Looking Forward or Backward?

By Daniel Rose

Ta-Nehisi Coates is widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s most eloquent, powerful journalists. The passion, knowledge and command of language he brings to discussions of the state of Black America are especially compelling; and his latest book, “Between the World and Me,” is a thought-provoking intellectual challenge for all Americans.

In the form of a letter to his 14 year old son, Samori, it conveys the soul-destroying nature of American slavery, of Jim Crow segregation, and of the vicious impact of anti-black racism and prejudice to this very day. Racism, like homophobia, sexism and anti-Semitism, continues to plague us and it must be acknowledged. It is destructive and it must be fought by those impatient to see American society live up to its high ideals.

Coates conveys legitimate demands for compassion and understanding with great power and clarity. But a separate question arises from Coates’ message to his son’s generation. On that, objective observers can disagree. Many fear that Coates’ negativism, lack of hope, and his failure to acknowledge the social progress our society has made on issues of race and racism in recent years is a counter-productive message for young African Americans of every class who need to know how much progress our society has made and is making. This should encourage them to aspire to reach their full potential growth and to overcome the obstacles they may face.

Since the U.S. Civil War, black thinkers have been of at least two-minds — “separatists” (like Marcus Garvey) who looked with despair upon American society and who believed that anti-black racism will always be with us, and “integrationists” who looked forward with hope for black inclusiveness without reservation. The latter view was best expressed by Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment that his children should be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

In his farewell speech to the nation, President Barack Obama noted that “race remains a potent and divisive force in our society … we are not where we need to be … going forward we must uphold the laws against discrimination in housing, in education, in employment and in the criminal justice system.” President Obama ended with a plea to rebuild our institutions but above all for personal agency and participation free of any internalized sense of limitation.

Objective reports of progress in racial social justice abound. The Pew Foundation notes the growing percentage of black students completing high school and college (now up to 23% of all black people aged 25 and older) and the current 47 black Congressional Representatives and three Senators (up from 13 in 1971). And the percentage of black generals, admirals, ambassadors, college presidents and millionaires in our country keeps increasing. In fact, since Dr. King was so tragically assassinated, the size of the black upper middle class has quadrupled.

Harvard professor Martin Kilson, in “Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia,” today sees our black President as part of “a full-fledged African American political class made up of ten thousand elected office holders in counties, state legislatures and Congress and over 20,000 more African American administrative and technical officials at state and federal levels, with nearly four million African Americans recorded by U.S. Census Bureau surveys in 2002 and 2006 as holding top-tier white collar occupations.”

In “Between the World and Me,” Coates is curiously ambivalent about the prospects for racial progress. At one point, he instills in his son debilitating fear of the police and distrust of all social authority; yet elsewhere he points out that he, himself, at age 14 did not know “what it means to grow up with a black President, social networks, omnipresent media and black women everywhere in their natural hair.”

Coates conveys to his son the impression of black life as the product of forces beyond black control (implying the lack of personal responsibility) and he objects to the thought that blacks have to be “twice as good as whites” (removing the “challenge and response” mindset that has traditionally stimulated other minorities to rise within American society).

Coates also ignores encouraging reports such as that from the Brookings Institution that today blacks who graduate from high school, have a full-time job, don’t have a child before age 21, and marry before child-bearing have a 75% chance of attaining middle class status.

Coates says he was inspired to write his latest volume after re-reading James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” which was originally published in 1963 as a letter to Baldwin’s 15 year old nephew. But Baldwin repeatedly implores his nephew to believe that revolutionary change is possible against all odds and that blacks should defeat the expectations of those who seek to control and exploit them.

One view of Coates’ book (that of Michelle Alexander) is that, “Coates’ book is unfinished. He raises numerous critically important questions that are unanswered … I suppose that he is holding out on us. Everything he has ever written leads me to believe that he has more to say.” One looks forward to the day when Coates feels comfortable enough to write about the great triumph that his own life represents, as part of a larger generational phenomenon.

In an interview on the publication of the book, Coates described his idea of integration as “looking at little black girls and little white girls and not seeing any difference.” Many of us believe that day may arrive well before Coates thinks possible, and that by galvanizing “self-fulfilling prophecies” we may speed the day.

At some point, the American public will accept the fact that “race” is essentially a social construct with what Anthony Appiah calls “imaginary natural commonalities,” and we must work toward the day when “the ideal of human brotherhood has become a practical possibility.” (W.E.B. DuBois)