Ta-Nehisi Coates Doesn’t Understand Racism

by Benjamin Studebaker

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently attacked Bernie Sanders for refusing to support reparations for black Americans. Coates has been trying to put race reparations on the American political agenda for a while. Coates knows a great deal about the many horrible, immoral ways that the United States government has exploited and expropriated its black population throughout its history. But Coates is a journalist, not a political theorist, and over the last few days I’ve identified some elementary problems in the way he conceptualizes racism as a political force that indicate that there is a lot of political theory he just has not read.

When asked if he thinks reparations are worth considering, Bernie Sanders gave the following reply:

No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.

So I think what we should be talking about is making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino.

Coates counters by claiming that Sanders’ willingness to help the poor does not address racism:

This is the “class first” approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible. But raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates. Housing discrimination, historical and present, may well be the fulcrum of white supremacy. Affirmative action is one of the most disputed issues of the day. Neither are addressed in the “racial justice” section of Sanders platform.

Sanders’s anti-racist moderation points to a candidate who is not merely against reparations, but one who doesn’t actually understand the argument.

Coates thinks that Sanders is ignorant of the racial history or doesn’t understand Coates’ argument. Nothing could be further from the truth–Sanders is not rejecting reparations as policy because he does not recognize the severity of the damage that has been done to blacks and continues to be done to blacks. Sanders is rejecting reparations because he understands that race and class intersect, that race cannot be dealt with separately from class.

Consider an everyday American racist. In contemporary America, most racists don’t very often make their attitudes explicit–they don’t argue that blacks are in some way inherently genetically inferior, like they might have done 100 years ago. Today racism is generally implicit–whites accuse black culture of being violent, they accuse blacks of welfare dependency, they accuse blacks of being lazy. Essentially they ascribe the disparities between blacks and whites in our society to black behaviors and choices rather than systems of oppression. This set of beliefs insulates racists from having to confront their own racism and from having to potentially support policies that might rectify the disparities.

It’s very difficult to stop people from holding implicitly racist views, because the system of oppression generates the conditions that produce the kind of black people that reinforce these negative stereotypes in the minds of white racists. Because blacks have been denied the opportunities and resources they need to succeed in our society, they are more likely to turn to crime, gangs, and so on. They are more likely to be stuck in low income jobs, their families are more likely to succumb to the pressures of poverty and fragment, and their families are more likely to reproduce cycles of abuse. Racists see the results of racism, and they attribute those results to black culture instead of to the racism. This allows them to continue to do nothing, perpetuating the oppression, reproducing the results, and reproducing the false justification for doing nothing. Here’s a visual aid:

Cycle of Racism

See how race and class are both inextricably linked in this account? Racism keeps blacks poor, but racism is also perpetuated and excused by black poverty and its negative social consequences, which are instead wrongfully misattributed to black culture.

So what happens if you do reparations? Reparations give blacks a one time shot in the arm, but afterwards, white people are going to be even less likely to blame systems of oppression for poor black outcomes. They will say “well, they got reparations, so now they have no excuse–it’s like we said, it’s all about their culture, they need to look at themselves”. Before too long, you’re back at square one, except it’s worse because you’ll have an even harder time getting people to acknowledge the problem. To put a stop to racism, we have to break this cycle in a permanent way, in a way that is about creating a good future for blacks in America rather than rectifying a past that can never truly be rectified anyway. How do we do that? Well, we need to eliminate the evidence that racists use to justify continuing to be racist, and that means we need to lift blacks out of poverty. Cutting Will Smith or Bill Cosby a check in the name of reparations doesn’t help us end the cycle of poverty that fuels and perpetuates the cycle of racism. To this point, it’s been really hard to get people to embrace policies that lift large numbers of people out of poverty and keep them out. Why?

There’s another link between racism and classism. As we know, not all poor people in America are black. There are also poor whites. Poor whites may not be victims of both race and class oppression, but class oppression manages to do a number on them too. One of the ways our society prevents itself from doing anything about the poverty oppression creates for both whites and blacks is by using race to divide and conquer different groups of poor people. If you don’t consider class at all, if you instead primarily or exclusively consider race, then poor white and blacks will see each other as competitors for the same slice of the economic pie. You can see this in the presidential election right now. People like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are extremely popular with poor white voters even though their economic platforms will distribute more wealth away from poor whites and toward the rich. Why? Because Trump and Cruz promise to protect poor whites from “those people”, the “47%”, the “welfare queens”. There are many different coded ways to refer to poor blacks and Hispanics, but no matter what term is used, what’s really going on is always the same–poor whites are being told that they have to vote against redistribution because it will go to blacks and Hispanics and thereby perpetuate a broken “culture of dependency”. In this way, poor whites are coaxed into voting against their own interests. In the meantime, poor blacks see that poor whites are opposing them politically and this deepens mutual mistrust between the two groups.

Emphasizing reparations only serves to reinforce this division, because it explicitly only targets blacks. This makes it even easier for implicitly racist politicians to argue that the policies the left proposes to counter racism will expropriate poor and working class whites. It makes it easier for the right to split the left’s coalition for redistribution. This not only prevents additional redistribution from happening, it makes it much easier for extant redistribution to be rolled back. Bill Clinton, who is loved by the black community in the United States, signed welfare reform into law. Welfare reform was about ending a “culture of dependency” by cutting welfare spending so that this money could eventually be returned to the rich in the form of tax cuts (such as those passed by George W. Bush). Welfare reform was passed in 1996, and in the years that followed the wealth gap between whites and blacks increased dramatically:

Bernie Sanders understands that to break the cycles of poverty and racism, the left needs to build a broad, solidaristic coalition that includes significant numbers of white people. One way to do this is to propose welfare spending that is not explicitly race-based. As we can see in the above chart, blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately poor, and welfare spending will disproportionately benefit them, but by allowing poor whites to also be beneficiaries, the left shows that it is committed to opposing oppression in all forms for all people. This undermines the right’s ability to use race to split the poor. Sanders and Trump are competing for many of the same voters–people who feel that the political system is not looking out for them. Sanders invites poor whites to join him in a coalition with blacks and Hispanics to rollback the power of corporations and the wealthy to create a more just and sustainable distribution of wealth. Trump tries to tell those same poor white voters that Sanders will just take their hard-earned money and give it to “those people”. Those who support reparations have the very best of intentions, but in real political terms they are helping Donald Trump.

Why doesn’t Coates see this? The evidence suggests that Coates doesn’t have an intersectional understanding of race, that he sees racism as an independent form of oppression that is disconnected from class. When Coates claims that Sanders’ policies don’t address the fact that blacks make less than whites with similar levels of education, or housing discrimination, or the fact that blacks are more likely to end up in low wage jobs, he shows that he doesn’t understand how racist thinking is perpetuated. These bad things are likely to happen to blacks both because of the cycle of poverty and because of the crucial ways the cycle of poverty reinforces racist attitudes, thereby perpetuating systemic racism.

Coates misses this because Coates is mostly unfamiliar with socialist academic literature and with current debates and discourses within socialist political movements. In an interview with “This American Life” on NPR, Coates was asked to explain the term “bougie”. Most socialist activists can tell you that “bougie” is short for “bourgeois”–a person who is bougie is a member of the bourgeoisie, and an activity or place that is “bougie” is affiliated with the beliefs and attitudes of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie are the capitalist class–they are the beneficiaries of class oppression. This is basic stuff for anyone who is a member of the left or who has read the left’s core literature. Here’s how Coates answered this question:

Neil Drumming: “OK. That’s like–I feel like for This American Life, you’re going to have to explain that.’

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “What bougie means? So ‘bougie’ is a term that black people use–and I guess white people have used it now, ’cause I see white people using it–which I think people think is interchangeable with ‘snob.’ But I actually don’t think [that’s right]…a bougie’s a snob who looks down…bougie people want to be part of a crowd…they want to be part of the right crowd. So for instance, I don’t want to put my son in some exclusive club or something, literally like some sort of societal something or other. Do you know what I mean?”

Drumming: “So bougie is a status thing. It’s about…”

Coates: “Yeah, I don’t care about any of that. I actually don’t care about my status…I don’t go to a nice gym so that I can then tell you I go to a nice gym. I don’t have any concern about being seen with the right people. You know what I’m saying? Like, I don’t have that. I don’t need to be at the right parties…Like, I don’t need any of that…Snobbery, to me, is about, like, things [laughter] And not about people at all. In fact, it’s much worse than bougie.”

It’s very clear from this exchange that Coates doesn’t know what the word “bougie” means, which indicates that he hasn’t read very many socialists or full-blown Marxists, and if he has he certainly hasn’t had very many conversations about this literature with people who have. There’s nothing wrong with that–there are lots of things I haven’t read and there are lots of things you haven’t read. But if Coates is going to accuse a leading socialist politician of not understanding race grievances, he might start by engaging with socialist literature so that he understands where socialists are coming from on race.

There is an important debate going on within the left between those who think that poverty and racism are mutually reinforcing and those who think that racism causes poverty but that poverty has nothing to do with racism. To participate constructively in this debate, it’s important for us to understand that no one in this argument does not recognize the seriousness of racism. No one denies the horrific mistreatment of blacks both by the American government and in American society. This is a debate about how racism works and about what kinds of strategies, tactics, and policies are most effective in combating it. We need a comprehensive understanding of racism that is tied into a theory of how to respond. In all of Coates’ material, he seems to think it is sufficient to point out that blacks have been treated really badly, as if this were itself prima facie evidence that his strategy for dealing with racism is the correct one. We need to have a much more sophisticated debate about how race works, how our politics works, how poverty and inequality work, and how all of these things fit together intersectionally to oppress many different groups of people in our society in ways that are different but also mutually interrelated. We have to consider race, class, and poverty as parts of a system, not as isolates, where causation may go not just in one direction but in both directions. Coates’ work to this point is only important and groundbreaking if you are completely unfamiliar with the reasons why race is still an important issue. Many people on the left, Bernie Sanders included, are far beyond that point–Bernie Sanders marched with Martin Luther King 50 years ago, for pity’s sake. The facts about how blacks have been severely ill-treated for centuries are not new to him or to most educated people who pay attention. We are trying to take this debate to the next level, and people like Coates keep oversimplifying the issue in a reductive and unhelpful way, damaging the very causes they claim to care so much about.