August 9, 2015


Civil Whites : Why are critics so deferential to the radicalism of Ta-Nehisi Coates? (CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL, 8/17/15, Weekly Standard)

The key concept is "plunder." White Americans did not, as the heroic narrative of civil rights would have it, move from enslaving blacks to excluding them, and then, starting in the 1950s, steadily break down the exclusion until we reached the more equal world of today. No--Coates's argument is one of "structural racism." To this day, society is structured so that whites can continue to rip off blacks. Indeed, they cannot do without blacks, whose exploitation is their main source of prosperity. America's entire democratic Constitution was built on goods robbed under color of law and still rests on that robbery. "By erecting a slave society," Coates writes, "America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy." Reparations are owed because today's system is the same system in essence, and all whites participate in it. "White supremacy," he writes, "is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it."

Coates does not address such questions as whether the Constitution, unsubsidized by plunder, is something the country can still afford, or whether democratic verdicts passed under conditions of plunder--including the decision to wage war against the slaveholding South in 1861 and the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s--are to be thought legitimate or illegitimate. But he does come up with a basis for a "bottom line": the difference between black and white per capita income, multiplied by the population of blacks, to be paid each year for "a decade or two." It is a figure that would today come to between $4 and $9 trillion (between a quarter and half the U.S. GDP), to be supplemented perhaps by "a program of job training and public works that takes racial justice as its mission but includes the poor of all races." 

One more element in this view of reparations should detain us, and it is the key element: The reparations under discussion will not discharge the debt whites owe to blacks. "We may find," Coates writes, "that the country can never fully repay African Americans." What he is proposing is ultimately less a regime of reparations for blacks (since nothing can be fully "repaired") than a program of infinite penance for whites. To judge from the reaction to Coates's book, white intellectuals are ready to endorse this idea almost unanimously.

Between the World and Me uses this plunder-based model of the American race problem as a way to understand the recent wave of highly publicized incidents involving police violence against young black men. It repeats many themes from the reparations article. But it is written in a very different idiom--as a rambling, reminiscent, repetitive, hortatory, easily distracted letter of advice to Coates's teenage son. The evidence mustered in the reparations article was tendentious, but there was a good deal of it. Coates cites historians Thomas Sugrue and Kenneth Jackson and the late Tony Judt's discussion of Israeli controversies over German reparations. This new book doesn't use evidence at all. It is a performance, an oration, an affirmation: a cri de coeur for those who are well-disposed to it, a harangue for those who are not. 

Violent confrontations between youth and law enforcement are invoked, not explained. When Coates alludes, for instance, to his son's shock at finding out on television one night last autumn that "the killers of Michael Brown would go free," he presents the episode as a self-evident miscarriage of justice. That night, which ended in riots in St. Louis, was certainly a tense one, and a politically engaged person can be forgiven for getting angry or downcast in front of a TV set. But months have passed, and the best evidence we now have is that the policeman who shot Brown should indeed have walked free. Not even former attorney general Eric Holder thought there was enough evidence for an indictment. And Holder is a man whose attentiveness to the very questions of police prejudice that preoccupy Coates led the historian and activist Michael Eric Dyson to call him a "straight-up-and-down race man." 

Someone who has not read Between the World and Me may have the sense that reviewers are dodging the nitty-gritty of Coates's argument about police violence. They are not. There is no argument. It is no part of Coates's project to weigh the evidence in the varied cases of, say, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray; to consider whether high crime rates in black neighborhoods may provoke, and even justify, more aggressive policing there; or to ask whether the vividness and efficiency of our new information technology might not be causing us to overreact to a handful of incidents among the millions of encounters between police and suspects each year. (That is, we might assume we're seeing the tip of the iceberg when what we're seeing is the iceberg.) Coates assumes police guilt in each instance. It is part of the "structure."

The book, in fact, develops no arguments of any kind.

...has to call into question whether the plunder had any actual value. That is, if we were looking at the evidence...
Posted by at August 9, 2015 10:54 AM

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