In the context of the L-O-N-G Struggle for Black Liberation ahead, this is an attempt to contribute some thoughts — In the context of Cornel West’s critique of Ta-Nehesi Coates (last month) on Facebook, entitled: ‘In Defense of James Baldwin’
One the most BRILLIANT analysis!! on West’s Facebook page was from Lynwood Walker. In short Walker pointed out that Coates’ “argument for Reparations was strong, helped many to start to understand the nature of the plunder in black communities and possibly influencing some of the recent focus on police brutality.” Yet, (Coates) “avoids discussing” slavery, Jim Crow in its 1860s—to—present manifestations, etc. – “in the context of colonialism and empire.” This is a MAJOR shortfall – at best.
The following 4 paragraphs are my deconstruction of one paragraph from Coates’ essay, ‘The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration’ – a paragraph that is placed deep into the part 4 of Coates’ essay, entitled ““the crime-stained blackness of the negro”:
Coates: “The principal source of the intensifying war on crime was white anxiety about social control. The staggering rise in incarceration rates in interwar Louisiana coincided with a sense among whites that the old order was under siege. In the coming decades, this phenomenon would be replicated on a massive, national scale. In 1927, the Supreme Court had ruled that a racial-zoning scheme in the city was unconstitutional. The black population of New Orleans was growing. And there was increasing pressure from some government officials to spread New Deal programs to black people. “At no time in the history of our State,” the city’s district attorney claimed in 1935 , “has White Supremacy been in greater danger. ……………….”
The construction / phrasing of the first sentence of this paragraph achieves several things. It gives an ever-so subtle impression of tacit approval / “understanding” / acceptance of – the white-supremacist fictional world view – i.e: 1) that white definitions of “crime” are appropriate / correct / fair / balanced / “understandable;” 2) that Black folks “made-them-do-it” – made the “intensifying war on crime” “necessary.” Such phrasing avoids explicitly acknowledging that the “white anxiety” is PRECISELY about its loss of virulent control over Black people’s lives, and not really about “crime” — that this “anxiety about crime” is nothing more than a cover for real white anxiety about its loss of virulent control over Black people’s lives. Such sentence structure takes the ‘sting’ out of the reality of whites’ inherent RACISM. Indeed, such phrasing conveys that “the intensifying war on “crime” just happened – that whites are not really responsible – ‘they brought it on themselves.’
Yes, Coates includes the damning quote by a bigot: “At no time in the history of our State,” the city’s district attorney claimed in 1935 , “has White Supremacy been in greater danger” – one sentence from the end of the essay’s Part 4. This paragraph – with this powerful quote that begins after – about a third of the way through the essay — follows about 30,000 words that generally avoid explicit blame on the white collective. Such narrative maneuvers significantly denude the impact of powerful facts like the racist’s quote.
Had Coates made this quote the fulcrum of the entire essay – instead of the meanderings through the weeds of Daniel Moynihan’s stuff – the essay would surely have 10 times greater impact and resonance – with African Americans who see CLEARLY.
Linwood Walker said that“Coates states things that read beautifully but mean absolutely nothing. For instance, he (Coates) has argued that The New Jim Crow is ‘not a precise enough term.’ ” ….. But Coates omits acknowledgement that mass incarceration is “what is as close to perfect continuity as can exist between the two” eras / policies.
Lynwood Walker reports that he made Comments to Coates’ Mass Incarceration’ article in the Atlantic, and that Coates persisted in the ‘rightness’ of his relatively milktoast presentation of some kind of real difference between Jim Crow—1st generation and James-Jane Crow, Esq. (the ‘New Jim Crow’) even when given an opportunity to disavow such a narrative by Walker. …….. Coates does not discuss the core motivation of James-Jane Crow, Esq (i.e.,‘the New Jim Crow’) — largely “to build products for WalMart for 25 cents an hour.”Lynwood Walker.
In his response to Cornel West’s critique of Coates, Walker notes that (Coates) “responded pretty immaturely, and the next day wrote a blog entry making a similar argument without reference to the New Jim Crow, only to the plunder of bodies which abstracts and makes moderate the more radical and true assertion that the continuity is truly a continuity between chattel slavery” (and mad incarceration). Walker wonders “how could he ignore the cultural reality that black Americans have been characterized as two things in Americas history :  a slave race  a criminal class. What changed between  and  was that he 13th Amendment outlawed slavery — for all but criminals.” “And in spite of having read Michelle Alexander’s ‘New Jim Crow’ Coates also does not acknowledge how deeply rigged the ‘New Jim Crow’ “/James-Jane Crow, Esq. is.
Granted, Coates goes into much detail – and needed detail – of the destruction of families of incarceration. But this Coates essay does not seem to have looked at the fact that incarcerated people are counted for the purposes of calculating political representation, yet are denied the vote franchise!!!!. But somehow Coates choses to not discuss the denial of the vote franchise (at least not by the Part 4 of the essay) The franchise is part and parcel of citizenship, as much as a job, a profession, licensing, housing, etc.
Lynwood Walker has aptly noted “how media works to establish the axioms, unspoken assertions, and vocabulary that we use to advance political discussions, propaganda, or political ideas, and ultimately uses this power over our language to dissipate mass-consciousness around specific ideas disfavored by the ruling class to convince us the debate is very broad when the policy implications are actually narrow, and to remove the vocabulary necessary to ponder alternative solutions to our problems.”
Walker noted that Cornell West’s critique of Coates “provided a list of the concrete forms of plunder of colonial expansion and empire.” For ‘high-information’ readers, “the substance of West’s critique reflects a despair at noticing the hand-picked black intellectuals we are told to adore DON’T know this history, HAVEN’T studied dependency theory seriously, and were obviously placed near power for this reason. There are many brilliant” Black intellectuals “who … write as well if not better than Coates, and whose analysis is more well-rounded…more all-encompassing of the global struggle and more conscious of both class and caste. But the operative reason that they aren’t writing for the Atlantic is “because their ideas offer neither flattery nor security for western institutions.” I agree with Lynwood Walker – “all West was trying to do is make sure we don’t read Coates instead of Baldwin, or this inflection point in h………………………
Much of Coates’ linguistic tactics lull readers into acquiescing to the notion that Blacks are resigned to “being a perpetual servant underclass to the white caste” and that this state will “persist into infinity.” This “leads to acceptance of those loyal to the Western project into the fold; tokenism in the wielding of empire.” At best this is a detour toward Black liberation,
Coates is “provocative and accessible” – to the liberal white / whiteness eye. “What actually attracts many moderates to him is his refusal to engage in analysis from outside the system.”
Coates is intelligent enough to have figured out that niche that corporate media would accept as “radical” ………………. Direct, explicit narratives startle and discomfort embracers of white supremacy.
For me, deeply felt devestation of racism does not come through from Coates …….. Liberation-committed phrasing would be something like: “Racists are so committed to white-supremacy that they repeatedly reinvent malevolent, sadistic, evil pretexts to come up with new ways — new definings of more and more Black behaviors as ‘crimes’– to rationalize destroying more and more Black people’s lives.”
Coates’ use of such phrases as (the) “sense among whites” and “our carceral state” leave me wanting greatly ……. This is writing …. from whites’ perspectives of things. It is NOT ‘our’ carceral state; it is the u.s. carceral state.
This critique is based on incomplete readings and skimmings of Coates’ writings, along with that “sixth sense” I get from watching and reading interviews of Coates, and Coates’ general absence from the ‘thick of’ – the ground of collective Black liberation work. More complete readings MAY produce slightly different critiques.
Whites can read Coates and walk away and pat themselves on the back they are “informed.” The dangers in this mindset are apparent.
Yes, Coates captures “Black male oppression.” And Yes, Coates is AN important voice, especially since he has access to popular media.
And Yes, we are starved for substantive comprehensive discussions of African american realities – in the corporate media. And too few of us have the linguistic / writing, time, etc. wherewithal participate in these kind of dialogues, nor are able to take the few extra minutes to pull up the penetrating and expansive works of Robin DG Kelley, Imani Perry, Gerald Horne, Eddie Glaude, Belle Hooks (aka belle hooks). I could be mistaken, but I don’t recall that Coates has evidenced awareness of these authors of what could be called capitalism-critique genré
But we need far, far more expansive analyses than what Coates has embraced in his critiques to date. Hopefully such commentaries as this will spur deeper, broader explorations way beyond Ta-Nehesi Coates.
West is right. ………. A writer of James Baldwin’s epic genius comes once every 100-200 years.” Coates is a l-o-n-g way from ‘epic.’ Yes, Coates deserves praise; equating him to Baldwin: NO, NO, NO, NO, NO – not now.
Another West–Facebook commenter said: “Notice that Dr West has nothing to say about what Obama has done on say…..Cuba, Iran, START treaty with Russia, LGBT rights, Women’s rights, Native American rights(cracking down on sexual assault of native women as well as giving more tribal sovereignty to their courts for prosecution), continuing PEPFAR in Africa which in conjuction with UNAIDS that has cut HIVAIDS infection for African youth by 50% as well as raising America’s image in world(69% of people love America because of Obama and 74% in Africa do) as well as ……I dunno……his groundbreaking speech the other day tackling mass incarceration (as well as a bill to back it up with the Smarter Sentencing Act)……..but of course…..Obama hasn’t done anything and he is a sellout….please.
My response to this comment: NONE of this challenges the FUNDAMENTAL predatory capitalism that has 95% of the planet’s population in economic chokehold!! BO’s VICIOUS promotion of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) – a measure that would exaccerbate the corporate-military-media–big pharma destruction of life for all 10-fold — is a sound example of where BO’s head, heart and soul is.
What Coates’ writings omit is that Obama is nothing more, nothing less than his 43 predecessors in blackface. That Cornell West’s assessments of the Coates’ of the world is clearly colored by some personal stuff, his basic ideological critiques are on-point.
PS: The Obama-is-“not-Black-enough” meme is a such long wearing diversion ………………
istory will look more like Reconstruction than many of us desire ….”