David Brooks tells Ta-Nehisi Coates to try some social mobility for a change

Via PZ, and various people on Twitter, I read David Brooks’s infuriatingly smug and defensive commentary on Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But the disturbing challenge of your book is your rejection of the American dream. My ancestors chose to come here. For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise.

What is the point of saying that? It’s not as if Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t know that. It’s not even as if Brooks thinks Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t know that. For many white people, America was a dream of escape and opportunity. Yes we know that.

Your ancestors came in chains. In your book the dream of the comfortable suburban life is a “fairy tale.” For you, slavery is the original American sin, from which there is no redemption. America is Egypt without the possibility of the Exodus. African-American men are caught in a crushing logic, determined by the past, from which there is no escape.

And David Brooks wants to explain to him why he’s wrong.

I read this all like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?

Actually he doesn’t have to ask. He doesn’t have to make it about him, just for one thing. He doesn’t have to get all “can a white person even speak??” about it. He doesn’t have to do any of this. He chose to do it, just as his ancestors chose to come here – and he gets a fat paycheck for doing it.

If I do have standing, I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.

I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.

Oh blah blah blah. No kidding; things are complicated; there’s not a straight line between lynching and one person’s commission of a crime; there’s good and bad; the good cancels out the bad, let’s all go watch football.

The point is not that violence is “the totality of America,” whatever that silly phrase would even mean. The point is that the structural arrangements of racism stayed in place for decade after decade after decade after the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, and that most of them are still in place. Now, today, in a neighborhood near you. This isn’t some fuzzy mumbling about the totality of anything, it’s literal as fuck. Pointing out that there are some good things somewhere is wholly beside the point.

In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow.

Oh no no no no no. That is something Brooks does not get to say. Yes, because he’s white; suck it up. He does not get to say that because he is not the one who would have to “abandon” the “old wrongs” that are still having their effects today. It’s very easy for him to value the future more than the past and to abandon old wrongs that weren’t done to him.

This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.

It’s not Coates’s realism that traps people. It’s generations of residential segregation, neglected schools and infrastructure, and a massive wealth gap. What kind of “dream” does David Brooks suppose can come out of all that? What kind of “guiding star” does he think is even detectable from there?


  1. says

    Funny how it’s privileged, wealthy, older white people who are so often the ones talking about how the USA is a “post-racial” society and indulge in flowery language of “transcending past sins” and the danger of “dissolving the dream under the acid of excessive realism”. It’s almost like they intuitively realize, or at least suspect, that their position on the higher area of the societal totem pole is not just the result of hard work and their own personal rectitude, and that as a result they are desperate to reaffirm their belief that it is.

  2. says

    Wouldn’t you think that would just jump right out at him and cause him to stop writing it? Even if he goes on thinking it, wouldn’t you think he would decide “well it won’t sound great coming from me so…”?


  3. theobromine says

    From Brooks’ perspective, I think the idea that “it won’t sound great coming from me” is just more evidence of how downtrodden and persecuted he is, so he has to speak out against the injustice of his situation.

  4. anthrosciguy says

    The thing that has struck me most by this particular Brooksian effort isn’t even the white guy not realizing that it makes perfect sense for black people to have a very different view of the American Dream (when even our founding document spelled out that they were lesser beings in America).

    What struck me was was how Brooks’ muddled thinking is coupled with torturously hamfisted writing as he condescendingly addresses a man who is noted for both clear thinking and good writing.

  5. karmacat says

    Brooks sounds like one of those people who can’t stand to think of America as imperfect and not so great. It sounds like he barely read what Coates wrote. The NY Times really needs to fire him but it probably won’t happen

  6. Blanche Quizno says

    That bit about “old wrongs” – there are MANY who believe that emancipation of the dark-skinned people was wrong. There are MANY who feel that desegregation was wrong. There are many who believe that anti-discrimination laws are wrong – and who are finding ways to be legally able to do all these “wrong” things! So no. It’s not like all white people are “abandoning old wrongs” that they were forced to stop doing. Those “old wrongs” are very much alive and there are MANY people who are burning to make the “old wrongs” into the “new rights.”

  7. says

    I sadly read the Brooks column in question. Is it possible that the man knows how facile, vapid and offensive he is? How can anyone be so tone deaf? I am amazed by Brooks.He may be the dumbest man alive.

  8. says

    This quote from the wikipedia page on David Brooks made me raise an eyebrow:

    “In 1984, mindful of the offer he had previously received from William F. Buckley, Brooks applied and was accepted as an intern on Buckley’s National Review. According to Christopher Beam, the internship included an all-access pass to the affluent life style that Brooks had previously mocked, including yachting expeditions; Bach concerts; dinners at Buckley’s Park Avenue apartment and villa in Stamford, Connecticut; and a constant stream of writers, politicians, and celebrities.”

    Sounds like his background has certainly prepared him to “have standing” to lecture Ta-Nehisi Coates.

  9. says

    For them, America was the antidote to the crushing restrictiveness of European life, to the pogroms. For them, the American dream was an uplifting spiritual creed that offered dignity, the chance to rise.

    My ancestors came over because they faced near certain death in potato famines; they would have gone anywhere, except the landed class restricted the poor’s ability to relocate. So: off to America on a coffin ship; one more than half of the family made it, the rest were buried at sea. I started to read great great-grandpa’s journal, once, and couldn’t bear it.

    Perhaps the famine was the “crushing restrictiveness of European life” though the pogroms were certainly nothing to sneeze at. I’m not sure what’s a dream of uplifting spirituality woven into “I hope the fucking neighbors don’t kill us this easter! let’s move to America!” Glad they made it. Europe has some fucking awful problems. Awful problems they exported to North America in the form of religious/ethnic cleansing of most of the extant population. That’s some fucking uplifting spiritual message, Europeans, right there.

    The Chinese mined the guano and laid the track, and so did the Irish and Welsh and not a few Norwegians. Of course the Africans had it vastly vastly worse. The US would not exist without them, because Europeans didn’t have resistance to Malaria like many Africans (unfortunately, they get Sickle Cell in return; some tradeoff) The US economy was able to take advantage of slavery by force and slavery by necessity. When your choice is to surely starve in Ireland, New York City looks mighty fine. The entire American Dream is built – like all of the other wonders of the world – on the blood, sweat, and tears of slaves.

    you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie

    What the dumbass doesn’t realize is this:
    a dream shown to be a lie … is still a lie.

  10. Al Dente says

    Brooks is good at whitesplaining his idea of the American Dream™ to someone whose cultural and personal experience is not even close to Brooks’.

  11. Maureen Brian says

    Could someone mention to Brooks that Barack Obama tried social mobility? It did precisely nothing for the attitudes and the ignorance which cause the problems about which Coates writes.

    Lower middle class single parent family to President of the United States in one generation is pretty good going. Yet many, probably including Brooks, still treat him as a nigger. Curious, too, as the only slave in his ancestry was on his (white) mother’s side.

  12. anon1152 says

    Ophelia Benson @6: I know what you mean about him getting on your nerves. It’s been years since I’ve looked at his column (semi)regularly. But there was a time when I did. I even bought and read his book Bobos in Paradise. Over the years, I lost a lot of my previous interest in what he had to say.
    But… this “letter” of his isn’t so bad. (Of course, the depth and breadth of bad stuff in the world makes it easy for me to say that).
    There are things I could say here that are critical of Brooks. But, since he’s being adequately criticized here, I’d like to offer some thoughts in his defence.

    – It looks like he has read the book, cares about it, and is thinking about it. He isn’t writing something to tell his readers what they should think about it, so that they don’t have to think about it (or read it).
    – To his credit, he seems to acknowledge that there are present (not just past) racial injustices that need to be addressed, and that people like Nenshi-Coates are talking about this, and that they should be listened to. Yes, Brooks may periodically talk about ‘post-racial America’, but, here at least, he isn’t saying that racism is over, that the real racists are the people who condemn historical racism and (erroneously) perceive racism in the present, blah blah blah.
    – He says (he tells his readers) that Nenshi-Coates’s book is important and worth reading. (“Your new book, “Between the World and Me,” is a great and searing contribution to this public education. It is a mind-altering account of the black male experience. Every conscientious American should read it. “)
    – He asks if he, as a white person, “has standing to respond”. I think this is a real question on his part. He seems ask it honestly, uncertain of what the answer really is. (That’s not to say that this question isn’t often/usually/almost always asked in a disingenuous/derailing/dismissive/dickish way).
    – Before asking if he has standing to respond, he says “I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in”. I suppose he’s right. And he deserves some credit for listening to the testimony and thinking about it. Later, he says “Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change.” (Yes, we can criticize him for the “maybe”, but I think that the “for a change” part is a reason to think that he’s not being disingenuous).
    – His final paragraph seems to accept that, perhaps, he has no standing to respond, that he should just listen, think, and be quiet(“for a change”)… and even if all that is true, he concludes by saying “In any case, you’ve filled my ears unforgettably.”
    That’s all I can come up with at the moment to support Brooks here. I’m not terribly committed to defending him. When he says that Nenshi-Coates might find his letter “irksome”, I can’t help but think: “I find it irksome… other people no doubt need more colourful words to describe their responses.
    I’m a bit worried that my respect for Brooks is even lower than the general level of respect that will be found here (in this blog post and comments).
    Am I the only one here who, after reading Brooks’s “American Dream” response, gets the impression that he’s a bit like a kid who is trying to confront the fact that, perhaps, there is no Santa Claus? (I wish I could think of another less-insulting analogy. But surely there are similarities between the Santa myth and the American Dream: be good, work hard, and you’ll be justly rewarded… and if you are not getting the cool stuff you think you deserve, or that you see other people getting, it must be because you don’t deserve it).

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