The Farther Reaches of America’s Racism

The Farther Reaches of America’s Racism

By Dr. Joe Chuman, Jan 3, 2016

Preview of the address

The New Year usually arrives on the wings of hope and the anticipation that the year aborning will usher in an improvement over the past. Given the times we live in, hope is a disposition that we badly need. As Ethical Culturists, our outlooks are greatly attuned to the ebb and flow of  political and social currents. And these days, many of those currents are a source of dread, if not fear.

We are at an intensely xenophobic moment in American life. It is a time when minorities and immigrants are the targets of reactionary populist rage and in which demagoguery stoking fear and contempt of the “other” is reaching a feverish pitch. Terrorism is invoked to justify this anti-immigrant backlash, but the more pervasive causes are the financial misfortunes of mostly older white males, who lack the educational resources to avail themselves of the new economy. Combine this insecurity with the demographic changes that immigrants have brought to the American landscape, and we have created the perfect conditions serving as red meat for demagogues. It is very dangerous.


The United States, a nation that prides itself as being a land of immigrants throughout its history, has experienced periods of nativist reaction, when immigrants have been reviled as comprising subversive hordes unsuited to be assimilated into American society. We have experienced this scapegoating and demagoguery before, but in this election cycle it is coming from the highest echelons of political leadership and has appealed to followers who have elevated the lunatic fringe to the mainstream of one of our major political parties. We all need to be vigilant.

Overlapping with this xenophobia is the racism foisted on African Americans. Whereas paroxysms of anti-immigrant hatred have come in waves, the institutional and personal racism targeting African Americans has been pervasive and enduring throughout our country’s 400-year history.

With Barack Obama’s win of the presidency in 2008, there seemed to be reasons to believe that America was beginning to turn a corner and, at long last, putting the ugly, tortuous legacy of prejudice and racism behind us. In was the era of “tolerance,” and “multiculturalism” was a watchword.

But such optimism seems to have been misplaced. The rash of killings – with impunity – of young black men by white police; the bias that characterizes our criminal justice system and the intolerable incarceration rates of African-American men; as well as the continuing institutional prejudice that people of color confront in education, housing, financial opportunities and much else that Caucasians can navigate devoid of such bias, reveal that American racism remains endemic in our society.

The Civil Rights movement, which, through heroic struggle, overcame Jim Crow laws and “de jure” segregation, is now more than a half a century in the past. Yet it has not ended white supremacy or anti-black bias. Some manifestations are overt, such as rampant police killings (which must reflect the social will in order to persist), and others are cunningly hidden. But, racism endures.

The question we need to ask is “Why”? How do we explain racism’s stubborn persistence in American life? In my search for greater understanding, I have taken a look at the thought of noted African-American thinkers and writers, who have analyzed and elaborated on the deep-rooted character of American racism from their inside standpoint as minority spokespersons. If we are ever to achieve an “ethical society,” which our movement has long stood for, then in the post-Ferguson era, we must look anew at the deeper causes of racism in American life. As socially responsible people, we cannot afford to look away, especially as American society becomes more fragmented.

The Ethical Society has recently embarked on a process of examining the phenomenon of white privilege and how it relates to us personally and as a community. A goal of mine is to add to and perhaps enrich that process from a different perspective. I have entitled my talk for January 3, “The Farther Reaches of American Racism.” I warmly look forward to joining with you.

Full Address Given by Dr. Joe Chuman on Jan 3, 2016 at The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County

I begin the first platform of the New Year with a personal confession. It is one I have made before. I confess that not long ago I was overly optimistic about where America was moving with regard to race relations.

Clearly, I was not the only one. Understandably, the election of Barack Obama created a euphoria throughout broad segments of American society. The fact that America had actually elected a man of bi-racial heritage who identifies as an African-American suggested a milestone of astonishing historical proportions given the abominable violence, hatred and prejudice which blacks have endured in white- dominant America for four hundred years. And it does. It is as if this country had arrived at a seemingly unreachable horizon that signaled much more than a single person achieving the White House. Perhaps it signaled that at long last America had relegated its vile legacy of racism, which has expressed the worst of America’s underside, corrupting our highest ideals of freedom, equality and justice by which we so proudly define ourselves, to the dustbin of history.

There were even those who believed that with coming of Barack Obama, the United States has emerged as a “post-racial society.” I must admit that I was not among them. However optimistic I was that American was really trying hard to get beyond its history of prejudice, I always believed that talk of our becoming a post-racial society, as if to suggest that racial bias would be utterly relegated to the past, and America would become color-blind, was excessive and naïve.

But with the election of Obama, and with the influx of immigrants to America in large numbers, which was changing the ethnic composition of America, I believed that we really were making improvements in regard to inter-group relations, including black-white relations; improvements that were, in fact, categorical. After all, the emergence of Obama took place when such values as “tolerance” and “multiculturalism” were everywhere professed, and much of America had become sensitive to a type of political correctness that made historic expressions of prejudice and bigotry unfashionable and unacceptable, at least in public.

As mentioned, I was not the only one to feel this way. In 2010, the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, authored a magisterial biography of Barack Obama, entitled The Bridge. The title implied reference to the Edmund Pettus Bridge which was crossed by protesters during the Selma to Montgomery marches that help usher in the Voting Rights Act. It also suggested that the ascension of the first African-American to the presidency served symbolically as a bridge from the Civil Rights era to a new age of engagement that would bridge the differences among the races. But as recent and current events tragically reveal, Remnick’s presumptions, as well as my own, seem to have been tragically premature.

For another example, a good number of years ago, I read Achieving Our Country, a delightful book by the late American philosopher, Richard Rorty. It was a paean to American progressivism in the spirit of Walt Whitman and John Dewey. In his book, Rorty made an observation that did nothing less than change my mind at the time. He noted that America’s cultural left with its penchant for political correctness, often ridiculed, had, nevertheless, “reduced sadism” in American life. It seemed true. Though we had far to go, America was really trying hard to put the criminal legacy of racism and the demonization of minorities behind us. It became unacceptable to ridicule fat people, and circus freak shows were long a thing of the past. The common slur for black people became unmentionable, and it was in bad taste to slander minorities of all types. In Rorty’s view we had turned a corner and Americans were becoming nicer. It was, again, an optimistic thought I allowed myself to indulge.

While my talk is dedicated to the enduring character of American racism despite moments of optimism, I should say any general characterization of America is going to be wrong for the reason that our society is large and very complex, with cultures and subcultures and countercultures which swirl, bob and weave in different and contradictory directions. While at the moment the news seems very bad, there remain tides of optimism in American society. For example, one place to look is to the so-called “millennial generation.” Polls indicate that in many ways and on many issues, the millennials are more liberal and tolerant with regard to major social issues than other sectors of society. As they age, this may augur well for a brighter future. The ultra-conservative reaction we are witnessing in American politics may be just that – a reaction against felt tides underneath that are veering further leftward.

But the current moment calls us to re-examine the tragic reality of racism that persists despite what looked for a while like ascendant and durable change. Most dramatic has been a seemingly endless rollout of killings of young black men by police, who in the post 9/11 era, have become ever more militarized and commit their crimes with impunity. It is impossible to believe that such behavior by the police is not a reflection of deeper social values which permit and sustain such conduct. As Charles Blow recently wrote in the New York Times, “The only reason that these killings keep happening is because most of American society tacitly approves or willfully tolerates it. There is no other explanation. If America wanted this to end, it would end.”

But rampant police killings of black men are just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond white-black relations, one can’t help but be alarmed at the anti-immigrant bigotry that so readily and shamelessly falls from the lips of much of the populace and, more alarmingly from political leadership in the highest echelons. I think, friends, we are living in a very frightening moment of political demagoguery, pandering to the worst human impulses fueled by fear, and hatred of “the other,” which has the smell of fascism to it. I was raised with cautionary warnings of the demagoguery of Father Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy and, of course, the evils of Nazism. But I have never witnessed in my lifetime the demagoguery, fear-mongering and scapegoat issuing from our mainline politics as we do in this election cycle. One might invoke George Wallace or Strom Thurmond. But even these figures did not have the broad appeal or the bombastic media projection of today’s demagogues. And it is not just Donald Trump, but a long list of political aspirants who gussy up their extremism and xenophobic appeals in somewhat more refined tones. We all need to be on high alert.

We can rightly ask, How have we come to this point? What are the dynamics that have intensified racial animus and contempt for minorities?
Speaking to the phenomena of the moment, several major dynamics come to mind. As I see it, much of the current manifestations of racism and xenophobia are a backlash expressed by a diminishing cohort of mostly older, white Americans, who feel increasingly marginalized in American life; marginalized economically, politically, racially and ethnically. For many, Obama’s election was a symbol of much that was progressive and good about American society. For others, Obama represents an alien presence at the very pinnacle of American society. For many, having a black man serve as the face of America is simply alien and intolerable. It threatens the deep-rooted identity of many such people as Americans. It makes them feel that the United States is not their country any longer. And they see as alien, by extension, those people holding the political values that put Obama into the White House, many of whom are minorities.

But economics has a great deal to do with fueling inter-group tension and hatred as well. We all know that the middle class is struggling and hemorrhaging badly. The time when a high school diploma could win you a stable job in manufacturing is long past. And upward mobility in America, the basis of the vaunted “American Dream,” has long come to a stall. The chances are very great that if you are born into poverty, you will never climb your way out of it.

Moreover, the recent recession hit older, relatively undereducated males especially hard. And few things can fan the fire of populist fear, anger and hatred of the other more than economic insecurity. It is the red meat of political demagoguery.

While economic dynamics, including increased privatization, which tragically segregates people from each other and fragments society, play a very important role in stoking racism, I am not a thoroughgoing economic determinist.

There are cultural factors as well. We see it most alarmingly in this election cycle in vituperative anti-immigrant campaigning, which, to my mind, is a very negation of what America is about. It is a negation of the best of our ideals which we present to ourselves, and still remain admired by much of the world. Most people, I believe, seek to feel at home in their environment. And what solidifies this “at-homeness” is that the people around them reinforce their personal identities, most strongly through common and shared cultural values.

America is demographically and dramatically changing. It will not be long, when Caucasians will be a minority in the United States, a land, which without reflection throughout our history has been white-dominant, and with it comes white privilege. When your neighbors speak a different language, have a different skin tone from yours, partake in folkways and mannerisms which they share with insiders, but not with you, one’s sense of at-homeness becomes unmoored, and at the deepest levels of identity can be very threatening to many people. Hence, in the midst of a changing America, we see a backlash igniting powerful elements of xenophobia.

So much for a brief summary of the virulent racism we witness in the headlines. But despite the power of these dynamics, I don’t think they are sufficient to explain the sheer endurance and deep rooted nature of racism as it continues to oppress African-Americans in particular.

In the brief time I have, I want to dig deeper and look at some classic ideas expressed by noted African-American thinkers who have added to our understanding of the phenomenon. I need to say, that I address this issue as an outsider to the black experience and therefore with requisite humility as an outsider. But at the same time, I share the same American society with people of color, and therefore, I think am duty-bound, as we all are, to at least give thought as to how to shape my own thinking and behavior, and educate myself about the black experience. We all have an ethical obligation to confront racism and strive to reduce it in ourselves and in society at-large.

What I want to do, all too briefly is to look at some ideas that speak to the stubborn and enduring character of racism, which go beyond the dynamics we currently witness. But what I want to share, I believe, remains relevant to our understanding of the current moment.

Perhaps the greatest black scholar in American history was W.E.B. Dubois, whom I am proud to say collaborated with Felix Adler, and found a hospitable platform to expound his views at the New York Ethical Society. During his long life of 95 years (he died in 1963 on the very eve of the March on Washington) DuBois, as the first African-American to receive a PhD at Harvard, was amazingly prolific and productive. He helped found the NAACP and was the editor of its influential newsletter for many years. He militantly lobbied for federal anti-lynching laws, and racist restrictions which Jim Crow laws imposed on blacks. He championed voting rights and saw strengthening education as the surest way toward equality in the furtherance of his integrationist vision for blacks in America. DuBois opposed war, and was the father of Pan-Africanist conferences, which propelled the movement against European colonialism. DuBois plied his activism while carrying on his academic work at Atlanta University, the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere. He also authored path breaking treatises on sociology and the earliest academic studies of black communities. And he found time to carry on ideological struggles with leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey.

DuBois’ most notable work was “The Souls of Black Folks,” a series of 14 essays, published in 1903 in which he described in elegant prose the black experience for both African-American and white audiences. In the initial essay, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” that had previously been published in the Atlantic, DuBois introduced seminal concepts which remain relevant to understanding the dynamics of racism to this day. Among these is the notion that African Americans live behind a veil, a veil which keeps blacks alienated from mainline society. This veil also creates for African Americans what DuBois referred to as a “double-consciousness.” In Dubois’ own words, “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in the American world – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.
For DuBois, this double consciousness created a perpetual tension for black Americans. It was a tension that could lead neither to assimilation into white dominant society nor to separatism, but eventually, and somewhat optimistically to a proud hyphenation of identity. For DuBois, living behind the veil and bearing this double-consciousness, though born out of oppression and exploitation, gave the oppressed a special moral insight, and through struggle he believed that in the very long range African-Americans could transform themselves and all of American society for the better.
In the words of DuBois’ biographer, David Levering Lewis, speaking of African-Americans:
Scorned and exploited throughout its history in the land of opportunity, his people had gradually undergone a halving of identity, acquired a unique angle of vision, and had become habituated to a psychic subordination that handicapped it in the past but could be turned to strengths in the future.

David Lewis refers to this “double-consciousness as the ‘primordial condition’ or dilemma of DuBois’ race which had not been so nakedly exposed before.” This double-consciousness generated and sustained by white supremacy was perhaps DuBois’s most enduring idea about racism and its lasting consequences. For the most part, this double-consciousness caused African-Americans to depreciate their own talents as they sought to realize two identities at the same time. And it needs to be clearly stated in our time, as in his, that living two lives, being the bearers of double-consciousness, is something that the white, dominant majority in America doesn’t experience. As David Lewis suggests as long as white supremacy exists, this “double-consciousness” exists as the primordial condition of being black in America. It is an enduring dynamic of racism and the racial divide which, I conclude, remains relevant in our day as it was in his.

An admirer of DuBois, and also a critic, is arguably the greatest African-American intellectual of our time, Cornel West. While recognizing DuBois’ brilliance, West nevertheless felt that DuBois was too optimistic, a high Victorian, who appropriated the values of the European Enlightenment, which West, as a post-modern thinker feels are deeply flawed. West probes deeply into the very emergence of modernity itself to locate the sources of white supremacy.

West identifies modern racism as constitutive of the European Enlightenment and the authority of science which flowed from it. It is a critique that I don’t totally share, but is fascinating and very compelling, as far as it goes. Here is what I mean. The high-water mark of the European Enlightenment of the 18th century was the era in which the ideals that we proudly celebrate, such as reason, equality, justice, freedom, and universality, were discovered, developed and venerated so enthusiastically by a large coterie of European philosophers. They were men such as Voltaire, Montesquieu, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and our own Thomas Jefferson, among others.

But the Enlightenment presents us with a painful riddle. How is it that the age which gave birth to such humanistic values was also the period when Europeans were engaging in imperialistic conquests, enslaving Africans and committing wholesale genocide against non-white peoples? How is it that Thomas Jefferson, who penned the magisterial phrase that “all men are created equal” could own slaves whom he bought and sold at auctions, and when he looked into the face of black person, did not quite see a human being? Indeed, all the aforementioned luminaries who expounded on universality and equality, from our standpoint were anti-semitic, misogynistic, racist, bigots. How do we explain this paradox?

Cornel West provides an answer. In a powerful essay entitled “The Genealogy of Modern Racism,” West begins as follows: The notion that black people are human beings is a relatively new discovery in the modern West. The idea of black equality in beauty, culture and intellectual capacity remains problematic and controversial within prestigious halls of learning and sophisticated intellectual circles. The Afro-American encounter with the modern world has been shaped first and foremost by the doctrine of White supremacy, which is embodied in institutional practices and enacted in everyday folkways under varying circumstances and evolving conditions.

For West racism and White supremacy are built into the very structures of modern Western thought. How so?
In briefest terms, Cornel West states his thesis, “To put it crudely, my argument is that the authority of science, undergirded by a modern philosophical discourse guided by Greek ocular metaphors…promotes and encourages the activities of observing, comparing, measuring and ordering the physical characteristics of human bodies.”

What does this mean in plain English? What it means is that when the philosophers of the European Enlightenment were creating the modern world, they looked back to Greek antiquity and Grecian ideals to fashion the norms and models as to how to think about the natural world. And when it came to the human world, Greek cultural and aesthetic ideals became the standards by which to assess and evaluate human beings. These Grecian ideals were those they, needless to say, applied to themselves as white, European, males. With regard to philosophical thought upon which modern science is based, such processes as observation, evidence, measuring and ordering become prevailing ideas and ways in which we understand and assess the world around us.

The revival of Greek ideals of thought and beauty, according to West, creates what he calls the “normative gaze,” namely an ideal from which to order and compare observations. If Greek ideals put a premium on observation and set the standard for beauty, which, again, white Europeans saw in themselves, then it becomes clear that people of color are construed as inferior because they stand apart from these ideal norms that constitute the very center of modern, enlightened thought and the modern world. As West concludes, “there is no legitimacy to the idea of black equality in beauty, culture and intellectual capacity. In fact to think such an idea was to be deemed irrational, barbaric or mad.”

The supremacy of Greek ideals when it comes to the matter of race, received a further boost from the methods and authority of modern science. In briefest terms, we can look at 18th century biology, as introducing the idea of race, as well of taxonomies by which to organize and understand the biological world. Early modern science was obsessed with the processes of categorization, comparison, ordering and evaluating different forms of life, which in the human realm was applied to the races. Needless to say, the white race stood at the pinnacle, while blacks were universally evaluated as deeply inferior.

In addition, the emergence of anthropology in the 19th century, saw the emergence of phrenology, which today we see as junk science, but then was considered normative, mainline science. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a great deal about this. Phrenology was the “science” that ostensibly evaluated human intelligence by measuring and the size and shape of human skulls. Again, Europeans came out on top; blacks on the bottom, and phrenology did not do much for the capacities of women either. We can conclude that it was no surprise that such theories were at their prime when European colonization of non-white peoples reached its greatest extent.

What Cornel West has attempted to do is to unmask an important, but not exclusive or exhaustive dynamic that underlies the persistence of racism in the modern age and endures into the contemporary moment. But it is his view that however deeply rooted and persistent, modern racism ultimately is not inevitable in the very long range. It cannot be reduced to a single cause, and the metaphors we use, the values we impute to human beings can change. But what he has attempted to do is reveal a basis for white supremacy which runs far deeper than the economic, social or historical causes we usually turn to in our effort to understand racism. Again, I think his insight is truly fascinating in reminding us that racist values are constitutive of how we view the world around us and the people in it. They run deeply and shape white perceptions of African-Americans that lie beneath the threshold of our usual conscious awareness.

A recent black thinker who has been extremely influential is Michelle Alexander, with the authoring of her book The New Jim Crow, published in 2010. We are at long last taking a look at the abominable rates of incarceration in the United States, especially for those given long sentences for non-violent crimes, much of which are for drug offences. Interestingly, it is something that has caught on among both notable conservatives as well as liberals. I believe that Michelle Alexander deserves credit for this movement advocating for reducing the numbers of human beings warehoused in our prisons and jails. And the numbers are truly staggering, owing to the war on drugs which was propelled by and during the Reagan administration. As she notes, The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for a majority of the increase.

With regard to the international arena, the U.S. is in a class by itself. No other nation jails so many of its citizens and with sentences so long.

In Alexander’s analysis, throughout its history, the United States has employed three predominant mechanisms for subjugating and controlling its African American population. The first was slavery. The second were Jim Crow laws. And with the end of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, we witness the phenomenon of mass incarceration, primarily of young, black males. Since overt racial segregation is no longer permissible, the mechanism for incarcerating African Americans was the war on drugs, which is ostensibly color-blind. It has long been known that whites sell and use drugs in more or less equal degree as blacks. But who gets arrested and imprisoned is anything but equal.

The numbers are staggering. As she notes, “in some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men. And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legal discrimination for the rest of their lives.” And she points out, “In Washington D.C., our nation’s capital, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison”

And it is not just serving time. A prison sentence stigmatizes and handicaps ex-convicts for years if not for life. Once out of prison, the system authorizes legal discrimination for those who have served time with regard to voting, employment, housing, education, public benefits and jury service.

A theme that Michelle Alexander comes back to time and again is that beneath this phenomenon of mass incarceration, that sustains the subjugation and control of African Americans, is what she refers to as the “American caste system.” In the Indian context, caste denotes your social status conferred by birth, and it determines such life-defining opportunities as employment and how you are appreciated or stigmatized by society as a whole.

According to this understanding, the condition of African Americans is not exclusively of poverty or substandard education. What she means by caste is “a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom.” To continue,
The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. Viewed from this perspective, the so-called underclass is better understood as an undercaste – a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society.

Though Michelle Alexander is a civil liberties lawyer, she believes that if the American caste system is to be overcome, we need to penetrate much more deeply than mere advocacy. More top jobs or entry into fancy schools won’t do it. We might even persuade voters that mass incarceration is too expensive and that drug use should be seen as public health issue. But that is not enough. She concludes,
…if the movement that emerges to end mass incarceration does not meaningfully address the racial divisions and resentments that gave rise to mass incarceration, and if it fails to cultivate an ethic of genuine care, compassion and concern for every human being – of every race, class, and nationality –within our nation’s borders…the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death of racial caste in America.
Given what is at stake at this moment in history, bolder, more inspired action is required than what we have seen to date. Piecemeal, top down policy reform on criminal justice issues…will not get us out of our nation’s racial quagmire. We must flip the script…We…must be the change we hope to create. If we want to do more than just end mass incarceration – if we want to put an end to the history of racial caste in America – we must lay down our racial bribes, join hands with people of all colors who are not content to wait for change to trickle down, and say to those who would stand in our way: Accept all of us or none.

It may eventuate that the Black Lives Matter movement, which was born out of the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, augurs that greater transformation which Michelle Alexander is calling for.

My final figure is by his own proclamation not an activist nor a movement leader, but self-identifies as a writer. And he is a writer who has received phenomenal acclaim. Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a journalist for the Atlantic Magazine and the author of the book Between the World and Me, which is an extended letter to his 15 year-old son. The volume won the National Award Book and was named one of the best non-fiction books of 2015 by the The New York Times. In addition, he is the author of two very lengthy articles in the Atlantic; the first making the claim for reparations, and the second, the far-reaching effects of incarceration on black families.

Coates’ power rests in his strident, unrestrained and unapologetic expose of white supremacy as constitutive of what America has been throughout its history and shapes our contemporary society. He is the son of a black Panther and inspired more by Malcolm X than by Martin Luther King. Since he did not grow up in the black church, his writing does not include a commitment to the vision that a better day inevitably follows from the struggles engaged in the present, nor does he offer a basis for hope. As I read him, Coates is more descriptive than prescriptive, and it would not be wrong to see view him as shading into pessimism. His strength rests in the bluntness, and power of what it means to be black in a society built upon white supremacy and black exploitation and subjugation.

In Coates’ analysis, the history of the United States is the history of the plunder of its black population. 250 years of slavery, followed by a century of terrorism and lynching after Reconstruction, debt peonage, and land theft. The New Deal, which we herald, excluded from unemployment insurance farm workers and domestic workers, jobs heavily occupied by blacks. The GI bill left blacks to deal with white owned banks that disqualified them from its benefits. Plunder continued through predatory lending practice, restrictive covenants, redlining, barring African Americans from attaining mortgages, and, of course, legal and de facto segregation. To bring it up to the moment, in 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness, during the subprime debacle.

In Between the World and Me, Coates writes,
The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.
It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a black body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage. These are strong words indeed. And the only advice that Coats gives to his son is that he must engage in struggle, but without the hope that he will see the results of his struggle in his lifetime.

Ta-Nehisi Coates powerfully impresses us with the notion that racism runs very deep in American society, as it always has. As a humanist, I don’t share Coates pessimism, in that I believe that the future is always an open future, and we cannot foreclose the possibilities of progress down the road, however long it may be. But then, again, I must humbly admit that I am not an African-American who grew up in inner city Baltimore. Nevertheless, Coates’ powerful prose gives urgency to the thinking of those who have gone before, whether we reference DuBois’ notion of double consciousness, Cornel West’s concept of the normative gaze and Michelle Alexander’s exposition of an American caste system.

Racism did not end with the civil rights movement, and certainly not with the election of Barack Obama. Racism and systemic racism endures, woven into the very fabric of American life. These painful realities and inconvenient truths mean that white folks are complicit in the privileges they, we, continue to enjoy. We can be quite sure that if Tamir Rice were a 12 year old white boy in the suburbs wielding a toy gun, he would not have been shot dead by a cop in two seconds. These disturbing realities require that we who are not black take a harder look at racism, and hardest of all, take a look at ourselves in order to come to a deeper understanding of the disparities of privilege conferred by skin color. For Michelle Alexander is right. Advocacy alone is not enough. If America stands a chance at overcoming, or at best, even significantly mitigating the racial disparities that continue to divide us, then we need reach deeper than changing our laws, though we need do that, too. We need to redouble our efforts to change hearts and minds, no less our own. We need to do this if we are going to leave to our children and grandchildren, an American society worth having.


  1. I am so sorry that Gary and I will be leaving Saturday to visit Gary’s boyhood friend in Naples, Fla. We would surely be there Sunday to welcome you back, dear Joe, and to hear you discuss this vital issue. Your remarks in this posting are a great introduction to what I know will be a compelling talk. Perhaps I can persuade you to come give such a presention to our IND class in the spring. The date I have left on my “Hot Button Issues ” series is Tuesday, May 17. I will call you shortly to discuss and, hopefully, confirm this with you. HAPPY NEW YEAR!


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