that some­thing in black cul­ture had gone wrong and was con­tribut­ing to the panoply of neg­a­tive out­comes.” Yet, in that very same sec­tion he describes what he calls an I ain’t no punk” eth­ic that dri­ves so much intra-racial vio­lence, and char­ac­ter­izes it as an adap­ta­tion of a pow­er­less peo­ple. Those adap­tive behav­iors are the very evi­dence of cul­tur­al dis­tor­tions pro­duced by the yoke of white suprema­cy, to the detri­ment of the black community.

Coates has been pegged by Jacobin writer R.L. Stephens as an Afro-pes­simist, a term coined by writer Frank B. Wilder­son III. Coates’ posi­tion is indeed con­cor­dant with much of Wilderson’s think­ing, which holds that slav­ery was con­so­nant with America’s very rea­son for being and thus anti-black­ness is con­tin­u­ous­ly rein­forced. How­ev­er, Wilderson’s Afro-pes­simism is also premised on slavery’s sun­der­ing of black cul­ture. Coates will have none of that. What’s more, Coates’ posi­tion as a major writer for a promi­nent jour­nal of the think­ing class offers a nod (even if inad­ver­tent) to pos­i­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties. The very acclaim his writ­ing receives argues against his pes­simism, though he might argue that this allows read­ers to feel they are doing their part for racial progress from their armchairs.

Coates con­cludes that repa­ra­tions are the way out, but he doubts that Amer­i­ca can trans­form itself enough to pre­scribe, much less imple­ment, a seri­ous solu­tion to its racial prob­lems and, thus, its own sal­va­tion. The flu­id lucid­i­ty of Coates’ prose style, a blend of pro­sa­ic detail and poet­ic allu­sions with a hiphop flow, has jus­ti­fi­ably been likened to James Bald­win, but his ideas ring of the absur­dist tones of Albert Camus.

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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