If you haven’t been following the debate between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a “critique of black culture” as part of a rhetorical strategy against crime/unemployment/teen pregnancy/etc., then you must not be on the internet. To catch up, start here and continue here, here, here, here, and here. Basically, Al Gore invented the internet so we could do this.
Meanwhile, Ross Douthat has entered the lists with a phenomenal post that demonstrates a welcome attentiveness and appreciation for Coates’s perspective:
Looking back on the debates of the 1990s, Coates says that ”there was really no doubt” that a neoliberal magazine would use a photo of a black single mom to illustrate its Clinton-era case for welfare reform, and I know well what he thinks about the excerpt from “The Bell Curve” that ran in TNR in that same era. But it’s at least noteworthy a generation later, the name “Charles Murray” is mainly associated with a controversial argument about cultural collapse in downscale white America, and the most recent cover story on poverty, culture and welfare in a political magazine was Kevin Williamson’s grim essay on Appalachia in National Review. Nor are these examples really outliers: Murray’s “Coming Apart” raised the argument’s profile and enriched it with a searching look at social indicators, but the idea of a pan-racialsocial crisis with its roots in the decline of the two-parent familyhas featured prominently in conservative discussions since the Bush era, if not before.
And the story that some of us on the right, at least, would tell about that crisis is one that’s actually reasonably consonant with Coates’s grim account of the African-American experience on these shores. Beginning in the 1960s, we would argue, a combination of cultural, economic and ideological changes undercut the institutions — communal, religious, familial — that sustained what you might call the bourgeois virtues among less-educated Americans. Precisely because blacks had been consistently brutalized throughout their history in this country, they were more vulnerable than whites to these forces, and so the social crisis showed up earlier, and manifested itself more sweepingly, in African-American communities than it did among the white working class and among more recent immigrants. This pattern inclined a lot of people, right and left, to see the crisis as an essentially inner-city, black-underclass problem, and prompted the kinds of Reagan and Clinton-era debates which ultimately gave us welfare reform, tough-on-crime policies, and a national campaign against teen pregnancy. But now we know differently: However one assesses the wisdom and justice of those policies (and Coates and I would have some major disagreements there, I’m sure), the racialized framework in which they were debated and implemented does not fit the lived reality of America in 2014.
By which I mean that (just as Coates suggests) we don’t have a black culture of poverty; we have an American culture of poverty. We don’t have an African-American social crisis; we have an American social crisis. We aren’t dealing with “other people’s pathologies” (the title of Coates’s post) in the sense of “other people” who exist across a color line from “us.” We’re dealing with pathologies that follow (and draw) the lines of class, but implicate every race, every color, every region and community and creed.
In this landscape, certain ways of talking about culture and poverty really are inappropriate, and for roughly the reasons Coates suggests — because they essentially involve a flight into the more comforting (for white people) patterns of the recent past, into a reassuring Othering of social pathology, into a conversation that has why can’t those poor black people get their act together? written over and over again between its lines. In this landscape, it’s usually a mistake — no, not a “racist” mistake, but still a mistake — for white Republican politicians interested in poverty to overstress the “inner city” in their rhetoric. In this landscape, forms of moral exhortation around sex and marriage and work and responsibility that are really just outsiders’ critiques of “black culture” are even less defensible than usual.
Before adding my own 2c of criticism, I just want to acknowledge how smart this is.
Douthat goes on to make two objections to Coates’ apparent perspective: first, that he seems to veer close to denying that culture is any kind of an independent variable in sociology, a stance he calls “radical[ly] reductionist” and presumptively uninteresting; second, that he doesn’t acknowledge the existence of, well, Ross Douthat, and other supporters of the Bush-era social agenda who made a conscious effort both to talk a talk and walk a walk that was post-racial in its analysis. (Uncharitably, one might describe it as seeking to supplant America’s traditional racial identity politics with a trans-racial Christian identity politics.)
I think Douthat has a legitimate point there – but my main objection would be something like the following. Most people would agree that the church had a more central place in African American life in 1965 than it did in most white communities. And yet, in 1965, whatever forces were driving the breakdown of the traditional family had a greater impact on the African American community than they did in white communities. Shouldn’t that suggest that exhortatory moralizing is perhaps not the strongest line of defense?
Moreover, Douthat argues that any kind of re-moralization, to work, would need to be driven by leaders that are exceptionally credible with those on the receiving end of the sermon. But he identifies the social pathologies that concern him as more class-based than race-based. In which case, to achieve his own goals of re-moralization, doesn’t he need an authentic working-class leadership? It’s worth noting that the closest Charles Murray came to a remedy for our national “coming apart” was for elites to try living closer to working-class people. He doesn’t suggest any adjustment of our national political and economic arrangements that would cede more power to the working class.
And I stress the word “power” deliberately. It is entirely possible to simultaneously experience more consumer choice, and more consumer comfort, while experiencing a diminishment of power, a lack of control over one’s own life, and a lack of involvement collective decision making.
My 2c for Coates comes from a somewhat different direction. To whit: what is the politics implied by his critique?
The most obvious political thrust of a narrative of communal subjugation is nationalist and revolutionary. You make the case that your people has been brutalized and stolen from and raped and murdered with impunity. That case motivates the determination to rise up and prove your collective manhood by throwing the foreigner out of power. Depending on the circumstances, that might mean expelling an occupier (Kenya, for example), or toppling a minority regime (South Africa, for example), or carving one’s own state out from larger structure (South Sudan, for example). Nationalism, of course, doesn’t necessarily solve the inequities associated with the legacy of the historic injustice. But it makes it possible to act communally on a formally independent basis. And there’s a vital dignity in that – or so many of the world’s peoples have concluded.
True nationalism has never been a particularly practical option for the African-American community, though. And Coates himself is emphatic about his Americanness, his stake in a collective experiment in which he will likely always be a minority. He just wants more white Americans to love America without treating it as exceptional or objectively superior.
The point I want to make is that this agenda is itself a variety of exhortatory moralism, aimed at the other, just as Paul Ryan’s is. It’s just that the pathology in question is not crime or teen pregnancy but unexamined white supremacist premises. And that’s why I ask Coates the question I asked with regard to last year’s Best Picture: what kind of politics are implied by that kind of searing indictment divorced from any gesture toward action? Chait’s increasing irritation at Coates isn’t really about feeling misrepresented, but about the feeling that Coates’s is a counsel of despair.
Which brings me back to the original basis of the argument – does Barack Obama agree with Paul Ryan about something fundamental. Of course they do. They are both American politicians. So the fundamental thing that they agree on is: words are an instrument of power.
Why does Barack Obama exhort “Cousin Pookie” to “get off the couch” and vote? Because if he gets to the polls, Cousin Pookie will vote for him. He is not an analyst, trying to be fair to Cousin Pookie. If African-Americans were a disproportionate percentage of voters in 2008, he wanted them to be an even bigger disproportionate percentage of voters in 2012. Because he wanted to win. It has nothing to do with justice.
If Coates is disappointed that the election of Barack Obama has not radically improved racial dynamics in America, he should remember that Barack Obama is just the President of the United States. Coates complained in one of his pieces that Chait was treating the President as if he were the coach of “team Negro” – which would make exhortation to “try harder” appropriate – whereas in fact he’s the commissioner of the league. But if it’s not the commissioner’s job to give morally exhortatory speeches to “his” team, it’s also not the commissioner’s job to rail against the unfair advantage of the Yankees’ payroll. And it’s important not to forget that the commissioner is chosen not by the players or by the fans, but by the owners.
Which doesn’t mean that some commissioners aren’t more favorable to the interests of the players, and some less.
UPDATE: Here’s another way to put my question to Coates. The dominant narrative in speaking about black poverty could be described as “up and out.” The conservative variant emphasizes the personal responsibility element in making that happen, and the liberal variant emphasizes the economic and social policy assistance element, and there are further variations on variations to include conservative reformers and so forth – but the commonality is “up and out.” I don’t read Coates as denying that personal responsibility is important – I read him as denying that African Americans deserve any special notice in that regard, that they exhibit any special deficiency.
But I also read something else: an objection to that narrative as such, regardless of where the emphasis is placed. Because his own inheritance, from his father, is a narrative not of “up and out” but of “up and over.”
And my question is: what, in the context of America in 2014, does “up and over” mean to him?