Ta-Nehisi Coates Knows a Thing or Two about Racism

In some free advice to liberal bloggers, the headline “Ta-Nehisi Coates Does Not Understand Racism” reveals more about your understanding of race than his.

Ben Studebaker is not on unsound footing with his premise once we get past that. The essence of the debate Coates is weighing in on is whether or not there exists some fundamental form of oppression in class, or if race is a separate but intertwined struggle. Coates believes the latter and Ben has long advocated the former. While I align with Coates, I am more floored by Ben’s sloppy argument.

I don’t buy the standard Marxist argument that—and I’m strawmanning a bit to streamline the post—because categories of race were contrived to justify economic systems that they have always been economic. For starters, they were popularized by people with differing agendas, often for surprisingly altruistic reasons. In my view, race, once made, took on a life of its own.

But Ben does not lay out this case. His argument appears to be a rather simplistic model of racism, a terrible bastardization of intersectionality, and then some grade-A misreading of an interview that Coates gave once. This post isn’t about whether or not the conclusion is wrong. It is, rather appropriately, arguing Ben has not even got in sight of the burden of proof for his claims.

Two Things First

This makes an appearance in Ben’s pice:

Neil Drumming: “OK. That’s like–I feel like for This American Life, you’re going to have to explain that.’

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “What bougie means? So ‘bougie’ is a term that black people use—and I guess white people have used it now, ’cause I see white people using it—which I think people think is interchangeable with ‘snob.’ But I actually don’t think [that’s right]…a bougie’s a snob who looks down…bougie people want to be part of a crowd…they want to be part of the right crowd. So for instance, I don’t want to put my son in some exclusive club or something, literally like some sort of societal something or other. Do you know what I mean?”

(Emphasis mine.) The obvious reading of this absent all other facts is that Coates is talking about usage in slang or AAVE. The reading that Coates doesn’t know its origins in Marxist theory are, I suppose, plausible taking this and only this. But Coates has publicly engaged with Marxism, for example here. It seems doubtful that someone who tried to parse socialist writers’ views on whether or not the American South was pre-industrial, an important aspect of Marxist theory, missed one of the vocabulary words that even precocious high schoolers pick up.

Finally, the Counter-Punch article that Ben links to actually distinguishes between “Bougie” and “Bourgeoisie” directly after the lifted quote. I know Ben and I don’t think he was being duplicitous, but that does not change that it is an uncharitable reading used to conclude without further warrant that a black critic is not well-read enough to be taken seriously. While I do not think it is intentional, I am stunned that he linked a piece he did not give a sufficient reading to prove Coates is poorly read.

Second, there is this:

Bernie Sanders understands that to break the cycles of poverty and racism, the left needs to build a broad, solidaristic coalition that includes significant numbers of white people. One way to do this is to propose welfare spending that is not explicitly race-based. As we can see in the above chart, blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately poor, and welfare spending will disproportionately benefit them, but by allowing poor whites to also be beneficiaries, the left shows that it is committed to opposing oppression in all forms for all people. This undermines the right’s ability to use race to split the poor. Sanders and Trump are competing for many of the same voters–people who feel that the political system is not looking out for them. Sanders invites poor whites to join him in a coalition with blacks and Hispanics to rollback the power of corporations and the wealthy to create a more just and sustainable distribution of wealth. Trump tries to tell those same poor white voters that Sanders will just take their hard-earned money and give it to “those people”. Those who support reparations have the very best of intentions, but in real political terms they are helping Donald Trump.

(Emphasis mine.) Ben is not wrong, though I might quibble about what solidarity can mean when whites have to be prioritized for political reasons. It is quite one thing to say that a candidate who puts black interests first is not electable. It is quite another to say that Coates does not understand racism because of it. Racism is the belief that whites come first and the structures that produce outcomes that put whites first. Ben baldly makes this argument that we must prioritize the interests of white voters to make Sanders electable, as do many Sanders supporters.

The argument is revealingly incrementalist: Collaborate with white supremacy and we can erode it. Perhaps, but it is still white supremacy.

Intersectionality

Coates is talking about a deep fight that divides socialists and has since the movements began. The “class-first” position is decidedly socialist orthodoxy. If you’ll permit me to clean up a messy history, the divide has evolved something like this: The resistance to that position goes back to first wave feminists, who actually convinced Engles to change a lot of his sexist positions and view women as having struggles separate, if related to class. Activists in the 60s had an uneasy alliance with socialists, which is how Sanders ended up working with black radicals. There was a good deal of internal conflict as socialists tried to put class issues first on the agenda over the objections of black activists. In the 80s, bell hooks wrote the book that launched a thousand Tumblrs (albeit later), formalizing a lot of those complaints into Intersectionality. A few other things happened, obviously.

Intersectionality means different things to different people, so it is a good idea to either define it yourself or reference a specific author. That said, there are some commonalities that I’ll be using for the rest of this post. Intersectionality is the recognition that there are multiple kinds of oppression, none are “fundamental”, and that multiple oppressed identities are different than the sum of their parts. The author bell hooks memorably put the second criterion as, “there is no hierarchy of oppressions”.

Ben, for his part, does not create a hierarchy, but nor does he create an intersection. He creates a cycle:

cycle-of-racism

On the subject of a charitable reading, Ben likely knows this is simplified. That is not exactly the issue here—all models are simplifications and all blogging requires some creative cutting. That’s not my beef. If this were an intersectionality model, even a simple one, then some of the nodes would be double reinforcing.

Poverty, for example, should point back at “fewer blacks being economically successful” because poverty is reinforcing. It also should directly point at “racism denies blacks resources and poverty” because poverty interacts in potent with race. I include this because it is the intersectionality for policies which substantially address poverty. Coates has never deviated from that message.

But it is worth noting that the boxes, “white people notice how badly off blacks are” and “white people use this as an excuse to do nothing” has no one-for-one equivalent in a theory of white poverty; it is a racial phenomenon. The first box is one of many observations that white people have made to justify their power, and many of those boxes would reinforce each other. Minorities have a harder time accessing welfare, meaning that Ben’s cycle should probably be bidirectional at its simplest. These are hurdles that white poor people simply do not face, in the same way that women working within socialism had problems that were unlike Engle’s problems and a product of gender. This would imply there is no hierarchy of oppressions.

Ben’s cyclical model is ultimately too supperficial to serve as proof that Coates’ more nuanced writing is false. It never really rises above counter-assertion. In doing so, it shortchanges a number of theorists who have put forward a strong case that intersectionality is a real phenomenon. Coates, bell hooks, and others who propound intersectionality have argued that everything Ben says is true. It just is not exclusively true.

Curiously, Ben hedges by arguing that black people face a unique disadvantage. He argues, in short, that reparations would create a backlash. It is certainly an important policy consideration. But, if race and class are essentially the same, welfare should fail because poor people will face a backlash. The answer is obvious: race has taken on a life of its own.

Conclusion

The obvious next question is whether or not class-first or intersectional models are better. Many authors have made the case better than I could, and I will not rehash it here—besides, this is a long post already. Ben is free to parse the evidence differently, as do many (but not anything close to all!) academics. To be honest, I was convinced of intersectionality doing organizing work and hitting hard-to-solve realities about power in supposedly progressive spaces. Ben’s graph above feels like a compelling slice of a bigger problem to me and Coates is directing everyone to look at the cake. Not everyone, even leftist scholars, think Coates has this right, of course, but Ben is wrong if he thinks Coates is not aware of this.

Ain’t I a Woman should go on Ben’s reading list; it almost certainly was on Coates’ at some point.

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3 thoughts on “Ta-Nehisi Coates Knows a Thing or Two about Racism

  1. I find this article to be deeply unfair to my piece.

    In the public engagement with Marxism you cite, Coates only mentions having attempted to read one book written in the 70’s by a Marxist historian (not a political theorist), and even admits he couldn’t get through it. There’s no serious evidence of intellectual engagement with Marxist political theory, especially as it relates to race theory.

    The Counterpunch article makes the distinction–Coates does not. Coates did not write the Counterpunch article. The Counterpunch article is a critique of Coates. I included the entire Coates quote from the interview in the Counterpurnch article, leaving out nothing. Later in the Counterpunch article, John Halle makes the same accusation I’m making:

    ““’bougie’ is a contraction of ‘bourgeoisie’…Coates doesn’t mention its origin and seems to be clueless what that means: i.e. a specific class defined by its relationship to labor and capital. (You don’t need to be a Marxist to know this.) Ignoring all this Coates construes the word purely with respect to its social connotations-as if it’s some kind of idiotic fashion statement. The only interesting question is whether Coates is being cynical – he knows the real meaning of bourgeois as denoting a specific economic class and deliberately chooses not to mention it, or that his education is so impoverished – which is to say, neoliberalism has become so entrenched, that the most basic facts about class are not even recognized, let alone understood” (emphasis added).”

    I did not suggest prioritizing the interests of poor whites, I suggested including them as beneficiaries in redistribution, both because poor whites are an essential part of effective left wing coalitions and because poor whites are poor and the poor are worthy of help.

    In my previous writing, I distinguish between two definitions of racism, neither of which are the unnecessarily reductive “whites come first”:

    1. Explicit racism: arguing that certain races are better or worse than others on genetic grounds
    2. Implicit racism: arguing that racial disparities are due to differences in culture among the races (for which the members of the races are potentially blameworthy) rather than material/structural inequality/oppression, typically as an excuse for doing nothing about that inequality/oppression

    There is a causal mechanism for how people come to have implicitly racist views, and we have to disrupt that causal mechanism. This is the only way to stop implicit racism–calling this “collaboration” makes no sense, because on my account it is the only way to meaningfully confront the problem.

    There is a false dichotomy you are drawing between class and race issues that smuggles in your own assumptions about how racism operates. I am holding that these things are inextricably linked–the reason whites are implicitly racist is because they view black poverty and its consequences as evidence that their implicit racist beliefs are correct, and as a result they take implicitly racist positions that result in the perpetuation of black poverty and its consequences.

    As I use it, intersectionality refers to any theory of how different forms of oppression interact. A theory is intersectional if it has forms of oppression interacting–it is not intersectional if it considers them separately.

    In other places, I have also emphasized that poverty is cyclical and perpetuating–I did not bring this into this post because I did not want to give the impression that I was arguing that the poverty cycle alone accounts for the perpetuation of black poverty. This would turn what I’m doing into a reductive class analysis that excludes racism entirely. I am emphasizing that black poverty is not only caused by the poverty cycle, but by implicit racism. My emphasis here is on how implicit racism works–how implicit racists come to have implicitly racist views, and how this can be disrupted structurally.

    Coates never considers what causes implicit racism–indeed, he does not distinguish between explicit and implicit, nor does he make any proposals for countering racism as an ideology. Coates’ argument is much simpler–he points out the many ways that blacks have been disadvantaged, and assumes that reparations will fix this. To understand racism, we have to understand how and why people become racist. We have to understand how racists think, and we have to disrupt that process.

    No one is arguing that race and class are the same. I am doing the precise opposite–I am pointing out how race and class feed off each other to make it harder for blacks to break out of poverty cycles than whites. I am then taking seriously the question of how and why people become implicit racists, a question that Coates doesn’t even bother with.

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  2. PS–I think it’s important to point out that when I accuse Coates of not understanding racism, what I mean is that he doesn’t understand how or why people become racist and support racist policies. Coates knows a lot about how racism has harmed and oppressed blacks. But racism is not merely a set of actions, racism is an ideology, and that ideology has to be understood intellectually to be countered. It’s not enough to benefit blacks, we have to benefit blacks in a way that also undermines racism’s intellectual foundations.

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  3. PPS–to try to make this point a little clearer, my view is NOT a class first view. My view is that implicit racism as an ideology and policy agenda is itself directly fueled and perpetuated by black poverty. This means that we cannot deal with implicit racism without dealing with poverty. This is not a hierarchy–the claim is not that class is first or more important. The claim is that implicit racism as an ideology is itself constituted by black poverty and the beliefs that whites have about what causes it. Take away the black poverty and you take away the questions that racism answers for white racists–“why are blacks poor, why are more of them incarcerated, why are so many of their families single parent”. If white people see that black people are just as socially and economically successful as they are, they will have no basis for thinking them culturally inferior. The state has the power to redistribute and give poor blacks the economic resources and opportunities they need to be significantly more successful. It does not have the power to force implicit racists to believe that black poverty is produced by system oppression rather than by black cultural failings. Trying to deal with implicit racism by trying to convince whites to understand racism as systemic oppression is never going to work, as long as the social and economic disparities exist those disparities will be used to justify belief in the inferiority of black culture.

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