Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

  • Barack Obama's Challenge to American Morality

    His address on voter-suppression efforts is one of the most significant and morally grounded speeches of his presidency.

    If you haven't yet, it's work checking out Barack Obama's address before the National Action Network, last week. I think it's one of the most significant and morally grounded speeches of his presidency. I think we will eventually regard this current effort to suppress the vote through voter-ID laws, ending early voting, restricting voting hours, etc., in the same way we regard literacy tests and poll taxes. (It's worth recalling this piece for the magazine by Mariah Blake which helps historicize voter suppression.)

    I believe in judging Barack Obama's rhetoric and policies not as though he were the president of black America, but of the United States of America. On that count his speech soared. There aren't many topics more important than the security of our democracy. The president did not attack that topic gingerly, but forcefully, directly and without hedge.

    It's an important speech.

    As an aside, I'll add that I still can't get over seeing a black dude, who is the president, standing in front of Garvey's red, black, and green. Strange days, I tell you. Strange days, indeed. No one knows where this is going.

  • The Devastating Effects of Concentrated Poverty

    Last week I was lucky enough to sit on a panel with social scientists Patrick Sharkey, Paul Jargowsky, and Sherrilyn Ifill who heads the NAACP-LDF. We focused our conversation on concentrated poverty with  a strong emphasis on its effects on black people. I've talked about Sharkey's work quite a bit. His presentation is as impressive as his research. At one point, Sharkey displayed a chart which showed that the average black family making $100,000 a year lives in the same kind of neighborhood as the average white family making $30,000 a year. It's worth your time.

    Here's a link to the Pew study on the wealth gap I reference. In turns out I underestimated the wealth gap.  Here's a link to Paul Jargowsky's disturbing study on the concentration of poverty across America.

  • 'He Hated Error More Than He Loved Truth'

    A few notes for some folks who are interested in the winding path to the Blue Period:

    1.) A friend sent along the following quotes from Michael Oakeshott on the limits of awesome sonnage. Oakeshott is critiquing Hobbes who raised sonnage to historic levels:

    ...The blood of contention ran in his veins. He acquired the lucid genius of a great expositor of ideas; but by disposition he was a fighter, and he knew no tactics save attack. He was a brilliant controversialist, deft, pertinacious and imaginative, and he disposed of the errors of scholastics, Puritans and Papists with a subtle mixture of argument and ridicule.

    But he made the mistake of supposing that this style was universally effective, in mathematics no less than in politics. For brilliance in controversy is a corrupting accomplishment. Always to play to win is to take one’s standards from one’s opponent, and local victory comes to displace every other consideration. Most readers will find Hobbes’s disputatiousness excessive; but it is the defect of an exceptionally active mind.

    And it never quite destroyed in him the distinction between beating an opponent and establishing a proposition, and never quite silenced the conversation with himself which is the heart of philosophical thinking. But, like many controversialists, he hated error more than he loved truth, and came to depend overmuch on the stimulus of opposition. There is sagacity in Hobbes, and often a profound deliberateness; but there is no repose.

    I didn't finish Leviathan. I hope to get back to it. I'm sure some folks in the Horde will disagree with this characterization. But I think the deeper point about "brilliance in controversy" is one for the ages. It's tough to remember that you must never do it for them. It's tough to remember why you came. Why you came was not to be lauded for "destroying," "owning," or otherwise sonning anyone. You must always define the debate and not allow the debate--and all its volume and spectacle--to define you. 

    2.) As noted before, I first began seriously considering the immortality of white supremacy after listening to Nell Irvin Painter. I say "seriously considering" to distinguish it from the kind of general cynicism toward white America that a lot of black people feel. I felt that and then lost most of it with the election of Barack Obama. What followed wasn't cynicism--which I think is really just another specimen of naiveté-- but something more haunting and real. Here are a couple interviews on that point--one with Phoebe Judge at WUNC in the Research Triangle in North Carolina, the other with Jonathan Judaken before a lecture at Rhodes College in Memphis.

    3.) Horde Legionnaire Absurdbeats has done the tremendous--and laudable--labor of compiling virtually every single book and scholarly article I've ever spoken of on this blog. Some of them remain unfinished--Leviathan, The Origins of Species and Discipline and Punish, being the major ones. The two that really pushed me over were were Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom and Barbara and Karen Fields' Racecraft. Morgan is indispensable. There is no single book I've found myself reviewing more over the past five years. 

    4.) Barbara and Karen Fields' Racecraft is curious compilation of essays that I did not quite get when I first read it. Below I've embedded a video of me and Barbara Fields discussing the book. I was still processing its thesis even as I was interviewing to her. (I remember being really afraid of looking stupid.) But the basic argument is that Americans tend to speak of "race" as a biological constant, which it isn't. That notion it, itself, a product of racism. Racecraft is the process by which something moves from the condemnable (racism) to the value-neutral (racism.)

    Thus we say that we need a "conversation on race" or "race divides America" or we speak of "different races." Another way to say this is we need to have a "conversation on racism" or "racism divides America," or to speak of "historical victims of racism." This is very key. The was no white and black race until we created one, and this creation was--itself--an act of racism, done to justify other acts of racism. Presuming that there is biological constant called "white" and "black" removes human actors, elides responsibility, and annihilates history.

    Around 39:30 you can hear Fields give a good explanation for the process of racecraft.

    6.) The New York Times has a great video about "The Superpredator" era of social policy in the 90s. In many ways it brings us full circle. Its protagonist is John Dilulio, who with William Bennett, authored the book Body Count which predicted that a wave of "godless" and "fatherless" and "jobless" juvenile criminals would soon descend on America. You will remember that it was in the company Bennett that Paul Ryan offered his unlettered critique of inner city culture. Bennett and Dilulio were wrong--horribly so, as the film lays out. America's black communities are still paying the price, and will continue to for some time. That is danger of crafting policy as though we have no history and writing off broad swaths as culturally pathological.

    7.) We began with Oakeshott. It seems fitting to end with one of his disciples. I recommend checking out Andrew's attempt to think his way through this. It's admirable and more writers should do it. I very often strenuously disagree with Andrew over the force of white supremacy in American history and the American present. At the same time, Andrew was a big, big influence in my efforts to master the art of thinking publicly. Sometimes our teachers come in unexpected clothing. We are better for taking the lesson, nonetheless. 

  • Black Pathology Crowdsourced

    Why we need historians in debates about today's cultures

    Photographs from the Wilmington coup of 1898 (North Carolina State Archives)

    I think it might help this discussion to offer some sense of how I came to my views on culture and white supremacy. I want to go back to the original piece I wrote, "A Culture of Poverty," and highlight an exchange I had in comments. Then I want to point to a recent note I received which helped clarify things even more.

    Many of you know Yoni Appelbaum. He came to us originally under the handle Cynic. I can name several academics who've influenced my thinking over the past five years—Barbara Fields, Nell Irvin Painter, Drew Gilpin Faust, Patrick Sharkey, Arnold Hirsch, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Tony Judt, and a bunch more. As much as any of the people, Yoni has helped me really sharpen my thinking on the centrality of white supremacy in American history. (This is not gush. There's an entire section of this piece that I owe to him.)

    In the original column I had a hazy notion about practices fitting environments. Put differently, I believed that culture made sense when understood within the context in which it operated. One might note, for instance, that married black women—as a practice—tend to have fewer children then married white women. I actually don't know why that is. But if I wanted to find out, I would start from the premise that there is something tangible, discernible, and knowable in the world of married black people that animates that practice. Too often "culture" is basically spoken in the way one might say "magic."

    I later sharpened that point in other columns. But it was Yoni who first bought this home for me:

    Spot on.

    But I'd add that it works this way in reverse, too. It's a point seldom made. I was reading a new memoir the other day, by a Harvard graduate who went to work as a prison librarian. Much of the book is an account of his acculturation. He discovered that his robes and spell books, so to speak, were a lot less useful than plate and a broad-sword. That he couldn't afford to be seen as a punk. He was perfectly equipped for a comfortable, upper-middle-class life—and wholly unprepared for his new environment.

    We tend to associate culturally-specific practices with the relative successes of the cultures with which they're associated. Things rich people do must be beneficial; habits of the poor, not. The reality is more complex. Culture of Poverty is a label attached to a wide array of behaviors. There are behaviors—physical assertiveness—well-suited to that environment that may tend to inhibit success elsewhere. There are other behaviors—emphasis on familial and communal ties—that will cut both ways, sustaining people in difficult times but sometimes making it harder for them to place their individual needs above the demands of the group. And there are others—initiative and self-reliance—that are largely positive, and in many ways, even more advantageous if carried further up the social scale.

    I bristle when I see people discuss the culture of poverty as a pathology. That's too self-congratulatory, and too cramped a view. The reality is that, like all cultures, it has aspects that translate well to other circumstances, those that translate poorly, and those that are just plain different. And that's no different than the Culture of Affluence.

    That was crucial. I understood that cultural practices made sense in their context. But Yoni complicated it even further—some practices hurt, some practices help, and some practices don't matter at all. This really was a knock-you-on-your-ass moment for me, because I could think of my own life and see exactly that. At Howard University, I had a culture—a set of practices—that I employed in intellectual debate that are different than most people I encounter online. We tended to argue from history, and there was premium (somewhat obnoxious) on book citations.

    That tradition came out of a sense that we had been "robbed" of history and culture and had to reclaim it—as Douglass did, as Malcolm did, as Zora did. Consider the constant (if inaccurate) quip employed in the black community that the easiest place to hide something from a nigger (and that was how it was said) was between the pages of a book. We were responding to that. My style of arguing—a practice coming out of my environment—was formed there. I would not trade it for anything.

    I talk to Yoni from time to time. In fact, a lot of us here at The Atlantic do. (Rebecca Rosen calls him the best critical reader of The Atlantic, hands down.) Taking in the early portion of the culture-of-poverty debate, Yoni offered the following:

    Your post sends me back to The North American Review, which asked, in 1912, "Are the Jews an Inferior Race?" It answered the question, resoundingly, in the negative, but the more salient point is that the point was then very much in doubt. After the long centuries Jews spent in Europe marked as a minority, tolerated or persecuted, there was no shortage of thinkers willing to advance the claim that Jewish inferiority was innate, or at the very least, an ineradicable element of a broken culture. "Based on anthropology and biased by personal psychology," explained the author, "anti-Semitic literature advances the theory that the Jewish race is divested of the higher forms of genius and is to be regarded as an uncreative, imitative, practical, and utilitarian body. Mental inferiority and spiritual impotency circulate accordingly in the very blood of the Jew." 

    The article was, itself, a response to a letter in a previous issue that considered that the Jews, in "all their immiscibility," had survived centuries without sovereignty only at the cost of producing, "a character so unattractive, even repellent, their shortcomings even in righteousness and their insignificance in everything else, without poetry, without science, without art, and without character." 

    That's one example. There are innumerable others. My point is that, at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable to conclude that Jewish culture, whether innate or the product of prolonged persecution, had itself become a significant impediment to success. But that, a century later, it seems impossible to reconcile the idea that Jewish culture was the problem with the record of success that Jews produced over the following hundred years, in those nations in which they were not similarly persecuted. 

    Now, we get Jed Rubenfeld explaining how that same culture—formerly blamed for Jewish inferiority—is actually a distinct advantage. And just so, a hundred years from now, there will be bestsellers explaining how black culture, forged in centuries of adversity, accounts for the remarkable success of the African-American community. The point is that the same sets of cultural characteristics operate very differently in different circumstances. And to focus on the culture—rather than the circumstances—seems obtuse.

    Yoni is the Yoni of Atlantic Media.

    More seriously, I really would like to see more historians in these debates. We have plenty of people with economics background, with political-science backgrounds, and some even with sociology backgrounds. But it feels like there is a massive gulf between how people who study American history see their country, and how not just Americans but American journalists see their country. Forgive me if that is too sweeping.

    I keep thinking about this idea of pessimism. A few weeks ago I was at Rhodes College for a conference. I ended up sitting at dinner with the historian Thavolia Glymph, and some other historians of note. Glymph's work is a corrective to the idea that there was some sort of sisterhood between plantation matriarchs and enslaved black women. She was talking about some of the evidence she'd seen and she said that—"When you read a woman's diary and in the middle of dinner she pulls out a knife and slashes her servant, you start to understand." That's not an exact quote. But the point I am making is that I've had the luxury of reading, and now visiting with, a number of scholars (historians, anthropologists, some multi-disciplinary folks) and what you get isn't The Adventures of Flagee and Ribbon.

    Indeed you often get something much darker then what I'm giving you here. At that same conference I was noting—as I often do—that the Wilmington coup in 1898 is the only coup in American history. The historians in the room looked at me like I was crazy. (Timothy Tyson literally shouted "Noooooo" from the audience.) That's because, as I was told, the truth is much worse. There have been plenty of coups in American history—most of them dating to Reconstruction, and animated by white supremacy. How's that for depressing?

    We deserve more of that in our lives. We deserve to see ourselves fully. It's not our history that makes me fatalistic, it's our history of looking away. 

  • Race, Culture, and Poverty: The Path Forward

    The point of writing isn't just to son or be sonned—it's to know more.

    University of California Press

    One thing that happens in the kind of debates we've just seen between myself and Jonathan Chait is that people count up points to see who's sonned who. I shall be honest here: I prefer to son than be sonned. But if the conversation ends merely in sonnage, we've lost something. For black people, this conversation is not an abstract thought experiment nor merely a stimulating debate, after which we may repair to our lounges and exchange quips over martinis (though if you're going to do that, do it with Hendrick's). These are our lives. When you are black, no matter how prosperous, the war is right outside your door—around the corner, a phone call away, at a family reunion. 

    The primary goal of this space is to promote clarity and understanding. The sonning of all interlocutors must always play the back. That is because those of us who seek clarity know that even if we son today, we almost certainly will be sonned tomorrow. Sometimes—in fact often times—the greatest clarity comes in being sonned. My greatest lessons have come to me on my ass, with someone—my dad, my mom, my professor, my editor, my friend, a commenter—standing over me. Seeking clarity is not the business of being right. I hope to often be right. But I know inevitably I must, at least sometimes, be sonned. 

    In my conversation with Jonathan Chait, I believe that I am right. But more importantly, I hope to know more. Here is another step in that endeavor. The social scientists Kathryn Edin and Timothy J. Nelson have authored a well-regarded study of unmarried inner-city fathers, Doing The Best I Can.

    The authors begin by laying out three familiar portraits of fathers.

    First from William Bennett:

    “It is unmarried fathers who are missing in record numbers, who impregnate women and selfishly flee,” raged conservative former U.S. secretary of education William Bennett in his 2001 book, The Broken Hearth. “And it is these absent men, above all, who deserve our censure and disesteem. Abandoning alike those who they have taken as sexual partners, and whose lives they have created, they strike at the heart of the marital ideal, traduce generations yet to come, and disgrace their very manhood.”

    Second from Bill Cosby:

    “No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child,” Bill Cosby declared in 2004 at the NAACP’s gala commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Brown versus Board of Education, as he publicly indicted unwed fathers for merely “inserting the sperm cell” while blithely eschewing the responsibilities of fatherhood.

    And then from the president:

    Then, in 2007, two days before Father’s Day, presidential candidate Barack Obama admonished the congregants of Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, saying, “There are a lot of men out there who need to stop acting like boys, who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception, who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one."

    Edin and Nelson also lay out an infamous portrait of a deadbeat African-American father, Timothy McSeed, (yes, really) that ran on CBS in 1986. The father showed little regard for his children, asserting: "If a girl, you know, she's having a baby, carryin' a baby, that's on her, you know? I'm not going to stop my pleasures."

    The portrait sent the media into a fit of rage at absent fathers, and black absent fathers in particular:

    William Raspberry’s brother-in-law wrote the noted columnist that the day after viewing the program, he drove past a young black couple and found himself reacting with violent emotion. “I was looking at a problem, a threat, a catastrophe, a disease. Suspicion, disgust and contempt welled up within me.” But it was George Will who reached the heights of outraged rhetoric in his syndicated column, declaring that “the Timothies are more of a menace to black progress than the Bull Connors ever were."

    Edin and Nelson, taking note of these portrayals, lay out a simple goal:

    The conventional wisdom spun by pundits and public intellectuals across the political spectrum blames the significant difficulties that so many children born to unwed parents face—poor performance in school, teen pregnancy and low school-completion rates, criminal behavior, and difficulty securing a steady job—on their fathers’ failure to care. The question that first prompted our multiyear exploration into the lives of inner-city, unmarried fathers is whether this is, in fact, the case.

    What I hope to take from this, and from future reading, is something beyond dueling rhetoric. A writer is, mostly, a professional amateur. Part of the job (the least important I'd argue) is fighting with other writers. But most of it is posing questions to people who know more than you. Edin and Nelson offer on the ground research with 110 fathers—black and white—in Camden, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. Certainly what they report back cannot be definitive. But it can be informative. And it can take us away from the land of thought experiments and theorizing, into the world of real people doing real things. I look forward to reporting the results. 

    Donc, on y va. Or as we say in the tongue of black pathologia—once again, it's on.

  • The Blue Period: An Origin Story


    The secret origins of "the blue period"--if that's what we're calling it--lay in the video embedded above. In it, historian Nell Irvin Painter discusses her book A History Of White People and calmly, and methodically, breaks my heart:

    On the other hand, the idea of blackness, that is poor dark-skinned people, I think we will have that with us always, and when we particularly at this moment of economic crisis and this moment in which we have a small number of very rich people and a lot of people who are kind of scraping by and then tremendous differences.  We have a great inequality of wealth and income.  This group of people who are scraping by, there will be a lot of them, but they will probably be largely black and brown and that will tend to reinforce racial ideas.  So on the upper strata, among these few people up here who are doing very well there will be people of various colors and from various backgrounds, but they will probably not be so racialized as the people who are not doing well. 

    You can see from my posting at the time I was sort of horrified by Painter's argument. It didn't really mesh with my worldview at the time. At that point I was a progressive in every sense of the word. I believed that you could sketch a narrative of progress in this country from enslavement to civil rights. It seemed logical, to me, that this progress would end--some day--with the complete vanquishing of white supremacy. 

    I probably first came across Painter as a young child. My Dad had a ridiculous collection of black books and I'd just swim through them. I certainly knew about her during by my late teenage years at Howard. By then I understood her to be one of the great historians of our era. I also came to understand at Howard that historians are heartbreakers. I have often referred to my history professors destroying all my Afrocentric fantasies, and then telling me that I must, somehow, pick up the pieces and argue for my humanity. The Nubians, for whom I was named, weren't going to cut it. At least not alone. I thought about that for awhile--history and humanity. The history I had been taught had been crafted by humans for political aims. And if these black people truly were human, than it meant that other people likely would also do the same. Even my countrymen. 

    Years after Howard, I sat with Painter on a panel at the United Nations. Her poise was ridiculous. There was something modest and grand about how she carried herself. I thought it was the aura of a person in full awareness of their big brain and all that it could do. Once I got over my fear of speaking in her presence, I found her to be one of the sharpest people I'd ever engaged. Her assessment of white supremacy cut to the core of me. I had always considered a vaguely-defined "hope" to be a prerequisite for writing. What kind of intellectual confronts a problem and concludes, "Beats the hell out me."

    I had, by then at least, gotten past the idea that history was a pep rally, that if France had walls, Zimbabwe must have walls too. I also knew that Nell Painter knew a good deal more about America than me. If she thought racism would always be with us, then I had better take that notion seriously.

    That was four years ago. I knew something about redlining and the New Deal. But not really. I had not heard of Arnold Hirsch. I certainly had never heard of contract lending. I knew about the wealth gap, but not really. I knew that the ghetto was public policy, but I did not know the extent. (I still don't totally. My knowledge about what happened on the South Side, for instance, is still lacking.)

    I was grappling with the Civil War. I had some sense of Reconstruction. I had begun to grasp that slavery was not a side practice in America, but big business I still (sort of) believed in "class-based" solutions, for racist problems. I hadn't read Patrick Sharkey's research into neighborhoods. I hadn't grappled with Robert Sampson's work on Chicago and the vast gulf that divides blacks and whites. I hadn't read Walter Johnson's work on the intrastate slave trade. I hadn't thought about Rousseau's sense of slavery as useful killing. I hadn't read Isabel Wilkerson

    And I hadn't thought at all about what any of this meant for humanity. I hadn't read about Japanese soldiers practicing beheading techniques on their fallen prisoners.  I hadn't read any of Tony Judt's books. I hadn't grappled, at all, with communism. I didn't know who Timothy Snyder was. I had no sense of a world where morality depends, almost exactly, upon the size of your arsenal and your distance from the conflict. I had not grappled with a Poland pillaged by Nazis, pillaged by Russians, the Nazis turning on the Russians, and then the Russians "liberating" the Poles, and then subjugating them. Again. 

    I had not been to Paris. I had not committed to French.  I had not read James Baldwin in almost twenty years. I had forgotten some things:

    White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this -- which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never -- the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.

    People more advantageously placed than we in Harlem were, and are, will no doubt find the psychology and the view of human nature sketched above dismal and shocking in the extreme. But the Negro's experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards....

    In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians. In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. 

    They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law -- in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.

    And I'm not done. I haven't yet grappled with Israel. I haven't grappled with the experience of Indigineous Peoples since I was a teenager reading Bury My Heart At Wounded KneeMy whole project suffers from a kind of bias. I haven't thought about the black diaspora--Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Venezuela--in years. I haven't even considered India and China--a giant swath of humanity and history. I don't think a human gets to see all of this before dying. But I want to see as much of it as I can. And here is the key thing--it thrills me to see it. I love seeing it. I love knowing. The knowing is its own reward. The ability to frame the question is it's own gift--even if you can't quite name the answer.

    I think now, four years after watching that video, and having read A History of White People, that I am a writer. And that is not a hustle. And this is not my "in" to get on Meet The Press, to become an activist, to get my life-coach game on. I don't need anymore platforms. I am here to see things as clearly as I can, and then name them. Sometimes what I see is gorgeous. And then sometimes what I see is ugly. And sometimes my sight fails me. But what I write can never be dictated by anyone's need to feel warm and fuzzy inside:

    The TNC of 2010 who wrote that great piece seemed like the kind of guy his father was. Tough. Strict with his kids. And all because he knew the world out there really is wicked and unfair, but that ultimately you can make it if you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Anyone can rise above it and find their way to a decent life. I’m now left wondering if that TNC still exists.  Does he tell his son to just quit or move to some other country because there is no hope for the U.S.?

    In short, TNC is angry, and that anger is clouding his vision.

    I pray my friend circles back to hope soon.


    I think it's hard for people who know you for your work, to grasp that they don't actually know you. And  it's hard for people to get that if they refer to you as an acronym, they probably have never referred to "you" at all. And none of my friends are anonymous. The work gets dark and people think I must be dark. But they don't know and they can't see what's right in front of them--I was born dark. 

    I never expected a single thing I wrote to change anything. Writing rarely does. I never expect to make any white person see anything. And if they do, I hope they go read more. But really it's beside the point.

    My aims are fairly limited: I expect to hug my kid, and tell him I love him. I expect to hug my wife, and tell her I will always support her. I expect to make my Momma proud ("Be a good race-man," she used to say.) And I expect to honor my Dad. I expect to drink some good rum. And I expect to know more tomorrow than I know today. And I expect to talk to the youth about taking control of their own education. And I expect to be a good writer. 

    And that really is it. It's all I can ask. It's all I can control. Isn't this old?

  • Talk To Me Like I Am Stupid: Communist Deviations

    For those following along, I'm about two thirds of the way into Anne Applebaum's The Iron Curtain. I'd like to submit myself before the the tender mercies of the Horde and ask for some help. Specifically--how do we define a "right deviationist" and a "left deviationist" in communism? As I recall this has something to do with the decision to pursue "communism at home" or push for a world revolution, but I'm not sure which. More I'm not sure how each can be married to either end of an ideology.  Perhaps more confusing, much like the term "kulak," (or even "Jew") at some point these labels lose their meaning and just become slurs to hurl at enemies. Still, I'd like to be able to at least follow the logic. 

    Help me mighty Horde. You're my only hope.

    As with all of these threads, one could easily google this. But the knowledge that comes from an active back and forth will always be superior. In that vein, please don't do a quick google or wikipedia so that you can yell "First!" If you don't know, just wait. Someone who does will post soon enough.


  • Other People's Pathologies

    Black culture and the culture of poverty are not the same thing.

    Over the past week or so, Jonathan Chait and I have enjoyed an ongoing debate over the rhetoric the president employs when addressing African Americans. Here is my initial installment, Chait's initial rebuttal, my subsequent reply, and Chait's latest riposte. Initially Chait argued that President Obama's habit of speaking about culture before black audiences was laudable because it would "urge positive habits and behavior" that are presumably found especially wanting in the black community.

    Chait argued that this lack of sufficient "positive habits and behaviors" stemmed from cultural echoes of past harms, which now exist "independent" of white supremacy. Chait now concedes that this assertion is unsupportable and attempts to recast his original argument:

    I attributed the enduring culture of poverty to the residue of slavery, terrorism, segregation, and continuing discrimination.

    Not quite (my emphasis):

    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.

    The phrase "culture of poverty" doesn't actually appear in Chait's original argument. Nor should it—the history he cites was experienced by all variety of African Americans, poor or not. Moreover, the majority of poor people in America have neither the experience of segregation nor slavery in their background. Chait is conflating two different things: black culture—which was shaped by, and requires, all the forces he named; and "a culture of poverty," which requires none of them.

    That conflation undergirds his latest column. Chait paraphrases my argument that "there is no such thing as a culture of poverty." His evidence of this is quoting me attacking the "the notion that black culture is part of the problem." This evidence only works if you believe "black culture" and "a culture of poverty" are somehow interchangeable.

    Making no effort to distinguish the two, Chait examines a piece I wrote in 2010 entitled "A Culture of Poverty" in which I sought to explain the difficulty of navigating culture in two different worlds—one in which "Thou shalt not be punked" was a commandment, and another where violence was best left to the authorities:

    I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture. It's also an element which—once one leaves the streets—is a great impediment. "I ain't no punk" may shield you from neighborhood violence. But it can not shield you from algebra, when your teacher tries to correct you. It can not shield you from losing hours, when your supervisor corrects your work. And it would not have shielded me from unemployment, after I cold-cocked a guy over a blog post.

    Chait calls this one of the most "memorable essays" he's ever read. This is too kind—both to my writing and to his memory. Chait reads the piece as evidence of having "grown up around cultural norms that inhibited economic success." In fact, my behavior was the result of having grown up around cultural norms that enabled my survival. I said as much in the original piece:

    The problem is that rarely do such critiques ask why anyone would embrace such values. Moreover, they tend to assume that there's something uniquely "black" about those values, and their the embrace. If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield.

    I repeated the same thing two years later:

    Using the wrong tool for the job is a problem that extends beyond the dining room. The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll, and these are not the same as the set of practices required to write the great American novel. The way to guide him through this transition is not to insult his native language.

    And then again last May:

    For black men like us, the feeling of having something to lose, beyond honor and face, is foreign. We grew up in communities—New York, Baltimore, Chicago—where the Code of the Streets was the first code we learned. Respect and reputation are everything there. These values are often denigrated by people who have never been punched in the face. But when you live around violence there is no opting out. A reputation for meeting violence with violence is a shield. That protection increases when you are part of a crew with that same mind-set. This is obviously not a public health solution, but within its context, the Code is logical. Outside of its context, the Code is ridiculous.

    The point has obviously eluded Chait. Instead of considering that I may well have been responding to my actual lived circumstances, Chait chooses to assume that I was responding to some inscrutable call of the wild:

    When the imprint of this culture was nearly strong enough to derail the career of a writer as brilliant as Coates, we are talking about a powerful force, indeed.

    What's missed here is that the very culture Chait derides might well be the reason why I am sitting here debating him in the first place. That culture contained a variety of values and practices. "I ain't no punk" was one of them. "Know your history" was another. "Words are beautiful" was another still. The key is cultural dexterity—understanding when to emphasize which values, and when to employ which practices.

    Chait endorses a blunter approach:

    The circa-2008 Ta-Nehisi Coates was neither irresponsible nor immoral. Rather, he had grown up around cultural norms that inhibited economic success. People are the products of their environment. Environments are amenable to public policy. Some of the most successful anti-poverty initiatives, like the Harlem Children’s Zone or the KIPP schools, are designed around the premise that children raised in concentrated poverty need to be taught middle class norms.

    No, they need to be taught that all norms are not transferable into all worlds. In my case, physical assertiveness might save you on the street but not beyond it. At the same time, other values are transferrable and highly useful. The "cultural norms" of my community also asserted that much of what my country believes about itself is a lie. In the spirit of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Malcolm X, it was my responsibility to live, prosper, and attack the lie. Those values saved me on the street, and they sustain me in this present moment.

    People who take a strict binary view of culture ("culture of privilege = awesome; culture of poverty = fail") are afflicted by the provincialism of privilege and thus vastly underestimate the dynamism of the greater world. They extoll "middle-class values" to the ignorance and exclusion of all others. To understand, you must imagine what it means to confront algebra in the morning and "Shorty, can I see your bike?" in the afternoon. It's very nice to talk about "middle-class values" when that describes your small, limited world. But when your grandmother lives in one hood and your coworkers live another, you generally need something more than "middle-class values." You need to be bilingual.

    In 2008, I was living in central Harlem, an area of New York whose demographics closely mirrored the demographics of my youth. The practices I brought to bear in that tent were not artifacts. I was not under a spell of pathology. I was employing the tools I used to navigate the everyday world I lived. It just so happened that the world in which I worked was different. As I said in that original piece, "There is nothing particularly black about this." I strongly suspect that white people who've grown up around entrenched poverty and violence will find that there are certain practices that safeguard them at home but not so much as they journey out. This point is erased if you believe that "black culture" is simply another way of saying "culture of poverty."

    This elision is not particular to Chait. In the 1960s, when 20 percent of black children were found to be born out of wedlock, progressives went to war over the "tangle of pathologies" choking black America. Today, 30 percent of white children are being born out of wedlock. The reaction to this shift has been considerably more muted. This makes sense if you believe that pathology is something reserved for black people. When The New Republic wanted to dramatize the evils of AFDC, there was really no doubt about whose portrait they'd pick.

    Accepting the premise that "black culture" and "a culture of poverty" are interchangeable also has the benefit of making the president's rhetoric much more understandable. One begins to get why the president would address a group of graduates from an elite black college on the tendency of young men in the black community to make "bad choices." Or why the president goes before black audiences and laments the fact that the proportion of single-parent households has doubled, and carry no such message to white audiences—despite the fact that single parenthood is growing fastest among whites. And you can understand how an initiative that began with the killing of a black boy who was not poor, and who had a loving father, becomes fuel for the assertion that "nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father." In his best work, Chait mercilessly dissects this kind of intellectual slipperiness. Now we find him applauding it and reifying it.

    "Culture is hard, though not impossible, to quantify," writes Chait. "Which does not mean it doesn’t exist." Indeed. I have done my best to identify specific cultural practices and outline how they work in different worlds. Much of that evidence is built on memoir, and thus necessarily subject to an uncomfortable vagueness.

    But quantifying the breadth and effect of white supremacy suffers no such drawbacks. Some of our most celebrated scholarship—Battle Cry of Freedom, Reconstruction, The Making of the Second Ghetto, The Warmth of Other Suns, At the Hands of Persons Unknown, Family Properties, Confederate Reckoning, Black Wealth/White Wealth, American Apartheid, Crabgrass Frontier, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, When and Where I Enter, When Affirmative Action Was White—is directed toward, with great specificity, outlining the reach and effects of white supremacy.

    It is not wholly surprising that Barack Obama tends not to focus on this literature, whatever its merits. I do not expect the president of the United States to make a habit of speaking unvarnished and uncomfortable truths. (Though he is often brilliant when he does.) Of course removing white supremacy from the equation puts Barack Obama in the odd position of focusing on that which is hardest to evidence, while slighting that which is clearly known.

    Jonathan Chait is not a politician. He needs neither to assemble a 60-vote majority nor worry about his words affecting the midterms. I'm happy that Chait decided to engage me here on a subject that he, himself, confesses is hard to quantify. I wish I'd had his input over the past few months when I was poring over redlining maps and grappling with the racism implicit in the New Deal. I wish I'd had his input when I was attempting to understand what it meant that in 1860 this country's most valuable asset was enslaved human beings. I think had we engaged each other then, he might well not have written something like this:

    It is hard to explain how the United States has progressed from chattel slavery to emancipation to the end of lynching to the end of legal segregation to electing an African-American president if America has “rarely” been the ally of African-Americans and “often” its nemesis. It is one thing to notice the persistence of racism, quite another to interpret the history of black America as mainly one of continuity rather than mainly one of progress.

    This certainly is a specimen of progress—much like the ill-tempered man might "progress" from shooting at his neighbors to clubbing them and then finally settle on simply robbing them. His victims, bloodied, beaten, and pilfered, might view his "progress" differently. Effectively Chait's rendition of history amounts to, "How can you say I have a history of violence given that I've repeatedly stopped pummeling you?"

    Chait's jaunty and uplifting narrative flattens out the chaos of history under the cheerful rubric of American progress. The actual events are more complicated. It's true, for instance, that slavery was legal in the United States in 1860 and five years later it was not. That is because a clique of slaveholders greatly overestimated its own power and decided to go to war with its country. Had the Union soundly and quickly defeated the Confederacy, it's very likely that slavery would have remained. Instead the war dragged on, and the Union was forced to employ blacks in its ranks. The end result—total emancipation—was more a matter of military necessity than moral progress.

    Our greatest president, assessing the contribution of black soldiers in 1864, understood this:

    We can not spare the hundred and forty or fifty thousand now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers. This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam-power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union. Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.

    The United States of America did not save black people; black people saved the United States of America. With that task complete, our "ally" proceeded to repay its debt to its black citizens by pretending they did not exist. In 1875, Mississippi's provisional governor, Adelbert Ames, watched as the majority-black state's nascent democracy "progressed" from terrorism to anarchy and then apartheid. Taking in regular reports of blacks being murdered, whipped, and intimidated by the Ku Klux Klan, Ames wrote the administration of President Ulysses Grant begging for aid. The Grant Administration declined:

    The whole public are tired of these autumnal outbreaks in the South, and the great majority are ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the government.

    A horrified and exasperated Ames told his wife that blacks in Mississippi

    ... are to be returned to a condition of serfdom—an era of second slavery .... The nation should have acted but it was “tired of the annual autumnal outbreaks in the South” .... The political death of the negro will forever release the nation from the weariness from such “political outbreaks.” You may think I exaggerate. Time will show you how accurate my statements are.

    Ames was totally accurate. For the next century, the United States legitimized the overthrow of legal governments, the reduction of black people to forced laborers, and the complete alienation—at gunpoint—of black people in the South from the sphere of politics.

    Chait's citation of the end of lynching as evidence of America serving as an "ally" is especially bizarre. The United States never passed anti-lynching legislation, a disgrace so great that it compelled the Senate to apologize—in 2005.

    "There may be no other injustice in American history," said Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, "for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility." Even then, a half century after Emmett Till's murder, the sitting senators from Mississippi—the state with the most lynchings—declined to endorse the apology.

    "You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches," said Malcolm X, "and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress."

    The notion that black America's long bloody journey was accomplished through frequent alliance with the United States is an assailant's-eye view of history. It takes no note of the fact that in 1860, most of this country's exports were derived from the forced labor of the people it was "allied" with. It takes no note of this country electing senators who, on the Senate floor, openly advocated domestic terrorism. It takes no note of what it means for a country to tolerate the majority of the people living in a state like Mississippi being denied the right to vote. It takes no note of what it means to exclude black people from the housing programs, from the GI Bills, that built the American middle class. Effectively it takes no serious note of African-American history, and thus no serious note of American history.

    You see this in Chait's belief that he lives in a country "whose soaring ideals sat uncomfortably aside an often cruel reality." No. Those soaring ideals don't sit uncomfortably aside the reality but comfortably on top of it. The "cruel reality" made the "soaring ideals" possible.

    From Daniel Walker Howe's Pulitzer Prize-winning What God Hath Wrought:

    By giving the United States its leading export staple, the workers in the cotton fields enabled the country not only to buy manufactured goods from Europe but also to pay interest on its foreign debt and continue to import more capital to invest in transportation and industry. Much of Atlantic civilization in the nineteenth century was built on the back of the enslaved field hand.

    From Edmund Morgan's foundational American Slavery, American Freedom:

    In the republican way of thinking as Americans inherited it from England, slavery occupied a critical, if ambiguous, position: it was the primary evil that men sought to avoid for society as a whole by curbing monarchs and establishing republics. But it was also the solution to one of society’s most serious problems, the problem of the poor. Virginians could outdo English republicans as well as New England ones, partly because they had solved the problem: they had achieved a society in which most of the poor were enslaved.

    White supremacy does not contradict American democracy—it birthed it, nurtured it, and financed it. That is our heritage. It was reinforced during 250 years of bondage. It was further reinforced during another century of Jim Crow. It was reinforced again when progressives erected an entire welfare state on the basis of black exclusion. It was reinforced again when the intellectual progeny of the same people who excluded black women from welfare turned around and inveighed against it through caricaturization of black women.

    Jonathan Chait is arguably the sharpest political writer of his generation. If even he subscribes to a sophomoric feel-good rendering of his country's past, what does that say about the broader American imagination?

    And none of this is even new:

    The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that–Americans—white Americans—would read, for their own sakes, this record and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives. The fact that they have not yet been able to do this—to face their history to change their lives—hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world.

    James Baldwin was not being cute here. If you can not bring yourself to grapple with that which literally built your capitol, then you are not truly grappling with your country. And if you are not truly grappling with your country, then your beliefs in its role in the greater world (exporter of democracy, for instance) are built on sand. Confronting the black experience means confronting the limits of America, and perhaps, humanity itself. That is the confrontation that graduates us out of the ranks of national cheerleading and into the school of hard students.

    Chait thinks this view is "fatalistic." I think God is fatalistic. In the end, we all die. As do most societies. As do most states. As do most planets. If America is fatally flawed, if white supremacy does truly dog us until we are no more, all that means is that we were unexceptional, that we were not favored by God, that we were flawed—as are all things conceived by mortal man.

    I find great peace in that. And I find great meaning in this struggle that was gifted to me by my people, that was gifted to me by culture.

  • The Meaning of 'Totalitarian'

    Anne Applebaum talks to us like we're stupid. And it's awesome.

    "Il Duce" Benito Mussolini (Wikimedia Commons)

    Lest you think The Blue Period has abated, know that I am taking it slowly with Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing Of Eastern Europe. Ostensibly a history of Eastern Europe under Soviet rule, I regard Iron Curtain as something more granular and grand—an epic essay on the actual meaning of totalitarianism. Writers are always bemoaning the degradation of namesracist, Nazi, misogynist, homophobe etc. The common complaint is that such labels are so often employed that they have lost meaning, and thus should be restricted in their use.

    I am skeptical of this claim because it is so often employed by people who do not live on the business-end of ideology and tend to overstate the progressive passage of man. (You can read more on this here and here.) It's worth remembering Andrew Breitbart claiming that accusing someone of racism was "the worst thing you can do in this country" and then falsely laying that same accusation at the doorstep of Shirley Sherrod.

    Words exist within the realm of politics. In politics, words are sometimes perverted by the speaker. It's worth considering which words come under attack for perversion ("racist," "homophobe," "bigot") and which do not ("democratic," "bipartisan," "anti-American"). I am always skeptical of people who seek to curtail their use, instead of interrogating their specific usage. Some people really are racists, and other people really are misogynists, and others still actually are homophobes. Instead of prohibiting words, I'd rather better understand their meaning.

    Applebaum does this through repeated, grinding example. In the first chapter, she goes through the various debates around the word "totalitarian" and its many, many misapplications. I didn't follow it all entirely—I'm still not clear why a democratically elected politician can't be described as having "totalitarian instincts," for instance. But I found the classic definition helpful:

    Although it has been most often used to describe Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, the word “totalitarian”—totalitarismo—was first used in the context of Italian fascism. Invented by one of his critics, the term was adopted with enthusiasm by Benito Mussolini, and in one of his speeches he offered what is still the best definition of the term: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

    Strictly defined, a totalitarian regime is one that bans all institutions apart from those it has officially approved. A totalitarian regime thus has one political party, one educational system, one artistic creed, one centrally planned economy, one unified media, and one moral code. In a totalitarian state there are no independent schools, no private businesses, no grassroots organizations, and no critical thought. Mussolini and his favorite philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, once wrote of a “conception of the State” that is “all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value.

    What follows this is a long, painful recitation of how the post-war Soviet Union basically attempted to dominate every aspect of life in its imperial holdings. Nothing escapes its purview. Boy scouts are disbanded and reconstituted. Tobacco-grower associations are outlawed. Radio is turned for the use of propaganda. Democracy is embraceduntil it fails to produce an "enlightened" class of workers. Then democracy is subverted. Applebaum outlines the tools of subversion in great detail. (Pretending to be a member of some other left-wing group was a particularly ingenious tactic.)

    All of the machinations are undergirded by a kind of determinism which Timothy Snyder outlined in Bloodlands:

    Workers represented the forward flow of history; the disciplined communist party represented the workers; the central committee represented the party; the politburo, a group of a few men, represented the central committee. Society was subordinate to the state which was controlled by party which in practice was ruled by a few people. Disputes among members of this small group were taken to represent not politics but rather history, and their outcomes were presented as its verdict.

    I actually don't understand that last sentence, and I include it hoping that someone in the Horde can assist. (By history, does Snyder mean destiny? Prophecy? Magic?) But the central ideathat the communist party, and thus the central committee, and thus the politburo was the sole representative of workershas a chilling moral closure. Who could be against the workers? And if the party is the true representative of the workers, why do we need other parties? 

    The best part of absorbing all this is the clarity you get over terms. In America, for instance, we think of slavery as forcing other people to work. In the meanest sense, this is correct. But we don't think of it as the perpetual destruction of family, the legitimization of rape, the legalization of torture. And we don't think of this period of enslavement as being longer than our period of freedom, and longer than the existence of the country itself. You need to slow it down to really get this. You need to have the history address you as though you are stupid.

  • Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind

    How Jonathan Chait and other Obama-era liberals misunderstand the role of white supremacy in America's history and present

    Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

    Among opinion writers, Jonathan Chait is outranked in my esteem only by Hendrik Hertzberg. This lovely takedown of Robert Johnson is a classic of the genre, one I studied incessantly when I was sharpening my own sword. The sharpening never ends. With that in mind, it is a pleasure to engage Chait in the discussion over President Obama, racism, culture, and personal responsibility. It's good to debate a writer of such clarity—even when that clarity has failed him.

    On y va.

    Chait argues that I've conflated Paul Ryan's view of black poverty with Barack Obama's. He is correct. I should have spent more time disentangling these two notions, and illuminating their common roots—the notion that black culture is part of the problem. I have tried to do this disentangling in the past. I am sorry I did not do it in this instance and will attempt to do so now.

    Arguing that poor black people are not "holding up their end of the bargain," or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America. There is a conservative and a liberal rendition of this tradition. The conservative version eliminates white supremacy as a factor and leaves the question of the culture's origin ominously unanswered. This version can never be regarded seriously. Life is short. Black life is shorter.

    On y va.

    The liberal version of the cultural argument points to "a tangle of pathologies" haunting black America born of oppression. This argument—which Barack Obama embraces—is more sincere, honest, and seductive. Chait helpfully summarizes:

    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.

    The "structural conditions" Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase "white supremacy." I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be "independent" of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era. 

    We certainly do not find such a period during the Roosevelt-Truman era, when this country erected a racist social safety net, leaving the NAACP to quip that the New Deal was "like a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through." Nor do we find it during the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when African-Americans—as a matter of federal policy—were largely excluded from the legitimate housing market. Nor during the 1980s when we began the erection of a prison-industrial complex so vast that black males now comprise 8 percent of the world's entire incarcerated population.

    And we do not find an era free of white supremacy in our times either, when the rising number of arrests for marijuana are mostly borne by African-Americans; when segregation drives a foreclosure crisis that helped expand the wealth gap; when big banks busy themselves baiting black people with "wealth-building seminars" and instead offering "ghetto loans" for "mud people"; when studies find that black low-wage applicants with no criminal record "fared no better than a white applicant just released from prison"; when, even after controlling for neighborhoods and crime rates, my son finds himself more likely to be stopped and frisked. Chait's theory of independent black cultural pathologies sounds reasonable. But it can't actually be demonstrated in the American record, and thus has no applicability.

    What about the idea that white supremacy necessarily "bred a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success"? Chait believes that it's "bizarre" to think otherwise. I think it's bizarre that he doesn't bother to see if his argument is actually true. Oppression might well produce a culture of failure. It might also produce a warrior spirit and a deep commitment to attaining the very things which had been so often withheld from you. There is no need for theorizing. The answers are knowable.

    There certainly is no era more oppressive for black people than their 250 years of enslavement in this country. Slavery encompassed not just forced labor, but a ban on black literacy, the vending of black children, the regular rape of black women, and the lack of legal standing for black marriage. Like Chait, 19th-century Northern white reformers coming South after the Civil War expected to find "a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success."

    In his masterful history, Reconstruction, the historian Eric Foner recounts the experience of the progressives who came to the South as teachers in black schools. The reformers "had little previous contact with blacks" and their views were largely cribbed from Uncle Tom's Cabin. They thus believed blacks to be culturally degraded and lacking in family instincts, prone to lie and steal, and generally opposed to self-reliance: 

    Few Northerners involved in black education could rise above the conviction that slavery had produced a "degraded" people, in dire need of instruction in frugality, temperance, honesty, and the dignity of labor ... In classrooms, alphabet drills and multiplication tables alternated with exhortations to piety, cleanliness, and punctuality.

    In short, white progressives coming South expected to find a black community suffering the effects of not just oppression but its "cultural residue." 

    Here is what they actually found:

    During the Civil War, John Eaton, who, like many whites, believed that slavery had destroyed the sense of family obligation, was astonished by the eagerness with which former slaves in contraband camps legalized their marriage bonds. The same pattern was repeated when the Freedmen's Bureau and state governments made it possible to register and solemnize slave unions. Many families, in addition, adopted the children of deceased relatives and friends, rather than see them apprenticed to white masters or placed in Freedmen's Bureau orphanages. 

    By 1870, a large majority of blacks lived in two-parent family households, a fact that can be gleaned from the manuscript census returns but also "quite incidentally" from the Congressional Ku Klux Klan hearings, which recorded countless instances of victims assaulted in their homes, "the husband and wife in bed, and … their little children beside them."

    The point here is rich and repeated in American history—it was not "cultural residue" that threatened black marriages. It was white terrorism, white rapacity, and white violence. And the commitment among freedpeople to marriage mirrored a larger commitment to the reconstitution of family, itself necessary because of systemic white violence.

    "In their eyes," wrote an official from the Freedmen's Bureau, in 1865. "The work of emancipation was incomplete until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited."

    White people at the time noted a sudden need in black people to travel far and wide. "The Negroes," reports one observer, "are literally crazy about traveling." Why were the Negroes "literally crazy about traveling?" Part of it was the sheer joy of mobility granted by emancipation. But there was something more: "Of all the motivations for black mobility," writes Foner, "none was more poignant than the effort to reunite families separated during slavery."

    This effort continued as late the onset of the 20th century, when you could still find newspapers running ads like this:

    During the year 1849, Thomas Sample carried away from this city, as his slaves, our daughter, Polly, and son …. We will give $100 each for them to any person who will assist them … to get to Nashville, or get word to us of their whereabouts.

    Nor had the centuries-long effort to destroy black curiosity and thirst for education yielded much effect:

    Perhaps the most striking illustration of the freedmen's quest for self-improvement was their seemingly unquenchable thirst for education .... The desire for learning led parents to migrate to towns and cities in search of education for their children, and plantation workers to make the establishment of a school-house "an absolute condition" of signing labor contracts ...

    Contemporaries could not but note the contrast between white families seemingly indifferent to education and blacks who "toil and strive, labour and endure in order that their children 'may have a schooling'." As one Northern educator remarked: "Is it not significant that after the lapse of one hundred and forty-four years since the settlement [of Beaufort, North Carolina], the Freedmen are building the first public school-house ever erected here."

    "All in all," Foner concludes, "the months following the end of the Civil War were a period of remarkable accomplishment for Southern blacks." This is not especially remarkable, if you consider the time. Education, for instance, was not merely a status marker. Literacy was protection against having your land stolen or being otherwise cheated. Perhaps more importantly, it gave access to the Bible. The cultural fruits of oppression are rarely predictable merely through theorycraft. Who would predicted that oppression would make black people hungrier for education than their white peers? Who could predict the blues? 

    And culture is not exclusive. African-American are Americans, and have been Americans longer than virtually any other group of white Americans. There is no reason to suppose that enslavement cut African-Americans off from a broader cultural values. More likely African-Americans contributed to the creation and maintenance of those values.

    The African-Americans who endured enslavement were subject to two and half centuries of degradation and humiliation. Slavery lasted twice as long as Jim Crow and was more repressive. If you were going to see evidence of a "cultural residue" which impeded success you would see it there. Instead you find black people desperate to reconstitute their families, desperate to marry, and desperate to be educated. Progressives who advocate the 19th-century line must specifically name the "cultural residue" that afflicts black people, and then offer evidence of it. Favoring abstract thought experiments over research will not cut it.

    Nor will pretending that old debates are somehow new. For some reason there is an entrenched belief among many liberals and conservatives that discussions of American racism should begin somewhere between the Moynihan Report and the Detroit riots. Thus Chait dates our dispute to the fights in the '70s between liberals. In fact, we are carrying on an argument that is at least a century older.

    The passage of time is important because it allows us to assess how those arguments have faired. I contend that my arguments have been borne out, and the arguments of progressives like Chait and the president of the United States have not. Either Booker T. Washington was correct when he urged black people to forgo politics in favor eliminating "the criminal and loafing element of our people" or he wasn't. Either W.E.B. Du Bois was correct when he claimed that correcting "the immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes" should be the "first and primary" goal or he was not. The track record of progressive moral reform in the black community is knowable.

    And it's not just knowable from Eric Foner. It can be gleaned from reading the entire Moynihan Report—not just the "tangle of pathologies" section—and then comparing it with Herb Gutman's The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. It can be gleaned from Isabel Wilkerson's history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns. One of the most important threads in this book is Wilkerson dismantling of the liberal theory of cultural degradation.

    I want to conclude by examining one important element of Chait's argument—the role of the president of the United States who also happens to be a black man:

    If I'm watching a basketball game in which the officials are systematically favoring one team over another (let's call them Team A and Team Duke) as an analyst, the officiating bias may be my central concern. But if I'm coaching Team A, I'd tell my players to ignore the biased officiating. Indeed, I'd be concerned the bias would either discourage them or make them lash out, and would urge them to overcome it. That's not the same as denying bias. It's a sensible practice of encouraging people to concentrate on the things they can control.

    Obama's habit of speaking about this issue primarily to black audiences is Obama seizing upon his role as the most famous and admired African-American in the world to urge positive habits and behavior.

    Chait's metaphor is incorrect. Barack Obama isn't the coach of "Team Negro," he is the commissioner of the league. Team Negro is very proud that someone who served on our staff has risen (for the first time in history!) to be commissioner. And Team Negro, which since the dawn of the league has endured biased officiating and whose every game is away, hopes that the commissioner's tenure among them has given him insight into the league's problems. But Team Negro is not—and should not be—confused about the commissioner's primary role.

    "I'm not the president of black America," Barack Obama has said. "I'm the president of the United States of America."


    And the president of the United States is not just an enactor of policy for today, he is the titular representative of his country's heritage and legacy. In regards to black people, America's heritage is kleptocracy—the stealing and selling of other people's children, the robbery of the fruits of black labor, the pillaging of black property, the taxing of black citizens for schools they can not attend, for pools in which they can not swim, for libraries that bar them, for universities that exclude them, for police who do not protect them, for the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators. 

    The bearer of this unfortunate heritage feebly urging "positive habits and behavior" while his country imprisons some ungodly number of black men may well be greeted with applause in some quarters. It must never be so among those of us whose love of James Baldwin is true, whose love of Ida B. Wells is true, whose love of Harriet Tubman and our ancestors who fought for the right of family is true. In that fight America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis

    Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies—though not race-specific policies—that address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust. 

    There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are. 

  • The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males

    Paul Ryan's explanation for urban poverty isn't much different from Barack Obama's. Why did it make liberals so angry?

    Lucas Jackson/Reuters

    On Sunday, I took my son to see two movies at a French film festival that was in town. The local train was out. We walked over to Amsterdam to flag down a cab. The cab rolled right past us and picked up two young-ish white women. It's sort of amazing how often that happens. It's sort of amazing how often you think you are going to be permitted to act as Americans do and instead receive the reminder—"Oh that's right, we are just some niggers. I almost forgot." 

    Getting angry at the individual cabbie is like getting angry at the wind or raging against the rain. In America, the notion that black people are lacking in virtue is ambient. We see this in our vocabulary of politics and racism, which has no room for the decline in the out-of-wedlock birthrate and invokes Chicago with no regard for Chicago at all, but to deflect all eyes from the body of Trayvon Martin. 

    But I was angry, and very much wanted to approach the cabbie, idling there at a red light, in ill disposition. I was also with my son. And more, I am a 6-foot-4 black dude who tries to avoid the police. I think, 15 years ago, with nothing to lose, I would have made a different decision, if only because the culture of my young years made a virtue of meeting disrespect with aggression. This culture was not wrong—the price of ignoring disrespect, in the old town, was more disrespect. The culture was a collection of the best practices for making our socially engineered inner cities habitable. I now live in a different environment. I now have different practices. 

    Last week, Paul Ryan went on the radio to address the lack of virtue prevalent among men who grew up like me, my father, my brothers, my best friends, and a large number of my people:

    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.

    A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I'm not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are "not holding up their end of the deal" as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship:

    If Cousin Pookie would vote, if Uncle Jethro would get off the couch and stop watching SportsCenter and go register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics.

    Cousin Pookie and Uncle Jethro voted at higher rates than any other ethnic group in the country. They voted for Barack Obama. Our politics have not changed. Neither has Barack Obama's rhetoric. Facts can only get in the way of a good story. It was sort of stunning to see the president give a speech on the fate of young black boys and not mention the word racism once. It was sort of stunning to see the president salute the father of Trayvon Martin and the father of Jordan Davis and then claim, "Nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life."

    From what I can tell, the major substantive difference between Ryan and Obama is that Obama's actual policy agenda regarding black America is serious, and Ryan's isn't. But Ryan's point—that the a pathological culture has taken root among an alarming portion of black people—is basically accepted by many progressives today. And it's been accepted for a long time. 

    Peddlers of black pathology tend to date the decline of African-American virtue to the 1960s. But pathology arguments are much older. Between 1900 and 1930, blacks were three times as likely as whites to be killed. Their killers tended to be black—black were 80 percent of Mississippi's murderers and 60 percent of its victims. According to historian David Oshinsky, the actual murder rate among African-Americans was likely higher. "We had the usual number of [Negro] killings during the week just closed," the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported in 1904. "Aside from the dozen or so reported in the press, several homicides occurred which the county correspondents did not deem sufficient for the dispatches."

    Oshinsky reports that "many of the murders involved liquor, gambling and personal disputes." Did the ghastly amount of violence afflicting black Mississippians spring from poor blacks "not holding up their end of the bargain?" Or was it the the fact that black Mississippians were living in a kleptocracy that had no regard for their lives? As Khalil Muhammad shows in his book The Condemnation of Blackness, progressives and conservatives alike often argued for the former.

    Certainly there are cultural differences as you scale the income ladder. Living in abundance, not fearing for your children's safety, and having decent food around will have its effect. But is the culture of West Baltimore actually less virtuous than the culture of Wall Street? I've seen no such evidence. Yet that is the implicit message accepted by Paul Ryan, and the message is bipartisan. 

    That is because 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

    I think of that cab driver passing me by on Amsterdam. We are not on the block anymore. We are in America, where our absence of virtue is presumed, and we must eat disrespect in sight of our sons. And who can be mad in America? Racism is just the wind, here. Racism is but the rain.

  • As Though Iraq Never Happened

    The short memory of Condoleezza Rice


    I don't really understand how any editorial by Condoleezza Rice on conflict in Ukraine can fail to directly address the failures of the Iraq War. But here is Rice arguing for American godhead:

    The notion that the United States could step back, lower its voice about democracy and human rights and let others lead assumed that the space we abandoned would be filled by democratic allies, friendly states and the amorphous “norms of the international community.” Instead, we have seen the vacuum being filled by extremists such as al-Qaeda reborn in Iraq and Syria; by dictators like Bashar al-Assad, who, with the support of Iran and Russia, murders his own people; by nationalist rhetoric and actions by Beijing that have prompted nationalist responses from our ally Japan; and by the likes of Vladimir Putin, who understands that hard power still matters.

    These global developments have not happened in response to a muscular U.S. foreign policy: Countries are not trying to “balance” American power. They have come due to signals that we are exhausted and disinterested. The events in Ukraine should be a wake-up call to those on both sides of the aisle who believe that the United States should eschew the responsibilities of leadership. If it is not heeded, dictators and extremists across the globe will be emboldened. And we will pay a price as our interests and our values are trampled in their wake.

    Condoleezza Rice was an important member of an administration that launched a war on false pretense and willingly embraced torture. This was done in the name of the American people. It takes a particular historical blindness to claim that such actions should have no effect on all our crowing over "democracy and human rights." 

    War-mongering is self-justifying. If you bungle a war in Iraq, it does not mean you need to sit back and reflect on the bungling. It means you should make more war, lest Iraq become a base for your enemies. If Vladimir Putin violates Ukrainian sovereignty, it is evidence for a more muscular approach. If he doesn't, than it is evidence that he fears American power. If there are no terrorist attacks on American soil, then drones must be right and our security state must be effective. If there are attacks, then our security state must increase its surveillance, and more bombs should be dropped. Violence begets violence. Peace begets violence. The circle continues.

    Though maybe not. Conor Friedersdorf, in his rebuttal to David Brookspoints out that the appeal of war-mongering is diminishing. In which case the people perceive something that evades some of their leaders—even America is not God. Or perhaps more simply, we have problems of our own. This sense is likely as much a product of virtue as cynicism. This is the last, most unfortunate, legacy of the Iraq War. It was (and is) fuel for such cynicism. For those people actually concerned about democracy, human rights, and global peace, the Iraq War was a disaster. To say nothing of the innocent dead.

  • Politics and the African-American Human Language

    For the NFL to ban the word "nigger" would be racist.

    Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito, who called his teammate Jonathan Martin a "half-nigger." (AP)

    The effort to ban the word "nigger" from the NFL is not just, as Richard Sherman smartly points out, borderline racist but actually racist. Any effort to raise a standard for African-American humans that does not exist for non-African-American humans is racist.

    As I've explained before, the meaning of human language changes with context. That is why you may call your wife honey, but I probably should not. That is why Toby Keith referring to himself as "White Trash With Money" will never be the same as me accusing Toby of being "white trash with money." That is why Dan Savage proposing a column entitled "Hey Faggot!" will never be the same as me seeing Dan Savage on the street and yelling "Hey Faggot!" This is how humans use language, and it is wholly consistent with how black humans use language. The effort to punish this use, like all respectability politics, is an effort to punish black humanity, is racism. 

    It does not matter that black people of a certain persuasion are making this charge. Black people of a certain persuasion also supported the kind of laws that now find one third of all black men under state supervision. This is not an appeal to a crowd, it is an appeal to the basic rules of language, without which we would all be soon reduced to babble.  When people claim that the word "nigger" must necessarily mean the same thing, at all times, spoken by all people, one wonders whether they understand how the very words coming out of their mouth actually work.

    The great Harry Carson illustrates the point here:

    I find it very disheartening that in our society today we're having a debate about the n-words being used as a term of endearment. If that's a term of endearment, go up to your grandfather, or an elderly black person, and use it on them. See how they react. For those who use it, I say they have no sense of history.

    This is deep ignorance masquerading as expertise. As anyone who's spent time with African-American history, and specifically with the literature, testimonials, and music of enslaved black people, knows the use of "nigger" by black people to describe themselves is ancient. And as anyone with any familiarity with human beings knows, there are great many things you would not say to your grandfather that you would say to your friends, your wife, or your brother. And as anyone familiar with black people knows, many of our grandfathers certainly used "nigger" themselves. 

    In a particularly sad portion of the Wells Report, Jonathan Martin laments being derided as a nigger to his face by Richie Incognito. Martin's father's response is, "They think nigger is okay because black people use it." I read these words as the testimonial of someone coping with the trauma of rape. I am not sure that this is far off. Black America was birthed in a spectacular act of rape—literal and symbolic and our oppression has often been born as such. They enslave us because we are heathen. They spit on us because our hair is too nappy. They beat us because we are too dark. They hate us because we are too loud. They oppress us because we are too rude. They kill us because we are too human. 

    Baldwin knew:

     It is difficult to be born in a place where you are despised and also promised that with endeavor – with this, with that, you know – you can accomplish the impossible. You’re trying to deal with the man, the woman, the child – the child of whichever sex – and he or she and your man or your woman has got to deal with the 24-hour-a-day facts of life in this country. We’re not going to fly off someplace else, you know, we’d better get through whatever that day is and still have each other and still raise children – somehow manage all of that. And this is 24 hours of every day, and you’re surrounded by all of the paraphernalia of safety: If you can strike this bargain here. If you can make sure your armpits are odorless. Curl your hair. Be impeccable. Be all the things that the American public says you should do, right? And you do all those things – and nothing happens really. And what is much worse than that, nothing happens to your child either.

    The religion of nigger-cleansing is desperation, a mythology adopted in the shadow of seemingly unerring inequality. It awards a sense of power, a belief that the parishioner might be rendered Christ-like and impeccable.  But the actual record of nigger-cleansing is dubious. 

    Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman knew:

    am just as much opposed to Booker T. Washington as a voter as I am to the cocoanut-headed, chocolate-colored typical little coon who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship.

    Booker T. Washington could not stop the Red Summers. That is because racism neither needs, nor seeks, black people's permission. That is because the wolf does not care if the sheep is respectable. 

  • Kim Novak's Bid to Be Twice as Good

    Hollywood's respectability politics are much the same as any other kind of respectability politics.


    Here's a fairly great piece from Amanda Hess on how we judge actresses in their youth, and how we expect them to disappear when they age:

    ...81-year-old Vertigo star Kim Novak—who was roundly mocked for turning up onstage, two decades after her last movie, exhibiting extensive plastic surgery—might as well be dead. As comedian Rob Delaney cruelly joked: “Will they have time to edit Kim Novak into the In Memoriam section?” Even Matthew McConaughey’s mother, who last night aspired only to the role of proud parent, was eviscerated for rocking a keyhole-neck gown that gave the world a peek at her cleavage, which apparently only young women are allowed to possess. Twitter commentators deemed the view “leathery,” “ancient,” “inappropriate,” and “terrifying.”

    So how ought an actress age? Throughout the evening, 67-year-old Sally Field (who appeared as a presenter) and 64-year-old Meryl Streep (nominated for August: Osage County) were compared favorably to Minnelli and Novak for daring to age “gracefully” and “naturally.” But we don’t know what Streep and Field do to maintain their looks—all we know is that they have successfully navigated Hollywood’s dual requirement to look amazing post-60 while never signaling that they’ve worked at it. That means avoiding obvious plastic surgery, but it can also mean spending your life investing in the habits, trainers, diets, creams, and treatments that add up to a “natural” look in old age. (Dodging illness and disability—Novak survived breast cancer in 2010—surely doesn’t hurt.)

    I've spent the past couple of years thinking about the "twice as good" notion in the black community, and the bindings that we put on young black boys so that their country will not kill them. Of course "twice as good" ultimately means half as many arrive, and those who do receive half as much. Let us dispense with self-congratulation and great men. The question is not, "What did Jackie Robinson achieve in spite of racism?" It is, "How much more would he have achieved without it?" An ethic of "twice as good" divorced from any complaint, divorced from history is "Go for self" and can have no effect whatsoever upon a justice system, upon voter ID laws, upon asset forfeiture, upon Wells Fargo. The masses of the plundered will never be respectable to those who plunder them. The essence of plunder is disrespect. They can never respect you. They hate you, sir.

    And I think these ideas only incidentally relate to who we call "black" and who we do not. Black people are older than white supremacy. And plunder is broad.  The female body, always marked as a field for plunder, illustrates the point.  The double standard that demands that black boys play classical music and comport themselves like Barack Obama, is comparable to the double standard that asks one thing of Jack Nicholson and another of Meryl Streep. Kim Novak also got The Talk...

    When Novak entered the industry in the 1950s, studio executives made her cap her teeth, bleach her hair, shrink her body with a strict diet and exercise regime, and perpetually paint her face with the help of a personal makeup artist. I wonder where she got the idea that she mattered for her looks?

    Novak's failure to absorb and fully implement this awesome wisdom makes her a target for humiliation and ultimately, maybe not death, but banishment from the public stage. 

    We should probably stop bragging about Jackie Robinson, and remember that he died young. We should probably cite Ginger Rogers mostly as damning evidence. We comfort ourselves with individuals who get over, ignoring the broad masses who—necessarily—cannot. I think we should pause before noting that Sally Field is "aging well." Most of her fellow human females will not. That is because the very notion of "aging well" is riven with all our notions of who owns their body and who does not. 

    Of course Baldwin knew:

    The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence -- the public existence -- of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare -- at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare -- and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. [Emph. added]

    A few have always risen -- in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement.

    Forgive me if I have distracted, in any way, from Amanda Hess's piece. You start thinking and you're not sure what will come out. 


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