If you read blogs, then you have almost certainly seen the back and forth between two sharp writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic and Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine. Their conversation began in reaction to comments made by Representative Paul Ryan, in which he said, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Coates’s initial response was to point out that Paul Ryan is not alone in these views: President Obama, too, exhorts young black men to pull up their pants and put their noses to the grindstone. Chait countered that "centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on" has in fact left "a cultural residue" on the black community. The conversation has turned into a provocative conversation about the nature of racism and its role in shaping culture. You should read all of the back and forths—Chait’s response, Coates’s rebuttal, Chait’s rebuttal to the rebuttal, and Coates’s (so far) final word. I won’t do either of them justice by summarizing.
In his most recent response, Chait chides Coates for being “profoundly pessimistic” about the persistence of racism in America. Of black Americans, Coates writes, “America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis.” Coates argues that white supremacy was not some brief nightmare that we have since woken up from, but “one of the central organizing forces in American life,” past and present. Chait labels Coates’s outlook “grim fatalism," and argues that our history is one “mainly of progress,” pointing out that slavery was ended, lynching was ended, legal segregation was ended, and then we elected an African-American president. Since the end of segregation, he writes, “most social metrics relevant to black prosperity have turned sharply upward,” such as the closing of the achievement gap, lower black poverty rates, falling rates of homicide against black people and more black police officers. The implication is that the progress made disproves that the situation is still grim.
Andrew Sullivan has also joined in, first calling out Coates for his “profound gloom” and then writing of his “concern that [Coates’s] depression about the state of America was weakening his usual strengths.” That gloom, he writes, “seems—no, is—out of place.”
Both (white) writers are sending the same message to Coates: Buck up! Look at all the progress that has been made! That must mean that white supremacy is no longer an invisible hand guiding all interactions in our society—or at least, not such a powerful one.
I’ve often been put in the same position. Obviously, racism and sexism function differently—but people have used many of the same tactics to argue that racist and sexist systems no longer exist. Patriarchy, or the system in which men receive an unequal share of power and acclaim by default, has been pronounced dead. In that particular piece, Hanna Rosin argued that feminists are “cling[ing] to the dreaded patriarchy” and that we are irrationally attached to “the concept of unfair.” In previous work, Rosin has marshaled as evidence not just an end to the patriarchy, but a beginning of a matriarchy, the fact that for a while during the crisis more men were unemployed than women and that, in her view, women are more suited to the new economy. She also sees women making “every important decision—whether to have a baby, how to raise it, where to live.”
Other data has excited the patriarchy coroners, such as the fact that women are getting more college degrees than men, women dominate the job categories projected to grow fastest over the next decade, and one 2010 study found that single, childless urban women between 22 and 30 earned more than their male counterparts. Never mind that women make less than men at every degree level, on the whole not only make 77 cents for every dollar men make when working full time but have stalled out in gaining on them, those jobs they dominate pay terribly, and they make less than men even in female-dominated occupations.
Chait similarly marshalls data to argue that African-Americans are better off now than they have been at any previous time in history. And indeed, the challenge today for people fighting old systems of oppression is that the very obvious forms they used to take have mostly been done away with. Slavery was ended. Women were allowed to vote and own property. Segregation was outlawed. Companies are no longer allowed to fire women because they get married. It is hard to overstate the importance of each of these milestones and the changes they brought to oppressed people’s lives and our society as a whole.
But the progress gets some people so excited that they think we’ve sprinted past the finish line when we’ve simply advanced a few miles in a very, very long race. Redlining, the way white supremacy kept black Americans from accumulating housing wealth that Coates has documented so well, is no longer legal, but housing discrimination still exists, just in a more subtle form. Similarly it is ostensibly illegal to pay women less than men for the same work but they continue to make less in every job and industry. These systems are no longer on the surface, but they still lurk just below, molding the geography of our economy and systems of power.
Things have certainly gotten better, and many people have become more accepting of, say, black and white people marrying or women leaving the home (and children) and joining the workforce. But the wound of past prejudice, rather than being cleanly sutured, still oozes and festers. And the problem with declaring it fully healed is that the work needed to keep making improvements won’t get done. Wiping our hands and walking away from white supremacy or the patriarchy as problems we have solved means that they are enabled to continue operating with greater freedom. None of these problems will be easily fixed, but I can guarantee we won’t even start if we think they’re in the past.