Black Culture and Progressivism

What started as a discussion of Paul Ryan's comments has turned into a revealing debate on the nature of liberal politics in the United States.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not just a matter of correcting misinformation about the present, Cobb contends—rhetoric like Obama’s has sinister undertones when it comes to the future, too. Cobb describes this demoralizing effect:

At the end of his press conference announcing the new initiative, Obama offered, as his parting statement, a vow that “we will beat the odds.” Coming from the most powerful black person in the history of this country, those words stung: trying to beat the odds is what you do when you’ve relinquished all hope of turning them in your favor

Coates took up Chait’s criticism himself. In his rejoinder, he steers his readers to evidence from antebellum America and the Jim Crow South to prove that “structural” injustices have not lead to any cultural weakening in black families in communities. In fact, precisely the opposite: the oppressive regimes of slavery and segregation only solidified black commitment to values of family, education, and self-improvement (values we define as fundamentally—though not always inclusively—American). His point, which he has made again emphatically, is that notions of “black culture”—and, in turn, notions of its relative strength or weakness—should not be discussed vaguely and hypothetically. They should be rooted in persuasive historical arguments like this one.

Had Coates stopped here, the debate might have ended—a compelling but brief portrait of what the historical forces in black America look like. Coates’s final paragraphs, however, propel the conversation forward with a new inflection. He writes:

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 .... 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 itself.

The emotion Coates is expressing here becomes a subject—if not the subject—of the debate that follows. It might be anger, or bleakness; respondents struggle to discern whether this was a fresh perspective taking shape or enduring opinions being expressed differently. What is clear, however, is that this exchange is no longer about what these writers (as well as all other Americans) believe we ought to think and argue about race in our country, but also, and more profoundly, how we ought to feel about it.

Andrew Sullivan describes this shift in the tenor of the debate as “TNC’s recent turn toward profound gloom.” Such pessimism, he argues, is “out of place”—and out of tune with most minorities, who Sullivan and Chait cite as being more hopeful about the future than white Americans. Sullivan has faith in precisely the kind of metamorphosis that Coates starkly denies: “the potential for America to transform itself again through the arc of history.”

In The Root, Peniel E. Joseph acknowledges that Coates’s portrait of white supremacy is an affront to the widespread American notion that getting mired in racial history simply hampers our efforts at building a better, more just future. By this logic, shying away from Coates’s vision of the country is not racist in the old-fashioned sense; it is simply race-blind in a forward-looking sense. Joseph argues, however, that this amounts to a “denial of not just our national past but also our contemporary racial fault lines.” If Coates is being bleak, he seems to suggest, it is only because there is no other emotion with which to convey how profoundly problems of racial equality still exist—and how urgently they must be fixed.

Chait’s own response to the new—or at least newly detected—emotion in Coates’s essay has a personal edge. He is jarred by what he, like Sullivan, sees as a personal “turn” in Coates. Chait argues that “grim fatalism” is not merely dispiriting; it’s also inaccurate.

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.

To Coates, this neatly packaged history lesson has the skewed flavor of retrospection. “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?’” Coates eschews this “jaunty and uplifting narrative,” dismissing it as “the cheerful rubric of American progress.” He calls this his “Blue Period,” and accepts the possibility that he has indeed embraced a kind of fatalism:

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.

Chait has leveled hopelessness as an accusation against Coates. Many readers on Andrew Sullivan’s site sounded similar notes of disapprobation: “it is up to writers to rise above our emotional outrage and to not take isolate—yes, these were isolated events—and stretch them until they cover from sea to shining sea.” And yet Coates seems to freely admit, so to speak, to this accusation. Tressie McMillan Cottom argues this criticism is part of what we might call a politics of hope—a patriotic insistence on optimism that subjugates those who have good reason to despair:

And hope is integral to the greater project of white paternalism and black intellectual products. To be recognized, rewarded, disseminated, or sustainable black intellectualism must perpetuate the fervent epistemology of American progress .…

The mere suggestion that Coates has lost his moral center — his dark hope — is offered as sufficient evidence that the larger argument isn’t worthy of engaging. That is a fight to be had by hopeful black people, as determined by the solicitors of hopelessness.

Chait and Coates continue to parse the original subject they sat down to write about, the question of whether it is fair to identify—and, in turn, vilify—a “black culture,” or even a “culture of poverty.” Indeed, in his final post, Chait regrets that the “fascinating debate about the beliefs of Obama” have turned into a “less-fascinating debate about my beliefs.” (Chait delves deeply into the former debate in his New York cover story this week—a rich analysis of the beliefs of Obama, and about Obama.)

Chait’s opinion on the matter aside, watching this unfold is anything but pedestrian for readers. While Coates and Chait have spent many essays and years testing and stretching and polishing their views about the zeitgeist of American politics, there is something fresh and raw in their back and forth about the full scope of American progress through history.

Coates aligns his own vision with Malcolm X’s assessment : “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches, and say you’re making progress.” This view offends both Chait’s optimism and pragmatism. It “defines out of existence the very possibility of steady progress.” He is looking for something in between this view, whose inflexibility leaves no room for conversation, and that “cheerful rubric of American progress,” whose naïve revisionism is anathema to any good modern historian.

This search seems reasonable: After all, who wouldn’t want to find a loophole in the kind of hopelessness that Malcolm X’s vision evokes? Coates himself says he understands this instinct. He admits that “he had always considered a vaguely defined ‘hope’ to be a prerequisite for writing.” And yet he argues that with each new insight of his self-education (if you need a good reading list, start here), he has found more and more reason not to hope:

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.

Except at the end of an exchange like this one, it’s hard not to feel that this impulse to read more and talk more is precisely the point. Those who have listened to or joined in Coates and Chait’s conversation (and there are many more than I have mentioned here) may not have decided where they fall along the spectrum of hopefulness. And yet what we have seen is the process—a sincere one, I think—of how two intensely smart writers think and feel their way along that spectrum. It is a lesson for all writers in the fruits of conversation—and for all readers, in the fruits of eavesdropping.