Ta-Nehisi Coates does not want to wear the crown of Interpreter-in-Chief of the black experience in modern America. But if that crown belongs to anyone, it’s his. When Marc Maron pointed this out earlier this month in an interview with Coates on Maron’s “WTF” podcast, Coates was not thrilled.
“I don’t want to do that,” Coates replied. “Who the f-ck would want to do that?”
But I would go even further than Maron. Coates is not only the foremost contemporary American voice on race, he is the most popular public intellectual on the Left in general. If Maron’s words, the book awards, and the Macarthur Genius Grant had not been sufficient proof, his status was confirmed not long ago when my local Costco cleared out an entire section of its warehouse to dedicate exclusively to one of his new books. Toothpaste, beach towels, Chicken Bakes, and race theory, in bulk.
How did he get so popular? Why is his writing so appealing to so many?
Doubtless, a thousand and one various forces have catapulted Coates into the highest reaches of contemporary American thinkers. But at the core of Coates’ appeal is his success in articulating a long-forgotten truth about guilt. Coates is saying something true. And conservatives should pay attention.
Coates Knows a Truth, But It’s a Half-Truth
That’s not to say I agree with Coates on everything. But he is neither an utter fool nor a contemptible liar—be it about race in America, human nature, or about politics. After all, the outright lie rarely deceives. It is the clever half-truth, or the well-concealed omission, that gains adherents. This is what makes Coates compelling—and so very dangerous. He’s saying something true. But only partly true.
He is also, most certainly, a gifted writer. This excerpt from “The First White President,” a chapter in his book “We Were Eight Years in Power,” illustrates perfectly his rhetorical gifts: “To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”
The effortless gift for analogy and illustration, the biting denunciation of evil, the inventive deployment of unexpected words, and the hammering rhythm all make up part of Coates’ appeal as a writer. But rhetorical gifts alone cannot explain the fanatical adulation his work has received.
It’s not as if Coates’ policy proposals, as in “The Case for Reparations,” are original or practical. Further, his outlook on race is fatalistic and deterministic, frustrating many activists and scholars.
“I cannot pretend to be entirely satisfied,” “The New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander writes in a review of Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” “Like [James] Baldwin, I tend to think we must not ask whether it is possible for a human being or society to become just or moral; we must believe it is possible.”
In his recent bombshell polemic in The Guardian, Harvard University professor Cornel West relayed a related concern. “For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action,” West writes. West accuses Coates of “the profiteering of fatalism about white supremacy and pessimism of black freedom.”
If Coates is indeed fatalistic, then why do liberals love his work so much? If liberals want to make policy to dismantle white supremacy, as they say they do, why do they flock around a writer who says white supremacy is immovable and inevitable?
The Search for a Life Philosophy
The paradox is easily resolved once you consider what liberals go to Coates for. In fact, rather than an obstacle to his readers, his fatalism is precisely what attracts them. That is because his readers are not looking for constructive political engagement, at least, not when they read him. Coates’ readers are looking for something deeper.
Politics, after all, is temporary. Year after year, Congress meets and recesses, elections occur, laws are passed, and statutes overturned. It’s one thing after another. What lies underneath all of this? What deeper story explains our politics, and the history of our nation? Those are the questions Coates’ fans want answered.
Readers of Coates are looking for a philosophy to explain politics, race relations, and American life, a philosophy of history, and ultimately of being itself. Coates’ attraction is not that of a political analyst, nor that of a journalist, but that of a philosopher.
What does the philosopher teach? His philosophy can be summed up in a passing phrase from “Between the World and Me”: “I… felt that the galaxy was playing with loaded dice.”
It’s a passing phrase, but a concept that suffuses his work. At a cosmic level, existence itself is slanted against the flourishing of black people. Chance is not really chance. We already know how history will unfold before it happens: black people will suffer because of white people. That’s what being black means. That’s what being white means.
To be white is to be on the side of injustice—to be the perpetrator and beneficiary of the slave trade, whippings, lynchings, Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, and police brutality. And in Coates’ telling, no white person can do anything about it. They cannot overturn white supremacy. And they cannot escape whiteness.
“White people are, in some profound way, trapped; it took generations to make them white, and it will take more to unmake them,” Coates writes in “We Were Eight Years in Power.” In other words, white people are doomed. And there is nothing they can do to escape their own injustice.
The Market for Self-Flagellation
Why then do liberal readers (many white) flock to Coates? Do liberals just enjoy rhetorical flagellation? They’re attracted to Coates, I think, because they know that he is right. This is the truth that Coates has hit upon.
White people are indeed doomed, incapable of escaping their own injustice. From some place deeper than in their own bones, white people know this. The problem is, no one would tell them so. No one would confirm the dread they feel, their own disgust at their very selves, rising like a fever, growing warmer and warmer until unbearable.
Traditionally, it is the church that confirms this intuition of our own injustice. But as white people desert the church, they no longer hear the church’s condemnation of the moral rot living within them. Those who stay rarely hear that condemnation anyways—sin is no longer mentioned. The churches have traded in their old teachings of judgment for a mess of pottage about self-esteem and self-acceptance.
Every week, my wife and I go to a Catholic mass and a Protestant liturgy. Toward the beginning of the liturgy, both churches have set places for the congregation to confess their sins, as is traditional in Christian worship. But in both churches, the word “sin” often goes unmentioned. We talk of “not living up to our potential,” “our mistakes,” or “failing to see,” but almost never of “sin.” If the church will not tell you that you are a sinner, who will?
So Coates steps in, to claim the birthright the American churches have forfeited. He tells white people they are trapped in injustice. Although he’s not a religious man, the vocabulary of Christianity is present in his writing. White supremacy, Coates says, is “America’s original sin.”
Trapped Inside Our Race
But because he accepts the category of race as an essential and inescapable part of life, Coates is also dangerous. Indeed, for Coates, race is not only an essential and unchangeable identity category, it also possesses quasi-mystical power.
Compare, for example, his “ancestral talisman,” “glowing amulet,” and “eldritch energies” in the excerpt above to the racism-charged writings of the fascist theorist Julius Evola. Thomas Chatterton Williams makes this comparison between Coates’ writings and Evola’s conception of race as “‘a meta-biological force,’ a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality.”
“Both sides mystify racial identity,” Williams writes, “interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural.” According to Williams, the white supremacist Richard Spencer noted in an interview the philosophical parallels between his own racism and the views of people like Coates.
“This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” Spencer told Williams. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”
In white liberal adulation for Coates, Spencer sees an opportunity. After all, perhaps some whites will grow tired of being condemned for being trapped on the wrong side of the race binary with no hope for redemption. Knowing that they cannot ever be made just, even despite their best efforts, perhaps they will “flip,” and decide that if their race cannot be good, their race might as well win the race war.
A Deep Desire for Justice
How then, can we speak honestly about the real burden of guilt we sense within ourselves, without also driving white people into the arms of Spencer and those who offer the race-based equivalent of “might makes right”?
This leads to a bigger question. Is justice attainable at all?
For if our guilt is real but justice is unattainable, then any attempt at resolving our guilt will never amount to anything more than cathartic self-therapy, or worse yet, a power grab. Shelby Steele argues that denunciations of racism so often act precisely as power grabs—by condemning America’s racial sins, a speaker lays hold of moral authority. This moral authority then justifies the speaker’s right to power. You can see this in most elite American institutions: universities, corporate boardrooms, government, and Hollywood are the most obvious examples.
But surely justice must be possible despite the heavy burden of our guilt, the disconcerting rise of white supremacists, and the cynical posturing of white guilt as power grab. Our yearning for justice is itself a sign of its reality.
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists,” C.S. Lewis writes. “A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water.” Humans desire justice between men and for their guilt to be wiped away. Such things as justice and freedom from guilt do exist.
Finding them, though, requires fixing our gaze upon what Coates overlooks when he talks about original sin. There is, in fact, an older sin that predates America, a sin not of one man against another, or one group against another group, but one man’s sin against God.
The Real Original Sin Belongs Not Just to America
The sin of Adam is the original, original sin. Through Adam, our common ancestor, we all share this sin. We cannot escape it. This is Coates’ well-concealed omission. White people are doomed; but so is Coates. So are black people. Everyone is. That deep dread, the nausea of guilt rising from within ourselves, is a common human experience, not just a white one.
Coates has accidentally hit upon a central Christian doctrine that Christians refuse to talk about: We are guilty, and we can do nothing about it. We can thank Coates for bringing this guilt back into the forefront of public consciousness. Unfortunately, however, Coates misses the universal nature of this guilt. Because we have one origin in Adam, we all bear the image of God—but we also all share Adam’s sin.
John McWhorter writes that antiracism has become its own religion. But it is a poor substitute for true religion. Antiracism, at least as laid out in Coates’ work, is inherently divisive, accepting the categories of race as immutable. It is also ultimately toothless, because it promises that no change is possible.
Christianity, on the other hand, is inherently universal. Because we all share Adam’s origin, and Adam’s sin, we also share one hope for redemption—through the Second Adam. We are indeed trapped in our injustice, but change is possible. We are trapped, but not forever. We can be made just through Jesus Christ.
“For our sake,” Saint Paul tells the Corinthian church, “[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Good news: There is a way out.