Saturday, July 26, 2008

Ta-Nehisi Coates and the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twenty-first Century

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.--W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, "I: Of Our Spiritual Strivings"
To call Ta-Nehisi Coates the Second Coming of DuBois is perhaps a bit much; I think it's nevertheless true, though, that Coates at his best is doing what DuBois is doing in Souls: taking stock of How Things Stand; acknowledging that, yes, the past sucked for black people but it also sucked in very different ways for whites as well; and so now, what can we all do about the Here and Now and beyond to make it less sucky for everyone? [Edit: and pointing needed fingers at those (black as well as white) who are less than helpful in this project.] That's both ambitious and, as Coates works these themes, a whole lot of intellectual and even smile-inducing fun.

Coates is a relatively-new African-American blogger not afraid to speak a bit of truth (as he sees it) to both white and black folks. His is a thinking-outside-the-box take on black politics and culture that, as I'm bumping around his blog's archives, I'm finding enervating and thought-provoking. To be sure, Barack Obama figures prominently among his posts, but have a look as well at this Village Voice piece on Condoleeza Rice--that, in its own way, serves as an interesting chiasmus of the interesting discussion going on among black conservatives about how to respond, as members of the electorate, to Obama.

A couple of examples below the fold.

Here, for example, is the concluding paragraph to a brief take-down of conservative civil-rights icon Shelby Steele (spellings here and below are Coates'):
When I watched Steele talk [at the recent Aspen Ideas Conference], I didn't feele bad for black America, I felt bad for the white people who were there drinking it up. (In fairness, many were not.) It really saddens me to write that. I actually agree with Steele on one thing---the end of the Civil Rights Industrial Complex is great thing for black people everywhere. But Steele is tied to that complex, and his ideas are just as bereft. Like the men he derides as extortionists (which they are) Steel is running a hustle--Sharpton and Jackson traffic in white guilt. Steele traffics in white ignorance. And they keep all the profits. I've never seen "white guilt" or "white ignorance" do a damn thing for black folks.

There's also this discussion of some of the discussion of this recent Emily Bazelon article on class-based integration of schools. Coates signs on, but with a compelling observation about the similarities in how government at whatever level goes about addressing racial and economic inequalities:
Matt, Kevin and Richard Kahlenberg are debating over whether a solution like this could be applied nationally. The consensus being basically, no, because we aren't going to blow up the system of school districts in this country. But to my mind, the piece helps us get out from under the cloud of pessimism that follows any conversation about the gap in test-scores.

But there is something else at work here. [Bazelon's] research on class and achievement is helpful because it really shows (to me) that the real problem of America's racist past is that it basically affected a massive wealth-transfer out of black communities. More than that, I like Emily's piece because it exposes the lie that racial inequality is completely intractable. But that's never really been true. There are two questions here--how are we going to fix the race chasm, and how far are we really willing to go to do it? People like to focus on the former, because the truly frightening one is the latter. We're forever trying to achieve equality by not negatively impacting white people. You can look back at the War on Poverty and see how desperate folks were to make it look color-blind. How'd that work out? I think one of the reasons Affirmative Action was extended to basically everyone by white males, was likely, so it wouldn't be reparations. Ironically, class-based integration uses the same logic. I'm a fan because I believe in it on principle. But the politics of it seem to be captive to ancient formulations: Despite the fact that slavery and Jim Crow crippled black folks, we want to heal those wounds by inconviencing white people as little as possible. It's been this way since Reconstruction. If I'm pessimistic about anything it's not knowing the right thing to do, it's the will to get it done.
I hope you'll go and have a look at more of his work. He's worth your time.

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