Hope in the Face of Mass Incarceration, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Earlier this week, John Paul Rollert wrote for us a comparison of the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Barack Obama, who have both “made race and empathy central to their writing, but their conclusions point in radically different directions.” A key passage:

When [Obama] describes the racist episodes of his youth, it is not merely that they lack the “visceral” menace of Coates’s experience—he revealingly calls them a “ledger of slights”—they seem only to scratch him, they never scar.

Obama with grandfather (AP / Obama for America)

Obama is aware of this fact, and he realizes that it distances his experience from that of the other young black men he meets on the basketball courts in Hawaii. Listening to their anger at the racism of a world organized and policed by “the white man’s rules,” he glimpses what he calls a “nightmare vision” in which the only affirmative choice a young black man could make was “withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat.”

Whatever the merits of this conclusion, it is drawn by someone who recognizes that he is free to choose a different destiny. That freedom is not a matter of educational opportunities or socioeconomic position so much as the possibilities of a peculiar psychology. Obama, whether because of the exigencies of experience or constitutional caprice, never feels hemmed in by the same sense of anger he sees in his friends. He can stand in their shoes and see the world through their eyes, but he can always step back again and gain a different perspective.

By contrast, the experience of being confined, even trapped, by fear is central to Coates’s account.

Relatedly, this detail from Obama’s bio has stuck with me over the years:

After lunch, the group took a walk, with Barry running ahead. A flock of Indonesian children began lobbing rocks in his direction. They ducked behind a wall and shouted racial epithets. He seemed unfazed, dancing around as though playing dodge ball “with unseen players,” [family friend Elizabeth] Bryant said. Ann [Obama’s mother] did not react. Assuming she must not have understood the words, Bryant offered to intervene. “No, he’s O.K.,” Ann said. “He’s used to it.”

“We were floored that she’d bring a half-black child to Indonesia, knowing the disrespect they have for blacks,” Bryant said. At the same time, she admired Ann for teaching her boy to be fearless.

Many readers are commenting on Rollert’s essay:

While I’m repelled by the voguish use of the word “privilege” in the current popular context, I find his article to be deeply provocative and intriguing. Contrasting Coates and Obama is of great value.

I’ve often wondered at the reality in which Coates existed and that has apparently caused a gifted young man to pursue an outlook that has large elements of self-destructive perspectives in it, while Obama sees the same picture, but without the self-destructive elements. The conundrum in absorbing Coates is that indeed one feels for him, and can even see why he despairs (and I might, too), but at the same time we can see clearly that he is for the most part alienating himself further, and that the main negative—that which deprives him of hope, is ironically alienation.

Jim Elliott’s view:

Obama and Coates are the yin and yang of the black male experience, and I think upbringing plays an important role. Obama had, in a sense, a materially beneficial life: He lived with a successful parent and grandparents, who were white, and so saw a different side of structural racism. Coates, with two devoted parents in the home, lived in the segregated section of Baltimore. They see the same things; just the contexts of their upbringing provided different developmental traumas, and so, different responses as adults.

Another reader responds to Jim:

Segregated? By whom? The people living there? And they do not see the same things. The President pushes solutions that might help black people solve their problems. TNC insists on focusing on the injustice of it all—which we have been hearing about for the last 60 years. It’s getting less and less relevant the more and more tolerant society gets.

Another reader says that Rollert’s essay “seems to miss the point”:

The man or woman who is the President of the United States is bound to be conservative, in that no matter what reforms s/he intends, no matter the constituency that most moves such a person, the president primarily upholds the institutions of the nation. In this president’s case, his perspective is buoyed by an idealistic view of those institutions with a rather religious view of human imperfection as an excuse for their falling short of his idealistic premise.

Coates acknowledges human imperfection and often remarks as to how similar oppressive phenomena exist throughout history in other times, climes, and nations, but he sees the imperfection as a feature, not a bug. And he is an essayist, an artist, a private citizen—not the President of the United States—and his complaint is that racism has been both culturally and institutionally embedded in our national behavior. The real, not the ideal, is his realm. It is not that he particularly despises the ideal, but rather that Coates seems to imply that the ideal has also been used to obfuscate the real in service of racial oppression. And until we acknowledge that, it will continue.

Another reader contrasts MLK and Malcolm X, historical figures that Obama and Coates align themselves with, respectively:

MLK achieved great changes with non-violence and was murdered by a white supremacist in revenge for his success. MLK is now one of the most widely respected people in this nation’s history.

Malcolm X achieved nothing except self-promotion when preaching violence. Then when he rejected violence, he was murdered by a fellow black in revenge. He’s mainly revered by people who ignore his final reformed stance and focus on him as an object of radical chic fetish, like Ché.

Why would any person with a good faith interest in progress and social harmony embrace black nationalism over non-violence?

Another reader pounces on the claim that “Malcolm X achieved nothing”:

That assertion is simply wrong and transparently biased. In fact, MLK would not have achieved what he did had not Malcolm existed:

[H]istory has freeze-framed him as the angry black separatist who saw whites as blue-eyed devils. Yet near the end of his life, Malcolm X was becoming more like King -- and King was becoming more like him.

“In the last years of their lives, they were starting to move toward one another,” says David Howard-Pitney, who recounted the Capitol Hill meeting in his book “Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.”

“While Malcolm is moderating from his earlier position, King is becoming more militant,” Pitney says.

For more discussion confronting Ta-Nehisi’s worldview, go here and here.