The Corner

White Liberals Love Black Radicals — That’s Why They Love Ta-Nehisi Coates

Over at the Daily Beast, Felice León reports on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s surprise that so many white people love his work:

“Why do you think that so many white people love what you write?” asked the award-winning New York Times Magazine journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones, during a sold-out discussion at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And the predominantly black crowd—which included the performers Usher and Common—erupted in laughter. Ta-Nehisi Coates was in the hot seat . . . Even Coates, who is not averse to his unlikely enthusiasts, admits the paradoxical nature of this white fan phenomenon. “I don’t know why white people read what I write,” Coates said. “I didn’t set out to accumulate a mass of white fans.”

The question is a bit surprising given the recent history of the white intellectual left. For several decades, white liberals have loved black radicals — viewing their voices as the only “authentic” black voices and using proximity to black rage as a marker of their own leftist bona fides. Doesn’t anyone read their Tom Wolfe?

. . . and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers. That huge Panther there, the one Felicia is smiling her tango smile at, is Robert Bay, who just 41 hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 104th Street or some such unbelievable place, and taken to jail on a most unusual charge called “criminal facilitation.” And now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s 13-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bail—they’re real, these Black Panthers. The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.

In fact, for the white intellectual left, it’s hard to be too radical. When I was in law school, it was embarrassing to watch otherwise intelligent liberals simply nod along as radical classmates advocated truly idiotic “racial justice” measures like ending criminal penalties for black defendants. And the case for reparations has been made (to very respectful and appreciative liberal audiences) long before Ta-Nehisi Coates put pen to paper. The mainstream white left may not be so enamored with radical voices, but the mainstream doesn’t hand out the MacArthur “genius” grants.

Coates may be puzzled that his pointed and aggressive critiques of white Americans has been greeted with such rapturous applause, but at the highest levels of liberal intellectual culture, no one hates white people more than a white leftist. Coates is merely preaching to the same choir that’s been singing the same tune for almost 50 years.

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