Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers another jeremiad against racism and white supremacy in his article, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” With skill, insight, and bite, Coates seems dedicated to reviving and reframing a conversation in the U.S. about reparations and long overdue justice for African Americans. Along the way, he’s even taken time to provide fresh reinterpretation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and debates about the relationship between public policy and personal pathology in African American communities.
I hope he succeeds. I find his searing analysis compelling. I appreciate his attempt to put a face—a worn, mistreated, yet noble African American face—on the issues. His stripping away of euphemisms and niceties and political correctness lays bare the ugly truth about the U.S.—about Americans. The cuts could be healing.
But in one significant respect, I think Coates fails his readership and fails to represent something vital about African Americans—his writing lacks hope.
Otherwise brilliant, “The Case for Reparations” suffers the same hopelessness. Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, carries its own heavy coat of despair. It’s not that Coates simply leaves off hope; he in some respects refuses it. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Turning the phrase, Coates writes in Between the World and Me, “My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.” He confesses to having “no sense that any just God was on [his] side.” He insists that the public “must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.” And although Coates maintains he is not a cynic, he speculates that, “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be.” While he writes, “This is not despair,” it looks an awful lot like it.