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?