Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A question for Ta-Nehisi Coates

As regular readers here know - I LOVE the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates - even when I don't agree with him. And so after his magnificent response to the guy from Duck Dynasty, I was very anxious to read his take on Rep. Paul Ryan's remarks about the non-existent work culture among lazy black "inner city" men. But I wound up confused by what he had to say.
A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I'm not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are "not holding up their end of the deal" as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship...
Coates calls these people "peddlers of black pathology."

My confusion stems from the fact that, in addition to those he listed as supposedly sounding like Rep. Ryan, I would add one Ta-Nehisi Coates - who once wrote one of the most powerful articles I've ever read on this topic titled: A Culture of Poverty. He begins with a story about how he, as an adult, almost came to blows with someone who challenged his writing. Later he reflects on what triggered that response.
I thought about all of this yesterday while reading this Times' piece on return of the culture of poverty. When we talk "culture," as it relates to African-Americans, we assume a kind of exclusivity and suspension of logic. Stats are whipped out (70 percent of black babies born out of wedlock) and then claims are tossed around cavalierly, (black culture doesn't value marriage.) The problem isn't that "culture" doesn't exist, nor is it that elements of that "culture" might impair upward mobility...

If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield...once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it's wrong to say this, but it made my the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn't just about yourself, it's a signal to your peer group...

I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture.
It sure sounds like Coates agrees that - for too many African American boys growing up in urban areas - a "street culture" exists that must be overcome if one is to succeed in this world (whatever that means to each individual). So where does he disagree with Rep. Paul Ryan?

I'd suggest that he parts ways with Ryan the same place that President Obama understanding the historical roots of that culture in a way that informs them about solutions. Here's Coates on that one:
The streets are like any other world--we all assume an armor, a garment to suit that world. And indeed, in every world, some people wear the armor better than others, and thus reap considerable social reward...Inducing them, and those in between, to change class, to trade their plate for robes, to trade the broad-sword for a spell-book, is the real work.
That sounds an awful lot like President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, doesn't it?


  1. TNC is simply getting more hardened as he (and his son) ages. He exhaustively researches the flow of black wealth over the centuries, and his thesis is only ever shared publicly by maybe a couple of random DoJ officials (including the AG, to be fair) once or twice a year. What was the animating incident for his post? The fact that he, writer for the Atlantic and the New York Times, still can't even get a cab in "liberal" New York City.

    Barack Obama isn't the cause of any of Coates' problems, but there does appear to be hardening bitterness to the fact he might not be the solution to any of them either. TNC is wrong that the record turnout didn't change the nation's politics, but it also didn't bring any newfound respect to black people as a political or cultural entity either.

  2. Mo'nin, Nancy

    Firstly, I'd like to disagree with Anonymous up above me, here. No, Coates wasn't mad because "he, writer for the Atlantic and the New York Times, still can't get a cab in "liberal" New York City". He's mad, and I think he spoke to this, because he's an American man who was with his young son, and couldn't get a cab. And, that happens in any number of other cities besides "liberal" NYC. And, for another generation, he's another black man who is going to have to have a series (that's how it works. it isn't just one. one hears these any number of times in growing up. these are survival instructions) of "the talks" with his son about why. Now...
    Yeah. Coates, at best, is ambivalent about PBO. He will and has praised him. But, he'll do this, too. Isn't the first time. You may recall that he didn't like PBO's address to the Morehouse graduating class of '13. Went on about it, too. The thing was that those over 500 young black men would've stridently disagreed with him. He was talking to THEM. And, as he spoke, they answered back. Increasing their verbal intensity as the speech continued in a classic call and response manner. As you know, I say this with certainty because I was right there in the rain with them as a witness. And, the over-all thrust of the speech was FAR from "poverty culture peddling". But, maybe, to expound on that isn't as hard hitting (annnd....and, he KNOWS this, PBO doesn't directly go on and on about racism.he's who he is and looks like he does. Coates may forget what brought on "The Beer Summit". so,PBO has to thread needles a lot and does. also, I'm not sure why Coates is mystified re: PBO's statement of black boys, trouble, and dads as it pertained to Trayvon and Jordan. unless I missed it, NEITHER of them were in "trouble". "trouble" came to THEM).

    You've heard me say this of him before. He is MOST impressive. It's encouraging to know that he is doing what he's doing. For me, though, two things....He's still a youngster and that, for me, shows itself from time to time and he is but one black, intellectual voice of a goodly number that can be found in print(which I know you know, but some are dealing with him like he's THE voice and, no, he isn't).

    My man, Jack White (who at ANY point I don't agree with re: PBO), said this upon his election and I DO agree with this and remind Jack of it. He said: "It's not just white folk who are gonna have to get used to there being a black President, black folk are gonna have to get used to it, too".

    Didn't realize you were showing some of the wrestle, did'ja? You be doin' stuff like that.

    1. I LOVE the fact that you pointed out that Coates is both young and not THE voice of black people (the media always does that, don't they - appoint someone as THE voice).

      But he's a fascinating voice, isn't he? I literally FEEL him struggling with all this. And as you might know, I'm always attracted to people who expose their struggle.

    2. Yep. I think it's important for white people to understand how the politics of respectability is belied at every turn. I don't think Obama is speaking or thinking like Ryan, at all, but I do see how a whole lot of blacks chafe at the lie and are hurt when the first black POTUS appears to be promoting it.

      Marissa Alexander was originally sentenced to twenty years for firing a warning shot with her registered gun at a man who was violent at that time, had a history of violence, and openly admitted to anyone who would listen that he was violent at the time and that putting her in prison was excessive. Ms. Alexander had a master's degree and lives in a Stand Your Ground state. So why, was she sentenced to 20 years in prison? Virulent hatred and enculturated fear of blacks and the dehumanizing of black women who are considered to be inviolable by virtue of not being worth protection by white society writ large.

      Travon Martin's parents were middle-class.

      I think it's important to speak carefully about the political lie of respectability for most blacks and recognize the feelings as being legitimate. All told, the majority of problems that blacks face are problems of being the primary targets of white supremacy. I'm sure, if racism were to be wished away overnight, that the "culture" would change accordingly. It's also true that failing to do most of what is considered "respectable" (for blacks) by whites can make an already bad situation worse, though I think being "respectable" in the eyes of whites generally requires self-loathing, unquestionable deference, and a habit of always putting the white's values ahead of one's own. In that light, I think it might be better to "fail" by white standards.

      Obama is working to make life better for blacks and every other demographic (but the 1% and corporations) and if he could get a democratically controlled Congress, he could do much more.

    3. Wiley - I agree with a lot of what you say. But another way to think about this is that racism is a white people's problem. Waiting for us to fix it as a way of dealing with the cultural issues is another way to suggest that black people should remain victims.


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