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.)