uppose you were a white person with a deep-seated dislike for black people, and you were intent on training your son to feel the same way. Suppose that, day after day, week after week, you instructed him to study the details of every instance of black-on-white crime. Say you advised your son to extrapolate from these incidents the notion that black people are generally dangerous, and that your zeal to present him with disturbing anecdotes along these lines never waned.
You would be wrong, in just about every possible way: statistically, sociologically, morally. You would be doing your son a gross and damaging disservice. For yourself you would invite, and earn, broad contempt. If your opinions became publicly known, you might well find yourself unwelcome in polite company and your job at risk. Indeed, the National Review contributor John Derbyshire was fired for expressing such sentiments in a blog post three years ago.
And yet for harboring roughly the same level of suspicion, fear, mistrust, distaste, and unease about whites as Derbyshire does about blacks, the essayist and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates has found himself crowned America’s leading civic thinker. “It is Coates to whom so many of us turn to affirm, challenge or, more often, to mold our views from the clay,” wrote the Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada, not inaccurately.
Coates’s recent memoir, Between the World and Me,1 an instant No. 1 bestseller dubbed “immense” by Publishers Weekly and deemed “essential, like water or air,” by A.O. Scott, will not only win every prize in sight, they’ll have to invent some new prizes for it. Perhaps Coates will be tapped to be our first Public Intellectual Laureate. Not only is the book selling by the boatload, but as it is very angry, very left-wing, very topical, and very short, it also seems certain to be ushered into the exclusive club where the real money of publishing is: college and high-school reading syllabi. Between the World and Me stands ready to be a central influence in the way young people are taught to see race in America.
And that is disheartening. Coates’s book is bitter, and it is embittering. It’s angry about things we should be angry about—only the straw man Coates frequently invokes would claim the race problem is solved in America—but it also displays an inchoate generalized contempt for America, especially white America. Coates simply assumes that the country is as poisoned by race obsessions as he is. The book is 176 pages of question-begging.
The memoir, the second published by Coates before his 40th birthday, is an open letter to his young son, Samori, that recounts his own youthful tribulations in a crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhood, a joyous blossoming at historically black Howard University, the deep connection he formed with a girl he met there who became his wife, the shooting death of a young black man (at the hands of a black policeman) he knew at Howard, and his later struggles as a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Coates has little to say about the position he has occupied for several years, that of one of the most lionized writers in America, a man who won a National Magazine Award for the 2013 Atlantic article “Fear of a Black President” and whose 2014 effort for the same magazine, “The Case for Reparations,” was dubbed “probably the most discussed magazine piece of the Obama era” by New York magazine.
Yes, but discussed by whom? A 2014 YouGov poll pegged support for reparations payments to descendants of black slaves at 15 percent. That’s smaller than the percentage of Americans who said, in a 2005 Gallup poll, that they believe in witches. Reparations is not being discussed in policymaking circles, and anyway, as Christopher Caldwell pointed out in the Weekly Standard: “The article makes no explicit ‘case’ that someone should pay today’s blacks for the mistreatment of yesterday’s. The case gets made by implication.” Reparations is a fantasy issue to a fierce segment of the ultra-committed left, and no one else.
That tenuous grip on reality defines Between the World and Me. It’s a febrile cry of hurt that takes place in a murk of vague and poetic language, the reminiscences often further occluded by euphemism and the passive voice. Reading it requires decoding it. The word you, for instance, means, depending on context, “I,” “we,” “they” or the boy to whom the book is addressed.
Reacting to danger on the Baltimore streets of his youth, Coates writes that threats were “answered by breaking out, ducking through alleys . . . bounding through the door past your kid brother into your bedroom, pulling the tool out of your lambskin or from under your mattress or out of your Adidas shoebox, then calling up your own cousins (who really aren’t) and returning to that same block, on that same day, and to that same crew, hollering out, ‘Yeah, n—r, what’s up now?’”
Did this actually happen? To Coates? Is the “tool” a gun? If yes to the above, does Coates have any regrets about this behavior? Does he, disastrously, mean to encourage similar behavior by others? The reader can only guess. And does Coates sincerely believe that his son “may feel the need for escape even more than I do,” as Coates tells the lad, because “there is no real difference between you and Travyon Martin”? Unless the junior Coates would respond to a neighbor’s observation by jumping the other man and pounding his head into the pavement, there would appear to be a great deal of difference between the two young men.
This propensity for eliding distinctions ought to disqualify Coates from consideration as a serious social analyst, and yet it is exactly that habit that so endears him to the left. They’re in the mood to emote, not to investigate. When, say, the Barack Obama–Eric Holder Justice Department, after exhaustive inquiry, ruled that the shooting of Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Missouri, was justified, progressives did not apologize for the unnecessary unrest and violence that resulted from their propagation of a false theory of the case.
Coates does not apologize to this day: Near the outset of the book he speaks of the crippling sadness he and his son experienced the day a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who killed Brown. “I didn’t comfort you,” Coates tells his son, “because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.” Brown punched a police officer who was seated in a vehicle, then later ran directly at him and ignored calls to stop. Yet Coates is encouraging his son to treat Brown’s death as an anchor on his every movement. He is setting up his son for a haunted, angry existence.
Coates repeatedly returns to an incident in which his son, at age four, was shoved on an escalator on the Upper West Side by a woman who said, “Come on.” Coates reacted angrily, which is understandable, but he also pushed another man who took the woman’s side, which is not. To Coates, this was the same old story: slavery. “Someone had invoked their right over the body of my son,” he writes. Coates stands 6’ 4” and no doubt did not appear in the moment as the sagacious soul beloved to New York Times readers, possibly because he was screaming his lungs out, though the vague language makes it hard to say (“I spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history”).
Such an incident would upset any father. But Coates evidently overreacted because of an unquenchable need to find racism, an eagerness to assume the absolute worst of people at all times, even when there is no evidence for it. Or does he think white New Yorkers never shove other white New Yorkers? A couple of years ago, I was walking to work on West 48th Street when a black man stopped me. I thought he might be seeking directions, but when he instead commenced a tale of woe, no doubt with an eye toward asking for spare change, I continued on my journey. Half a block later, he ran up behind me and shoved me, not gently, in the chest with both hands. “The next time you IGNORE me, I’m going to beat the shit out of you!” he cried. I realized he could have done great harm to me in a few seconds. Shaken, I hurried off to work, wishing I had eyes in the back of my head, but that was the conclusion of the incident.
I quickly forgot all of this and never mentioned the encounter to anyone. The only reason it has arisen in my memory now is that I was trying to think of an experience similar to Coates’s at the escalator. There’s nothing remarkable about what happened to me. It’s the sort of nuisance you learn to forget when you live in New York. Frustrated and impatient people are everywhere. But we don’t organize our personalities around minor run-ins, much less intentionally pass along such an obsession to our children or elevate them to world-historical status, as Coates does in a bathetic and dreadfully written paragraph that begins with the hypocrisy of the Founding and its tolerance for slavery, and concludes with that single shove of four-year-old Samori:
[It] was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism. But because they believe themselves to be white, they would rather countenance a man choked to death on film under their laws…. And they would rather reach out, in all their sanity, and push my four-year-old son as though he were merely an obstacle in the path of their too-important day.
Coates would declare that my encounter with the angry black man was my fault, for being white, or rather for being one of those who “believe themselves to be white,” an awkward formulation intended as an insult (albeit a strange one). Coates uses the phrase throughout, apparently in homage to James Baldwin, who in a bizarre 1984 essay called “On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies” argued that “there are no white people” and that being white was merely a “moral choice” to subjugate black people.
In Coates’s view, if I were black and had been shoved by a black man, this would also have been the fault of white people, who have been deliberately keeping black people poor. When he was a boy, “naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease,” the nakedness was, as it remains, “the correct and intended result of policy.” This is the conspiracy theory to rule them all, one so satisfying to Coates’s readers that they don’t request any support for it. The $22 trillion spent on the War on Poverty? An elaborate ruse.
To Coates, history is a maze in which every path leads back to the dragon in the center, which is slavery. So blame the white racist superstructure even if a black cop working for a black county run by black politicians kills a black suspect—that would be Coates’s college acquaintance Prince Jones, who died when an undercover cop in Prince George’s County, Maryland, mistook the young man for another suspect and Jones responded by ramming his car at the officer, who shot him.
And the street gangs in Coates’s native Baltimore? Their aggression is purely a defensive posture. They’re “girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away.’” By such logic, no black person can ever be considered responsible for his acts. People, in Coates’s view, are simply hapless playthings, borne this way and that by history’s winds. This is why Coates believes criminals should be released from prison en masse, violent criminals included. How catastrophic would be the effect on black neighborhoods if their most lethal alumni suddenly returned all at once? Are not “public intellectuals” supposed to reason past step one of their policy proposals?
Ordinary journalistic standards don’t apply to Coates. His aggrandizement is the predictable outcome when a self-flagellating elite class, having spent 30 years propagating notions of group rights and group guilt while dismissing individual agency, concludes that victim classes should be encouraged to bear witness to “my truth,” the better to advance an extreme vision.
When Coates isn’t ignoring facts, as in the Martin and Brown cases, he shamelessly misrepresents them, as in the case of Jordan Davis, a black Florida youth who was fatally shot by a white man after a dispute over loud music. “The killer was convicted not of the boy’s murder,” Coates writes, “but of firing repeatedly as the boy’s friends tried to retreat. Destroying the black body was permissible—but it would be better to do it efficiently.” This is an outrageously false recounting. In no sense were the actions of Michael Dunn, the shooter, deemed “permissible.” A jury initially deadlocked on the most serious charge, but after a second trial, Dunn was indeed convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole, in addition to a 90-year-sentence for conviction at the first trial of three counts of attempted murder and firing into an occupied vehicle.
The case wrapped up last October, well before Coates’s book went into production. But Coates, purposefully vague, omits names when referring to the case on page 112, even though the details are clearly those of the Davis murder. By specifically mentioning Davis 18 pages later, he shows that this is the incident he was referring to. (Coates has been consistently irresponsible on the matter: He began a February 15, 2014, Atlantic piece, published after the first trial but before the second, “I wish I had something more to say about the fact that Michael Dunn was not convicted for killing a black boy.” The piece was grossly misleading at the time and remains uncorrected on the Atlantic’s website.)
Ordinary journalistic standards don’t apply to Coates. His aggrandizement is the predictable outcome when a self-flagellating elite class, having spent 30 years propagating notions of group rights and group guilt while dismissing individual agency, concludes that victim classes should be encouraged to bear witness to “my truth,” the better to advance an extreme vision. New York magazine detected no irony in titling its recent cover story “The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Coates is both an effect and a cause of the cultural leadership’s resistance to the precise and the rigorous, the rational and the logical. The book won’t be questioned by the cultural mandarins—can’t be questioned, can’t be treated as anything less authoritative than holy writ—because they share Coates’s feelings, and that is the only reality that matters.
Coates’s detachment from fact is nothing compared with his moral detachment, however. He says, “my heart was cold” when he watched the Twin Towers burn and collapse. The cops present on September 11 deserved to die because they all shot Prince Jones; firefighters had to go because they are kind of like cops, though if Coates has any examples of firefighters killing black men, he does not supply them. Those office workers guilty of believing themselves to be white obviously had it coming to them. And everyone else who died? Black office workers? Foreigners? Shrug.
If you think I’m exaggerating Coates’s position, consider this passage:
I could see no difference between the officer who killed Prince Jones and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could—with no justification—shatter my body.
This is not a man possessed of hard truths, but rather a hard heart. To praise Coates is to condone mass hatred. Coates’s college hero, Malcolm X, was widely denounced after he remarked, upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that “chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” Coates is if anything even more blasé about the destruction of the World Trade Center.
But then we are speaking of a man who says, “the heroes given to me by the schools . . . struck me as ridiculous.” The heart sinks. He doesn’t specifically mention Martin Luther King Jr. (that vagueness again), but it’s obvious that he is thinking of King and the other civil-rights icons. He says, ludicrously, of the documentary footage from the era, that “the black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life—love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the fire-hoses that tore off their clothes.”
Love! It’s beyond obtuse.
If Coates is both morally and factually at sea, he is also self-contradictory. Prince Jones is a close friend on page 63 (“a boy about whom I think every day. I would smile whenever I saw him, for I felt the warmth when I was around him and was slightly sad when the time came to trade dap and for one of us to go.”) But on page 140, Coates writes: “The fact is that I had not known Prince Jones all that well. . . . I could not account for his comings and goings.”
Systematic denial of mortgages to impoverished black people who pose a high credit risk enrages Coates, but he is equally upset by the granting of mortgages to the same folks, because that is taking advantage of them and is likely to result in foreclosure, which he describes as “plunder.” Coates is strongly against ghettoization and segregation—this man who attended a black college and lives in Harlem seems unaware of the many studies showing that black people prefer to live in black neighborhoods—but he’s also against de-ghettoization and desegregation. If you happened to be walking down a Harlem street and saw an upscale white couple chatting, with a toddler underfoot, you might smile and think it’s nice that people of many hues and classes can nestle comfortably together. Not Coates. Here is his reaction:
I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts. Or I saw them lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.
Terror. Mastery. Galaxies. All of this in a sidewalk chat. It’s almost comically anti-social. Only Coates sees Tara in a tricycle.
Coates thinks black borrowers have to be better risks than white ones to secure mortgages, when the evidence suggests this isn’t so. The George Mason University economist Arnold Kling wrote in a 2010 blog post, “About twenty years ago, the Boston Fed did a study which showed that minority mortgage applicants were turned down at a much higher rate than white applicants. This was deemed evidence for racism.” But, he added, “if banks were more lenient with white applicants, then this should show up as a higher default rate among white borrowers, which was not observed.”
The phrase “twice as good,” which Coates says is aspirational advice handed down from black parents to their children, is a frequent and bitter refrain. “No one,” he says, “ever told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.” Take twice as much of what? Coates is absolutely right about white Manhattan parents, though. They certainly do not push their kids to be twice as good. They push them to be ten times as good. They urge them through summer arts-tennis-chess camps, rain cello lessons on them until their fingers bleed, and regard anything less than admission to Harvard Law School as failure. Just as Coates so often sees things that are not there, he misses the things that are so widely noticed as to become cliché.
The comedian Chris Rock said last year, in an interview with New York magazine’s Frank Rich, that he is in the habit of asking his daughters, who we may assume attend an excellent school, “Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything?” referring to racial bias by the white student majority. “They look at me like I am crazy,” Rock conceded. Then consider this Coates passage:
One afternoon your mother and I took you to visit a pre-school. Our host took us down to a large gym filled with a bubbling ethnic stew of New York children. The children were running, jumping, and tumbling. You took one look at them, tore away from us, and ran right into the scrum. You have never been afraid of people, of rejection, and I have always admired you for this and always been afraid for you because of this. I watched you leap and laugh with these children you barely knew, and the wall rose in me and I felt I should grab you by the arm, pull you back and say, ‘We don’t know these folks! Be cool!’”
Does that sound like a man who holds the moral compass of America in the palm of his hand, or someone in urgent need of therapy? Coates’s son should have before him a life of abundance and serenity. His father is determined to steer him toward resentment and fear.
“An adequate religion,” Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote, “is always an ultimate optimism which has entertained all the facts which lead to pessimism.” Coates, who insistently refers to his atheism in Between the World and Me, has substituted for religion not a lack of belief but a sort of anti-religion built on a rigorous certitude about the impossibility of salvation or even of fleeting tranquility. It’s a belief system that, dividing Americans into the perpetually victimized on the one hand and the irredeemable on the other, makes Calvinism look merry. In an anti-religious age, Coates is what passes for a transcendent figure. And you take issue with transcendent figures at your peril.
1 Spiegel & Grau, 176 pages