“Racist and Proud”: The Awful Legacy of Ta-Nehisi Coates

Mark Zunac

Farewell to Multiculturalism

The descriptor from which the title of this article is taken reveals the moment in which racial strife became the animating feature of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s burgeoning intellectual life. It is found in his account of attending a professional wrestling show at six years old and seeing “white people everywhere,” remembering that “they looked dirty,”1people “who wore caps and jeans sliced into shorts [and] herded kids, hot dogs, and popcorn.”

The anecdote is found at the beginning of Coates’s 2009 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, and it typifies an attitude that hardened throughout the author’s youth and young adulthood, prepared him for immersion into the arena of racial politics, and has since made him one of the most prominent intellectual figures of the progressive left. His 2015 follow-up, Between the World and Me, made him an international celebrity. That book received the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction, and spent four weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. Given its unabashed and unequivocal denunciations of the United States as irretrievably tainted by white supremacy, it is a matter of course that it is also one of the most widely assigned common reads on the American college campus.2

However, Coates’s celebrity augurs perhaps a new, more contested intellectual landscape, one in which the identification and denunciation of whiteness have replaced the more benign nomenclature of multiculturalism. This progression, however, is essential to the political success of the broader diversity agenda, since any popular movement whose singular focus is building a coalition of the oppressed will eventually, to validate its existence, arrive at a search for culpability. By popularizing the anti-white tropes that have long been a hallmark of Critical Race Theory, Coates exemplifies how easily multiculturalism mutates into the most militant forms of social justice activism.

Manufacturing Rage

Coates was born in 1975 and grew up in West Baltimore at the height of the American crack epidemic. His father, Paul Coates, rose through the ranks of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panthers, and despite siring seven children by four women, was a constant enough presence to instill in his son—largely through fear—self-discipline and a penchant for radical racial politics. Throughout his life, Coates bristled at the rigid formality of traditional educational models, a resistance that ultimately led to his expulsion from Baltimore Polytech High School. He was, however, a voracious reader, aided by his father’s time working at the Howard University library and by the constant supply of books produced by Paul’s fledgling publishing company, Black Classic Press. Coates himself attended Howard and often cites his experience there as his most formative. He left, however, without a degree. His burgeoning militancy was perhaps most impelled by his time at NationHouse, a military-style boot camp for kids aimed at “deprogramming [them] from the lies of the great Satan.”3

Between the World and Me is written as a letter from the author to his young son, and it is permeated by the multiculturalist’s fear that race, in a populist age, may be losing its power to advance liberal politics. Borrowing heavily from James Baldwin—on whose work the book is consciously modeled—Coates reasserts the construction of race as a means of oppression and one of the myths sustaining white supremacy today. Thus, Coates rarely refers to whites as such, preferring the passively phrased “those who think they are white.” Indeed, it is one of the only ascriptive features of identity in today’s political culture that is not instinctively venerated as a marker of personhood. It is a mark of shame and subhumanity in this case, even though for Coates, “the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them” denotes the essence of racism.4

However, an increasingly decadent cultural milieu has demanded that group identity is exactly that, bone-deep. Coates himself is content to generalize, asserting, for example, that “Black is beautiful” and that “We are all our beautiful bodies and so must never be prostrate before barbarians.”5 (Coates refers to “the body” no less than 159 times in the book, transforming this rhetorical trope into a hollow cliché.) A dichotomy of oppressor and virtuous victim is established, adopting the standard identity politics narrative. Accordingly, African culture is “majestic,” while, as we know, whatever culture is unique to the West is despotic and “white,” and therefore justly effaced.6 After all, for Coates, whites are the new uninitiated, whose benighted insularity is incompatible with an age awakened (awokened?) to the crimes of history, albeit only the American ones. True Consciousness—characteristic of the proper noun usage regularly employed by Coates—is unattainable for them, since “the quest to believe oneself white divides them from [the meaning of life].”7 To be truly conscious is “to reject . . . their religion, their culture, their names.”8 These delineations betray Coates’s claims to cultural superiority, hitherto one of the most egregious violations of the multicultural program.

Coates relies heavily on the well-worn strategy of invoking the American Dream as the epitome of self-mythologizing, using it to pejoratively label all white Americans “Dreamers.” Indeed, “They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.”9 The third person pronouns indicate lines of demarcation as well as the good versus evil mentality that has steadily eroded the progressive vision of a diverse, inclusive, and pluralistic society.

Coates recognizes the power of narratives to form a consensus, which in turn becomes a powerful means of enacting a distinct political program. He is thereby able to claim with both the certitude and insularity of our cultural masters that modern conservatism is “a movement steeped in white resentment” and that those who find promise in the country’s founding draw “power from divisions.”10 Since white supremacy is morally repugnant, and conservatism is born of it, then conservative political opposition is innately malevolent.

In Coates’s view, any resistance to progressive policy goals is marked not only by a reluctance to relinquish power but by the “right” to subjugate blacks. In other words, “without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream.”11 This right is presumably ensured by criminal justice, but even that is a function of the larger problem of white voting patterns. “The problem with the police,” readers are told, “is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”12 One would be astute, in any case, to ask who, exactly, is drawing power from divisions the next time his campus offers such programming as a “Day of Absence” for whites or a racial literary program aimed at “white-identified faculty.”13

Coates is indeed wary of anything that might presage a day of racial rapprochement. Not even the presidency of Barack Obama was satisfying, since it was marked, at least in part, by Obama’s “belief in white innocence” and his refusal to doubt “the hearts of white people.”14 Whites, as Coates makes clear, are not innocent and are a long way from redemption. The political arm of multiculturalism that Coates represents longs for the means to “transmute pain into rage.”15 Consequently, for racial identity to retain its leverage, the narrative of oppression must remain preeminent and not be subsumed by illusions of progress, or even actual progress.

No Justice, No Peace (Redux)

Readers are quickly disabused of any belief in “the common theory that emancipation and civil rights were redemptive,” or the idea that historical debts have in any way been paid.16 This posture accurately reflects the current diversity movement as one that can admit neither its failures to achieve its promised goals nor its successes, for fear of undermining the robust administrative apparatus that oversees it. The novelties of identity and tolerance have worn off, though, and all that is left is the reflexive elevation of disparate identity groups, united only by the source of their victimhood.

There is a persistently deep ideological investment in the politics of racial grievance and a seeming desperation to convince readers, perhaps against empirical evidence, that things still could not be worse for today’s preferred marginalized classes. This is why Coates takes great pains to insist that racial progress is a lie. Not only does it allow for the assertion that “the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration,” it precludes the realization that things just might not be as bad as your local campus bureaucrat would tell you.17 One might be told, as Coates himself relates lugubriously, “there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur.”18

For Coates, there can be no absolution for the great crime of whiteness, and the apocalyptic tones of Between the World and Me suggest perpetual warfare. Even though he “do [es] not believe we can stop them . . . Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”19 There is not in any of the literature, and certainly not in the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, any indication that whites can ever escape the pejorative label of whiteness, nor does there seem to be much hope that this feature of identity can ever be replaced by markers of a common humanity.

For Coates, to be exonerated is to avoid being brought to justice, and the logical arc of this metaphor seems eerily the same as that of “no justice, no peace.” This line of thought appears to have a good number of adherents. Those on the college campus today may have heard some iteration of the following:

The fact that despite their dreams, [white people’s] lives are . . . not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real—when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities—they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be.20

In other words, whites must get what is coming to them, and there can be no tragedy where they are concerned.

Racial grievances, and by extension those of every other class of victims, now demand retribution rather than reconciliation, and while Coates in no way outright calls for violence, he might not have to. The illogic and historical myopia that inflect Coates’s work pose no deterrent to his agenda, which is to squarely assign guilt, full stop. It is in addition wholly consistent with the tenor of today’s racialized discourse to claim, as Coates does, that the “Dream of acting white, of talking white, of being white . . . murders black people in Chicago with frightening regularity.”21 Some critics have noted the defeatism and disempowerment of Coates’s message, which is that blacks not only are not responsible for themselves or their actions but that they are also deprived by systemic injustice of the ability to ever improve their circumstances.22 Yet there are other ramifications of such charges, particularly in an age in which violence as a response against even hurtful words might be characterized as self-defense.

When paired with allusions to the coming revolution elsewhere in his work, this vision is presented with great clarity. At the end of his Atlantic article, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?,” Coates expresses his impatience with the passive resistance that has marked the struggle for equality: “White Americans finding easy comfort in nonviolence and the radical love of the civil rights movement must reckon with the unsettling fact that black people in this country achieved the rudiments of their freedom through the killing of whites.”23 Since white supremacy acts as a fundamental force in America today, and is virtually indistinguishable from life in the antebellum South, the immediate project is to “unmake” white people, a task that is, from what I can discern, consistently frustrated by whites’ remarkable inability to ever be unmade.24 The persistent presence of whiteness is the lifeblood of the diversity mandate, for therein lies its political power.

CRT for the Rest of Us

Perhaps the most noteworthy element of Coates-style racializing within the academy is its easy transmutation into popular culture, and its broad appeal. The year that Between the World and Me was published, Coates received a MacArthur Fellowship for “[i]nterpreting complex and challenging issues around race and racism through the lens of personal experience and nuanced historical analysis.”25 The award seemed to mark the beginning of Coates’s creative period, a time in which he wrote a new series of graphic novels featuring the Marvel Comics character Black Panther. This period has also seen the release of a much-anticipated novel, The Water Dancer, which spent two weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, undoubtedly given a boost by its inclusion in Oprah’s Book Club.

The novel was received with mostly polite enthusiasm by mainstream critics, and it is largely an attempt to fictionalize the historical motifs that are brought to bear in Coates’s non-fiction work. Its protagonist, Hiram Walker, is an omnicompetent mixed-race son of a slaveowner, who is possessed with the gift of “Conduction,” the ability to magically transport oneself from one place to another. To harness this power, however, Hiram must conjure images of a noble past and thereby retain his connection to his ancestors, who only exist through vague but powerful memories. Perhaps the book’s most prominent theme, one that is ubiquitous in the Coates oeuvre, is not simply that the American ideal was built squarely on the backs of slaves but that the institution’s legacy includes the concealment of white inferiority through unvarnished terror:

This was their civilization—a mask so thin that for the first time in my life, I wondered what I myself had ever aspired to in those days …and not for the first time I saw that I had set my sights much too low….They were no better than us, and in so many ways worse.

The first-person narration lends some immediacy to the story, but Coates’s voice is indistinguishable from that of virtually all of his characters. The author’s talents as an essayist are grafted onto characters whose long monologues would likelier be heard in a general humanities course than in antebellum Virginia. In fact, passages like this one permeate the text and channel Coates’s distinctive polemics, a tendency that compromises the book’s stylistic integrity. What could conceivably be a harrowing tale of slavery’s well-documented horrors becomes an extension of Coates’s nothing-has-changed invectives.

It is precisely this quality, though, that will likely continue to make the book a popular choice for inclusion in high school and college classrooms. Its sententious and self-conscious prose will do no favors for students in those classes aspiring to write well, and honestly, but that’s not really the point. The book’s thematics are useful, and just as Coates’s nonfiction helped to bring Critical Race Theory to the forefront of the public consciousness, his fiction is an attempt to install it as an integral part of popular culture.

Conclusion

This turn away from the optimism that marked multiculturalism’s advent represents a natural end-point. Many of America’s cultural pathologies increasingly transcend the fluid markers of identitarianism. Poverty and the opioid crisis, for example, have ravaged communities in much the same way that Coates remembers the onset of the Crack Age: “When crack hit Baltimore, civilization fell.”26 The communities affected now, though, fit awkwardly within mainstream race, sex, and gender oppression narratives, and are thus often mocked or trivialized.27 Consequently, scholar-activists on the left have been reduced to complaining about the historical lack of racial diversity in Oscar winners or the gender pay gap between rich and famous female soccer players and their richer and slightly less famous male counterparts. In short, the diversity playbook of the past has run its course, and its current implementation has failed to match the social and political realities of twenty-first-century America.

And yet, it is a movement that still thrives, albeit on division, and it is lucrative. Diversity and its whiteness subsidiary comprise an industry, and assuaging one’s guilt has become an elite fetish. It is why wealthy white liberals, for example, pay $2,500 to have dinner with individuals who tell them how and why they are racist,28 or why colleges pay upwards of $40,000 to have Coates speak on their campuses.29 It also explains why Coates can state, perhaps with a surreptitious chuckle, “Today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything.”30 White progressives are his target audience, and they answer exhortations like these as direct challenges. Or, at the very least, they catch him on his book tour, for a median price of $35, not inclusive of parking, taxes, or convenience fees.31 White progressives love Coates, for he offers them a path to righteousness, if not absolution.

In this way, Coates’s work, and its enthusiastic popular reception, perhaps represent the multicultural vision at a crossroads. Any and all pretenses to tolerance and understanding have been dropped in favor of the denunciatory rhetoric of a fervently absolutist anti-whiteness program. This naturally compels resistance, which in turn is arrogated by the left to confirm the bigotry they sought to remediate by pedaling anti-whiteness in the first place. There has been much invested in the superstructure of multiculturalism as an extension of diversity, but its biggest challenge is the specter of its success. For then it would be obsolete, and hence the marked deviation from the benign sloganeering of a multiculturalist past toward the direct incitements of Whiteness Studies. Hence, also, the injunction from Coates to his son to beware those “future peers and colleagues, who might try to convince you that everything I know, all the things I’m sharing with you here, are an illusion, or a fact of distant past that need not be discussed.”32

In other words, despite Coates’s own celebrity and the status that has invariably accrued along with it, the mantle of victimhood is too valuable to be relinquished, and it must be wielded like a sword. That the multicultural movement now resembles a quasi-religious crusade, replete with purification rites, taboos, and worldly idols is no surprise to those who have spent any time on a college campus this century. That it is now a conventional feature of civic life should give everyone else pause.

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