The civil rights movement began as a call for integration. Martin Luther King marched to end segregation, both official and unofficial. It may seem like a distant memory, but King wanted whites and blacks to get along with each other, to live together in harmony and comity.
Other voices in the civil rights movement have been less conciliatory. Beginning perhaps with James Baldwin, they have said that white people are so diabolically evil that integration is impossible. These voices are angry; they are enraged; they devote their lives to what the latest angry black man, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls the “struggle.”
One suspects that Coates found the idea in the notion of class struggle. He admires only one white man, Basil Davidson. One notes how Anthony Daniels describes Davidson in an extended review of the Coates book (via Maggie’s Farm):
The only non-black author whom he claims as an influence is Basil Davidson, the upper-class British communist sympathizer who, before he turned Africanist, wrote a book extolling Tito just before he killed half a million people at least, and another extolling Mao just before the Great Leap Forward that caused about thirty million deaths.
Daniels adds the Coates does not really explain what he is struggling for. He does not, in other words, encourage the hard work required to succeed in the world. He prefers to see struggle as a constant fight against permanent oppression.
By now, of course, Coates has received an utterly outsized, even an embarrassing level of praise for having presented thoughts that are, if not banalities, are poorly presented. And he has sold a ton of books. As Daniels writes, Coates has succeeded in commoditizing his rage.
If the goal of the civil rights movement was integration and if Rodney King was right, as I believe he was, to recommend that we all get along, then clearly the angry black man shtick, however profitable it is for Coates himself and his progeny, does nothing to bring people together or to help them to get along. If you are angry all the time you will not even to try to get along.
To fashion and to promote his narrative, Coates skews the facts. Daniels notes that Coates grew up surrounded by black-on-black violence in Baltimore. But, Coates concludes that the blacks who committed the violence were not responsible for it because white people are so powerful that they were controlling and inciting the blacks who were committing the violence. In Coates’s view blacks are puppets of their white masters. Thereby, Coates deprives blacks of moral agency and responsibility for their actions.
He also notes that Coates was the son of a Black Panther, of a man who fathered seven children with four different women. By all indications Coates was born with the deck stacked against him. If he has succeeded, why can't other blacks?
Exculpating criminals for their violent action is a common way of leftist thinking. When Palestinians terrorize Israelis by stabbing them at random, the witless John Kerry says that it’s all the fault of Israeli settlers. The White House then proclaims that both sides in the conflict are terrorists.
Coates does not really argue his point. He asserts it forcefully. He seems to believe that if he feels it strongly, it must be true. But, he is, as they say, preaching to the choir. Daniels quotes a relevant Coates passage:
The killing fields of Chicago, of Baltimore, of Detroit, were created by the policy of Dreamers [his name for those who see anything positive in American history], but their weight, their shame, rests solely upon those who are dying in them. And there is a great deception in this. To yell “black on black crime” is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding.
One does not like to disembarras anyone of his illusions, but Coates does not write or think very well. I cannot fathom why people who should know better claim that he is a great writer. They imagine that because his writing is barely coherent, it must be poetry. One could wander through Coates’s work and find many similar examples of bad writing, but one has better things to do with one’s time.
In the past Coates has argued that white America owes black America reparations for slavery. In his current book he argues that slavery is still present and is still damaging black Americans. Thus, he makes yet another argument for reparations.
For whites this is a guilt trip. To blacks Coates is offering a counsel of despair, a sense that they cannot possibly overcome the legacy of slavery and would do best to collect welfare checks.
Coates also believes that America is a vast criminal conspiracy, a nation that was built on the labor of slaves. This buttresses the case for reparations. Daniels refutes the point easily:
Not, of course, that Coates would mind this very much; indeed it seems to be his goal to instill resentment into his son whom he fears might otherwise grow up so comfortably, thanks to America’s current appetite for self-excoriation to which his book so shrewdly appeals and which provides him with such a good living. “White America’s progress was built on looting and violence,” he tells his son, without mentioning the vigor, the drive, the enterprise, the inventiveness, the scientific research, and the political institutions other than slavery that so self-evidently and vitally contributed to that progress, and without which no amount of looting or slavery would have led to such unprecedented wealth. Brazil was a slave country twenty-five years longer than America, and indeed the destination of 40 percent of the slaves taken from Africa, but it achieved nothing like the wealth as a result.
Capitalism has succeeded in many nations around the world. It has succeeded without there being any slave labor involved. One should note that in the early days of the Republic, American industry, manufacturing and commerce was largely confined to the Northern states, to a place that did not have slaves.
As you know, Coates has addressed his cri de coeur to his son. He does not advise him to work hard to get ahead, to seize the opportunities that are available and to try to be a good man. He is teaching his son to see a world where there are no opportunities for blacks and where it is not even worth the trouble to try. One will not list the black Americans who have achieved outsized success, because Coates, and those who are bowing down to him, do not care.
On the evidence of this book Coates wants to raise up in his son an ideological resentment, to querulous monomania. He repeatedly extols what he calls the “struggle,” though he does not tell his son what it is a struggle for. He makes explicit his disbelief in the likelihood of real change, given that America is ruled by what he so elegantly calls “majoritarian pigs,” so that it cannot be for any concrete or tangible political or economic goal. There is not a single call to his son to expand his horizons beyond “the struggle,” which is really that of giving a meaning to life in the absence of any other. Of course, it is also (potentially) a lucrative career: but while Coates sees the economic beam in everybody else’s eye, he does not see the financial mote in his own. He has successfully commodified his dissent, to adapt slightly the title of Thomas Frank’s book. It does not occur to him that, even in America, outrage cannot be the way forward for millions of people, or indeed that dwelling exclusively on injustice, real or supposed, may not be the best advice to an adolescent (adolescence being, in any case, the great age of resentment).
To tell an adolescent by means of quotation marks that personal responsibility is a myth is to corrupt youth, or at any rate to try to do so. I doubt that any message could be more destructive of the group whom Coates claims to represent. The message is so perfectly suited to maintain the social pathology of the ghettoes that one suspects that the author does not really want anything to change so that he can maintain his pleasant ex officio sense of moral outrage and superiority while at the same time lucratively playing to the pseudo-guilt of the American liberal intelligentsia which desires the importance and gratification of feeling responsible for everything without having to pay the cost of actually being so.
Step back for a moment and consider this. Perhaps Coates is really expressing the thinking that has produced these conditions in black communities. Perhaps the kind of thinking he indulges is not the solution but the cause. Perhaps many blacks think the way Coates thinks and thus do not think it is work the effort to work hard and to build their character.
True enough, opportunities are not equally distributed in society. They never are. But, if one were to ask why black Americans have not stepped forth to seize the opportunities that are available, why they seem to believe that they cannot get ahead even if they work, the answer might lie in the notion that blacks should not bother work hard because they can never succeed and that they should receive permanent reparations as wards of the state.
Coates is not the first who has told black Americans to act as though they are a nation apart, a privileged class whose misery bears witness and accuses white America of being a vast criminal conspiracy. He is not the first who has inadvertently encouraged black crime by saying that it is the fault of white people. Whatever happened to Martin Luther King's dream of racial integration?