Black Culture and Progressivism

What started as a discussion of Paul Ryan's comments has turned into a revealing debate on the nature of liberal politics in the United States.
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President Obama speaks during at the launch of his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative at the White House in February 2014. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Some pieces of news precipitate a kind of journalistic pile-on. This can be unfortunate, a reason to rue the deluge of opinion (see: drawn-out analysis of James Franco’s antics, again and again). Or, because there are many smart and shrewd voices out there, the same density of opinion can enrich our understanding of complicated issues (see: drawn-out analysis of Edward Snowden). The pile-on—of either variety—is good for convening dissonant points of view. But the hubbub tends to obscure the subtler strands of opinion: The people who mostly agree with one another are flattened into the same perspective, and the interesting gradations that separate, say, one kind of liberal or conservative from another are lost.

There is special pleasure, then, in reading writers' narrower conversation. Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald sparred over the future of news in the New York Times last year, with provocative results. Roundtables like Slate’s Supreme Court Breakfast Table illuminate the less visible corners of controversy by forcing like-minded commentators to make agreement interesting and disagreement intelligent.

Over the past two weeks, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait of New York have engaged in a comparatively spontaneous back and forth that has accomplished this to great effect, shedding light on the places where progressives thoughtfully but profoundly disagree. The conversation began with no particular rules in place or end in sight—and their debate has proceeded with the intensity and unpredictability that such an approach entails.

Coates and Chait occupy a similar niche of thoughtful progressive journalism; each freely acknowledges he has been inspired by reading the other’s like-minded work. But for the past several weeks they have not only read each other; they have actively responded to one another. In doing so, they have revealed an important fissure in liberal thought. Coates and Chait are not just splitting hairs; they are two writers with profound agreement on many issues, who have nevertheless arrived at different, and powerfully charged visions of our country's history. 

Their conversation began with Paul Ryan. In remarks that many commentators instantly pounced on (cue the pile-on), the Republican congressman offered this diagnosis of American poverty:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

This has all the ingredients to arouse liberal ire. A privileged white politician talks down to the strata of society that existed somewhere beneath him—what he calls the “culture” of “inner cities,” and what everyone else understands to mean the culture of black people.

Plenty of coverage treated the incident as first and foremost about Ryan and the Republican Party: what it says about their budget plan, what it means for 2016, what it reveals about the probable palette of future electoral maps. In an ever-refreshing news cycle of controversy, which gives special attention to politicians’ missteps, this story quickly runs its course.  

Coates’s first essay makes clear he does not think the real drama here is Ryan’s or the Republican Party’s view of inner-city poverty.  The story is much bigger, he writes, because “in America, the notion that black people are lacking in virtue is ambient.” Nor is this, he argues, a peculiarly white or conservative belief. Bill Cosby famously voiced a version of this notion when he criticized black men for “not holding up their end of the deal.” And Coates believes President Obama has become among the most aggressive champions of this view.

In short, this is not about what partisan politics look like today. It is about what America’s racial politics have been for centuries. For far too many years, far too many Americans have believed much of what Ryan says because, Coates says, “it is a message that makes all our uncomfortable truths tolerable. Only if black people are somehow undeserving can a just society tolerate a yawning wealth gap, a two-tiered job market, and persistent housing discrimination.”

The ripple effect of Coates’s analysis was more prolonged than any other because it did not merely take aim at a politician or a party; it leveled a criticism against Americans irrespective of political allegiance or racial identity. (Some white conservatives interpreted Coates’s searing appraisal of black Democrats as backhanded praise; they simply weren’t reading carefully.)

Among progressives who resented being lumped with the likes of Paul Ryan, Jonathan Chait emerged with perhaps the most powerful essay in response to Coates’s.  

Most narrowly, Chait critiques Coates for papering over important distinctions between Ryan’s treatment of black culture and Obama’s. More broadly, this leads to the erroneous conclusion that “the cultural explanation for African-American poverty and the structural explanation [are] mutually exclusive.” Chait gives us a succinct explanation of how structure and culture become so intertwined as to become indistinguishable:

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

Chait believes Ryan can be rightly lambasted because he believes (or at least suggests) that culture is 100 percent of the problem—a far too bluntly wrought diagnosis. By contrast, Obama and others take the historically nuanced (and, he believes, well-evidenced) stance that today’s poverty and inequality are the product of institutional injustices that have given rise to cultural phenomena.

And if you are Barack Obama operating on this understanding of history, Chait says, it makes good sense to tell black Americans that they need to have a hand in shaping a more positive culture for themselves. Chait insists these exhortations do not amount to “denying bias,” they are simply acknowledging other additional forces at play: “It’s a sensible practice of encouraging people to concentrate on the things they can control.”

This exchange quickly spurred others to weigh in. On The Daily Beast, Jamelle Bouie argues that what African Americans of all income and educational levels have in common is not their experience of a universal “black culture” but rather their experience of systemic discrimination and downward mobility. The conversation, then, should be about how to tangibly invest in the black community (through things like job training and family services), not about how to morally improve it. He writes: “If, in the face of a sustained investment, inner-city black men continue not to work and take advantage of the real opportunities, then we can move to culture as a key factor.”

Jelani Cobb, writing in The New Yorker, is even more searing in his indictment of “Obama’s consistent habit to douse moments of black achievement with soggy moralizing.” He argues that “responsibility politics”—in essence, calls to black Americans to get their act together—“confirms the long and ugly tradition that conflates blackness with laziness and poverty, and whiteness with virtue and wealth.” This attitude bolsters “the myth that education alone can be the great equalizer,” and elides powerful statistical truths, like the fact that “black wages lag behind at nearly every level of education attainment.” (Fredrik deBoer samples similar startling truths: graph after graph that show gaps in income, wealth, life expectancy, incarceration rates, insurance rates, and murder rates.)

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Clare Sestanovich is a former story researcher for The Atlantic.

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