The Big Machine

By Ta-Nehisi Coates
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This is a very long post which I started while thinking about the debate around Henrietta Locks on this site. If you have other things to do, go do them. I'll be a little hurt. But I think, with some work, I'll get over it.

My first sense that losing weight would be hard came long before I actually began the process. It was the Spring of 2001, shortly after Samori was born. We were living in Delaware, but dreaming of New York. Kenyatta worked nights at the local paper. I had no job, save pounding out articles for cheap wages that nobody read. No matter. I was proud and gleeful whenever I saw it in print. But too I'd packed on some pounds--some during my college, some while while watching Kenyatta navigate a life-threatening pregnancy. "I'll knock it out at the gym," I thought, "Three or four months and the God will be his old high-school self."

I am now, almost a decade later, just entering my second month. In the intervening years, the God has been a lot of things, the old high school is not among them.

Anyway, that first hint came one afternoon when we decided to drive down to Baltimore and see the family. Usually on those drives we'd grab something on the road to keep from having to make breakfast that morning. But it was only then, resolving to get this done, that I really took note of the precise nature of our options, and the fact that if I were serious, I'd have to avoid all of them. I remember thinking about people (not like me) who worked long hours and spent more long hours in the car for a commute. I remember thinking about how the fast food options along the road fit into that system, how they were part of a broader thing, a broader method of production and consumption.

When you want to lose weight, smart people tell you that it isn't simply a matter of going to the gym more or eating low-fat cookies, it's a lifestyle change. We've heard that said so much that it's become a cliche. But it's essentially true. We change who we hang out with, where we spend our evenings, the time of our commute. A simple job switch can net 20 pounds. The overweight who've thought about their condition (those who consider it a condition) understand the folly of simply saying "I won't eat this and I'll work out more." It's so much bigger and so much more systemic.

And for me, in month two, it gets deeper everyday. Finding my way out has meant seriously grappling with what I eat and how I eat in ways beyond a calorie count. The aesthetics of slimness have never been enough for me. It'd be nice to look like the rock, but this is really about tossing the football to your grandkids, and then not bringing them into a unsustainable system of consumption that's warping the planet.

To call this an understanding misses the point--it's always about the good questions, instead of the certain answers. I probably shouldn't eat much beef, and when I eat it I should consult this website so that I know how it was killed, right? I should be suspicious of eggs, and look for cage-free, but sometimes cage-free is a con to lure in neophytes like me, right? I know that egg whites are good for me, but isn't there something wrong about dumping half the egg, right? And I love pineapples, but God knows what manner of abomination flew those beauties up from the tropics, right?

I don't understand half as much about this sort of thing as most people writing on the web. But I do understand the tremendous difficulty of getting conscious, as the brothers say, and thus trying to fulfill all my daily tax-paying responsibilities, while extricating the cog of myself from the wicked machine.

But more than that, I understand enough to be wary of inveighing against people who eat at McDonalds--or even McDonald's itself--of harshly interrogating the morality of flesh-eaters (I am, of course, among them.) It's not that any of this is wrong per se, so much as it's limited. When you're constantly naming people for their sins of consumption, it's very hard to get them to act against a system of consumption. More than that, it often misses the point of how hard it is to pull oneself out of the Matrix, and thus underestimates the Matrix, in that it assumes we can win by yelling.

Likewise, I think in my best writing here, in the writing that really matters, I've worked to steer us away from the reductive parlor game of "Is this/he/she racist?" It's useful to a point, but ultimately self-serving. It underestimates our demons and it underestimates how an entire system warped nearly every institution in this country, and continues to warp it to this day. What I'd rather we us understand is some sense of the big system, some sense of American white supremacy as mechanized racism.


As surely as our current process of commutes, quick meals, long hours, huckster diets, and late gym fees are a system of consumption and production, American white supremacy, was a system of consumption and production. In its purest form it was created to ensure a bonded class of labor, that would transform the masters from ordinary men into fast-food royalty.

It taught enterprising farmers across a large swaths of this country to dream mostly of owning people, the way young people like me dream of owning a home and a picket fence. It made it legal for men to sell their daughters into prostitution, and their sons into certain death in the Caribbean sugar fields.

The parlor game of "Is this racist?" allows us to comfortably elide the point. We note that our ancestors were too poor to be slave-holders, lived in the North, or didn't arrive in this country until the turn of the 19th century. But the system of white supremacy was all-enveloping. From an ad-hoc class of dukes, it extended out and ensnared poor yeoman by giving them power, class be damned, over an entire race. It then conscecrated that power by passing laws which relegated that race to a lower social standing. Then it passed more laws mandating that all able-bodied white males serve on slave patrols throughout the South.

Northerners who sneered at the South were damned by their labor and purchases. They ran, managed, and worked for manufacturers that  bought cotton produced literally at slave wages, and then sold it back to Southerners for triple the price. They purchased goods made from that cotton held artificially low by a bonded workforce. Then post-slavery, this country--at every governmental level--passed laws to preserve the vestiges of the system for as long as possible.

White immigrants, who owned no slaves and never benefited from slave labor, nevertheless joined unions that discriminated against blacks, worked at plants where they did not have to compete against blacks for jobs, lived in neighborhoods where they did not have to compete with blacks for housing, and sent their kids to school where they did not have to compete against blacks for grades.

And so on.  You could not be assimilated into whiteness in this country, without being assimilated into a system of white supremacy. It was not possible.

I don't write this out so that I can establish blame/guilt. To the contrary, the point is that the system was so far-reaching, that it took a conscious, deliberate and often personally dangerous effort to defy it. Against all odds, against a media that reinforced the assumptions of the system, against segregated social institutions that prescribed the assumptions, against whole familes which had bought into the assumption, one would have to rebel and say, "No." The point isn't that all white people are somehow guilty. The point is that a choice between guilt/innocence wasn't really present. It had to be created and it carried with it significant social costs.

A white farmer in Virginia born into slaveholding, would hold the vast majority of his wealth in bonded people. For him to create a guilty/innocent choice, it would not be enough for him to simply realize slaveholding was wrong. Many slaveholders knew that well. He would have to emancipate his slaves, and at the very minimum risk the loss of personal and familial social status. More potently he risked bankrupting himself and his family, and virtually destroying any prospect of inheritance for his children. It's fine to think of manumitting slaves as a moral act. But it's also good, not to be crass, to think of it like walking away your house after you'd paid it off.

In my studies of the Civil War, I hear a lot about the impeccable honor of Robert E. Lee. But pictured above, is George Henry Thomas, the great Rock of Chickamuaga. Thomas, like Lee, was born to wealthy Virginia planters. And like Lee, Thomas, as he grew older, came to question the justness of slavery. Unlike Lee, when War came, Thomas fought for the Union, winning a series of tremendous victories, culminating in the destruction of the Army of Tennessee in 1864.

Arguably no general made fairer, and better, use of black soldiers than Thomas, who post-war, fought the Klan and worked to protect the freedman. For his courageous attempt to excise himself from the machine, Thomas earned the excommunication of his planter family, the enmity of Lost Causers, and the virtual amnesia of the country he fought to save. In light of that high price, I don't spend much time wondering why more people didn't walk Thomas's path. The game is rigged.

Hence, for me, the search for individual racists, and narrow individual acts of racism, is about as useful as the search for a pack of low-fat Oreos. I guess it helps. Kinda. We should be proud that in the 21st century we have a black president, the clearest evidence that white supremacy, and white racism, as a system of consumption, has been vanquished. But we should be humbled by the clear evidence that we don't really understand what we defeated, how we did it, or how it's legacy haunts us today.

I once thought the curse of not grappling with a system that sent 600,000 men to their deaths would be racial violence. Now, I think that curse might be the habit of sweeping things under the rug. In the case of people, it's fine. The old die and the young forget. But I'm not so worried that we don't get the deeper meanings behind Selma. I'm worried that intellectual laziness is addictive. We can get away with not understanding slavery; the 99 cent hamburger, not so much. People forgive. They have to. Planets are different.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/02/the-big-machine/35315/