“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ” – James Baldwin
When the tête-à-tête between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait over black culture, the “culture of poverty,” President Obama, Paul Ryan and American racism started, it was somewhat fascinating, but has become what Tressie McMillan Cottom described as “a nasty piece of cornbread.” It has left a rotten taste in my mouth. That’s mostly because, as congenial as the two have been toward one another, I detect in Chait’s argument one of my greatest pet peeves: a white person attempting to talk a black person down from their justifiable rage.
One of the issues that has come up in this debate is the way these two men view American history. Chait writes:
Coates and I disagree about racial progress in America. Coates sees the Americas’ racial history as a story of continuity of white supremacy. I see the sequence (I’d call it a progression, but that term would load the argument in my favor) that began with chattel slavery and has led to the Obama administration as a story of halting, painful, non-continuous, but clear improvement.
What a luxury it must be to define the history of racism in America through the lens of progress.
He goes on:
Coates associates himself with a quote from Malcolm X: “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” The analogy defines out of existence the very possibility of steady progress. People who subscribe to this way of thinking won’t agree with measures that reduce but fail to eliminate racial discrimination, or those that reduce but fail to eliminate poverty, or reduce but fail to eliminate medical deprivation. I have written before, for instance, about how slavery continues to poison white minds in ways white people are often unaware of. One can believe in the continued existence of racism and still think that the scale of the evil has fallen enormously since the 19th century.
You don’t get to define progress in a struggle that is not your own. It’s really that simple. You inevitably bring to that analysis an outsider’s perspective, and from that vantage point, progress of any measure looks astounding. It’s particularly awe-inspiring if it allows you to feel less implicated in the reason for that struggle. But that’s what we call privilege: the ability to observe “improvement” because you’re not experiencing the ever present oppression. It clouds your judgment. It deludes you into believing you have the authority of objectivity. It breeds self-righteousness. It impedes true progress.