Magazine article In These Times

Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Absurdity of Hope

Magazine article In These Times

Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Absurdity of Hope

Article excerpt

Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Absurdity of Hope

Ta-Nehisi Coates' We Were Eight Years in Power collects eight essays published in The Atlantic over the course of the Obama presidency, along with new introductions designed to provide context, critique and even some correction. The melange of memoir, essay and reporting fully displays Coates' talents, positioning him as a sort of bard of the Obama era.

Yet, as readers watch him come into his full powers as a writer, a more subtle transformation unfolds: In America's racial landscape, Coates finds an insurmountable mountain. The book crystallizes his role as the nation's most prominent skeptic of racial progress.

He came to that skepticism reluctantly, he writes. Much of this book traces his trajectory from a tepid believer that Barack Obama's election had made it "possible that white supremacy, the scourge of American history, might well be banished in my lifetime" to one who believes "no one-not our fathers, not our police, and not our gods-is coming to save us. The worst really is possible."

The book's title is derived from an 1895 speech by black South Carolina Congressman Thomas Miller lamenting the death of the eight-year Reconstructionera interracial government. Coates goes on to borrow W.E.B. Du Bois' explanation for the rejection of Reconstruction: "If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government." In the book's epilogue (published in The Atlantic as "The First White President"), Coates extends that quote to account for the backlash to Obama's presidency and the reactionary election of Trump, all part of this nation's routine racial choreography: one step toward racial progress, two steps back.

His skepticism shares features with the writings of Derrick Bell, whose 1992 book, Faces At the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, argues that racism is indelible. Bell's analysis helped establish the theoretical framework (and academic discipline) of critical race theory, which holds, among other things, that antiblackness is not a case of bad behavior by individuals; it's something deeply rooted in American attitudes and institutions.

But even adherents of critical race theory believe that racial progress is possible through finding points of mutual interest with specific segments of white America. Coates rejects the likelihood of progress. Perhaps his view can best be described as Sisyphean: There's not much the historically plundered caste of black Americans can do except keep on pushing against the prodigious rock of racism. White supremacy created America and is likely here to stay.

Although Coates was raised in a black nationalist family and nurtured in an environment of skepticism, he was seduced by the progressive visions boosted by a successful mainstream career.

"At the onset of these eight years," Coates writes, "my own views on what was so often and obscenely called 'race relations' were not so different from those of any other liberal." Coates supported the Keynesian solutions implied by the research of sociologist William Julius Wilson, who argued "that the decline of the kind of industrial high-paying, low-skill jobs that built America's white middle class had left large numbers of young black men unemployed, and the government made no real effort to ameliorate this shift. An array of unfortunate consequences issued from this shift-family poverty, violent streets, poor schools." Wilson's diagnosis led to the "rising tide lifts all boats" and prime-the-pump liberalism that serves as the generalized solution to this problem, and Coates was a tacit subscriber.

In the introduction to his widely heralded 2014 Atlantic essay, "The Case for Reparations," Coates explains how he developed his current bleak prognosis. Researching the piece led him to conclude that "there would be no happy endings" to America's racial story. "I believed this because the reparations claim was so old, so transparently correct, so clearly the only solution, and yet it remained far outside the borders of American politics," he writes. …

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