Coates is again in the news as Cornel West takes him to task for his neoliberalism. A portion of West's thesis deals with Coates' embrace of Obama, including the imperialism he finds distasteful. While germane to a definition of neoliberalism, I'm personally more interested in how the two deal with minority poverty. As a white man, I recognize the privileged view from which I sit. However, with decades of work among poor and minority communities, and a life-long grappling both (literally and figuratively) with how to help understand and solve the wealth gap, I feel my critical engagement with these issues comes from a place of deep respect. Further, I continue to feel that true anti-racism requires humanization, not objectification of minority thought. That said, I welcome critique of my ideas should they veer towards offensive caricature, or any other reflection of my whiteness. But onwards.
Critiques of West have been that he is too ad hominem - arguing Coates' hasn't "earned" the right to his pessimism. That can be read as such - shouldn't Coates' arguments be taken on their merit, as opposed to the body that voices them? But one could read West not as impugning Coates' personally, but rather - again in line with West's thesis - his lack of a developed theory of oppression. West is a Marxist, and places oppression in the context of an accumulation of wealth and power that is explicitly capitalist. Coates spends very little time with this. Coates' paints vivid and beautiful portraits of what oppression feels like. And this is to be admired greatly. And his effect has been great. But much of this effect, arguably, can be attributable to his resonance with Whites' deep ambivalence between their neoliberal assumptions and their discomfort with their obvious privilege. Coates paints a vivid portrait for them to hang on their wall, to give passing penance. But nothing else about the room is required to change. The walls of the building remain.
My problem with Coates’ neo-liberalism is that it rests snugly in the neo-liberal Whites’ allergy top real economic reform. If it is all about racist white behavior, then you don’t have to deal with the deeper economic assumptions that literally perpetuate minority poverty. Whites are, have been, and likely be racist in all kinds of ways. But imagine if you got them all to stop tomorrow: what would that really change about minority poverty? We have an economic system which requires low-skill labor be paid low wages. This means historically marginalized groups will inevitably be the ones doing that work.
Neo-liberals assume that if you simply make the playing field equal, that society with be equal. But capitalism simply doesn’t work that way: it REQUIRES an underclass. Take Coates’ reparations - I’m all for them, but they don’t demand better pay for low-skill work. In fact, the neo-liberal assumption of a meritocracy in which everyone gets a good education and goes to college, ACTIVELY undervalues and views moral failing in the poor. Yet when the poor make bad choices, don’t raise their kids right, misbehave, etc. - neoliberals have no answer other than to pretend it doesn’t exist and that the problem is not the system but rather white racism. What they cannot or will not grasp is that capitalism depends on a caste system of societal capital, in which financial, emotional, cognitive, neighborhood, property, etc. resources are leveraged by market values. These market values don’t care a whit about the immorality of privilege and historical advantage. It depends upon the individual acting according to self-interest, which will always be stronger than group interest unless larger contingencies are in place. The strongest contingency of all is a system of laws that grant privilege status to property above morality. Thus, high-SES and low-SES is allowed to exist.
Of course race will be a factor in this, but it is only the language that the system uses to describe the violence that the economic system perpetrates. West’s critique of Coates is that he is “all talk” in this sense - that he revels in the language of racism without looking deeper, into its economic grammar, if you will.
In my intellectual evolution over the years (documented for better or worse on this blog!), I've come to develop the notion of something I call Societal Capital. Its an extension of the Marxist notion of the leveraging of capital in a capitalist society, but reaching more broadly to include not only financial but other forms of material wealth that can also be seen as commodities. Essentially, anything that can be leveraged to help one develop for themselves more freedom is Societal Capital. Likewise, the lack thereof of this development act to deleverage one's freedom. For example, when a parent reads to her child and engages her in stimulating conversation, she improves the child's cognitive capacity, which the child will be able to leverage for increased access to freedom in school and peer relationships. Similarly, the way a parent smiles at her child, hugs her and comforts her builds up a child's emotional strength, which then she will be able to leverage outside the home.
The notion of Societal Capital is Marxist in that it eschews the static notion of libertarian free will that is presumed by classical liberalism. Supporters of a "free market" imagine in individuals as free actors; if people are free to make decisions, all things being equal they will thrive according to their merit. An inherent morality is thus derived in which personal circumstance is largely the product of one's "personal freedoms", without regard to past or future learning histories. The ultimate product of this view is that people who don't do well in school, seek to better themselves, stay in low-wage jobs, or generally make choices that are less productive, have no one to blame but themselves.
This presents a problem for neo-liberalism, which fundamentally accepts the notion of merit and personal responsibility. But hold on a second, you might say - I'm a Democrat and I don't blame the poor!
Enter Coates and West. I first began reading Coates many years ago, when he used to blog for the Atlantic. I was interested in his take on education, especially how it intertwined with race. But I grew frustrated with his embrace of ed-reform (a movement rooted in neoliberalism's assumptions), and the picture he painted of "poor" schools did not reflect what I knew to be the case - both from research as well as first hand experience in the classroom. More so, I was annoyed with the what White readers - most of whom likely never spent much time in a ghetto in their lives - seemed to conveniently elevate him. Sure, there were racist teachers - I'll never forget one in PA who whispered a complaint to me about the "black ones". But sadly, the racism in her words was not in the facts of the case, but rather her interpretation of them. In Reading, PA, schools were filled with poor, misbehaved children. And there, as is the case everywhere in America, a higher proportion of misbehaved kids were indeed minority, especially black. But the racism dripping from her white lips was that she put the blame squarely ON THEM. She did not understand the context of what she was seeing. She did not see the historical marginalization, the wealth gap, and ultimately that poverty, not race was the determining factor in the behavior that she loathed. And as a teacher, you can only imagine how infuriating poorly behaved, disrespectful, sassy, unmotivated children can be. But poor white kids were hardly better (owing to their small privilege of being white and the modicum of Societal Capital that had allowed their family to maintain). When I finally left the profession, it was because I simply could no longer take the daily confrontation of poor kids with no support in the rest of their lives. I would end the day with a stack of notes to call home. When I phoned, their parents had long given up on them, and had no advice for me. These parents did not have enough support themselves. And in Yucca Valley, CA, they were primarily white.
For decades now, since explicit racism has been written out of the lawbooks (segregation, miscegenation), and society has generally embraced the notion that all races should be in theory treated fairly, the persistence of the minority poverty gap has presented a problem for mainstream political thought. The conservative Republican party views the problem as classical liberals might: free will in minority communities necessitates that the problem is individual. Far right racists say this is biological, less far-right race "realists" say it is cultural. The problem is not, that is, due to racism or economic structure.
The liberal Democratic party is too politically "liberal" (i.e. moderately progressive), to directly challenge the classical liberal assumptions of capitalism such free markets, property rights and individual freedom of action (free will). Instead, (especially after the horrific example of communism's form of dismantling these assumptions) it has chosen to delicately tip-toe around these notions, avoiding direct confrontation. Government is sold as a salve in the rougher edges of capitalism. Supports such as public education and health care subsidies are promoted as morally necessary when individuals are unable to obtain services such as education and health care on the free market. But when faced with the persistence of minority poverty, they are ill-equipped to confront the problem directly. To challenge racism is old-hat. This requires no actual challenge to any real norms. Be nice to everyone and treat them with respect. OK, fine. We've all agreed that this is what you are supposed to do. Of course, people are going to be racist in all manner of micro-aggressive, ignorant and mildly ugly ways. But undoing any of this, no matter how hard we try, is... well, lip-service.
Generational poverty is a product of capitalism. If we take race out of the equation altogether, you still get economic segregation and broken communities, for the simple fact that low-wages inflict a violence upon families that is beyond compare. It creates stresses, hardships, and instabilities that devastate Societal Capital. It creates ghettos bereft of public capital such as parks, clean streets, role-models, nice stores, good transportation and basic safety. It saps family capital as marriages are strained and children grow up unsupported. Emotional and cognitive capital is deserted in early childhood, leading to schools filled with children far behind their higher-wage family peers. Educational capital is thus hamstrung as the school-to-poverty pipe-line is reinforced. Hope is depleted, short-term is prioritized, which reinforces behaviors that don't build long-term capital.
But all of this is to become skeptical of capitalism, of merit itself. It is to become skeptical of economic and social structures that are foundational to our country. The moral portrait it begins to paint is one of inequity, specifically that the privileged no more earn their place than do those without privilege. Inequity is not something you can simply "educate away". All the schools in the world and lack of racism is not going to fill the vacancies of landscapers, dishwashers, maids, cashiers, line-cooks, waiters and the rest.
This is what I took West to be saying. Coates was his target not because he was black, but because he wasn't white. In the neo-liberal mainstream media world, critiques of capitalism are verboten, but lip service to racism is always fair game. And better yet, when a black writer like Coates, who so eloquently, poetically describes in rich detail the indignity of White Supremacy - yet without the deeper, revolutionary critique of capitalism, he is lauded. Much like the erasing of Dr. Martin Luther King's pivot to poverty allows modern Whites a sort of moral cleansing, Coates' wallowing in the pessimism of a neo-liberal framework unsatisfied with its own inability to come to terms with its perpetuating forces too abets a process of toothless political meandering.
And while "woke" twitter throws shade over lattes and worn copies of bell hooks, people are still waking up at the crack of dawn to do dirty work for little pay.