Coates is extremely good and distilling and clarifying arguments until they’re all but undeniable. This article is too incredible.
‘Chait is conflating two different things: black culture—which was shaped by, and requires, all the forces he named; and “a culture of poverty,” which requires none of them.
‘That conflation undergirds his latest column. Chait paraphrases my argument that “there is no such thing as a culture of poverty.” His evidence of this is quoting me attacking the “the notion that black culture is part of the problem.” This evidence only works if you believe “black culture” and “a culture of poverty” are somehow interchangeable.
‘The point has obviously eluded Chait. Instead of considering that I may well have been responding to my actual lived circumstances, Chait chooses to assume that I was responding to some inscrutable call of the wild:
When the imprint of this culture was nearly strong enough to derail the career of a writer as brilliant as Coates, we are talking about a powerful force, indeed.
‘What’s missed here is that the very culture Chait derides might well be the reason why I am sitting here debating him in the first place. That culture contained a variety of values and practices. “I ain’t no punk” was one of them. “Know your history” was another. “Words are beautiful” was another still. The key is cultural dexterity—understanding when to emphasize which values, and when to employ which practices.
‘Chait endorses a blunter approach:
The circa-2008 Ta-Nehisi Coates was neither irresponsible nor immoral. Rather, he had grown up around cultural norms that inhibited economic success. People are the products of their environment. Environments are amenable to public policy. Some of the most successful anti-poverty initiatives, like the Harlem Children’s Zone or the KIPP schools, are designed around the premise that children raised in concentrated poverty need to be taught middle class norms.
‘No, they need to be taught that all norms are not transferable into all worlds. In my case, physical assertiveness might save you on the street but not beyond it. At the same time, other values are transferrable and highly useful. The “cultural norms” of my community also asserted that much of what my country believes about itself is a lie. In the spirit of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Malcolm X, it was my responsibility to live, prosper, and attack the lie. Those values saved me on the street, and they sustain me in this present moment.
‘People who take a strict binary view of culture (“culture of privilege = awesome; culture of poverty = fail”) are afflicted by the provincialism of privilege and thus vastly underestimate the dynamism of the greater world. They extoll “middle-class values” to the ignorance and exclusion of all others. To understand, you must imagine what it means to confront algebra in the morning and “Shorty, can I see your bike?” in the afternoon.It’s very nice to talk about “middle-class values” when that describes your small, limited world. But when your grandmother lives in one hood and your coworkers live another, you generally need something more than “middle-class values.” You need to be bilingual.
‘In 2008, I was living in central Harlem, an area of New York whose demographics closely mirrored the demographics of my youth. The practices I brought to bear in that tent were not artifacts. I was not under a spell of pathology. I was employing the tools I used to navigate the everyday world I lived. It just so happened that the world in which I worked was different. As I said in that original piece, “There is nothing particularly black about this.” I strongly suspect that white people who’ve grown up around entrenched poverty and violence will find that there are certain practices that safeguard them at home but not so much as they journey out. This point is erased if you believe that “black culture” is simply another way of saying “culture of poverty.”
‘Accepting the premise that “black culture” and “a culture of poverty” are interchangeable also has the benefit of making the president’s rhetoric much more understandable. One begins to get why the president would address a group of graduates from an elite black college on the tendency of young men in the black community to make “bad choices.” Or why the president goes before black audiences and laments the fact that the proportion of single-parent households has doubled, and carry no such message to white audiences—despite the fact that single parenthood is growing fastest among whites. And you can understand how an initiative that began with the killing of a black boy who was not poor, and who had a loving father, becomes fuel for the assertion that “nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father.” In his best work, Chait mercilessly dissects this kind of intellectual slipperiness. Now we find him applauding it and reifying it.
‘”Culture is hard, though not impossible, to quantify,” writes Chait. “Which does not mean it doesn’t exist.” Indeed. I have done my best to identify specific cultural practices and outline how they work in different worlds. Much of that evidence is built on memoir, and thus necessarily subject to an uncomfortable vagueness.
‘But quantifying the breadth and effect of white supremacy suffers no such drawbacks. Some of our most celebrated scholarship—Battle Cry of Freedom, Reconstruction, The Making of the Second Ghetto, The Warmth of Other Suns, At the Hands of Persons Unknown, Family Properties, Confederate Reckoning, Black Wealth/White Wealth, American Apartheid, Crabgrass Frontier, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, When and Where I Enter, When Affirmative Action Was White—is directed toward, with great specificity, outlining the reach and effects of white supremacy.
‘It is not wholly surprising that Barack Obama tends not to focus on this literature, whatever its merits. I do not expect the president of the United States to make a habit of speaking unvarnished and uncomfortable truths. (Though he is often brilliant when he does.) Of course removing white supremacy from the equation puts Barack Obama in the odd position of focusing on that which is hardest to evidence, while slighting that which is clearly known.
It is hard to explain how the United States has progressed from chattel slavery to emancipation to the end of lynching to the end of legal segregation to electing an African-American president if America has “rarely” been the ally of African-Americans and “often” its nemesis. It is one thing to notice the persistence of racism, quite another to interpret the history of black America as mainly one of continuity rather than mainly one of progress.
‘This certainly is a specimen of progress—much like the ill-tempered man might “progress” from shooting at his neighbors to clubbing them and then finally settle on simply robbing them. His victims, bloodied, beaten, and pilfered, might view his “progress” differently. Effectively Chait’s rendition of history amounts to, “How can you say I have a history of violence given that I’ve repeatedly stopped pummeling you?”
‘Chait’s jaunty and uplifting narrative flattens out the chaos of history under the cheerful rubric of American progress. The actual events are more complicated. It’s true, for instance, that slavery was legal in the United States in 1860 and five years later it was not. That is because a clique of slaveholders greatly overestimated its own power and decided to go to war with its country. Had the Union soundly and quickly defeated the Confederacy, it’s very likely that slavery would have remained. Instead the war dragged on, and the Union was forced to employ blacks in its ranks. The end result—total emancipation—was more a matter of military necessity than moral progress.
‘For the next century, the United Stateslegitimized the overthrow of legal governments, the reduction of black people to forced laborers, and the complete alienation—at gunpoint—of black people in the South from the sphere of politics.
‘Chait’s citation of the end of lynching as evidence of America serving as an “ally” is especially bizarre. The United States never passed anti-lynching legislation, a disgrace so great that it compelled the Senate to apologize—in 2005.
‘”You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches,” said Malcolm X, “and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.”
‘The notion that black America’s long bloody journey was accomplished through frequent alliance with the United States is an assailant’s-eye view of history. It takes no note of the fact that in 1860, most of this country’s exports were derived from the forced labor of the people it was “allied” with. It takes no note of this country electing senators who, on the Senate floor, openly advocated domestic terrorism. It takes no note of what it means for a country to tolerate the majority of the people living in a state like Mississippi being denied the right to vote. It takes no note of what it means to exclude black people from the housing programs, from the GI Bills, that built the American middle class. Effectively it takes no serious note of African-American history, and thus no serious note of American history.
‘You see this in Chait’s belief that he lives in a country “whose soaring ideals sat uncomfortably aside an often cruel reality.” No. Those soaring ideals don’t sit uncomfortably aside the reality but comfortably on top of it. The “cruel reality” made the “soaring ideals” possible.
‘From Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning What God Hath Wrought:
By giving the United States its leading export staple, the workers in the cotton fields enabled the country not only to buy manufactured goods from Europe but also to pay interest on its foreign debt and continue to import more capital to invest in transportation and industry. Much of Atlantic civilization in the nineteenth century was built on the back of the enslaved field hand.
‘White supremacy does not contradict American democracy—it birthed it, nurtured it, and financed it. That is our heritage. It was reinforced during 250 years of bondage. It was further reinforced during another century of Jim Crow. It was reinforced again when progressives erected an entire welfare state on the basis of black exclusion. It was reinforced again when the intellectual progeny of the same people who excluded black women from welfare turned around and inveighed against it through caricaturization of black women.’