November 18, 2017 37th and O

Does Ta-Nehisi Coates Give Whiteness Power?

by Samuel Appel

No. Does analyzing the prevalence of a disease make it any more virulent? Does discussing the severity of a rash make any more people any more affected by it? Should we hide ourselves from our doctors because their prognoses will only make us more ill, not less? No.

This question was answered in the affirmative, though, in the New York Times by a Thomas Chatterton Williams in an article titled How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power. In it, Williams boldly compares Coates to white supremacist Richard Spencer. Williams criticizes Coates for emphasizing Whiteness and White Supremacy as factors in our political and personal behavior. He goes on to decry that “both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories,” and that “what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes.” Williams does have a point—Coates and Spencer do both center race in their analyses of the world—but that is as groundbreaking a statement as, “Communists and capitalists sure do spend a lot of time thinking about money.”

One group is advocating for the exposition of race’s insidious nature, a fight against it, and a utopian hope of its eventual removal, while the other proudly lionizes it, praises it, and is willing to fight for it. To analyze the current constructions and consequences of race is not to “eagerly reduce people” to it, or to re-impose its (historical and current) hierarchy, but to simply bring this contemporary, insidious disease to our conscious attention, rather than letting it fester in unconscious detention—where it might continue to bring about disproportionate incarceration, mis-education, and lack of reparations.

And let us be thankful, not angry, that Coates has come along. In the beginning of his article, Williams teaches us about sonderweg, a word used in the study of German history to describe the “special path” of the German people. He goes on to say that by using sonderweg, “one could speak of a trajectory ‘from Luther to Hitler’ and interpret history not as some chaotic jumble but as a crisp, linear process.” In his opinion, “a similar unifying theory has been taking hold in America. Its roots lie in the national triple sin of slavery, land theft and genocide.” According to him, it says, “No matter what we might hope, that original sin — white supremacy — explains everything, an all-American sonderweg.” And he charges, “no one today has done more to push this theory in the mainstream than the 42-year-old author Ta-Nehisi Coates.” As Williams denounces this though, I applaud it. Thank you, Mr. Coates, for dissecting race, not class. Thank you, Mr. Coates, for centering racial politics, not congressional ones. Thank you, Mr. Coates, for integrating your autobiographical book into our national conversation, and not just assimilating or obscuring it.

With recent Supreme Court decisions weakening affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act; more and more people proclaiming themselves “color blind” everyday; the belief that a black president ushered in a race-less America; Black Lives Matter decried as a hate group; and a persistent American refusal to pay (or even study the possibility of paying) adequate reparations or reference to African Americans for their labor or their land (Congress has still failed to pass H.R. 40: Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act); we should thank Coates for his powerful and poignant analysis, emphasis and focus of race. The above realities demonstrate the need for more of Coates’ analyses, not less. We must not forget our “triple sin of slavery, land theft and genocide,” but see how it has left people disproportionately poor and disenfranchised. We should thank, not condemn Coates for bringing these sins into the mainstream. I know I will.

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