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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Scar

In an early chapter in his new book on Buddhism [1], Robert Wright discusses how our feelings can be unreliable guides to reality. He cites a 1980s social psychology experiment in which researchers put realistic-looking “scars” on the faces of their subjects, and told them that the purpose of the experiment was to see how strangers reacted to them, given that each has a scar on his face.

But just before the researchers sent them out into the world, they told the subjects that they needed to touch up the fake scars to make them look more realistic. In fact, the researchers removed the scars, and sent the unwitting subjects out into the world without defacement.

Wright reports that many of the subjects returned to say that people treated them worse because of the scar — the scar that, in truth, was not on their face! The experiment demonstrated that when people feel self-conscious about something they perceive as a fault, they interpret the world as confirming their self-consciousness.

Reading that, I thought about a friend of mine’s mother. My friend said that her mom grew up very poor, and felt outcast in her hometown. Today, even though she’s getting up in years, and few if any people in her town know of her background, my friend’s mom thinks everybody she meets sees an impoverished child who isn’t as good as them. It’s entirely untrue, but this illusion has immense power on the poor woman. My friend says her mom makes sweeping judgments about the entire world based on the fact that she believes everyone is judging her for her (non-existent) poverty. As a consequence, the old woman is quick to criticize others, and is constantly on the defense, ready to judge others before they can judge her.


It sounds like my friend’s mom is in real psychological bondage to her insecurities. I think the only thing that separates her from most of us is the intensity of her feelings, and the fact that they have remained with her well into old age. I certainly had powerful feelings of unworthiness in my childhood and my first years of professional life. In my twenties, I once spent an important job interview telling the editors who were interested in hiring me why I was not good enough to work for them. In my case, I anticipated the negative judgment of those two men, and rather than get defensive about it, assumed that they were right, and surrendered to that judgment in self-loathing resignation.

In fact, I had been a neurotic idiot. What I had done, without realizing it, was assume that everybody else saw me as I saw myself. I was certain that there was a massive “scar” on my face, and that by acknowledging it forthrightly, and apologizing for it, I could get through this anxiety-filled interview. Fortunately, I grew out of that, but it still comes back from time to time, in subtle ways. It’s the human condition.

This came to mind this morning when I read Damon Linker’s takedown of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s epic new essay [2] on why the Trump presidency vindicates his thesis that America is a white supremacist nation. I began to read Coates’s piece [3]when it first appeared, but couldn’t make it past this early paragraph:

To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.

I knew then that if I continued down this path, I would be depleted of all my eldritch energies, so I stopped. Seriously, though, reading Coates is very, very frustrating, because he is so gifted. Is there anybody in his circle who challenges his monotonous way of thinking? Would he listen to them if there were?

Anybody here know who Jack Van Impe [4] is? He’s a now-elderly TV evangelist whose shtick involves reading the daily papers and concocting reasons why the headlines vindicate his interpretation of Biblical End Times prophecy. Jack and his wife, the lovely Rexella, can find a sign of the coming Apocalypse in the most ordinary events. They’ve made a lucrative career on it, and on exploiting the anxieties of their followers. In this sense, Ta-Nehisi Coates has become the Jack Van Impe of woke liberals. Everything that happens just goes to show that white racism explains the world. A certain kind of person eats that stuff up.

To be honest, I’m subject to the same temptation. I am a sucker for decline narratives, and too often my analysis suffers from confirmation bias in this direction (anybody remember my mania over peak oil a decade or so ago?). But then, we all do this to some extent. There are plenty of people whose confirmation bias leads the other way: towards believing, for example, that everything is always coming up roses, or that white racism has nothing at all to do with our problems today. That’s wrong too.

My point is simply this: to get along in the world as it is, one needs to be aware of one’s confirmation biases, and work to overcome them when faced with a given situation. Discerning the difference between wisdom (“We should not trust the Klingons, because they have been untrustworthy in our past dealings with them”) and prejudice (“We should not trust the Klingons, because all Klingons are inherently dishonest”) requires prudence.

Prudentially, I read Coates’s essay this morning, and it is what Damon Linker says it is. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a comment on these passages:

The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. Moreover, to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world. But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.

This is a fine example of how on the left, anti-white racism is a legitimate mode of discourse. I live in a city that’s 51 percent black, and that has a fairly high crime rate. The criminals are overwhelmingly young black males. Does “blackness” pose “an existential danger to the city”? If I claimed that — and to be clear, I would not do so — I would be professionally ruined. But Coates can openly demean whites as a race, and talk about how their very existence threatens the planet, and hit the bestseller charts, win a MacArthur genius grant, and become the darling of liberal elites. You wonder why some white people vote for Trump? Their eldritch patience with this kind of nonsense has run out.

I would say this, though: blaming “whiteness” for the complex problems of the world and its people of all colors eases the consciences of people who prefer that other people have existential reckonings, not them.

More Coates:

This definition of political correctness was shocking coming from a politician of the left. But it matched a broader defense of Trump voters. “Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and just deplorable folks,” Sanders said later. “I don’t agree.” This is not exculpatory. Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.

This is cheap. I did not vote for Donald Trump, and consider him to be a bad man, but I think it’s not only a slur, but simply inaccurate, to call him a “white supremacist”. It has become a habit on the left of late to substitute the phrase “white supremacy” for “racism.” I’m just guessing here, but I think very few Americans would support the racial apartheid system of the Jim Crow South, which was explicitly based on the doctrine of white supremacy. If we have elevated ordinary racism — which, don’t get me wrong, is sinful — into a belief that white people should reign supreme in society over all non-whites, then we are doing the rough equivalent of saying that Bernie Sanders voters are all pretty much Stalinists. This is such an insane description of the world as it is that you have to wonder what it says about the person who construes the world in that way.

I have no trouble believing that Donald Trump holds some racist views. But it is beyond absurd to say that he is the second coming of George Wallace and Orval Faubus. An intelligent person who does so is trying to talk himself into something. What? Sure, the right has its own egghead crackpots who traffick in that kind of turbo-eldritchery; give yourself the treat of reading Matthew Walther’s hilarious evisceration of Dinesh D’Souza’s latest [5]. Keep in mind, though, that no one of consequence takes D’Souza seriously. He makes his money peddling his inflammatory shtick to the fringes. Coates, though, has become a progressive magus, one whose ponderous solemnity belies the simplistic nature of his analysis.

This is just nuts, but characteristic of Coates’s style:

It is utterly impossible to conjure a black facsimile of Donald Trump—to imagine Obama, say, implicating an opponent’s father in the assassination of an American president or comparing his physical endowment with that of another candidate and then successfully capturing the presidency. Trump, more than any other politician, understood the valence of the bloody heirloom and the great power in not being a nigger.

Oh, for heaven’s sake. Trump breaks all the rules. It was impossible before 2016 to imagine any presidential candidate, of any race, behaving as Trump did. As I wrote in my recent book, Trump’s election is not a solution to our problems, but a symptom of them. Earlier in his essay, Coates defines the “bloody heirloom” as “the passive power of whiteness.” What he’s saying in this passage above is that Trump won because he’s white, and he knew how to use his race to win. I think you’d have to be nuts to claim that race had nothing to do with Trump’s victory. But I think it’s extremely reductive, and misleadingly so, to believe that race was such a huge factor.

And anyway, it’s easy to think of a black facsimile of Donald Trump, if you consider certain politicians who run black majority cities. What was Detroit Mayor Coleman Young? Washington DC Mayor Marion Barry? These kinds of rascals can come to power in black majority polities for the inconvenient reason that black people are human beings, like the rest of us, and subject to the power of a gifted demagogue.

Coates denounces the liberal white academic Mark Lilla for warning that identity politics is a dead end for the left. Coates says that “all politics are identity politics — except the politics of white people, the politics of the bloody heirloom.” And:

The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.


And, there we are. If you are white and disagree with Coates’s fatalistic, racialist analysis of American politics, then that just shows that you are blind to the way you benefit from white supremacy. I wonder if this guy ever doubts himself? Or is it all scar, all the time?

Anyway, Damon Linker says that Coates is [2]

wedded to a view of American history that so emphasizes the centrality of racial injustice that he ends up constantly tempted to reify racial categories and even endorse notions of collective guilt and victimhood. This may be what leads him to write in sweeping terms about “sins of whiteness” and to claim that no explanation of the 2016 presidential race has the power to “cleanse the conscience of white people for having elected Donald Trump.”

But “white people” didn’t elect Donald Trump. A coalition of 62 percent of white men, 52 percent of white women, 13 percent of black men, 4 percent of black women, 32 percent of Latino men, 25 percent of Latino women, and 27 percent of Asians elected Donald Trump. “White supremacy” surely played an important role for some of those white voters. But it should be obvious that it can’t be a sufficient explanation of the outcome overall — unless we begin to talk in terms of racial false consciousness.

Unfortunately, Coates occasionally does exactly that. In what is easily the most disturbing passage of Coates’ justly lauded memoir Between the World and Me, he recounts the story of the death of a black friend at the hands of a police officer we eventually learn was also black. Instead of leading to a complex moral judgment of the tragic event, Coates treats it as a straightforward example of the evils of structural racism in which the black officer passively participated. Coates’ new essay similarly accuses Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and even Barack Obama of complicity in the thoroughly racial system that ultimately produced President Trump.

If racism explains everything, then what is there left to talk about? It is hard to imagine what kind of progressive politics would satisfy Ta-Nehisi Coates, assuming he wants to appeal to voters who don’t live in cobalt-blue precincts, labor among the elite media, and on select college campuses.

Here is something that TNC can’t see over the high walls of the trench he has made of his own scar. But Linker can:

Here are some unsettling truths: Trump won. Some voted for him because they’re white supremacists, but others did for a range of other reasons (party loyalty, negative partisanship, anger about economic stagnation, resentment in response to cultural despair and decline, Clinton hatred fueled by a mix of right-wing media and foreign meddling, and on and on). Trump voters of all kinds aren’t going anywhere. They are our fellow citizens and have the right to vote. Many of them probably aren’t persuadable by left-of-center candidates, but some of them probably are. Moving beyond Trump and reversing the agenda of his presidency will require appealing to some of these voters.

And denouncing them all as racists is as unhelpful as it is inaccurate.

If Hillary Clinton had held on to all the voters Obama had, she would be president today. But around nine percent of those who voted for Obama voted for Trump. [6]I don’t know how Ta-Nehisi Coates will be able to impute white supremacy to people who voted for a black president, but I have faith that he will. When you define yourself by the wound that produced the scar, it’s easy to think that everybody is staring at you with contempt and malice.


139 Comments (Open | Close)

139 Comments To "Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Scar"

#1 Comment By Just_Dropping_By On September 13, 2017 @ 10:38 am

I probably would have gone with Kwame Kilpatrick rather than Coleman Young if I was looking for a Detroit mayor roughly analogous to Donald Trump: [7]

#2 Comment By Eddie Mack On September 13, 2017 @ 10:42 am

“KD says:
And why aren’t folks like TNC emigrating to someplace like Liberia, since America is so racist and unbearable?

I find it hard to believe that if someone actually lived in a racist hellhole, they wouldn’t vote with their feet.”

Ah, yes. The old canard of “America, love it or leave it.”

Perhaps, despite our suffering, we still believe this country is redeemable.

#3 Comment By ludo On September 13, 2017 @ 11:05 am

To Prodigal:

I was attempting to make a point, to make obvious precisely the maladroit influence of Foucault’s ambiguity of style/style of ambiguity in Coates’s most recent piece.

In fact, it’s been discernible for some time now it seems:

“Coates spices his arguments with doses of postmodernism, referring throughout the book to violence against “the black body,” which, he repeatedly warns, endangers his son and could entrap him in the “carceral state.” The focus on “violence to the body” and prison punishment, and their presentation as independent of class oppression, reveals the unhappy influence of the French postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault rejected the Enlightenment, holding it responsible for developing new methods of “discipline” and control.”


#4 Comment By Blaine On September 13, 2017 @ 11:07 am

“The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House.”

He lost me here. I’ll never give this guy the time of day. Somehow, all of the rap/hip-hop culture has escaped this man’s notice. Please, Dr. Coates, google this phrase “sexual assault in rap lyrics” and tell me again how no black people (and yes, there are quite a few whites too, here’s looking at you Marshall Mathers) who extol the virtues of sexual assault on tape. Be prepared – these lyrics ain’t pretty.

Unless someone can show me how I didn’t understand that quote correctly, everything this man says is irrelevant to me because he doesn’t live in reality.

#5 Comment By collin On September 13, 2017 @ 11:21 am

Why wouldn’t that be their reaction? As Coates writes, “And so an opioid epidemic among mostly white people is greeted with calls for compassion and treatment, as all epidemics should be, while a crack epidemic among mostly black people is greeted with scorn and mandatory minimums.”

Well, there are lots of differences here but the opioid epidemic has remained relatively cheap and non-drug crime has been contained. The 1970/1980 drug epidemics nearly had more deaths from the sale of drugs as the consumption while the modern opioids is almost all consumption deaths. Compton 1985 really did come across as a war zone on the local news back then and LA was the first department to consistently use military equipment for drug bust.

Why don’t the struggling white working class work with the minority working class?
1) Unfortunately the scars are deep and minorities don’t remember the US being very understanding in 1985. They remember WJC telling Sista Soulja to be quiet and Charles Murray writing the Bell Curve. And WJC signing mandatory sentencing. Long term this anger attitude is not productive to improving the lives of African-American inner cities.
2) The WWC rallied around Trump who campaigned that the drug epidemic was the fault of Mexican Immigrants and that all African-Americans still live in war zones. Every single Jeff Sessions speech on drugs focuses on minority or Sanctuary Inner cities. Long term this is not a good way for the WWC to win support for their communities.

#6 Comment By a commenter On September 13, 2017 @ 11:24 am

“Or is it the case that abortion & religious liberty are bones thrown to the suckers to get them to vote for the Koch agenda?”

I think it was more about wanting to protect doctors etc from being forced to participate in abortions/assisted suicide etc as a condition of keeping their jobs. Wanting parents to have the right to raise their children in their own religion without having their children punished for thoughtcrime should one wrong word accidentally cross their lips.

#7 Comment By kgasmart On September 13, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

It is hard to imagine what kind of progressive politics would satisfy Ta-Nehisi Coates, assuming he wants to appeal to voters who don’t live in cobalt-blue precincts, labor among the elite media, and on select college campuses.

He doesn’t. He wants to impose his view of morality upon the rest of us; he wants to shame us into acquiescence with his point of view.

He wants us to say, “You’re right, Ta-Nehisi, and I’m so very very unclean and sinful.”

He is both saint and martyr. Or so he thinks.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 13, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

Mark VA: Lothorp Stoddard was an ignorant, ahistorical, delusional fanatic. Now can we move on to current realities please?

As far as I can see, the central argument in Damon Linker’s “epic take down” of TNC is that he isn’t right because he can’t possibly be right.

Well… facts, you know? Facts contradict TNC, facts strongly sustain that global warming is happening, is causing significant damage, is caused by human generated atmospheric carbon dioxide… facts have a bias, relative to a given ideological fixation, although I certainly wouldn’t call it a liberal bias.

When black people do bad things, it’s held up as a defect of our race. When white people do bad things, it’s excused as the product of some toxic ideology. You have commenters here who subscribe to this belief.

Sure, that’s something we can reasonably talk about. A lot of people who choose to continue to think of themselves as “white” think and talk like that. A friend of mine who graduated from Alabama State [code word: its a historically black college] used to work in marketing at a company where colleages with congenital melanin deficiencies asked after a high profile crime “What is the black community going to do about this?” His comment was always, and rightly so, “When white people commit crimes, I never hear anyone talking about what’s the ‘white community’ going to do about this?'”

But Rod was saying that even if a large proportion of crimes are committed by black people, it doesn’t mean “blackness” is responsible for the crimes. Which is also valid. Its not blackness. In fact, I could enumerate a few toxic ideologies that make considerable contributions.

But it doesn’t make it easy for those of us who are trying to tell very very lightskinneded people to get over it and stop pretending they are “white” when TNC is writing about the indelible stain of whiteness. Eventually the identity “black” will have to be given up too. Nobody in Africa called themselves “black” until someone showed up from Europe telling them they were black. But, at present, its an essentially defensive identity. They can’t shake it while a large number of people are still claiming to be “white.”

#9 Comment By JonF On September 13, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

KD, you’ll never get all white people in one party, because they disagree on far too many things. Can you imagine for one minute Paul Ryan and Elizabeth Warren being political buddies? The head honchos of GLAAD and the HRC voting the same as the nabobs of the SBC? How about Rod and Al Franken? The Duck Dynasty guys and the president of Harvard? Me and M_young? The larger and more diverse a demographic group defined by only a single characteristic is the less likely it is to have common interests that can unite it politically.

#10 Comment By JonF On September 13, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

Jared R,

While I think Coates was disappointed and frustrated with the outcome of the Obama presidency (many of us were), I suspect that his major problems were with the brute and trollish racism that slammed his blog, especially after its early success. Rod could testify to the fact that there are lots of loons out there with no sense of shame or restraint– he sees things none of us do here, and yet TAC, despite its excellent qualities, attracts only a minor fraction of the commenters that The Atlantic did in its heyday a few years ago. I participated a lot on TNC’s blog and I remember how it all fell apart. When I think about it, it makes me mad too, and I only saw a trickle of what racist anal orifices were trying to spam onto that blog (since TNC and the moderators were filtering a lot of it out as Rod does here). If you had to put up with endless vicious attacks against you and the things you believed in (and even against utterly anodyne points you were making, because creeps just want to bash you even if all you are saying is “the sky is blue”) might you not turn bitter too– and perhaps overestimate the number of people out there who hold such opinions? It’s a tribute to Rod’s character that he has managed to stick this out year after a year, and I don’t regard it as a bad reflection on TNC that he could not. Even Andrew Sullivan, who did not even allow comments on his blog, finally had to give it up.

Did you ever bother reading TNC’s blogs back in, say, 2009-10? He was absolutely not trying to shut down discussion. As I noted (and Rod seconded) his posts were sincere and open and he welcomed a very large commenting section. The only maybe negative thing I will note about that blog is the guy had far less tolerance for thread-jacking than any other blogger I’ve ever seen. He did not allow side discussions, except on occasional open threads where he basically said “talk among yourselves” and people chatted about all manner of things great and small. But on his focused pieces tangents were verboten, and even I had a post or two removed that was deemed off topic. Well, his blog, his rules. But as long as you stayed on topic and behaved respectfully toward others you were not going to be shut down.

#11 Comment By Peg On September 13, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

“Perhaps, despite our suffering, we still believe this country is redeemable.”

(Nod of agreement) Perhaps, redeemable or not, we can believe the nation of our birth is worth battling to the bitter end, for the promises it makes and fails to deliver. For blacks that remains a promise of equality. This is TNC’s birth land, and the birth land of his ancestors back to those who first came over on boats, whether as slaves or as slavers. I fail to see any moral justification for the assumption that those already wronged should then leave and start over in a foreign land rather than stand for change and righteousness in the land of their own heritage and history.

#12 Comment By GeorgeLeS On September 13, 2017 @ 2:29 pm

Coates’s vision is an extreme example of a common way of looking at the world, one which sees everything through an ideological lens. In doing so, what happens is that all is treated as Procrustes did his victims, cut or stretch to make them fit.

This is not unavoidable though. I just finished reading again the introduction to C S Lewis’s History of 16th C Literature, “The New Learning and the New Ignorance.” It’s the best place for one-stop shopping for the antidote. He spends about 60 pages showing how all patterns people see in the 16th C are oversimplified. (At one point he says they have no more reality than pictures seen in the fire.) Since it’s not concerned with out present situation, I think it’s a better introduction to a clear eyed mindset than those that are.

You can find it here (with, I think a few ellipses):


#13 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 13, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

There are people who have given up on the land of their birth… German revolutionaries who fled after the revolutionary attempts of 1848, German confessional Lutherans who fled the official state church of Prussia and the North German Confederation, Hungarians who fled after 1956, Hungarians who fled the Hapsburg Empire… and a good number of them ended up in America. This is the end of the line for that sort of thing.

#14 Comment By Kid Charlemagne On September 13, 2017 @ 4:07 pm


You didn’t understand the quote correctly. None of the rap artists you link to have any chance of being POTUS. And if Obama had talked about grabbing anyone by the p…y, or about his daughter as a piece of ass, he would have had no shot at being in the White House. For that matter, he wouldn’t have been considered if he was on his third wife and with a history of sexual scandal….None of the mayor’s referred to by Rod would have made it past local primaries either.

The quote is actually one of the least controversial points made in Coates’s article.

#15 Comment By John On September 13, 2017 @ 4:31 pm

“What he’s saying in this passage above is that Trump won because he’s white, and he knew how to use his race to win. I think you’d have to be nuts to claim that race had nothing to do with Trump’s victory. But I think it’s extremely reductive, and misleadingly so, to believe that race was such a huge factor.”

You haven’t done a good job of answering any of his points, except to sigh and mutter about how ridiculous it all is. (If you want to do a follow-up, explain your feelings on how an incarcerated white felon gave Obama a run for his money in the West Virginia Democratic primary in 2012, and how it has not happened and will almost certainly never happen to a white presidential incumbent.) But if you want to address the size of race’s impact on this election, I offer this excerpt from [10]:

“The results indicate a probability of Trump support higher than 60 percent for an otherwise typical white voter who scores at the highest levels on either anti-black racial resentment or anti-black influence animosity. This compares to less than 30 percent chance for a typical white voter with below average scores on either of the two measures anti-black attitudes. There is approximately a 10 percent probability of a Trump vote for an otherwise typical white voter at the lowest levels of racial resentment.”

#16 Comment By Mark VA On September 13, 2017 @ 4:37 pm


Your reply reminded me of something from the seventies: if you recall, Polish jokes were popular back then;

When I made an objection to them back then, the usual reply was something like this: “You don’t need to be offended, we just like them because they are funny. And we like to laugh”;

I was blithely dismissed. Now, that’s an exercise of raw power that comes from privilege. Kapish, compadre?

#17 Comment By Ben H On September 13, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

Lol at the idea that saying “white people are racist” and “Donald Trump is SUPER-racist” is some great insight, a triumph of the intellect, a front page extravaganza, this is what we pay great minds to tell us.

What a tribute to the American intellect! And it’s greatest mind and most talented writer (he’s so smart no one can figure out what he’s actually saying even masochists who read his stuff constantly).

We can only imagine what Tah Coates next project is, what track can contain his Ferrari like mind, to what subject will his pen, sycopating with dipthongs and subjunctives, be exercised with the razor whit of a google translate version of Immanuel Kant? Why does the black superhero get the least-awesomest powers? Perhaps. Is our president, perhaps, super-DUPER-racist? Hmmm. Why does the black guy always die first in the horror movie (racism)? History trembles with anticipation.

#18 Comment By Blaine On September 13, 2017 @ 7:42 pm

@Kid Charlemagne

Thank you. I hoped for the sake of my sanity I had missed something. I will re-read it with that in mind.

I live in Tampa, so was reading this for some distraction, but was probably too tired to comment well. Apologies.

#19 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 13, 2017 @ 9:12 pm

MarkVA, I’m afraid I am unable to align your response to anything I said. Perhaps I’m too dense to understand, but then, if you have to explain a joke before its funny…

I grew up Presbyterian in a region where the large German component of the local population was in the habit of telling Polish jokes, except they commonly used the more offensive variant that almost rhymes with bullock. From an early age, I was not comfortable with them, although I did in the 1980s indulge a penchant for jokes like

How do you make a Polish Pope run in circles?

How many dissident Polish workers does it take to screw in the first light bulb in the independent trade union office?

#20 Comment By Cal On September 13, 2017 @ 11:38 pm

People are far too kind in explaining/reviewing Coates.

Imagine he was a white man writing what he writes about blacks.

We would simply dismiss him as a racist.

#21 Comment By RP_McMurphy On September 14, 2017 @ 1:18 am

“Keep in mind, though, that no one of consequence takes D’Souza seriously.”

Yeah, no. If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that the intellectual, respectable right represents a negligible minority with little electoral sway. The actual leaders are the D’Souza’s and Limbaugh’s and Trump’s.

#22 Comment By RP_McMurphy On September 14, 2017 @ 1:30 am


“The scar experiment is an interesting analogy to this.
But perhaps we also have to consider, “what if the
scar is real?”

I think the people we should be listening
to are the women of color. How must it feel to have
as a President the man who bragged of
“grab them by the pussy.” How must it feel to have
as a President one of the leaders of the birther movement
which attempted to delegitimize the first black President?
(I don’t need to continue listing them do I…)

Oh wait, I can tell you how they feel, because that is
my wife, a woman of color, and she said it before
TNC did. She said that she understood that not
everyone who voted for Trump was like him but they
were ok with someone like Trump being President.
And that meant that they must be ok with people
doing and saying the things that he has said and done.

Trump is a racist and a misogynist and anyone who
voted for him was ok with a racist and a misogynist
being President.

It was not too long ago that saying and doing the things
that Trump has said and done would have been an
immediate death to a campaign.

Why is Trump different?”

Exactly. Folks on the right are desperately trying to rationalize their disgraceful choice, but it won’t be forgiven or forgotten. Basically, any criticism one could offer of a future Democratic candidate is now null and void because Trump is undoubtedly guilty of a more egregious example of the same offense. The underlying sin remains, it’s just that no one will take seriously evangelical hectoring about sexual impropriety, for instance.

#23 Comment By Old West On September 14, 2017 @ 2:29 am

I understand TNC Coates when he uses the word “eldritch” — even if I find it offensive. I understand your desire to use a word like that in return, but a couple of your usages, Rod, are a bit mystifying to me.

Standards of diction must be maintained, no matter how much we are provoked!

[NFR: I use it sarcastically, to make fun of the overwroughtness of his writing. — RD]

#24 Comment By BadZ On September 14, 2017 @ 3:41 am

I never understood why Americans made jokes about Polish people being stupid, in 70s/80s Australia all the jokes were about how dim the Irish were! Perhaps related to this, a later trip to Ireland exposed me to many jokes at the expense of us(apparently) notoriously thick Aussies. In the 90s I heard a lot of Irish jokes being recycled as blonde jokes, I wonder which group is now the common butt.

#25 Comment By Mark VA On September 14, 2017 @ 5:34 am


I believe that “current realities” do include the ideas once popularized by men such as Lothrop Stoddard. It would be nice to just wave a magic wand and dismiss them, but “ideas are stubborn things”;

Parenthetically, as a young child growing up in Poland, I too told a few ethnic jokes, but directed at the Russians. Then in the USA I heard the same jokes, but now directed at my own ethnicity. This was God’s tough medicine, and I am very grateful for it:

“Punkt widzenia zależy od punktu siedzenia”

Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates is not the only African American who tries to engage a wider audience in a reasoned discussion about race in America. Too often, the response is just a dismissal, rather than an effort to see the issue thru someone else’s eyes. Thus, my response to the valid concern that a vote for Trump could unleash greater racism would be this:

For many of us, pro-life issues are fundamental – one candidate was clearly more likely to be less dogmatic and more pragmatic about abortion. In this vein, I would ask Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates to consider the statistics of abortion, especially with respect to the African American community;

However, the concern about racism stands – current realities validate it. Here we must make repeatedly clear that many of us voted for Mr. Trump conditionally and with many reservations. We will seek another candidate if racism becomes a bargaining chip under his watch. So how about we unite on these two issues?

#26 Comment By KD On September 14, 2017 @ 10:50 am

Eddie Mack:

Thank you for misrepresenting my statement! You show your true colors.

No sorry, its not Bircher slogan.

The historic reality is that when there is actual racial or ethnic oppression in a country, the wealthy people who can afford to leave actually leave. For example, in Nazi Germany, Jews who could get out did. Those who could fled Rwanda. Etc.

The flip-side is that the Leftist hysterics about “White Supremacy” are completely half-baked and contrary to how actual non-whites vote with their feet when given the option.

Richard Wright left America and the Jim Crow South in the 50’s. I think it is reasonable from this action that perhaps there was a lot of racial obstacles to Black men, particularly in the South, at that time.

Today, that doesn’t happen, other than an occasional “hajj-for-show” to Paris or something. Maya Angelou and the rest of the BN who went to Liberia in the 70’s came back pretty fast.

The Left has the megaphone, but their propaganda does not credibly meet up with reality.

#27 Comment By KD On September 14, 2017 @ 10:57 am


I’m not going to do anything. I’m just saying, what if white voters started voting like Black voters.

How would you get Jews to start voting in one block for one political party? Well, I think if you started selling conspiracy theories about world “Jewish Supremacy” and noticing Jewish over-representation amongst the American Elite, they would probably start breaking for the other party.

I imagine you could pull the same trick with Whites, but just call it international “White Supremacy”. And, gee, is that what the Progs are selling? And, gee, surprise, Trump is President.

#28 Comment By KD On September 14, 2017 @ 11:01 am

Bottom line, if you like Trump, but feel he is too moderate on racial issues, you should support people like TNC pushing a racial wedge between us all.

If you don’t like Trump, maybe you should start thinking about the electoral consequences of your rhetoric.

#29 Comment By ludo On September 14, 2017 @ 1:29 pm

“But I suspect my request for our being ignored and left alone to create our own destiny will not satisfy you. This is because you are trading on black suffering to create a perpetual caste of racial innocents. And the currency of your economic system is white guilt. But your son should never trade in anyone’s guilt with the halo of his own imagined innocence hanging over his head. Not one of us is innocent of everything or of anything for too long. Fallibility is built into human nature.”

The aforesaid was written by an American philosopher who happens to be black.


#30 Comment By kgasmart On September 14, 2017 @ 2:41 pm

It was not too long ago that saying and doing the things
that Trump has said and done would have been an
immediate death to a campaign.

Why is Trump different?

Two words:

Bill Clinton.

Come on. If you voted for him, you were also “OK with a misogynist being president.

And we do realize that had even the milquetoast Jeb Bush won the presidency, the likes of Coates would be calling him, too, a white supremacist?

#31 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 14, 2017 @ 2:54 pm

I believe that “current realities” do include the ideas once popularized by men such as Lothrop Stoddard.

You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. No doubt there ARE people somewhere in America who believe something like what Lothrop Stoddard wrote, but it is hardly pervasive. It certainly doesn’t guide the operations of courts and legislatures in the way it did in the 1920s, or even the 1950s. I’ve just been reading up on the Willie McGee case of 1945-1951 in Mississippi. I’ve been familiar with it for several years. The very real problems and errors in our justice system today are nothing like. Make a comparison, then share it with us.

I saw a video about some punks in Georgia who traveled around a county near Atlanta waving confederate flags and loaded guns and crashing the birthday party of a ten year old girl of evident African descent. I noted that fifty years ago in Georgia, the judge would have taken them out to lunch after a jury took two minutes to acquit them. But the reality in this day and age is that they were convicted of serious felony charges and are each doing around 16 years in prison. Instead of smirking as they went freely down the court house steps, they were sobbing at sentencing about “that is not me.”

I would ask Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates to consider the statistics of abortion, especially with respect to the African American community;

I would hope he declines your invitation. I’ve seen that shabby attempt to manipulate numbers and cloak the pro-life movement in the mantle of the civil rights era. These are very different issues, just as the efforts of PETA, and LGBTQWERTY, to wrap themselves in the mantle of the pro-life movement are ludicrous. Distinct issues need to stand on their own merits, not on the merits of past controversies which have long since been resolved. When armed soldiers escort black women to an abortion mill I will be concerned.

I happen to know for a fact that there are many black babies being born, because I live, and work with and around a good number of them. If an individual woman chooses not to carry her pregnancy to term, that is her business. She is not a cipher for her so-called “race.”

Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates is not the only African American who tries to engage a wider audience in a reasoned discussion about race in America.

Your use of the words “engage,” and “reasoned” are not axiomatic either.

#32 Comment By Robert Gardner On September 14, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

My great grandfather fought as a cavalry officer for the Confederacy during the civil war. I know what his unit was, where he later lived, what his profession was, and how he died. I know what kind of father he was to my grandfather and what kind of father my grandfather was to my father. This is to say, I did not know him, but the events of his lifetime has rippled down to me in learned behaviors and family stories with some considerable weight.

My own granddaughter, when she was young, met my father—her great grandfather— when he was quite old, an event she clearly remembers, which is to say, for them both generations overlapped in actual lived time.

The point is that the three generations that separate me from the Civil War are not an immense span of time in the human continuum. A black man my age could have had a great grandfather who lived his life in actual slavery. In this way, the descendants of the victims any collective trauma, like slavery, or the holocaust, or the Conquest of the American Indians, will carry in them an awareness of that trauma and pain much deeper than those who do not have that personal history.

And the descendants of those who perpetrated the collective trauma (whatever it might be) often have a natural resistance to any psychological ownership of that suffering or empathy for those who suffered and their progeny. In fact, they often resent being reminded of it, or being made to feel guilty about it. It is to them ancient history.

So many black people see race in everything, because their personal history is saturated in it, and white people often find the entire issue tiresome and unfair to them. And you could lay this same formula over any two groups who share a past of suffering and conquest or oppression, its not just about slavery.

So is Coates out of line for his perception of Trump, the election and contemporary American politics in terms of race? Or is he entitled to it in a context that white people can’t really understand, or won’t make an effort to understand? Slavery did not end with the last gunfire of the Civil War. Its toxic effects rolled on in the turning of the American generations, through reconstruction, Jim Crow, the culture of lynching, and all the rest of its terrible history. I wouldn’t say Coate’s essay is without flaw, but the rush to deconstruct it by self-righteous writers on the right rings unkind and incurious to me.

#33 Comment By grumpy realist On September 14, 2017 @ 5:50 pm

Robert–I wonder if one could draw a comparison between this persistence of history of the American slavery/Jim Crow experience and those of certain British/Irish populations.

On the other hand, do the Scots really still get miffed about Bannockburn and all that?

The only thing I can deduce is that for every single dratted person on this planet, he/she can rummage around in ancestoral history and if desired, find some cause to create a chip-on-the-shoulder out of. And if said individual desires, he/she can make his/her entire life miserable because of it.

#34 Comment By Pussilaminous On September 14, 2017 @ 7:18 pm

Wow, this may be a first. I can’t disagree with anything Rod has written or quoted here. I must be woke.

#35 Comment By smarticat On September 15, 2017 @ 12:18 am

I actually just read “Between the World and Me” by TNC. It’s sadly beautiful. I think if you want to understand his worldview this book of essays-as letters to his son- is a gateway. He writes about growing up in the Baltimore ‘hood and the distance he knew between his reality and the reality in what he refers to as the “Dream” which is the stand-in for white suburbia, which in many ways he concludes the necessity of the ghetto is required to support the “Dream” in the sense of creating a racially based class hierarchy in which the defined “black” others are restricted in their zones to preserve the white “Dream” – which in its modern iteration is one that supposes itself to be freed of racism and history, and is now a simple result of “meritocracy”, which of course denies many realities of housing, zoning, restrictive covenants, and lending policies that created “white flight” suburbs from the former inner cities left to rot (now being gentrified, and guess what, the minority working class and poor citizens that were left in those areas are now being pushed out to – the suburbs where the new ultra class of whites no longer desires to live, Coates would say this is another iteration of the “Dream”).

He speaks very closely to the police murder of a fellow Howard University classmate (Prince Jones) in NoVa in the earlier 2000’s and describes how Prince Jones was raised in all the “right” ways that white society has prescribed for blacks to succeed: he was born to a mother who was a doctor (herself a daughter of Southern Black sharecroppers who worked her way up), and schooled in magnet schools in honors, traveled abroad, played sports, and was otherwise an exceptional young man. But so happened to be travelling from Howard campus in Maryland to his fiancee’s home in NoVa on the wrong night, and was tailed by an undercover cop who was supposed to be looking for a much differently physically profiled, but also “black” drug dealer. Apparently when Jones arrived at his fiancee’s house he was confronted by the cop and shot on sight (the story being Jones attempted to run the cop down with his Jeep being pretty flimsy). The fact of whether the cop in question was also black is immaterial, as we know that black police often serve under the same precepts as white police when it comes to policing fellow black citizens (Freddy Gray). The insult was the lack of prosecution and justice for the officer (Sessions of course is now refusing to prosecute the Baltimore PD officers in Gray’s death by “rough riding”), and the typical media press in these cases is to justify the killing by making Jones out to be less of a victim than he should have been, as if any “sin” justifies capital execution on sight regardless. This event seems to have formed TNC’s self in many ways, particularly after talking with his mother, and coming to the realization that for many black citizens, it is not enough to “do the right things”, one can simply be profiled and executed for the crime of being “black” based on the sins of other blacks, “good Blacks” apparently being not immune from profiling and disrespect of their lives and humanity in the aftermath.

I don’t know you have to agree entirely with TNC’s analysis of the election or of racial realities in America to not at least understand where he is, and to do the minimum of displaying some empathy for that viewpoint. He comes with a long and broad history to back him up.

And this is nothing like the trash that right wing polemics like D’Souza pump out. Unlike Coates, D’Souza has no compelling stories to tell as to why he decided to be a right wing arzehole. Coate’s viewpoint is formed on a historically verifiable set of circumstances that are uniquely impacting to black citizens, D’Souza regularly “trumps” (pun intended) insults to whites and Christians as more systematically represented than they are, and given statistics overall, are meaningless when compared to the plight of blacks in America compared to whites in every category (economic, health, education, etc).

All said, I would read his personal essays and books if one is any way at all interested in understanding his worldview as opposed to wanting it to go away because it doesn’t necessarily present Trump voters, or white America (as an institution – he is careful to disseminate between the European-American individuals he encounters versus the race based institution of “whiteness” which is not about ethnicity but about class hierarchy that has been based on race). Too often, there is a “circle the wagons” approach in even enlightened conservative media regarding “black” issues as a reflex that the speaker is a “paranoid black”, overly consumed by “race issues”, and therefore the entirety of their voice is dismissable.

And FWIW, his stats are correct, it was white voters that put Trump into office, based on numbers, negligible numbers of black/Hispanic votes notwithstanding that are within the “norm” for any Republican candidate to receive. What he was primarily remarking on was the popular narrative that Trump’s victory was entirely one of “economic anxiety”, but the stats show that Trump’s strongest base of support emanated from white voters in the middle-upper middle class income spectrum, and the overall working class vote (inclusive of all ethnicities, as the actual “working class” as defined by income and job types is actually heavily minority) went for Clinton. The important notes were the *white* votes within these income classes, and does more to explain an election won more on “cultural anxiety” than it does on “economic anxiety” *overall* (of course you can find the Obama-to-Trump voter who voted based on Trump’s trade rhetoric, but those form a pretty small slice of the overall Trump voter demographic – which all said and done, looks a lot more like your traditional Republican voter). What is questioned is that if Trump appealed to a broad “working class” demographic solely, why it is that he did not attract more minority working class voters to his agenda.

Anyways, just my 5 cents. I see a lot of polemic addressed at Coates and I don’t think it’s fair if you don’t know where he’s coming from, or even try to understand the history of that background…

[NFR: I read the book when it came out. It’s a bad book. — RD]

#36 Comment By smarticat On September 15, 2017 @ 1:07 am

@Blaine (and others who made similar comments):
“He lost me here. I’ll never give this guy the time of day. Somehow, all of the rap/hip-hop culture has escaped this man’s notice. Please, Dr. Coates, google this phrase “sexual assault in rap lyrics” and tell me again how no black people (and yes, there are quite a few whites too, here’s looking at you Marshall Mathers) who extol the virtues of sexual assault on tape. Be prepared – these lyrics ain’t pretty.”

So point me out which of these rap artists with sexist lyrics have been elected President of the United States. That’s the bar. Not “rap artist” but POTUS. Thanks.

#37 Comment By Adh-Dhariyat On September 15, 2017 @ 12:30 pm

I am a sucker for decline narratives, and too often my analysis suffers from confirmation bias in this direction (anybody remember my mania over peak oil a decade or so ago?).

Oh, a decade ago! Would that have been your Beliefnet days? I don’t know how many people have followed you since then but I was one of them and you were a firestarter then! There were days/weeks when this librul couldn’t read anything new of yours because you were so incendiary. These days, I still don’t agree with some of what you write but your approach is much less combustible.

#38 Comment By JD On September 15, 2017 @ 12:41 pm


Sept. 15, 1963. Birmingham Alabama, church bombing.


“It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.

Only we can trace the truth, Southerner — you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.

We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.

We — who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.


Read the whole thing.

#39 Comment By JonF On September 15, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

Re: The stats show that Trump’s strongest base of support emanated from white voters in the middle-upper middle class income spectrum

Exactly the people who vote Republican as a matter of course. And it is worth noting that Trump actually won somewhat fewer white votes than Romney did in 2012.

Re: NFR: I read the book when it came out. It’s a bad book.

It preaches, that’s its problem. Where he tells his stories, it’s good, even beautiful in passages. Where he stops to say “And the moral of the story is….” it goes off the rails, IMO. But then, I have an aversion to that sort of thing.