Ta-Nehisi Coates is being touted, apparently widely touted, as the James Baldwin of age of Barack Obama. The comparison is found in Thomas Chatterton Williams’ essay at the Washington Post, «A black man's stark, visceral experience of racism.» What strikes me as so unconvincing about the analogy is the problem of Coates’ worn-out unoriginality. We’ve seen this movie before, and the ending is almost all the same: White America owes blacks. White America owes blacks a better life, a better income, a better social status after hundreds of years of racial oppression and subordination from slavery to the present day. Blah, blah.
Coates’ shtick is not only tired, but dishonest. He’s been touted for his work as being particularly relevant in the age of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and, well, «there are too many to name.» But as even a casual consumer of the news can see, the constant stories on America’s «epidemic» of police brutality form a narrative that’s mostly confined to white leftist elites in the media and academe, and to the underclass cultural thugs in cities and communities across America where the breakdown of the black family has left a Holocaust of fatherlessness and criminal hoodlum pathology.
Leftist elites don’t want to talk about those issues, as I pointed out in my recent essay, «The Berkshire Eagle Under Fire for Publishing Perfectly Reasonable Op-Ed on the Breakdown of America’s Black Community.»
Twenty years ago Robert Boynton published «The New Intellectuals» at the Atlantic, ironically the same publication where Coates’ makes his journalistic home today. The «new intellectuals» were America’s post-civil rights-era black public intellectuals, people like Stanley Crouch, Shelby Steele, Derrick Bell, Henry Louis Gates, Randall Kennedy, Cornell West, Glenn Loury, and Stephen Carter. As Boynton writes:
FOR contemporary black intellectuals, the defining event of their lives was unquestionably the civil-rights movement. Playing a role that Marx believed was the exclusive property of the proletariat, African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s were nothing less than the revolutionary subjects of history. However else one judges the legacy of those decades, one must surely agree with Stephen Carter when he argues that «the massive change in the legal and social status of black Americans was perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the sixties.» Although many members of today’s generation of intellectuals were too young to take an active part in the protests and marches, their belief in the necessary and intimate connection between race and politics was gleaned from these events.
Shaped in response to a movement that explicitly used the rhetoric of citizenship to articulate its demands for political equality, this generation’s conscious racial identity was qualitatively different from those of the generations that preceded it. Although this group’s fate as Americans was still complex, it was a complexity in which the ideas of blackness and American citizenship sat in a determinate–if uneasy–relationship to each other. The Brown decision in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other legislation combined to create the conditions for a notion of African-American citizenship that was a radical break from the past. Even in the face of brutal and persistent racism, to be black and American was now also to be legally empowered. The very concept of rights, the legal scholar Patricia Williams argues, «feels new in the mouths of most black people. The concept of rights, both positive and negative, is the marker of our citizenship, our relation to others.» In this sense, young black intellectuals in the early 1970s understood the possibly beneficial and augmenting connection between their ethnic and American identities.
Reading people like Ta-Nehisi Coates today, it’s as if America never experienced the revolution in rights and citizenship of the 1960s. To hear Coates, and many of his contemporaries in the leftist media, to be black today is in fact not to be empowered, but to be chained down in system of racism just as fundamentally evil as anything experienced by blacks at the height of slavery or Jim Crow.
This pose is fatally at odds with the reality of black life in America today. The average consumer of news, sports, literature, and popular culture is bombarded by a constant and powerful stream of black vitality, leadership, and excellence that confounds the most dire jeremiads of our bitterest left-wing critics.
The irony is compounded not just by the historical achievement of Barack Obama’s election, but also by the president’s promise to heal the jangling discords of our past. Polls now show that race relations in America are as bad as they’ve been in decades, since the Los Angeles riots at least, if not the long, hot summers of the 1960s. The situation is not due to an increase in white racism or a return to past patterns racial discrimination. It’s due to the endless campaign by the political left, from the president on down, to filter every social problem today through the prism of race. And it’s compounded by an unwillingness of the president and the Democrat Party to deal honestly with public policy disasters such as black inner-city crime and the lawlessness of illegal immigration that recently culminated in the murder of Kath ryn Steinle.
Race relations in many respects form the foundation for the larger patterns of political polarization plaguing the American political system. Polarization is in fact being led by the extreme leftward lurch of the Democrat Party as it further entrenches the kind of statist socialism that doomed the Greek economy to backwardness and inescapable debt.
So, what does Ta-Nehisi Coates want? Well, reparations, for the most part. Of course there’s virtually zero support for such reparations in public opinion, at least among white Americans (which is a sad commentary on the state of black America and its image of itself as a capable, independent social and economic community).
Years ago I argued that the promise of Barack Obama’s election would indeed be in the new president’s unique position, which would enable him to speak about race — and especially about personal responsibility and self-sufficiency — from a position of authority unmatched by any president in history. That opportunity has been lost in what has been an epic waste of political capital, a level of capital not likely to come around again in my lifetime. It’s a sad commentary on the politicization of everything, but it’s also a commentary on the challenge for the next president, to pick up the dropped baton and work for a renewed vision of the citizenship and opportunity bequeathed to us by civil rights leaders and public intellectuals in the age of Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin.