America's Radical 'Foremost Intellectual'

Readers of this website may not realize it, but America’s foremost public intellectual, especially on matters of race, is a fellow named Ta-Nehisi Coates, who for the mainstream media and liberal elites is the go-to guy. If you’ve never heard of him, don’t worry, you don’t matter. 

Coates is a canny writer and blogger at the Atlantic magazine and the author of two widely praised books. Like President Obama’s books, one is a coming-of-age memoir, the other an “I’ve made it memoir -- but still got a lot to complain about.”  He’s also written two influential articles on race. Generally, with the exception of an ugly internet spat, Coates has been feted on the left, with the Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada reporting the elite media have bestowed the foremost intellectual title, though Lozada has a few carefully nuanced caveats. 

If you are thinking that as America’s top intellectual Coates’ works are sober, considered, even-handed explorations of race and society you’d be mistaken. Coates is a dyed-in-the-wool radical black nationalist, son of a Black Panther, a fan of Malcolm X and Jeremiah Wright, and a critic of President Obama for not being “black” enough or sufficiently championing African-American interests.

Coates is a talented (if undisciplined and wordy) writer, whose first book The Beautiful Struggle is in the mold of Richard Wright’s great Manchild in the Promised Land. But from the much inferior and ill-chosen title, to the writing, The Beautiful Struggle, while readable and fitfully entertaining, is second-rate. Coates’ recent memoir, on the other hand, though robotically praised and rushed into publication to take advantage of the country’s recent racial turmoil, is little more than a turgid screed about white racism. 

In both works, Coates’ relies on victimhood to make his case. The Beautiful Struggle begins with the author casting himself as a juvenile victim of violence at the hands of an African-American gang in Baltimore. Even in describing his (not bad sounding) Baltimore home Coates tries to make things sound a miserable as possible, noting a terrace back of the house “…with a rotting wooden balcony.” (Well, how about fixing it?)  But Coates dismisses black self-reliance in favor of victimhood early in Struggle. Though he has a conflicted relationship with his father, who regularly beats young Ta-Nehisi and provides a “bizarre” (Coates’ word) upbringing, he philosophically identifies his radical near-do-well dad. He is scornful of his mother’s more traditional road to black middle-class success as a school teacher, though she well supported the family. He does dedicate the book to her.

The recent book Between the World and Me is scary. It is not an intellectual exercise. It is a pure polemic, that doesn’t seek balance or attempt to weigh competing arguments. It is a classic example of reaction formation, wherein Coates, who can’t help but see everything through racial lenses, assumes that is the case with the entire “white race.” Fashioned as a warning letter to his son, the book sticks to the victimization theme, beginning with Coates recounting a televised appearance as a prosperous and sought-after writer, wherein he is faced with the torment of talking about his “body” which is to say his brown body as opposed to a white body -- though of course the irony here is that such talk is the essence of Coates’ profession and success. Coates’ goes on to indict whites for inventing racism and the idea of the “white race.“ There’s a kernel of truth in this, as these constructs emerged out of a white man’s idea – evolution -- which was then perverted.  But by the time modern concepts of Social Darwinism and race evolved slavery had already been abolished -- these concepts didn’t cause slavery, but came after the fact, though of course, they did help perpetuate Jim Crow and general discrimination against blacks.  Nonetheless, blacks -- though they have suffered under these ideas -- did not get the worst of it, white Jews did, suffering six million dead as a direct consequence (out of a population of about 15 million.) 

In any event “whiteness” and racial superiority are ideas that have been banned in Western societies for over half a century, almost as long as the brief period that they had any currency. Four generations of American children have been educated to reject these ideas, and the only surviving Americans who might have learned such ideas with public approval are elderly or departed. Coates’ own education was otherwise, because it was dominated by his father, a radical black nationalist, who essentially indoctrinated his children. Coates admits to feelings of racial superiority as a boy attending a professional wrestling match in Baltimore in the 1980s, among “…dirty…” poorly dressed white folk.

Victimhood also underlies the “Case for Reparations” in where Coates repeats old arguments about slavery, Jim Crow, and racism, and then adds on a claim that federal housing policies also discriminated against blacks, requiring economic redress from the government. As Lozada notes in his Post critique Coates benefited from the fact that the article is both provocative and safe “…its very improbability may have made it especially easy to embrace.” 

Coates’ award-winning article “Fear of a Black President” cherry picks incidents of white racism real and imagined, and is sympathetic to the view of black “rage” though it is often hard to make sense of his arguments. For example, after the 9/11 attack Coates felt no sympathy for the firefighters or policemen who died -- though it seems it did not to occur to him that quite a few were black -- because of his anger over the death of his friend Prince Jones killed by a black police officer. He implies that Obama cannot act black (or as black as he might like) as caricatured by comedians like Richard Pryor. In other words, Obama can’t be a cruder and more violent version of himself, because whites wouldn’t abide it. Of course, this would be true of any president, and I like to think most blacks likely wouldn’t abide it either. There is much else in this vein, which is repeated and elaborated on again in Between the World and Me.

Whether Coates is really now America’s go-to intellectual on race for the liberal elite, or is (as Lozada implies) a convenient out for progressives who want to be politically correct and not think too much, his radical racialist view is becoming the default position of mainstream liberals and the Democrat party. The recent shout-down of Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders by Blacklivesmatter protesters shows that Coates’ view, far from being radical, is already accepted on the left. O’Malley, who quite reasonably said that not only black lives matter, but that all lives matter, subsequently caved and apologized. For people who see a nation dominated by white racism and privilege, white lives don’t really much matter, just as the lives of the firefighters and policemen who died on 9/11 did not matter to Coates.

Coates likely has little influence on groups like Blacklivesmatter. Unless the Atlantic’s demographics have dramatically changed, his readership is overwhelmingly of the white limousine liberal variety -- people who think self-hate is cool.  Indeed, Coates may be behind the curve already. But that is small comfort in a society that now seems to be slowly coming apart at the seams, because frankly, the ideas of Coates’ radical Black Panther father, and those of the American Constitution cannot coexist. And one has to wonder, is this really what a smart guy like Ta-Nehisi Coates wants for himself and his son?      

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