Ta-Nehisi Coates has the current cover story for The Atlantic. The publication really wanted to make a splash with it, going so far as to promote it with a teaser video. It’s headlined “The Case for Reparations.”
The major push in favor of this piece from The Atlantic and others has generated some reaction. So let’s look at two bad ways and one good way to engage this article calling for racial reparations.
Bad Way #1: Empty, Over-The-Top Praise
— Corby Kummer (@CKummer) May 22, 2014
Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates has done something extraordinary. “Must read” is nowhere near strong enough. http://t.co/csVhtQ7lLu
— a. o. scott (@aoscott) May 22, 2014
Ta-Nehisi Coates has composed a powerful, exacting, yet gracious piece that confirms his position as the greatest writer of our generation.
— Micah Singleton (@MicahSingleton) May 22, 2014
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest piece is revolutionary; both for the field of journalism and for the sentiment of America. Such is my dream.
— Ja’han Jones (@_Jahan) May 22, 2014
Really, you should click on those links and marvel at the praise. And if you do, what you’ll find is a lot of praise but not a lot of engagement. Everyone is signaling that they have the right reaction to Coates. They’re also outdoing themselves to see who can put forth the highest praise. My own favorite over-the-top reaction came from Goldie Taylor:
Without a doubt, Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the most brilliant, prolific social and political philosophers of our time. His compelling prose, lyrical and breathtaking by its nature, often leaves me without words. My soul quakes with every measure of every line. His most recent column, released this evening on the Atlantic.com, was no departure but a vesting in his position as one of the foremost public intellectuals of our time. Even in these early hours, “The Case for Reparations” has taken its place among the most critical pieces of writing this country, this world, has known. In the expansive piece, Coates does not waste a word.
My soul quakes with every measure of every line? This whole effusive praise approach completely backfires and does a disservice to Coates and his piece. Yes, perhaps if you’re the type of person to think that calling for reparations is the best idea you ever heard, you might be similarly enthused. But normal people read this praise and expect flawless prose and a perfect, irrefutable argument. Coates is a fun writer and brings history alive but the piece also had sweeping generalizations, laughable straw men, claims that were both major and unsubstantiated, and numerous holes.
Also, the problem with these tweets and such is that they’re completely empty. Nobody is saying why they thought it brilliant, amazing, epic — just that it was. Nobody is explaining why Coates is the second coming of Christ, just that he is. This is weird and not what you might expect in reaction to other essayists.
Bad Way #2: Tell People They’re Not Allowed To Respond To The Piece With Questions
NPR published a piece headlined “How To Tell Who Hasn’t Read The New ‘Atlantic’ Cover Story,” by Gene Demby.
The reparations piece is long and the suspicion is high that people are just saying they read it without actually reading it. So Demby says you know people haven’t read it if:
1. They talk a lot about slavery.
2. They talk about the logistics of reparations.
3. They talk about affirmative action or welfare.
Except that probably the most normal reaction to a piece headlined “The Case for Reparations” is to talk a great deal about the logistics of reparations. Demby’s correct that Coates didn’t, but that’s all the more reason why a normal response would be to do just that. Coates and his fellow reparation fans aren’t allowed to police where the discussion goes after the piece is written, for crying out loud! Same for a discussion of government programs under the banner of the third item.
Good Way #1: Engage The Actual Argument
Unlike some of the fan pieces going around the internet, Columbia University professor John McWhorter actually discussed Coates’ argument over at The Daily Beast, and found it lacking. He writes:
Despite frequent claims that America “doesn’t want to talk about race,” we talk about it 24/7 amidst ringing declamations against racism on all forms. Over the past year’s time, I need only mention Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, and Donald Sterling. Over the past few years, three of the best-selling and most-discussed nonfiction books have been Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Rebecca Skloot’s book about the harvesting of a black woman’s cancer cells (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), and Michelle Alexander’s invaluable The New Jim Crow. And let’s not forget recent major release films such as The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and The Butler.
Can we really say that these are signs of a nation in denial about race, racism, and its history?
Yet for writers like Coates, somehow none of this is enough. A shoe has yet to drop. We remain an “America that looks away,” “ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” But what, exactly, is the suggestion here? Surely not that no racism exist anywhere in the country—but what, then? In exactly what fashion could 317 million people “reckon” or come to certain eternally elusive “terms” with racism? Especially in a way that would satisfy people who see even America’s current atonements as insufficient?
McWhorter is critical of the piece but respects Coates enough to actually engage his argument. Tweeting “OMG! Black Jesus!” is not a serious response to this piece. A truly great essay should drive discussion, not end it in 140 characters or less.