Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the University Bookman.
Between the World and Me
Spiegel & Grau, 2015
176 pp., $24.00
When he set out to interview James Baldwin for his oral history of the civil rights movement, Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965), Robert Penn Warren knew that the challenge would be to get any straightforward answers out of him. “In general, in Baldwin’s utterances, written or spoken,” he explained, “there is a tendency to pull away from the specific issue which might provoke analysis, toward one more general … toward the absolute, the eschatological.” Forewarned is forearmed, but in this case it was not enough: Baldwin’s pivot maneuver was invincible. “For example, when I asked him about the obligation of the Negro, he countered by saying he wasn’t sure what a Negro is. What is a Negro?” With quiet amusement, Warren admitted, “That is, indeed, a more charged and fascinating question than the one I had asked.”
That Ta-Nehisi Coates has the same ultra-macroscopic tendency as his hero can be seen in the highly recognizable style of conclusion with which he often ends his blog posts at The Atlantic: short, sweeping, indefinite, ponderous. Like Baldwin, Coates prefers to back up from the original question so far that, by the time he is finished, he is off in the exosphere:
Aren’t all nations problems? Aren’t all families? Aren’t all people?
Likely the fight was always muddy and dizzying. Likely nothing was ever clean.
We don’t always get to choose the means through which we acquire knowledge. Ignorance is not a weapon.
Those kickers come from posts about civic virtue, The Bell Curve, and Aaron Sorkin—the reader can guess which is which.
Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, is full of the same sort of pronouncements: “The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are.” “You have to make your peace with the chaos.” “The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me.” But beneath the orotundities, there is a thesis, which, whatever else you want to say about it, is not at all vague. He believes that white Americans lead a charmed life, which he calls the Dream, which is sustained by the deliberate “plunder” (his self-proclaimed buzzword) of black Americans. The mechanics of this plunder are subtle:
I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body. And I began to see these two arms in relation—those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society could say, “He should have stayed in school,” and then wash its hands of him.
“No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction,” he admits. The word that comes next is “But.”
This, too, is pure Baldwin. “Black people were killing each other every Saturday night out on Lenox Avenue, when I was growing up,” Baldwin wrote in 1970,
and no one explained to them, or to me, that it wasintended that they should; that they were penned where they were, like animals, in order that they should consider themselves no better than animals. Everything supported this sense of reality, nothing denied it; and so one was ready, when it came time to go to work, to be treated as a slave.
Since the end of Jim Crow, authors who have asserted that white America is not just misguided but actively wicked in its dealings with black America have tended to grow hazy when it comes to what benefit, exactly, white America derives from this villainy. Here we see why: Generally it is the least plausible link in an already tenuous logical chain. In Baldwin’s case, one can only say that if there was a conspiracy to make diligent worker bees of black urban males, it has not gone to plan. In the annals of cui bono, this ranks with the time the head of SNCC said we were in Vietnam “for the rice supplies.”
With Coates, the central weakness of his argument is that everything always comes back to the violence of “the streets.” School, to him, is just a meaningless hurdle designed to furnish a pretext for white indifference to that violence. The “daily everyday violence that folks live under” puts the April 2015 riots in Baltimore beyond condemnation. What “daily everyday” violence, and at whose hands? That the perpetrators are mostly young and black can be surmised from the list of little violence-avoiding choices that, Coates says, tyrannized his mental life as a child—what to wear, where to sit at lunch, what route to take to and from school, with what friends from what neighborhoods. Then there is this story he tells about his mother:
When your grandmother was sixteen years old a young man knocked on her door. The young man was your Nana Jo’s boyfriend. No one else was home. Ma allowed this young man to sit and wait until your Nana Jo returned. But your great-grandmother got there first. She asked the young man to leave. Then she beat your grandmother terrifically, one last time, so that she might remember how easily she could lose her body.
And here the weakness becomes plain, because the connection that Coates keeps trying to insinuate into existence between the black violence he has observed and the white menace he has postulated just snaps. White supremacy did not invent the rule that young women should generally keep male callers on the doorstep when they are home alone. The danger against which this rule is a precaution is not a racial one.
Once the reader pulls on this string, the whole web starts to unravel, because the connection between white supremacy and the other violence Coates describes is not very well substantiated either. If suburbia is to blame for young Ta-Nehisi getting beat up on his way home from school, it is only in the most abstract, cosmic sense. And at what metaphysical remove does it become fair to write, as Coates does, that the Baltimore street toughs of his youth “in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers … their armor against their world,” were “girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered round their grandfathers”? A damned rarefied one—the same one from which Baldwin blamed white people for the assassination of Malcolm X because “whoever did it was formed in the crucible of the American Republic.”
* * * * *
But abstract, cosmic blame is just what Coates refuses to be satisfied with. His case is grounded in policy, as he often reminds us. He is not speaking metaphorically when he says that America has grown rich by seizing black people’s wealth. His favorite example is redlining, which kept government-backed mortgages out of black neighborhoods in the decades between the New Deal and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The main character of Coates’s famous “Case for Reparations” article is a 91-year-old Chicagoan named Clyde Ross, whose inability to get a federally insured home loan in the 1960s led him to buy a house “on contract,” an arrangement where one missed payment could leave a person with no equity and no house. Coates is eloquent on the toll this took on Ross, who worked second and third jobs to keep up his payments: “Money and time that Ross wanted to give to his children went instead to enrich white speculators.”
Since Coates is interested in housing policy and in sad stories, I wonder what he thinks of the fate of Saul and Gertrude Pearlman, two of the tens of thousands of Jews who vacated the neighborhoods of Dorchester and Mattapan (or “Murdapan,” as it has come to be known) in the wake of the federal government’s decision to make it easier rather than harder for black buyers to get home loans—a policy reversal which Coates has not troubled to note, as far as I can see. Beginning in 1968, the city of Boston put a private consortium, the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group, in charge of implementing this new federal policy, and B-BURG took to it with a zeal born of avarice and fear. (In the wake of the King assassination riots, the business community were “shaking like quivering boys,” Mayor Kevin White later recalled.) Within five years of receiving their first batch of subsidized B-BURG homeowners—half of whom would soon lose their houses to foreclosure or abandonment, and some of whom never made a single payment on their loans—the formerly thriving neighborhoods of Dorchester and Mattapan went from having 40,000 Jews to fewer than 2,500.
In his book, Coates cavalierly attributes “white flight” to “self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream.” The fears that sent the Pearlmans running from their home on Kerwin Street were not self-generated, nor did they come from the scare tactics of real-estate blockbusters. They came from experiences like being trussed up for hours while intruders with hunting knives ransacked their home for nonexistent valuables, and from hearing their kindhearted black neighbour say, “You’re older, Jewish, and vulnerable. It’s over for you here.”
Were the Jews of Mattapan “plundered”? What about the victims, direct and indirect, of the Community Reinvestment Act, the debauch of credit standards in the housing market, the racial quotas imposed on the mortgage giants, and all of the other programs that it was hoped would close the black–white gap in housing wealth which, Coates may be surprised to learn, he is not the first person to notice? That the federal government took from the Pearlmans something of great value is impossible to deny; whether it was of greater value than what was taken from Clyde Ross is impossible to say. Nevertheless, I would refrain from using Coates’s favorite word in this context, if only because I cherish hopes of maintaining some boundaries to its definition.
The danger in allowing “plunder” to become a nonsense term is foreshadowed by the fate of its cousin epithet “neo-colonialism.” Because “neo-colonial” has no stable definition—it could describe literally any interaction between the West and the Third World—African despots have used it to condemn anything they don’t like. With this magic word, it is possible to cancel entire investment projects, send aid shipments back, put inconvenient charity groups on planes home. The word’s flexibility also means that rulers can refrain from applying it to exploitative things that they do like, including some of the less savory Chinese operations on the continent. The word “neo-colonialism” thus becomes what every word becomes when it is subordinated to politics: an expression of raw arbitrary power.
Coates uses the word “plunder” for a grab-bag of tragedies, misfortunes, and annoyances: an eviction he witnesses in Chicago, presumably over chronic non-payment of bills; the “killing fields” of inner city gang violence; the “inescapable robbery of time” in “the moments we spend readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much”; and, somewhat off-topic, “the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food.” But these things are not plunder. Plunder is what Britain did to Ireland. It is what Thaddeus Stevens wanted to do to the prostrate South. (Would a Congressman Coates have opposed him?) Coates justifies his moth-antenna sensitivity to “plunder” on the logic that “there was no golden era when evildoers did their business and loudly proclaimed it as such.” But if you had asked an English parliamentarian to defend the Penal Laws, he would have freely admitted that the immiseration of the Irish was the whole point. The idea was to render them incapable of starting yet another savage civil war—not, in itself, an unworthy goal, though the means were unacceptable. Nor did Thad Stevens consider “confiscation” a slur. Plunder is a venerable and useful concept. In Coates’s hands, it is a stick to beat his enemies with.
* * * * *
It may be that Coates is not familiar with all of this history. There is quite a lot of history he doesn’t know, by his own admission. In December 2012, it notoriously came up in an interview that Coates had never heard of Saint Augustine—which would have been fine, except that earlier that very day he posted an item on his blog arguing that Christian holidays are no less “made-up” than Kwanzaa. People who have never heard of Augustine are not necessarily ignorant in an objective sense. They may not even be ignorant in the contextual sense that they should not be senior editors of national magazines. But people who have never heard of Augustine probably should not go around pronouncing on the made-up-ness of Christmas and Easter.
Then again, an autodidact’s knowledge is always irregular, and even his critics must allow that Coates’s willingness to admit what he doesn’t know is one of his most admirable qualities. Another is contagious enthusiasm, also an amateur’s virtue. But Coates has the flaws as well as the gifts of a born autodidact. His veneration of primary sources verges on the superstitious, and he sometimes wields old quotations the way fundamentalists wield Bible verses, as if the words themselves had incantatory power. In just two years Coates cited Mississippi’s secession ordinance seven times on his blog, always by way of proving that the Civil War was about slavery—which it was, but one paragraph from a fundamentally propagandistic document is not quite the debunking Coates made it out to be. Why assume that Confederates would pour out their innermost motivations, shorn of all politically motivated misdirection, into this particular document? Coates does not explain. For him it is enough that the words are “what actual Confederates were saying.”
There is one quotation from John C. Calhoun that Coates uses over and over again in the same fashion—in his book, in the “Reparations” article, in his blog series on the Civil War:
With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.
Why has Coates fixated (if that is not too strong a word) on this quotation in particular, as if there were not a hundred other racist Calhoun quotes to choose from? Perhaps because it shows Calhoun trying to substitute race for class, and that is precisely Coates’s own game. Like the Fanonists of his father’s generation, who cast the Third World in the role of the proletariat, there is something distinctly Marxist about Ta-Nehisi Coates. You can hear it in his harping on “plunder” and exploitation, in his hard-nosed rejection of bourgeois sentimentality, in his conviction that all suffering is the product of some elite class’s self-serving design, and more recently in his aggressive atheism.
If you ever want to send a chill up your own spine, replace “black people” with “the working class” in one of Coates’s angrier effusions. “The Dream rests on the worker’s back, the bedding made from our bodies … The Dreamers accept this as the cost of doing business, accept the bodies of the working class as currency … The worker is naked before the elements of the world, and this nakedness is not an error but the correct and intended result of policy.” It is no coincidence, comrade! This is why the adulation Coates receives from the mainstream press is so disturbing: not because a fashionable pundit is being praised out of proportion to his talent—that happens all the time—but because it proves we have lost our collective antibodies to the most destructive ideology of the twentieth century. Have theAtlantic readers who find “plunder” such an interesting concept never heard the lyrics to “Solidarity Forever”? (“They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn …”) Do they not remember how that story ends?
This legacy casts an ominous shadow over the most remarked-upon anecdote in Between the World and Me, the story of the woman who pushed Coates’s son on an Upper West Side escalator:
You were almost five years old. The theater was crowded, and when we came out we rode a set of escalators down to the ground floor. As we came off, you were moving at the dawdling speed of a small child. A white woman pushed you and said, “Come on!” Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body. And more: There was my sense that this woman was pulling rank. I knew, for instance, that she would not have pushed a black child out on my part of Flatbush, because she would be afraid there and would sense, if not know, that there would be a penalty for such an action. But I was not out on my part of Flatbush.… I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked.
“She would not have pushed a black child out on my part of Flatbush.” He does not say that she would not have pushed him if he’d been white, but that she would not have pushed him if they’d been in his neck of Brooklyn. Why? “Because she would be afraid.” Afraid of what? Of getting her head kicked in, presumably. Something about the way Coates contemplates this possibility suggests that, for all his protestations, he quite likes the idea that other people’s lives should be hemmed in by this kind of “penalty.” Maybe virtue without terror is impotent after all. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage,” Coates writes. I will stack America’s ideological heritage against his any day, in any measurement he chooses—but most especially in bodies destroyed.