Is Barack Obama too tough on black Americans?

A spirited exchange between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait shows that the debate over black inequality remains as complex as ever

(Image credit: (Sean Gallup/Getty Images))

I hope you've been following the past week's most electrifying and important online debate — the one between The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates and New York's Jonathan Chait about "Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind." That's the title of Coates' rejoinder to Chait, who was writing in response to an earlier Coates post that took aim at Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama for their tendency to highlight the role of culture in fostering black poverty — a tendency Coates says they share with Republican Rep. Paul Ryan.

Coates has taken aim at Obama on this topic before. But he struck a nerve this time by claiming that both black and white progressives look at race in much the same way as conservative Republicans — and that they do so because "it is a message that makes all our uncomfortable truths tolerable." What are those truths? That racism — and its corollary, white supremacy — remain pervasive in the United States, contributing decisively to "a yawning wealth gap, a two-tiered job market, and persistent housing discrimination." Flinching in the face of this racist reality — sensing that fighting it is as futile as "getting angry at the wind or raging against the rain" — public figures of both parties and races prefer to blame the supposedly pathological culture of black men instead.

Chait responded by pointing out that whereas Ryan and other Republicans focus on culture alone while dismissing the importance of racism, which they consider to be a thing of the past, progressives "share the view that cultural problems contribute to black poverty, but they don't equate them with the entirety of it." Indeed, progressives believe both that racism remains a real, significant problem and that it is ultimately to blame for the cultural pathologies that Obama and others single out for comment. Their focus on these pathologies is perfectly legitimate, according to Chait, because it makes sense for public figures to encourage people "to concentrate on the things they can control" — like racism's "cultural residue," which has become its own "impediment to success."

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Coates' reply, finally, makes the case that Chait is repeating advice that has been handed down to blacks since the era of post-Civil War Reconstruction, when well-meaning white reformers (wrongly) assumed that slavery must have produced a pathological culture among Southern blacks. It hadn't, just as today "there is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves." What there is evidence of is the persistence and pervasiveness of racism in American life. (Coates cites numerous studies in support of this contention, including one showing that black low-wage-job applicants with clean criminal records fare no better in interviews than white applicants just released from prison.)

Given this underlying reality, Chait's advice — like Barack Obama's — amounts to exhorting African-Americans to become "a race of hyper-moral super-humans" when what they truly want and deserve is merely "the right to live like the normal humans they are."

As I said, it's an extraordinary exchange — and not only because Coates and Chait are two of our most gifted writers and opinion journalists. The exchange is also extraordinary because, as Coates points out, the underlying issues have been debated over and over again in our history — and because then, as now, both sides are right.

No one with functional eyes and an open mind can deny that racism remains a reality in 21st-century America. On an individual level, there are obviously fewer overt examples of it today than there were a half-century ago. But at the level of institutions? I dare any reader who doubts it to spend a day touring the mostly white, financially flush public schools of suburban Philadelphia, where I live, and then spend the following day visiting, just a few miles away, the nearly bankrupt, crumbling, overcrowded, rat- and roach-infested public schools to which most of Philadelphia's black children are consigned year after year. It's not exactly the segregation of the Jim Crow South, because it isn't enforced by law. But it is undeniably a de facto form of socio-cultural segregation in which the two sides are largely separate and emphatically unequal.

And so it goes, through racial disparities in wealth, arrest rates, convictions for nonviolent drug offenses, and lengths of prison sentences. All of it adds up to a society in which blacks — and especially black men — are far more likely than whites to end up incarcerated. (As Coates noted in a powerful post from 2010: "African-Americans — males and females — make up 0.6 percent of the entire world's population, but African-American males — alone — make up 8 percent of the entire world's prison population.")

And yet none of this makes Chait — or, for that matter, Barack Obama, or even Paul Ryan — wrong to talk about culture and the crucial importance of black men doing everything they possibly can to avoid getting sucked up into the criminal justice system.

Is that system biased against them? It certainly is. But not absolutely so. If blacks commit acts of homicide at almost eight times the rate of whites, an awful lot of them are going to end up in prison, no matter how racially fair or unfair the system is.

Would the black homicide rate fall if there were more and better jobs in black neighborhoods — and for blacks in all neighborhoods? And if police did a better job of keeping black neighborhoods safe without provoking fear and resentment, and inspiring humiliation, in the people who live there? And if the schools and other social services in those neighborhoods were better funded?

I assume Coates would agree with me that the answer to these questions is yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

But then why can't we also agree that the homicide rate might also be positively affected by a black president of the United States imploring young black men growing up in inner-city neighborhoods to channel their (in many cases) justified rage at the seeming hopelessness of their lives into behavior more likely to propel them up and out of poverty?

Is this asking a lot of black men born and raised in urban squalor and neglect? You bet it is. Is it fair? Not at all.

But in the end, those black men are the ones who will benefit most — not by becoming "hyper-moral super-humans," which is indeed impossible, but by developing disciplines of restraint and self-command, and using them to overcome the appallingly arduous obstacles America continuously and unjustly places in their path.

It's perfectly understandable for Coates to respond with anger and frustration to the fact that African-Americans still face these obstacles and in many cases have no choice but to try with all their might to surmount them on their own.

But I bet Barack Obama is angry and frustrated, too. And his response, however different, is no less legitimate.

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