When it comes to essays about Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can almost guess the race of the writer from the tone of the piece. If the words ring with a sort of rapturous adulation, as though the writer feels blessed to be allowed to absorb Coates’s wisdom and especially his chastisement, the author tends to be white. Several prominent black writers, however, have written pieces that are much more equivocal, suggesting Coates’s central claims are off the mark.
The latest example is a deeply felt essay by Jason D. Hill (he and all of the writers I quote below are black), a Jamaican-born professor of philosophy at DePaul University who praises the power and poetry of Coates’s words but notes in an open letter to him, “My concern is that you and your book function as deputized stand-ins for the black male and the black experience in America, respectively. And I believe that as stand-ins, both fail.” Speaking of his own success in embodying the American Dream, or what Coates derisively calls “the Dream,” Hill writes in Commentary that Coates’s fatalistic writing, particularly the memoir Between the World and Me, denies agency to blacks and risks alienating Coates’s son, to whom the book is addressed and who was famously pushed on an escalator at a movie theater as a little kid. Asking, “By what impertinence would you hold any white person guilty for the crime of simply being born white?” Hill declares, “You are trading on black suffering to create a perpetual caste of racial innocents. And the currency of your economic system is white guilt.”
A number of leading black intellectuals have raised similar points. Writing in the London Review of Books, Thomas Chatterton Williams says that Coates has “either a cynical or a woefully skewed way of looking at the world,” and he also scores Coates for his denial of black agency, for reducing criminals to “hopeless automatons.” He writes that “despite the undeniable progress that has been made towards equal rights,” Coates insists on presenting racism and racial disparities “as utterly intransigent and impersonal forces, like a natural disaster, for which no one can be usefully held to account.” Coates rejects out of hand the concept of black-on-black crime, which he believes is simply a natural consequence of white supremacy. Yet Coates, Williams says, is being “comforting to his white readership” when he paints all white people as equally hapless in their sin, notably the white woman who shoved his “dawdling” son years ago, which is “the first, worst and only negative thing we actually see white people do to Coates or his family.” Williams writes, “It doesn’t occur to him that she may not be an avatar of white supremacy but just a nasty person who would have been as likely to push a blonde child or a Chinese one.” Coates’s incensed reaction actually did injury to blacks: “As long as black people have to be handled with infantilising care — or fear of dredging up barely submerged ancestral pain — we’ll never be equal or free.”
Reviewing Between the World and Me for The New York Times Book Review, Michelle Alexander says Coates “makes me proud” but confesses to being “disappointed” and “exasperated” after a first reading of the book. Reading it again, she says, brought more acceptance of “a book that offers no answers but instead challenges us to wrestle with the questions on our own.” She adds: “And yet I cannot pretend to be entirely satisfied. Like [James] Baldwin, I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible.”
Cedric Johnson, a professor of African-American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes for Jacobin that “Coates has convinced me that his particular brand of antiracism does more political harm than good” and says that it’s a “changed world, one where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.”
In the American Prospect, Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy scolds Coates for sometimes treating race as “the master variable that accounted for all that goes wrong for black Americans” and points out that although “racial sentiment is, to be sure, a major force,” it is not “the exclusive explanation of discord, unfairness, or tragedy.” He adds, “A difficulty with attributing this much influence to white folks is that doing so negates the will of black folks.”
John McWhorter notes that Coates isn’t really a political analyst to white liberal writers. He’s more of a spiritual leader.
Melvin L. Rogers, a professor of political science at Brown, writes in Dissent, “When one views white supremacy as impregnable, there is little room for one’s imagination to soar and one’s sense of agency is inescapably constrained.” Rogers says Coates frames black people as “helpless agents of physical laws,” much like earthquake victims. “Okay, what do we do with that knowledge? Coates seems to say: construct an early warning system — don’t waste energy trying to stop the earthquake itself.” Rogers feels a “profound sense of disappointment” in Coates’s belief that for black people there can be no escape from the chains forged by whites. Citing Baldwin, Rogers holds that blacks “can’t afford despair.” Even more pointedly, Rogers quotes Baldwin’s dictum (in Notes of a Native Son), “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.”
Praising Coates as “an important voice” in The Huffington Post, Spencer Overton nevertheless has a skeptical ear for Coates’s rhetoric — “I doubt that dismissing people as majoritarian pigs will reduce violence significantly” — and for his implicit call for blacks to “disengage” from civic life: “The most significant flaw is the book’s absence of vision and real solutions.” Coates, he avers, fails to offer “a vision of what a healthy America or a healthy black community would look like,” preferring instead “an amorphous directive to ‘struggle.’” He adds, “‘Struggling’ without the direction provided by a clear vision, however, is a recipe for disaster. Fish in a boat struggle.”
Weighing these reactions against the full-throated praise shouted by white liberal writers, John McWhorter notes that Coates isn’t really a political analyst to them. He’s more of a spiritual leader. Tell it! say people who don’t know what it’s like to be a black person, just as parishioners who have never been to hell might have a spellbound reaction to a description of its torments. Speaking of Coates’s essay “The Case for Reparations,” McWhorter says in The Daily Beast that “white people were receiving [it] as, quite simply, a sermon. Its audience sought not counsel, but proclamation. Coates does not write with this formal intention, but for his readers, he is a preacher.” And his church? McWhorter says that “Antiracism — it seriously merits capitalization at this point — is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion.” That Coates keeps saying the same things over and over is central to his appeal: McWhorter says he is “revered” as being “gifted at phrasing, repeating, and crafting artful variations upon points that are considered crucial — that is, scripture.” Those holy words come from a wrathful place, admonishing the sinners to revel in their own rebuke. For white liberals there is a kind of ecstasy to be achieved by flaying themselves with Coates’s hot, stinging words.