|The Death of General Wolfe, |
This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice.
My beef with Coates has always been something else. He's a great writer. There is a lyricism in his words, and a brash, unapologetic embrace of colloquial manners, albeit never sacrificed for imprecision. But his passion and craft are hamstrung by a lack of nuance in the larger project of deconstructing the system he rails against.
Much of the heft of his words lazily harkens back to civil-rights era tropes that just don't fit the times. Racism is alive and well today, but it is of a much different sort. Whereas before, the question of racial equality was actually on the table, and people took explicit positions against it. This isn't true today. Right wing leaders publicly praise Martin Luther King. They talk about "not seeing color", and in a belief that everyone should live together as equals.
So what to make of the present, then, when inequality obviously persists, and white people behave in ways in which they seem to value minorities less?
For black liberals like Coates, the easy answer is racism. White people are discriminating against blacks in employment, in school, in policing. Sure, blacks may be misbehaving more often that whites - but this is because of how racist whites are.
The problem with this critique is that it is superficial and naive. It skips over the deeper questions about how our social and economic system is organized in ways that limit historically marginalized groups' access to and development of societal capital. Instead, it chooses to focus in on explicit acts of white racism, as if once white people stopped acting racist, that the problems of the black community would be solved. If only whites became more "woke" and no longer engaged in microaggressions like assuming light-skinned people are white, or wanting to touch black hair. Or supposed macroaggressions such as moving into black neighborhoods. Or moving to neighborhoods where the schools are "good" (read: non-minority).
The focus is always on the personal, the individual - the conscious-raising. But as much as microaggressions are certainly real, and workplace discrimination, teacher prejudice and police brutality exist, they are not the cause of black disadvantage. They are ugly, obvious issues. But they aren't close to the source of the problem.
In white liberals' prostration before Coates, there is something of a Noble Savage act. Our deep guilt and uncomfortableness drive us to embrace a ritualistic display, in which, by allying ourselves with a black authority, we no longer have to be uncomfortable or guilty.
Instead of seeing native peoples as complex - even flawed at times, white anthropology sought to absolve itself from dealing with the foreign other on equal terms. It was an overcorrection, a way to make-believe that cultural understanding could happen in a sort of historical and value-free vacuum.
So too with the black "other". My hunch is that minority critics of the Coates variety find themselves torn between enjoying the attention that their broadsides against "White Supremacy", "Intersectionality" and "Privilege" enjoy among white liberals, and the suspicion that their critiques aren't actually understood all that well - that their harsh speaking of truths is a sort of Kabuki that whites are attending as a form of cheap penance that absolves quickly rather than requiring an advanced interrogation of both sides.
While personal identity politics is interesting, and important, it too often gets in the way of a larger discussion about a system which depends on and reinforces disadvantage. Solving that problem may in fact raise many more uncomfortable questions about privilege, and how we may need to radically alter some of our social structures going forward so that we can finally end disadvantage once and for all.