Five stars, read in November 2017.
This book covers the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. For each year, there is an article Coates wrote for The Atlantic, preceded by an essay (“a sort of extended blog post,” I think is how he describes it) in which he looks back on his own work and assesses it in the context of what came after.
The notion that writing about race, which is to say, the force of white supremacy, is marginal and provincial is itself parcel to white supremacy, premised on the notion that the foundational crimes of this country are mostly irrelevant to its existence.
But it turns out that my admiration of Coates’s work is a little too comprehensive. I kept this book for over a month after I finished it, intending to go back through and type up nearly two dozen quotes from all the pages I marked. But when I tried to sit down and start transcribing, I was immediately overwhelmed, and I knew there was no way. I have a tendency to over-quote as it is, because it’s difficult for me to use my own words when the author’s are so much better. And the things Coates writes about need context. He is so difficult for me to quote, because nothing is superfluous. I know others disagree; I know his florid prose isn’t everyone’s style. But context is precisely what’s lacking in most of our national conversations about race, and context is what Ta-Nehisi Coates provides. There are several quotes I wrote down in full as I was reading, instead of just noting the pages, so for practicality’s sake those are the only ones I’m going to attempt to share here.
Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy towards some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye.
Broad sympathy toward some and even broader skepticism toward others—like when the media reports on white murderers with several times the amount of sympathy given to black murder victims:
If I remember one thing from this book more than any other, it’s the discussion of reparations. I’ve heard the word before, but always with the implication that it was a radical idea from the past, too unreasonable to actually be taken seriously. After reading this book—which is to say, after only a few seconds of considering this idea for the first time—I have realized how utterly insane it is that we have not taken that step.
It baffles me, the way people pretend to believe that the passing of a law immediately erases the effects of the situation that caused us to pass the law.
It is as though we have run up a credit card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.
Emancipation did not magically place freed slaves on equal footing with the people who had legally owned them just last week. The reforms of the Civil Rights movement did not make white people stop being racist. If the government announced today that all sports teams had been merged into one superteam, would Red Sox and Yankees fans suddenly become one big baseball family? They would not. Because people don’t just change when a law is passed, especially one they disagree with.
Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society.
And yet even the smallest steps we have taken toward equality, like affirmative action, are constantly criticized. Consider the fact that around 50 million white people still alive today
were raised in a time when, by law, they were assured of never having to compete with black people for the best of anything. Blacks used inferior public pools and inferior washrooms, attended inferior schools. The nicest restaurants turned them away. In large swaths of the country, blacks paid taxes but could neither attend the best universities nor exercise the right to vote. The best jobs, the richest neighborhoods, were giant set-asides for whites—universal affirmative action, with no pretense of restitution.
And yet I have literally heard my uncle call affirmative action “reverse racism.”
What we never seem to address is the issue of generational wealth, and this is because in the United States we like to pretend not just that black people are treated the same as white people, but that people with money don’t even have an advantage over those without it. Remember how Mitt Romney and Donald Trump have portrayed themselves as self-made men, despite having grown up and started out their adult lives supported by the wealth of their millionaire fathers? When I got married, I realized how much the prosperity of your family’s social circle matters; where many of my college friends received Kitchenaid mixers and expensive vacuums from their wedding registries, my partner and I started out our new life with silicone cooking utensils and homemade “inspirational” refrigerator magnets, borrowing his uncle’s timeshare condo in St. George, Utah, for our honeymoon.
Whites in the middle class often brought with them generational wealth—the home of a deceased parent, a modest inheritance, a gift from a favorite uncle. Blacks in the middle class often brought with them generational debt—an incarcerated father, an evicted niece, a mother forced to take in her sister’s kids.
How can it be so difficult to understand the difference this would make in the course of a person’s life, and throughout a community?
I have one point of hesitation, one place I get tripped up reading Coates’s work, and it’s the fact that women often feel very much like an afterthought.
The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“and when you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of said assaults, becoming immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (and particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that in working twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive—work half as hard as black people and even more is possible.
You see it right there in the parentheses—”and particularly white men”—how he seems to remember women at the last second. But although this passage is obviously true, it happens to be an especially egregious example, as the event he is describing proved that even whiteness isn’t enough to allow a woman to become president. Trump’s deficit of qualification won against Hillary’s maximal effort, and I don’t think that would have happened even if she had been a black man.
For Americans, the hardest part of paying reparations would not be the outlay of money. It would be acknowledging that their most cherished myth was not real.
This is really what it comes down to. Our unwillingness to consider reparations isn’t about the logistics; it’s about the narrative. In the two-and-almost-a-half centuries since our country was born, we haven’t yet found the courage to be honest with ourselves. Maybe someday we will.