Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Scar
In an early chapter in his new book on Buddhism, 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 on why the Trump presidency vindicates his thesis that America is a white supremacist nation. I began to read Coates’s piece 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 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.
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. 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
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. 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.