Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic and Jonathan Chait of New York have, over the past week, been engaged in something equal parts duel and duet in the pixels of their respective magazine’s websites. Their debate has plumbed the depths of race and racism in America, working out the questions of civic and historical responsibility in a public forum with respect and grace. As readers and citizens we are privileged to bear witness to this dialogue. They’ve also thrown some damn good shade at each other, so let’s look at that.
The Gawker piece provides a quick synopsis of the debate (you should read all the links) and since then Coates (who is the clear winner in my opinion) has followed up with this and this, which I cannot recommend enough.
Coates and Chait are having a high-level intellectual version of a discussion, or rather an argument, taking place everywhere in the country about race and poverty. In question is whether or not poverty is a function mainly of poor choices made by poor people, and whether or not the crushing poverty and lack of opportunity that black people in America experience (not to mention a whole bunch of really horrible, oppressive shit) is due to, as Chait calls it, a “cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success”. My own positions are: 1. No problem poor people have wouldn’t be solved by more money and 2. Just shut up, Jonathan Chait, and all other Caucasian-Americans who presume to lecture African Americans on anything. Try listening for once. Maybe read the many, many sources Coates has generously provided for you.
Ross Douthat of the New York Times is not an intellectual, but he pretends to be one and for some inexplicable reason, the top newspaper in the nation has given him a column in which he coats reactionary moralizing with a genteel gloss. Minus the Ivy League degree and the sweet pundit gig, Douthat would be a random guy standing outside the abortion clinic in his hometown of New Haven, CT screaming at the women entering. Naturally, Douthat has Thoughts™ on the Coates-Chait exchange:
In this landscape, certain ways of talking about culture and poverty really are inappropriate, and for roughly the reasons Coates suggests — because they essentially involve a flight into the more comforting (for white people) patterns of the recent past, into a reassuring Othering of social pathology, into a conversation that has why can’t those poor black people get their act together? written over and over again between its lines. In this landscape, it’s usually a mistake — no, not a “racist” mistake, but still a mistake — for white Republican politicians interested in poverty to overstress the “inner city” in their rhetoric. In this landscape, forms of moral exhortation around sex and marriage and work and responsibility that are really just outsiders’ critiques of “black culture” are even less defensible than usual.
But the problem with Coates’s argument is that in rejecting this kind of lazy, racialized moralism for thee, he appears to almost rule out moral exhortation altogether. Or at least that’s one way to read his earlier critique of President Obama’s rhetoric of responsibility, in which he invited readers to imagine the president offering the same kind of arguments in front of non-black audiences
Yeah, it’s not a ‘”racist” mistake’ for Republican politicians to pound on the “inner city” over and over on TV interviews and on the speaking circuit. Douthat simply ignores that it’s completely deliberate – standard Southern Strategy dog-whistle politics. Paul Ryan is not interested in ending poverty. He’s pushing a cruel budget that hurts everyone who isn’t in the 1%, but especially the poorest Americans of all races, using the same old rhetoric that riles up middle class white voters and affluent white donors.
So the kind of budget they want is where one could characterize both Ryan and Douthat as mostly race-neutral. The kind of “moral exhortation” Ryan and Douthat are doing is definitely not directed toward rich people, many of whom have done some decidedly immoral things to attain their wealth. For Ryan and Douthat to say “eat marriage, paupers” is to say they’ve made the choice to preference moralizing at the paupers over anything that would burden rich people. To wit, here’s more Douthat:
I don’t think that’s where Coates would actually come out [on moralizing about poor people’s life choices], if pressed. But if that is his underlying contention, then this isn’t really an argument about the specifics of the black experience in America, the weight of slavery and segregation, the persistence of structural racism, and the like. It’s just a much more general debate about human freedom, economic determinism, and the role (or lack thereof) of culture, agency, and choice. I mean: If the only way to unravel a culture of poverty is to expand a government program, then of course the president’s rhetoric to black audiences is inappropriate, useless, insulting! But if that’s what’s at the bottom of things here, then I don’t feel like I just followed an debate between Jonathan Chait, racial optimist, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, racial pessimist; I feel like I just followed a debate between a liberal and a radical reductionist, from which nothing terribly illuminating was ever going to emerge.
In suggesting that Coates is arguing that “the only way to unravel a culture of poverty is to expand a government program”, Douthat neatly erases Coates’ entire well-argued thesis on racism, despite giving lip-service to the bullet points. (And seriously, I’ve heard better arguments from shouters outside abortion clinics.) Basically, Douthat is demanding that Ta-Nehisi Coates join in Ross Douthat’s
creepy “terribly illuminating” vagina-policing crusade before he will even entertain Coates’ thoughts on race.