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.
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:
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.
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.