Ta-Nehisi Coates' case against American exceptionalism
Coates' admirers would insulate him from criticism. But his extraordinary book is better served by a more rigorous engagement.
There's something about the critical response to Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me — or more precisely, something about the critical response to the critical response to it — that makes me want to cut the book to pieces, just for the sheer joy of dispelling the piety surrounding it.
I'm talking primarily about the spasm of attacks on David Brooks that immediately followed his mildly critical (but also reverential) column about the book. Several of these attacks asserted or implied that Brooks' identity as a white man rendered him incapable of critically evaluating it.
Sorry, but that doesn't cut it. Coates has written a book, not delivered an ex cathedra pronouncement of theological Truth to which readers owe ecclesiastical deference. I'm a white man, I read the book, and I'll say anything about it that I damn well please.
I like to think that Coates himself would prefer tough-minded, critical engagement to the universal flattery he'd receive from an audience of readers that's been browbeaten into passive approval by the self-appointed commissars of identity politics. In one of many moving passages in the book, Coates writes about how a true education involves struggle and aims to produce "a kind of discomfort" — an uneasiness that would "break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere." I couldn't agree more. Which is why Coates' book desperately needs to be rescued from those who would insulate it, and him, from criticism — and in the process turn it, and him, into just another myth in need of debunking.
None of which means that the book deserves to be debunked. There's much to admire and learn from his extraordinary extended letter to his teenage son Samori about the physical and emotional perils of being a black man in America — though there are also some things in the book that just don't work.
For one thing, Coates' insistence on distinguishing black people from those who "believe themselves white" (which he takes from essayist James Baldwin) is both syntactically clumsy and conceptually incoherent. Either race is socially constructed all the way down, in which case all of us (black as well as white) "believe ourselves" to be one race or another — or else race has some reality in the world, in which case a "white" person is no less white than a "black" person is black. The racial categories stand or fall together.
Then there's Coates' decision to refer repeatedly to America's war on "the black body," and even more often to his fears about the safety of "my body" and that of his young son. Used a few times, such formulations are powerful, poetically evoking the profound physical and existential vulnerability with which African-American men live on a daily basis. But deployed over and over again, the freshness wears away and the phrases begin to suggest an odd kind of metaphysical dualism. (Who, after all, is this "I" who speaks repeatedly of "my body," treating it as an object? Your body simply is you, right?) That Coates writes quite openly about being an atheist and a materialist only makes such passages more perplexing.
But such defects take nothing away from what's best and most important in the book — and that is its savage, impassioned assault on the ideology of American exceptionalism.
Coates cuttingly refers to this ideology as "the Dream," just as he uses the word "Dreamers" to describe the mostly white people who accept its fairytale vision of America's history and role in the world.
Some early critics of the book have presumed that Coates is talking about the American dream of upward mobility (and its recent failure to fulfill its promise). That's a part of it, though only a part. What he actually means is far broader — the tendency to see the country as worthy of love not just because it's ours but because it's better, more just, more virtuous than other places. The United States is the source and champion of democracy in the world, home to freedom and equality, a gateway to opportunity for all who come here, a motor of economic, scientific, and technological progress, the guarantor of worldwide peace and prosperity, and so on.
All of this supposedly makes us exceptional — as just about everyone in our politics insists.
Most conservatives today admit the reality of past racism (slavery and all that), but they also aggressively champion the easy uplift of the Dream, telling themselves that we've now left all that nastiness behind to create a nation blissfully free of prejudice — and all by simply bringing the country into greater conformity to bedrock American ideals that have been there from the beginning.
Liberals do a little better, acknowledging that racism persists in 21st-century America, though they too like to accentuate the positive by talking about how much progress has been made toward realizing the Dream and devising pragmatic solutions to finally get over the goal line of fulfilling those very same American ideals. Not yet, but soon!
Coates responds with defiance to both camps, proposing an alternative account of America as seen through the lens of his own life and experience. Think of it as a autobiographically informed phenomenology of black life in the post-civil rights era.
At the core of that story is fear. In this sense, Coates' account of America is broadly consistent with the liberal tradition, though with an important, lacerating twist.
In theory, liberal government has two ends or goals: to protect citizens from lawless individuals and groups, and to protect everyone from the government's own tyrannical tendencies. Each is a response to a distinct fear. The first is a fear of chaos and anarchy (oppression and death at the hands of sub-state individuals and groups), the second is a fear of despotism (oppression and death at the hands of the state itself).
Whites are familiar with the first fear from crime, whether directly experienced or imagined (often through a racial lens). You can hear this fear when whites talk about driving through an urban ghetto and express hopes that the car doesn't break down. "I wouldn't go there at night," they say. "And make sure you lock the doors."
Blacks know this fear, too, often with far greater intimacy. Coates' book opens with powerful descriptions of growing up in Baltimore immersed in a culture of violence at home and on the street. Beatings and shootings were a constant threat.
But that's where experiences diverge. Whites believe (in most cases rightly) that the state is on their side. Call the cops, and they will help, offering protection, restoring order. They are an authority to which anyone can appeal to put an end to fear.
The black experience is profoundly, radically, diametrically different. Call the cops and you might be beaten and murdered. And because the rot goes far beyond the cops, deep into the criminal justice system and American culture as a whole, you might be beaten and murdered with impunity. If I lose my cool and raise my voice in an argument with someone on the street, a cop will likely tell me to calm down and move along. A black man in the same situation might be thrown to the ground, handcuffed, beaten, arrested, and charged with a crime. And if in the midst of this ritual humiliation the black man dares to resist, to stand up for his rights, to protest the assault on his dignity, he may very well end up dead — with the cop eventually let off by prosecutors or exonerated by a grand jury.
The result is (from the standpoint of a white man) an upside-down experience of the world — one in which fear never ends.
What this means is that African Americans are in but not truly of the political community. Unable to safely make an appeal to a higher authority for protection, they are more subjects than citizens. This is how it was under slavery, how it was under Jim Crow, how it was under the rule of redlining in the northern cities during the postwar decades, and how it still is today in many (perhaps most) parts of the United States — yes, even deep into the second term of our first African-American president.
Much has changed. Hardly anything has changed.
We know this because the spread of cell phone cameras has revealed reality to us in a new way — shown us how often officers murder unarmed African Americans. Sell cigarettes while black and you might end up choked to death. Turn and run and you might end up shot in the back. Do or say something wrong at a routine traffic stop and you might get blown away. As a white man, I've never worried about such a thing happening to me. If I were a black man, I'd worry about it every time I got stopped (which would probably be much more often), and I'd worry about it happening every single day to the people I love.
Just as Coates worries about his son — growing up in unexceptional America, surrounded by Dreamers who think "grit, honor, and good works" is all it takes to get ahead, who believe "they are all Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers."
The lesson for Samori is clear: "The price of error is higher for you than it is for your countrymen." A country in which such a thing is true, in which those countrymen make a point of denying it and then pat themselves on the back for the act of denial, or perhaps acknowledge it but feel quite content to accept it as "the cost of doing business" — that is a country about which one cannot help but feel, at best, a complicated, troubled form of patriotism.
Call it wakeful patriotism. That's what this white male American reader was left with after putting down Ta-Nehisi Coates' essential, frustrating, angry, awkward, and illuminating book.