Of our day, Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most pre-eminent intellectuals, writing for the often horrid Atlantic magazine owned by Atlantic Media’s Howard Kurtz, a neocon guy who was “dead certain about the rightness” of the 2003 Iraq invasion. I’ve been in classes where professors have praised him as the best thing since sliced bread. Admittedly, I even skipped a class session because I didn’t want to read Coates’s Case for Reparations again without critically analyzing it. As Mariame Kaba, who uses the handle @prisonculture, declared on twitter recently about an article Coates wrote about Sanders “…When people bother to offer principled critique, it means there’s something they think is worth engaging. So smart supporters would take that seriously & interrogate the claims being made without becoming defensive.” This article does not criticize Kaba with her own words, which is for another day, but fulfills my promise and aims to start the criticism of Coates, which is currently lacking in public discourse .
Beginning the conversation
It is good to begin with a revealing short piece by Coates in the style magazine New York. The piece starts with a praise of the Washington City Paper for its reporting, saying it “was very confrontational and aggressive, and there’d be this mix of history and cultural criticism and first person and journalism.” He then goes on to claim he was mature, cared about his writing and his awareness of race, but also his professionalism:
“…I went in, and I tried to dress as best as I could. And that was not very dressy, but it was okay. I think I had a pair of nice pants, and I remember I had a leather jacket on — I didn’t have like a normal blazer, so I had a leather jacket on — and my little tie. There were no black people in the office. Like none. This is immediately the whitest place I had ever been in my life. Right away. So I get in and culturally, you know, it’s like a different world. I’m looking at these folks, and they’re not even professional, or corporate, like what you see in the movies or on TV. You know, these are like alternative white people, and I had no exposure to alternative white people, like none”
While this seems to show his class blindness, but shows “racial awareness,” the next part is even clearer. He writes that he didn’t think he could write a story about a part of Washington D.C., Ward 8, which he claimed had “a reputation as a really poor area of the city, but nestled within there was this neighborhood of Hillcrest that was very middle class, very working class, very nice” which couldn’t “get services.” What was his reason? “I didn’t think I was that type of person.” Yikes! This leads to a bunch of questions: What type of person was he then? A “bougie” person? Is he the same now but with a different mask on? He then goes on to imply that he is the person who “asks questions”:
“Someone else might be more curious than you, but the functionality of them being more curious than you is that they just asked more questions. That was a deep sort of lesson — that the winner is the person who keeps asking questions. That’s the winner.”
This attitude is not surprising for someone who was likely praised in a one page splash (which you can’t read from the picture) in the Japanese-owned British business publication, the Financial Times. This connects to a recent article about Coates in CounterPunch by Paul Street which a biting and appropriate criticism. The piece argues first and foremost that Coates focuses on race but ignores class. A number of selected quotes are important to mention here:
“I take Coates at his word when he claims not to crave elite class identity and to be more concerned with things, not status. At the same time, I think there’s something else worse to be than “bougie”: bourgeois. And what makes one bourgeois is one’s material and social class position and one’s mental and ideological framework, things that go beyond one’s fondness (or lack thereof) for fine goods and service and one’s quest (or lack thereof) for station. Among other things, a bourgeois world view denies the central importance of class oppression and the need for working class unity and struggle across racial and other lines. Seen this way, I sense that the word bourgeois applies fairly well to Ta-Nehisi Coates. The economic aspect is obvious. He’s moved his family to Paris, with help from a recent $625,000 no-strings-attached “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. His book royalties are no doubt impressive. No, he’s not remotely as rich as world’s 80 wealthiest people…Still, the man is well off…More importantly and far more significantly for the purposes of this essay, why does Coates devalue the “the question [of] whether Lincoln truly meant government of the people?”…The problem here is Coates’ remarkably class-blind, overly identity-politicized bourgeois thinking and his related ignorance of the history of class relations and their centrality to the crucial problem that quite understandably concerns him: racial oppression…What’s all this “class stuff” got to do with the vital topic on which the award-winning writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates focus – racial oppression and racist violence in America? Quite a bit, to say the least…All through American history, moreover…the nation’s capitalist elites have played the Machiavellian game of racial divide and rule to keep the nation’s working class majority down…Coates demonstrates no concern for an essential point: the white working class majority has paid a terrible price for American racism. The wages of whiteness have been very low indeed. And that makes his reflections on contemporary U.S. racial oppression racism and what might be done about it miserably partial and inadequate. He does not see or, perhaps, care that reparations of a kind are due to most of the populace and will have to be pursed through democratic-socialist transformation…I am not sure how well Coates understands contemporary racism even on his own cynical and/or impoverished class-blind terms. Coates’ emphasis on the racial positive…of the disastrous…neoliberal Obama experience at the end of the day is related to his bourgeois position and bubble…not to mention the corporate media, including a regular literary pulpit at the conservative and neoliberal Atlantic. His bourgeois experience and mindset can’t help but bias him towards a positive judgement on the racial meaning of the Obama years.”
Not only does Street’s analysis spot-on but it is telling about Coates. It seems from his description that Coates is a privileged, “bougie” individual who ultimately has a bourgeois position in seclusion in France and defends the Obama administration but is not a petite bourgeoisie individual, unless his writing counts as “labor power,” and is not part of the bourgeoisie proper. Yet, but not analyzing class he is perpetrating bourgeois nationalism.
Coates misses the boat on Sanders
Coates recently wrote an article which supposedly criticizes moderate imperialist Bernie Sanders for rejecting reparations but actually accepts the idea Sanders is radical, which makes no sense to any sensible observer. He declares that Sanders, who calls for investment in rebuilding cities and making colleges and universities have free tuition, among other ideas, is ridiculous, saying this spectacle, as he calls it, “is only rivaled by the implausibility of Sanders posing as a pragmatist.” He then dismisses Sanders’s ideas as ridiculous ones that would never pass Congress, falling into the idea that there can ONLY be the “politics of the possible.” From here, Coates then says Sanders is “the candidate of partisanship and radicalism” not the “candidate of moderation and unification.” Additionally, he claims that “radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue” despite the fact that neither Sanders nor himself is NOT radical in the slightest. He goes on to claim that “Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy” and almost if not, implies that Hillary Clinton has better approach, which is ridiculous. Coates then declares that what he calls the “class first” approach is wrong, “originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible” and implying that raising the minimum wage and making college free are “socialist” proposals when they are NOT at all. In fact, even Obama at one point sorta proposed making community college free. Such ideas are NOT radical but are actually mainstream. Coates is basically saying that socialists don’t understand race which is just ridiculous and unfounded. Coates then goes on to complain that housing discrimination and affirmative action are not addressed in the ““racial justice” section of Sanders platform.” I’m not sure what Coates expects of a moderate imperialist who comes from one of the whitest states in America, which could be an example of what some have called a whitopia. So, no wonder he is horrible when it comes to policies supposedly for improving the state of the black community.
Coates then claims that Sanders is a “candidate who is not merely against reparations, but one who doesn’t actually understand the argument.” Oh and Hillary Clinton does? Come on. He goes on to say that “from 1619 until at least the late 1960s, American institutions, businesses, associations, and government…repeatedly plundered black communities,” which is accurate. However, class is STILL not mentioned. If this isn’t enough, Coates says that “Sanders should be directly confronted and asked why his political imagination is so active against plutocracy, but so limited against white supremacy” despite the fact they he was already confronted with by two black female protesters months ago who interrupted a rally in Seattle. Coates then goes on to claim that if “if not even an avowed socialist can be bothered to grapple with reparations…if this is the candidate of the radical left—then expect white supremacy in America to endure well beyond our lifetimes and lifetimes of our children.” He is not only wrong that Sanders is part of the radical left but he is not recognizing that underground/”hidden” racism exists in Western societies, like the United States, and that as long as there are active white supremacists, like the militia members in Oregon, then such white supremacy will continue as a part of society. He then claims that reparations is the only way to fight white supremacy:
“It is the indispensable tool against white supremacy. One cannot propose to plunder a people, incur a moral and monetary debt, propose to never pay it back, and then claim to be seriously engaging in the fight against white supremacy.”
While one could say that is rational, in the last lines of this article he inflates his ego to ridiculous proportions as any sensible person would realize:
“My hope was to talk to Sanders directly, before writing this article. I reached out repeatedly to his campaign over the past three days. The Sanders campaign did not respond.”
Not only is Coates acting like the Sanders campaign doesn’t care and is callous but he is showcasing his supposed self-importance, which doesn’t actually exist.
Then there was an article in the right-leaning The Week promoted by Rania Khalek as a “corrective” to Coates by Ryan Cooper, a correspondent who falsely claimed that Sanders was “pretty far to Clinton’s left,” promotes The Intercept (also see here), and was, and I quote, “a die-hard Obama partisan for a solid year [after the 2008 election]…[I] would have done whatever he asked[.]” That comment by Cooper doesn’t sound very democratic, it sounds pretty authoritarian. But that’s me.
Anyway, its important to talk about Cooper’s article. He writes that Coates, who he claimed is “perhaps the most famous and respected black writer in America” took Sanders to task for “failing to support reparations for slavery” but also claimed that it was a chance for Sanders to “clarify the deep reach of his brand of redistributive policy” and a chance “for Coates to reconsider his rather hasty dismissal of socialism itself.” These ideas presume once again that Sanders is radical when he is not and that Coates is receptive to socialism when he is clearly NOT. Cooper pointed out, as those such as Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report have noted, that Coates doesn’t actually define “what reparations would look like” and in his “case for reparations” article two years ago he “barely even gestured at how an actual reparations policy would be constructed,” with no clarifications since. Cooper then goes into different figures for reparations and claims that slavery is “a crime so vast that it would be impossible to provide restitution of similar magnitude without dismantling the entire country,” implying it is impossible and that others who were oppressed would get reparations. This seems a bit far-fetched considering that Japanese-Americans already received reparations for the racist crime of internment during World War II. Beyond this, Cooper says that it is a problem for Coates to use “Sanders as a stand-in for the radical left” since Sanders’s “favored policies are right in line with the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.” He also says that a “true program of democratic socialism…could unquestionably serve as a part of an ongoing positive force against racism” and would “ensure that black Americans are getting an equal cut of its current fruits,” which sounds like something that Sanders would say on the campaign trail. Cooper ends his article by saying that Sanders shouldn’t have “lightly brushed off reparations as a topic” but that his proposal was “far better than Coates gives it credit for” and that “race-neutral redistribution and welfare are by necessity anti-racist. Full democratic socialism would be even more promising.” While this sounds great, the fact is that Cooper doesn’t seem like much of a radical himself even if he self-identifies as such, like Sanders himself.
A much better article criticizing Coates is by Bruce Dixon in Black Agenda Report. He not only sarcastically says that Coates “lives in France, and earns his keep dispensing timely wisdom upon us all from across the water” but says that since his 2014 piece, “Coates is presumably qualified to speak on the subject.” But that’s not all. Dixon criticizes Coates for not mentioning Clinton’s anti-reparations views, “that the Green Party’s presidential candidate Jill Stein does endorse reparations,” and says Coates’s piece is hallow. He goes on to say that by Coates repeating “nonsense claims that that socialists can’t see white supremacy” will discourage blacks from interest in socialism. Dixon then helpfully says that Coates’s “weekly dose of disinformation” comes in three parts: “[1.] stay away from Bernie cause he ain’t for reparations…[2.] look out for those socialists too, cause they make a point of ignoring and denying the role of white supremacy…[3.] Bernie Sanders didn’t return my call to explain himself” which he says is “pretty lazy stuff” even for “conventional neoliberal wisdom.” Then Dixon has perhaps the best words of his piece, saying that not only is Sanders not a socialist but that Coates is totally wrong:
“In the real world, not the fantasies of Mr. Coates, Bernie Sanders is no kind of socialist. Socialists stand for the working class, the poor, the common man and woman regardless of nation and color. Bernie’s socialism stops at the water’s edge, as he endorses apartheid in Israel, the Pentagon budget and the global empire of hundreds US bases and vast military industries that eat half the nation’s wealth annually. This makes Bernie no friend of the poor anyplace outside the US and not so much the friend of the poor inside it either, really no kind of socialist at all. Bernie know this, and has rarely if ever called himself one in recent years. But he allows, even encourages us to call him that this year because socialism is popular, even though Ta Nehesi Coates thinks it should not be. As long as they keep paying Mr. Coates, we’ll be treated to more of his very conventional wisdom. Get read for it.”
Coates’s sad defense of himself and racial castes
In a recent article, Coates basically attacked those who criticized him on his article about reparations, but didn’t mention Black Agenda Report of course. He claims that he “did offer some details on the proposals which have been put forth by scholars over the years” and supported “John Conyers’s H.R. 40 bill, which proposed to study slavery and its legacy, and to determine whether reparations were feasible.” From here, Coates claimed that “this did not stop people from demanding specifics,” especially from those who don’t believe in it, that his case for reparations was centered on “actual living African Americans who’d been wronged, well within living memory,” and that a vast majority of white America “opposed reparations in all forms” in a 2014 poll. Coates then flouts his self-importance again, saying his article, “The Case For Reparations” meant to “counter” such ideas and that “curious” readers are willing to agree with him, apparently.
This isn’t all Coates writes. He criticizes Kevin Drum, a writer for Mother Jones, and declares that unlike Drum, who says that “problem with the bringing pirates to justice is the distribution system,” he believes that “the problem is piracy itself, and grand piracy always extends beyond the act of theft. It requires the construction of an elaborate architecture to either justify the theft, or to justify non-compensation for the theft.” Before going on, this indicates that Coates cares about the effects of racism, but not institutionalized racism which is a vital part of the American and global capitalist system. Coates then says that considering reparations has a “potential to expand the American political imagination” and claims that he wants people to imagine more, implying that socialism is just a wacko conception concocted by crazies:
“And in this sense the conversation ends right where it began: Liberals and radicals see no problem imagining a socialist presidency. They do not demand specific details of how single-payer health care, free public-college tuition, and the break-up of big banks would make it through a Republican Congress. They are not wrong. God bless them and their radical imagination. I mean it. I just want them to imagine more.”
Let me add here that I will not take a position for or against reparations. I need more information before deciding either way. However, it is important to point out Coates’s arguments in order to engender futrher discussion.
At this point, it is key to introduce a term proposed by social historian Peter Levy in his wonderful book about civil rights activities in Cambridge, Maryland during the 1960s and beyond, called Civil War on Race Street. This term is racial caste. Levy writes on page 11, in the first chapter, the following:
“[During the pre-Civil War period,] Cambridge developed into a racially caste-based society, with whites acquiring a sense of caste superiority over both enslaved and free blacks. I use the term caste rather than simply race because caste better captures the way in which individuals are born with a specific status in society, a status they inherit and cannot alter no matter their individual merits…[in the post-Civil War period]…caste did not disappear…[but] class distinctions became just as important in the life of the community. The term class is best understood as depicting socioeconomic relationships between distinct groups of people. Theoretically, one’s class, unlike one’s caste, can change, and the line between working class and middle class remained family permeable…[in the post-WWII period]…an assortment of forces…destabilized the community and paved a way for a challenging of traditional caste and class relations”
I mention this because the term racial caste can be used in the modern American context and can serve as a corrective to Coates’s purportedly “racially aware” but class-blind analysis of current racial relations. It is also important to challenge Coates’s idea and that perpetrated by too many: the black-white paradigm which presupposes that blacks and whites are the ONLY major races in America. In fact, the US Census declares that there are at least five races: (1) White; (2) Black; (3) American Indian and Alaska Native (overarching category); (4) Asian (overarching category); (5) Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (overarching category). Then there’s Hispanic and Latino, ethnic group labels produced to benefit certain constituencies but hurt radical efforts of unification during the 1960s and 1970s, with millions under that category. At minimum, this could be expanded to include three other groups which are arguably races: Mexican (also called Chicano, bronze race, or Mexican-Americam), Puerto Rican, and Cuban.
Coates praises Obama as a wonderous icon
There are a number of pieces in which Coates praised Obama, despite what some crusty defender, a supposed radical, claimed. I noted these in a number of tweets where I screencaped pieces of this nature (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). These pieces are not surprising when you consider that Coates is high level enough to be read by Obama, who seems to recognize his importance to the bourgeoisie.
The first article worth mentioning is a 2007 piece titled “Is Obama Black Enough?” In the piece, Coates almost seemed disappointed that Obama would not call for reparations but he also declared that “Obama is biracial, and has a direct connection with Africa. He is articulate, young and handsome,” implying his support. Beyond this, Coates said that Obama’s biracialness “opened a gap for others to question his authenticity as a black man” but that his “foreign ancestry could not prevent his wallet from morphing into a gun in the eyes of the police.” Coates then declared that “African-Americans meet other intelligent, articulate African-Americans all the time” who run for elections, and then declared strangely that “Obamania is rooted in the belief that 50 Cent, not Barack Obama, represents the real black America.” This also denies that the black community has a rich history and implies it is dominated by commercialism and/or is hallow. If that wasn’t enough, Coates implicitly defended Obama’s work as a “community organizer” in Chicago and that claimed that Obama was not only given”the escape valve of biraciality” but unnerves “many small-minded racists,” who he claims can be white or black. Before going further, this means he is saying, whether he wants to, that “reverse racism” is real and that racism isn’t a system of oppression. Anyway, the last line of the article is most telling: “Barack Obama’s real problem isn’t that he’s too white — it’s that he’s too black.” This observation is a bit odd but also goes along with the rest of the article by whitewashing Obama’s neoliberalism and/or the PR aspect of the Obama campaign itself.
Then, there’s a 2014 article titled “The Champion Barack Obama.” The article praises Obama as one of the best icons based off a profile in The New Yorker by David Remnick. What he wrote is revealing:
“I have tried to get my head around what he represents. Two years ago, I would have said that whatever America’s roots in white supremacy, the election of a black president is a real thing, worthy of celebration, a sign of actual progress. I would have pointed out that you should not expect a black head of state in any other Western country any time soon, and that this stands as singular accolade in the long American democratic tradition. Today, I’m less certain about national accolades. I’m not really sure that a writer—whose whole task is the attempt to see clearly—can afford such attachments.”
The fact that Coates is admitting he would have been more of an Obamabot only two years before, in 2012, is disturbing. Even considering my own experience, I was critical of Obama in a number of ways by then. I think it is important to make an admission here. I canvassed for Obama in Philadelphia with my liberal/progressive parents during the 2008 election and was optimistic about him despite my support of John Edwards about the “two Americas” (poor and rich). Let me say before someone jumps on me that, I was highly naive (and politically ignorant) about the particularities of politics and the capitalist system. Not anymore! As the years went by, my support of Obama slipped away as I became disillusioned. My criticism started early on, with critical articles even in 2010, it increased in 2011 with my anger at him for supporting an imperialist war in Libya after which I dedicated myself to opposing an future imperial interventions, and in 2012 the criticism hardened, even voting for a socialist for president that year. Then, while I’ve been in college, from 2012 to the present my radicalism and anger at Obama has increased to the point that I detest him. I refuse to be pulled into such a deception like the 2008 Obama campaign and want to serve as a person who counters anyone who tries to peddle such bullshit again. While I transformed from a naive liberal to a critical progressive and then an independent radical, Coates DID NOT do this.
Anyway, back to Coates’s piece. He claims that if you say that blacks are American then “America is, itself, a black country in a way that the other European countries are not,” however, this is a strange idea because America has NEVER been a black country but has actually been a multiracial one, a white-dominated one since its inception. Coates goes on to tell about some history here and there which he clearly cherypicked for his own purposes. If this isn’t enough, Coates claims that Obama and his family are an icon of goodness with his presidency was possible because of “the tradition of black politics”:
“In a literal sense, Barack Obama’s presidency was made possible by the tradition of black politics—he could not have won in 2008 without the proportional allocation that came out of Jesse Jackson’s campaign 20 years before…Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don’t expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama’s on such a prominent stage….I don’t expect to see a black woman [Michelle Obama] exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again….I don’t ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again.”
While many radical critics and sensible people were aware of Obama’s deceptions at this time, or even his imperialistic and neoliberal policy, Coates still claims that this symbolism is important, not understanding how it can be destructive. Coates then claims that Obama as a result of such symbolism “becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities” which is deeply scary if you believe. I even think that Cornel West would concur with my assessment of Coates. Coates then asks a number of goofy questions, one of which is “how does a black writer approach The Man when The Man is not just us, but the Champion of our ambitions?” and NEVER asserts that the color of someone’s skin, and perception of them due to their skin color, shouldn’t determine how much one criticizes them.
Coates continues on by acting like he is criticizing Obama for “addressing “personal responsibility” and then gives three examples to “prove” that W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Malcolm X are “wrong.” For Malcolm X, he claims “he knew the game was rigged. He did not know how much.” This is just absurd and ridiculous. While one could criticize Malcolm X for his masculinism as scholars like Steve Estes have done, Coates doesn’t even attempt any real criticism other than a snide remark. Then, Coates claims that that “no black people boo when the president talks about personal responsibility. On the contrary, it’s often the highlight of his speeches on race” which IGNORES the criticisms on Black Agenda Report on this very issue! From here, Coates gives a personal story and defends Obama talking about personal responsibility:
“When Barack Obama steps into a room and attacks people for presumably using poverty or bigotry as an excuse to not parent, he is channeling a feeling deep in the heart of all black people, a frustration, a rage at ourselves for letting this happen, for allowing our community to descend into the basement of America, and dwell there seemingly forever.”
This contrasts starkly with what Glen Ford pointed out in a 2013 article on Black Agenda Report in words that still ring true today:
“To put it bluntly, the First Black President gave a very good standup impression of a racist white man…According to Obama, Black folks lost their way when “legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior.”…But, like any cheapwhite politician, Obama spews a mouthful of bile and then moves on to the next rant. Obama bemoans that, at some unspecified point in the Black struggle the “transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.”…he must have been talking about Black militants of some sort. But he won’t say, preferring to leave his meaning to the audience’s imagination. Then Obama moved in for the big slap-down: “What had once been a call for equality of opportunity,” said Obama, “the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead, was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.” In that one, long sentence, Obama resurrects Ronald Reagan’s phantom armies of “Welfare Queens”; he appears to be taking a cheap swipe at calls for Black reparations…Obama puts the onus squarely on Blacks for destroying the promise of racial harmony…: “All of that history is how progress stalled. That’s how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remained divided.” That’s right: Obama blames Black people for messing up his America”
Coates goes back to praising Obama by saying that “there are many kinds of personal responsibility,” claiming that Obama should be responsible for giving Medcaid expansions to certain states under Obamacare (which was basically removed by the Supreme Court), “for the end of this era of mass incarceration” and destroying white supremacy despite the fact that the last two have NOT happened. Coates then declares that Obama, the person who declared that American can kill and bomb who it wants in the world from time to time, is someone to be revered and is “rational”:
“And I struggle to get my head around all of this. There are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed. No other resident of the White House, could have better explained to America what the George Zimmerman verdict meant. And I think history will remember that, and remember him for it. But I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of “twice as good” in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much.”
If any of his article is disgusting it would be this part. It just makes my stomach churn.
Ending on a good note
I could focus on two other articles by Coates, one on Bernie Sanders and another on Hillary Clinton. However I think I’ve written enough here worthy of analysis. I will say that some told me on the twitterverse that Obama reading Coates isn’t a surprise, that he has “echoed some awful anticom [anti-communist] agriprop,” and glad that someone was criticizing Coates. There are a number of points still worth noting. One of these is Coates’s relation with Daniel P. Moynihan. In a tweet from last fall referring to this article, he declared that “Moynihan needs no rehab from me. Moynihan’s view won. It was Clinton’s view. it’s Obama’s view.” This relates with what RedKahina argued around the same time: “Coates is perfectly Zizekian, indeed a rearticulation of Moynihan, with “Obviously I’m not racist, but…” appended.”
In order to show how problematic this is, it is important to explain a little about Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy Planning and Research, and his 1965 report as noted in Estes’s book, I Am a Man!. In the book, Estes writes that President LBJ first included Moynihan’s arguments in a speech which was praised by civil rights leaders but later led to media controversy (pp. 107). In the report, Moynihan said the government had “a responsibility to provide equal result in jobs, housing, and education” which sounds good except that he emphasized a “crumbling” black family structure among the poor, focused on “systematic weakening of the position of the Negro male” in US society, and believed that black family breakdown was “the principal cause” of delinquency and urban violence in poor black communities, often called ghettoes (pp. 107-8). Additionally, the report had recommendations such as a welfare allowance for families with both parents present, full employment for black men if even some females have to be displaced, more opportunities for black males to serve in the armed forces, and “wider public dissemination of birth control materials” (pp. 108). While some of these proposals may seem attractive to readers, it is important to recognize that the report was a way to counter “obstacles to black manhood” in America, counter supposed “welfare dependency,” and accepted black male patriarchal domination of the family (pp. 108). Estes’s later comments make Moynihan’s report seem even worse. He points out that the report claimed that black men suffered more from racism “than black women,” and that strains on black families created “a tangle of pathology” with examples such as a matriarchal family structure (i.e. black women controlling the household) which he claimed was “so out of line with the rest of American society [that it] seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole” and imposes “crushing” burdens on black men and women (pp. 111-2). Moynihan also argued that a solution to black unemployment was more military recruitment, basically meaning he wanted more blacks, and other minorities, to die in service of the imperialist war machine (pp. 113, 124). As anyone of sense knows, the military should not be a job service for the poor and unfortunate. Still, even some, like Martin Luther King, Jr., endorsed the report, at least initially, saying almost laughably that black males existed in a patriarchal society but were “subordinate in a matriarchy” (pp. 119). I could go on and mention how people interpreted the report as a response to the Watts uprising when it wasn’t really intended that way and debates over other solutions to the condition of the black community. However, it is important to note that Moynihan believed that the answer to improving such a condition lay in “providing black men the economic foundation to exercise patriarchal power in their families and political power in society,” an argument which was seem as an effective “antipoverty policy” by the Johnson administration at the time (pp. 125, 128). All of these ideas matter because “Moynihan’s thesis about the importance of the family” gained a new life in “conservative circles” and was pushed by Republican leaders such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, allowing them to attack and stereotype black people (pp. 129).
While Moynihan is not necessarily responsible for this shift, the report itself is important to mention considering Coates’s interest in him. This “interest” includes some mild criticism, claiming that Moynihan wasn’t blaming black people, and mocking conservatives who like him. In none of his tweets, which are noted here, does Coates challenge the patriarchal assumptions of Moynihan’s report. This was even the case in a September 2015 article on this topic in which he declared that Moynihan was subjected to “unfair” criticism but admitted that “Moynihan’s central idea—that the problems of families are key to ending the problems of poverty—dominates the national discourse today.” In addition, Coates claims that “mass incarceration is built on a long history of viewing black people as unequal in general, and criminal in the specific,” which is true but IGNORES its connection to capitalism or as a form of social control. To his credit, Coates does criticize Moynihan for going along with Nixon’s racist assumptions about blacks and criminality but then he claims that “I almost had the sense that Moynihan was trying to trick Nixon into embracing liberal policy…Moynihan used the rhetoric of black criminalization, even in arguing for government aid.” Coates then jumps over the quote, as mentioned earlier, about displacing “some females” and offers no analysis despite the fact that this shows an ingrained patriarchal mindset. In the last paragraph of his piece Coates has a weird aura of respect for Moynihan which is deeply disturbing and words about mass incarceration which are weird to say the least:
“…[After researching for the past year] I came away with tremendous respect for his intelligence, his foresight and his broad, ranging curiosity…The story of mass incarceration, of American racism, is not simply a story of evil racists. It is also the story of people trying to help. And it is also the story of these same people not fully understanding the ugly traditions alive in their own country. Black criminalization is such a tradition and when Moynihan employed it he was playing with fire. Others got burned.”
I personally don’t know how people who helped put in place mass incarceration, whether they realized it or not, can be considered “people trying to help” the black community. That doesn’t even make sense.
Then, there is a 2010 article which disgraced celebrity left personality Shaun King, even criticized by another personality, a neoliberal egoist named Deray, referenced in deleted tweet, which I responded to at the time:
In this article, Coates argued against reparations but also went even further. What he said has some implications of denying transatlantic slavery’s connections to capitalism, noted in books like Eric Williams’s famed book, Capitalism and Slavery, and violating the Africa continent (which some have called “raping”) as a whole:
“…The most notable aspect of Gates original PBS piece…is a kind of crude black nationalism in reverse. The crude nationalist asserts that slavery was a white racist plot…Gates implicitly asserts that in trading slaves, Africans somehow violated a common, fraternal “African” spirit…The crude nationalist and Gates come out blaming different people, but both commit the fallacy of judging the sins of the past via the racial tribalism of today…The vocabulary of blame is key–instead of speciously blaming white Americans for the crimes of their presumed ancestors, Gates speciously blames Africans…Presumably blame is key for Gates because he wants to discuss reparations. Why reparations is relevant right now, and why Obama should involve himself in a discussion on the subject, is never actually explained…To put it differently, I am not concerned about gender equality because I think I’m to blame thousands of years of sexism, I’m concerned about gender equality because it matches my moral center. Blame is irrelevant…I don’t support reparations, I support all people grappling with all aspects of American history…One of the few things I know is this–Blame is useless to me. Blame is for the dead.”
Yikes! This is utterly vile by not only perpetrating stereotypes about Africa (“racial tribalism” for example) but also acting like one can only deal with issues in the present but NOT have a historical basis or blame people for them happening. It is horrible. There really isn’t much else I can say.
To close out, I’d like to say that Club de Cordeliers has a number of resources, which he shared with me (and are noted in this search), in which he criticizes Coates. There isn’t a whole lot there, but what is there is sizable and of importance. I can assure readers I will look at these articles that Cordeliers highlighted in a future piece. For now, I can say is that this article is beginning a needed critique of an intellectual who gets too much slack from people who should know better.