I had a Twitter conversation that was (remarkably) all light and no heat today related to the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Before jumping into the particulars of today’s conversation however, I will begin with something I wrote to Andrew Sullivan a few years ago in response to one of his posts on an earlier work of Coates’:
Even those born and raised here do not always readily grasp the “racial resonances” you write of. I’m a 40-year black man who was born and raised in the suburbs, to parents who came here from Jamaica. That upbringing shaped my view of the United States into one that may share many characteristics with other immigrants to this country. I was raised to see this country as a place where you could accomplish whatever you wanted if you worked hard, studied hard, and did well in school. I had that luxury because of the environment my parents created, despite the fact that they didn’t have much money.
That’s where the problem with using a term like “culture of poverty” comes in. Such a term assumes that a group of people thinks and behaves in the same way because they are poor. Not very far under the surface of that assumption is the older, uglier one that those who are poor are somehow less industrious, moral and virtuous than those who are not. There is an intellectual laziness in the use of that term. It’s an attempt to shift responsibility from government institutions who have done very little to prevent the continued shrinkage of the middle class in general (and blacks in particular).
Whether you call it pessimism or gloom, I would not be so quick to brand it as out of place. Growing income inequality is a quantifiable reality, as is the increasing lack of economic mobility. It is difficult to believe that decades of government policy that tax investment at significantly lower rates than wages (under presidents of both parties) don’t play some role in that. For all the real progress this country has made, whether we have a black president or not, the United States is still a country where one political party actively strives to make it harder for citizens of color to exercise their right to vote. It is also still a country where someone at a hotel can assume I’m a valet (instead of a guest) or ask me if I’m a chauffeur when they see me parking my wife’s luxury car. My hope for a better future is paired with an awareness that only concrete actions will bring that better future about – and that my actions alone are not sufficient. The majority of society needs to see the advancement of minorities as somehow in their interest in order for lasting and sustainable change to occur.
Surprisingly (at least to me), Mr. Sullivan saw fit to publish my email to him in full here, along with a multitude of other thoughtful response that are well-worth reading. Fast-forwarding from March 2014, to the present, I felt compelled to join a Twitter thread when Professor Jason D. Hill’s “An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates” showed up in my Twitter feed for the second time in the span of two weeks. I first encountered it in a retweet from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who called Hill’s commentary an “antidote to the racial poison spread by Ta-Nehisi Coates”. I’ll revise and extend the remarks I made on Twitter since I’m not bound by character limits. The questions that prompted this response are “Is there any critic of Ta-Nehisi Coates you find legit? Are all his critic naive, ignorant or racists?”:
I’ve read this (Hill’s) critique of Coates and found it interesting because both my parents are Jamaican so I share Mr. Hill’s culture. While I agree that Mr. Hill makes his argument in good faith, I must note that I was referred to it by a tweet from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who accused Coates of spreading racial poison as if merely pointing out the ways racism has affected black people was somehow worse than those who actually engaged in racist behavior. This is just one example of the ways that someone who is trying to make an honest critique of Coates work can have that work hijacked for far less noble purposes. I wish that black people who originate from the Caribbean, or directly from the continent of Africa would at least acknowledge that the African-American experience in this country can be different (if not far worse) than for immigrants of color.
Jamaicans and Africans of a certain age share experiences of seeing successful people who look like them at all levels. In some cases, those successful people were their friends and family members, so expectations for them were similarly high–particularly in the area of education. If I take my own family as an example, all four of us (father, mother, sister and myself) have completed master’s degrees (operations research, psychology, community counseling, business administration). But we are underachievers compared to some of my relatives. Three of my first cousins have doctorates (political science, environmental engineering, pharmaceutical chemistry), and a fourth earned full ride plus a stipend to Yale to pursue a Ph.D in music (after earning a master’s at the University of Maryland). I don’t doubt that some African-Americans have had similar experiences, but I suspect that far too many have not.
Some will disagree, but I would argue that Jamaicans benefit in part from “model minority” perceptions in the same way other immigrants do–including those Mr. Hill references in his piece (a man from Vietnam, women from Trinidad, Iran, and Guatemala, and a man from India). While you can certainly find negative stereotypes of Jamaicans in popular culture (crappy movies like Marked for Death or better shows like Power), you can just easily find more positive (or at least amusing) depictions as well (the Headley family in multiple skits on In Living Color, the movie Cool Runnings, etc).
It is possible to share positive experiences with and of America as a person of color without invalidating the negative experiences of others. Unfortunately, Professor Hill’s essay fails in this task, as have the vast majority of the critics of Coates work. The related way in which most critiques of Coates’ work fail is in their inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that the progress this country has made in how it treats people of color in this country has included setbacks and retreats. Given that our current president holds that position in large part because of his consistent, multi-year denial that our previous president was a citizen of this country, a critique that fails to grapple with this fact even in passing is incomplete to say the least.
Chidike Okeem is the only writer I’ve encountered thus far who has succeeding in writing thoughtful critiques of Coates’ work as well as advocating for a conservatism that is divorced from the intellectually-lazy Trumpism that seems to represent mainstream conservatism today. It is to his credit he admires one of Jamaica’s most prominent historical figures, Marcus Garvey.
It occurred to me after I’d finished my Twitter thread that perhaps another reason that many critiques of Coates work tend to fall short for me is that they tend to argue solely from anecdote. Coates is hardly averse to use anecdotes in his work, but he incorporates history and real scholarship into his work in a way that few of his critics seems willing or able to match. Sullivan was calling Coates a pessimist in 2014, before Trump’s successful candidacy and the spectacle of tiki torch-bearing white supremacists using monuments to the Confederacy as rallying points to spread their hateful vision. If critiques of the work of Coates are going to be constructive and useful, they need to engage with this reality and discuss ways forward that will steer us away from “learned helplessness” or despair.