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Tuesday, February 2, 2016
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If you want to be a respected and respectable liberal today and your racial heritage is Euro-Caucasian, it’s pretty clear that you need to support Ta-Nehisi Coates (even if he wasn’t looking for your support; I suppose that fact makes it seem all the more real). Earlier in my life, I definitely wanted to be a respected and respectable liberal. But at the same time I was never a guy who likes to follow a crowd; and at some point in my life, it occurred to me that liberals like to follow trends as much as conservatives do. And they often made up complicated but questionable reasons to act like lemmings, post hoc. Just like any other tribe, little or big.

So, as you might guess, I’m not necessarily in awe of the writings and views of Ta-Nehisi Coates regarding modern American racial matters. I’ve been reading The Atlantic Magazine for about 20 years now, and thus I’ve been familiar with Mr. Coates’ writings for quite some time. He originally wrote small pieces reflecting on the American Civil War and its implications for black history — and how those implications weren’t always as sunny and positive for blacks as many non-black Americans might think. Eventually he was allowed to publish longer pieces addressing more modern racial issues, and his tone at first seemed to balance challenge with reserve. However, within the past two years or so, he’s come into his own, offering wholesale indictments of white America (see his recent blockbuster book, “Between the World And Me“), along with sentencing recommendations (i.e., his call for reparations).

There was a recent dust-up when Democratic-Socialist presidential nomination candidate Bernie Sanders rejected Coate’s reparations idea, and Coates immediately attacked Sanders (in an intellectual fashion, of course). It’s interesting to see that The Atlantic then allowed one of its writers to publish an article defending Sanders. Hmmm, perhaps the white liberal / Ta Nehisi Coates love affair has reached a high water mark.

Whether or not Coates remains a cause celebre amidst white liberals, I have already found my substitute for him: a black intellectual who I believe says a lot of interesting, insightful and valuable things about our complex and often confounding modern racial situation. And that would be Professor John McWhorter, an academic language expert (he has a number of “Great Course” video series available from The Teaching Company on various language topics; I personally have his course “Linguistics: The Science of Language”) who has recently entered the fray of modern racial punditry.

It’s my impression that McWhorter is not currying favor from either the left or the right when speaking out on current affairs. He seems to be his own man, calling each issue on its own merits. During the trial of security guard George Zimmerman for the killing of Treyvon Martin, McWhorter appeared on TV to call out and counter the nasty criticisms that prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel had received for her use of “Black English” while testifying. However, his recent controversial criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement have gained McWhorter a lot of bad reviews from other black intellectuals. Let me offer a few choice quotes from the good professor on BLM. These comments from McWhorter are also from The Atlantic:

The reason Black Lives Matter has a lot of eyes rolling is not because people don’t care about black people and don’t understand the problem with police. The problem is that the typical black man in a particular kind of community is at much, much more risk of being killed by another black man. And you can’t argue it away.

I think, in short, Black Lives Matter is very important. It could make a very important difference in modern black history. But for it to be a movement that resonates historically, it has to add a new wing . . . that goes into black communities and works in a real way on the black-on-black murders. That would make Black Lives Matter complete. As it is now, it’s incomplete and it looks shrill. And the idea that Black Lives Matter when white people try to take them looks recreational, it looks childish, it looks peevish, and it’s just wrong, it’s incomplete.

(In response to Prof. Glen Loury’s argument that BLM is justified in its exclusive focus on white police killing blacks because black-on-black violence is largely a consequence of the structural racism that has played out over history and continues today:) I reject that. I think that argument is hopeless. That is a wordy, beautifully put argument designed to give people an excuse to focus on racism as the problem as opposed to the more complex issue of looking at a Rube-Goldberg sequence of socio-historical events that have led us to an unfortunate situation where racism from whites may not always be the problem that we need to face. And it’s not that the black men shooting each other are evil. I understand their humanity too. But the idea that democracy is threatened by the white cop whereas if the kid from three blocks over does it, well he’s just an ordinary person? No!

Well, it seems pretty clear that McWhorter has a lot of guts. I honestly don’t think that he is trying to let whites and “the establishment” off the hook; he’s been very critical of the police in many of the recent white-black fatal police incidents, even when the facts included exonerating circumstances relative to the police (the big one being the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson Mo.). Here’s a recent quote in regard to Michael Brown’s death:

when temperately minded people say that black lives are valued less in the clinch than white ones, jump in I must, because it’s true.

McWhorter feels that the “War on Drugs” must end because it does a lot more damage than good, and most of that damage is felt by blacks and black communities, the majority of whom do not use illegal substances. A recent article title by McWhorter: “There Is Only One Real Way to Prevent Future Fergusons: End the War on Drugs”.

But the Professor’s criticisms of Black Lives Matter definitely swims against the tide of much modern black thought, a tide which is being ridden masterfully by Ta Nehisi Coates. So why aren’t I celebrating Coates and embracing all he has to say, like so many other racially concerned white people today?

Personally, I believe that one has to consider background and intellectual qualifications in choosing who to take seriously. McWhorter’s intellectual credentials are solid (PhD in Linguistics from Stanford, did his undergrad here in NJ at Rutgers – I also have a degree from Rutgers, so let me admit my prejudice about that!). Coates also has his academic claims, as he was a visiting professor at MIT. However, Coates never graduated college, having dropped out of Howard University. Despite this, he is presently a journalist in residence at City College of New York. Coates is obviously a very smart and well studied man, and his lack of grad school pedigree certainly doesn’t mean that he has nothing valuable to say. But if I only have time for one article and the choices are between Coates and McWhorter . . .

What do these fellows have to say about one another? McWhorter recently called Coates a “priest” in the “new religion of anti-racism” (or as McWhorter puts it, “our flawed new religion”). Oh, and back in January, McWhorter countered some earlier criticisms that Coates made against Bernie Sanders regarding his failure to support reparations.

It might seem as though McWhorter has a thing against Coates; however, his arguments against Coates are subtle and intellectual, and not especially personal. The emotional vitriol seems to be kept in check. As to Coates, I haven’t been able to find much that he has said or written in response to McWhorter. It appears perhaps that Coates is mostly leaving it to other black voices to rebut him.

Not to say that Coates is fearful; personally, I think this is more of a wise move on his part. McWhorter seems to me to be a man of substance, not someone who is saying things to grab the spotlight (although I’m sure that he does have his ego, and does realize that his views, however intellectually flavored, are controversial and being used by political conservatives). To the degree that Coates sees and respects this, however much he might honestly disagree with McWhorter, the more that I respect Coates. Sure, if I only have time for one article, it will be from McWhorter. But once I get some more time, Coates will be next on my list.

PS on McWhorter — he had an article today (2-3-16) in the NY Times on blacks and the police, focused around the OJ Simpson case. He clearly asserts that there is a “ubiquity of police brutality in black lives”. So what gets Coates upset also gets McWhorter upset. But McWhorter handles it in a different fashion — and in my opinion, a more lucid and ultimately constructive fashion.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:21 pm      

  1. Jim, First of all, I’m not sure if a personal issue will affect this comment. But I’ll state it and then let it go: I (a white person [female]) have lived with a Black person [male] for 15 years. If this has any effect on my comment, then consider it where it may be appropriate to consider it. I might also add that I am *not* referencing any Black/White issues that may or may not exist in my own life situation; I’m speaking generally in this comment.

    I also confess, after re-reading this to noting that I have here more a series of tho’ts that may repeat themselves, may not follow perfect logic, but are a general consideration of a most complex problem.

    I’ve tried to read Coates several times. I can only get so far into an article by Coates when I just can’t go any further; I never got to a book, but I did consider reading one and, again, had to stop reading it. As I see it, Coates does not consider the complexity of human relationships which always plays into the race issue in present times-­at least as far as I see it. Perhaps Coates’ approach would have been more to the point in earlier times, say before civil rights became an issue and (at least) some changes have been made in more recent times.

    I haven’t read McWhorter so can’t comment on him; but from your description of his writings it seems he has a greater consideration of the complexity of human issues. When it comes to considering the complexity of human issues, I think I can name a couple at least:

    For instance, one of the things that I think has affected the Black/White racial issue goes back to the migration of Blacks to the North, which had its greatest effect during the early-to-mid 20th century. I read a book (sometime within the last few years) on the migration of Blacks to the North. Again and as usual, I am unable to reference it, but I also remember the time when Black people were restricted to (actually more appropriately, they were “packed into) living in only certain, relatively small areas of cities. I also remember a time when in the South Black people had to step off the sidewalks should a White person pass.

    Here I’m talking specifically about two different places: First, Chicago, and second, San Antonio, Texas, where my family lived for a while in the 1940s. Chicago was prejudiced at the time by the attitude of, “sure, Black people were ‘free’ but not when it comes to my own next door neighbor.” I even heard a White person who was a fire fighter say in the 1970s that White men (fire fighters were *only* men at the time) didn’t want to sleep in the same bed that Black men did. (This was in reference to the 48 hour shifts the fire fighters had at the time when it was necessary for them to sleep overnight at the fire house.) Out and out prejudiced there.

    I can see that Coates would have a right to some of his complaints about racial prejudice during those times. However, *some* of these problems have been “fixed”, one might say in more recent times than the 1970s.

    While, yes, there was more “freedom” up North for the Black person, still there was a great deal of cultural prejudice that existed. The whole attitude that Blacks, of course, were “equal just don’t live next to me or in my neighborhood” was a serious problem; but again that issue *seems* to have gone through its evolving pains and has improved (not been cured) for the most part. The riots and problems that existed during the 1960s, particularly, showed that “real estate” problem greatly. As a result, many cultural issues arose to affect the Black community. Of course, this was a terrible problem that affected Black people and White people, except the White people were less aware of the effect this attitude had on them.

    Another instance of the complexity of Black/White issues is that I have noticed for many years (specifically, the last 40 years, I’d guess here) that Black people themselves can be seriously prejudiced against other cultural groups in the U.S.; and here I notice that prejudice when it comes to Hispanics and Asians for two groups. It always dumbfounds me when Black people readily and obviously indicate prejudice toward these two groups when they themselves have experienced such awful prejudice themselves.

    Recently, I happened upon a “fight” between two White women (siblings, actually) that was sent to all and whomever on Facebook; it astonished me. I also think that it has some reference in regard to Black/White problems. The “First woman” took issue with something that was said or not said by the “Other woman”. “Other woman” said she had felt “hurt” by the situation; “First woman” basically said she didn’t like the politics of “Other woman”. . . and on and on it went; never the twain shall meet.

    To address the Black/White situation, I wonder if Coates is talking “hurt”, while McWhorter is talking “politics”; i.e., McWhorter is discussing present day issues that are more complex that need addressing; Coates may be addressing his “hurt” for his entire race through time.

    When it comes to present day issues you mention one very large one: Black on Black crime, which seems to me to be somehow overlooked in the racial issue.

    In some ways it seems to me that Coates is “hurt” by what has happened in the past, won’t forget what White people did to his people in the past, and wants to be sure that his feeling of offence is passed on thru the generations in his family. This brings to my mind the work of Henry Gates in genealogy: He does DNA studies on individuals, showing what part Black, White, Asian, Jewish, Middle Eastern (fill in the country/group, etc.) the individuals are. Almost inevitably, the person guesses wrong when it comes to what they are “mostly”. While DNA tests are not cheap and not for every person, I find myself wondering just what portion of Black/White each and every one of us may be. We may be dumbfounded should we find out.

    Regarding why there is so much Black on Black crime questions come to mind here: Is it due to the fact that Blacks themselves have not reached a point where they have let the difference in color go and consider others of their own race less worthy of consideration? Or is the problem of Black on Black crime due to the same reason that White on White crime exists? People who want to do “bad” things turn to whoever is closest to commit crime. Then too, is there still not enough integration among Blacks and Whites so that each can see that the others are simply people just the way they themselves are. Then too, there is the problem that some people, Black or White, will simply do bad things because they lack a sense of conscience, one might say. For instance: Many of the most awful crimes are committed by Whites-­serial killers for instance.

    The complexity of the relationships between people (color of skin is unimportant) seems to me a *must* when one considers the racial issue and the problems that accompany it. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — February 3, 2016 @ 2:32 pm

  2. This is the second time I’ve heard this awful argument — that Coates isn’t qualified to speak on issues because, essentially, he doesn’t have a PhD and doesn’t speak like a professor at some university. It’s condescending. It’s obnoxious. It presupposes that academia has some corner on “how to think.” Academia is full of itself. What it has to offer the world outside of the hard sciences I really can’t grasp, other than providing a place for windbags and self-important people to entertain one another. I don’t think Coates asked to be compared to or rated as an academic. Thank goodness for that.

    Comment by Andrew — October 4, 2017 @ 8:33 am

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