Coates is not wrong

Listen:

Posting this here because Twitter doesn’t always lend itself to nuance. (I know! I was gobsmacked too!)

Ta Nehisi Coates gets a lot of pushback from all sides for his polemical stance. It is abundantly true that his view, while popular among intellectuals, is not widely shared. Few people see through his lens on American history with quite the same acuity as he does.

That’s not entirely his fault. Just because you agree with someone’s premises doesn’t that you necessarily have to accept all of their conclusions. His Case for Reparations is a classic example. The line of logic is nearly inescapable. It is possible to quibble around the edges, to thicken the mix by introducing other variables, but the essay stands on its own.

Like the statue in the park, it endures despite the pigeon shit and graffiti.

But I still consider actual reparations a political pipe dream.

I have read Coates more deeply than widely, so if I miss something obvious here, please forgive me. But people who object to The First White President seem to do so because of his insistence of seeing the entire Trump presidency in terms of race. They accuse him, in fact, of buying into the very world-view he abjures. In today’s New York Times, Thomas Chatterton Williams overlays the German idea of Sonderweg, or ‘special path’ on Coates’ narrative of blackness.

That’s neither kind nor accurate. Coates is not advocating a view of history defined by race; he is admonishing people to accept that America’s history is defined by a particular view of race. Or, if you prefer the more modest argument: Black American’s history is defined not by how they saw themselves, but how others saw them.

If this is sonderweg, it’s through a glass, darkly.

The difference between those two statements seems to escape many. The discourse around Coates’ writing is happening almost exclusively among the intelligentsia—which is only natural, of course; that’s who he is speaking to. These are the people to whom his arguments apply the least.

That last paragraph is a mea culpa. I’m as guilty as any in that regard. But I can offer two observations that support his thesis:

Everything I have seen of local politics—the way that people impose their world view on their immediate surroundings—in the American South supports what Coates says. From road works to mental health services to store hours to zoning by-laws, prejudice and race are baked inextricably into its formulations.

Back during the Dot-Com Boom, I explored the idea of moving to the States to work. I had a lot of American clients, they paid well, and offered some really ambitious opportunities. But I was constantly confronted with the realisation that buying the American Dream meant buying into this nightmare too, at least implicitly.

Even in San Francisco, that bastion of liberalism, the divisions run deep. Lost in the city while searching for a store, I was stopped by a cop. He told me he would escort me back to my car. “You’re gonna turn it around, and never come back here,” he told me, explaining, “The natives are restless.”

I did turn around. And I’ve never been back to San Francisco.

Is just one racist cop enough to convince me that Coates’ depiction of race as a guiding vision is valid? Of course not. That was just the most vivid example.

My second point—and historians might have a field day with this one:

Isn’t America the only nation in history to have fought a bloody civil war over slavery—in which the enslaved were the object, but not the subject, of the effort?

An entire nation ripped itself apart on behalf of the victims of monumental injustice, and neglected actually to enfranchise, or meaningfully involve, those it fought to free.

The United States of America is unique. Its history is defined, if not driven, by a peculiar and distinct view of race. And yes, Donald Trump is the First White President. It would be foolish to deny it.

That’s not all he is, of course, but it is what he is. And Coates is right: it’s useful and productive to look at him in that light.