Foolish False Equivalence and the Black Progressive “Brand”

When the name Ta-Nehisi Coates comes up, many people treat him and his work as the immutable gospel of the Black struggle; the spirit of James Baldwin made flesh, so to speak. His words are treated as the final say as to what the true face of racism is, and all those who dare disagree are either not in touch with reality, or agents of white supremacy.

I, for one, confess that I was once one of these people. “Fear of a Black President”, arguably his greatest writing, was a piece that made me truly understand the forces at work against the man who has been the Executive the past five years. To know that the infrastructure of white supremacy this Nation was founded upon had turned its entire attention to reducing the name of Barack Obama to an unspeakable perjorative–and his presidency to nothing more than a placeholder in time–inspired in me renewed vigor and thankfulness in Obama’s presidency.

But recently, Coates’ pieces have begun to stink of the arrogance that befalls the building of a brand. Having become a household name on racism in Black and white mouths alike, Coates’ articles have started to read more like ramblings of a bitter solipsist, seeing racism in every blade of grass and in the air he breathes, beckoning his readers to abandon all hope of living in a country free of marginalization or achieving equality.

And then he goes and writes this:

A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I’m not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill CosbyMichael Nutter, Bill Clinton, andBarack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are “not holding up their end of the deal” as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship

So let’s make sure this is understood correctly. This President of the United States, who single-handedly overthrew more than two centuries of white male rule; who used the power of the Executive Branch by way of My Brother’s Keeper to try and break the cycles of systemic poverty and our youth killing each other in the streets; who raised the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour by way of executive order; whose Administration has fought and won in many places to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing, one of the primary contributors to our immense prison population; who has tried countless times to get a jobs bill passed through a Legislative Branch more interested in voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act fifty-four times, to no avail; yes, this Man, to people like Coates, Melissa Harris-Perry, Mychal Denzel Smith, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West, is no different than the Galtist bigot he defeated in 2012 because he dares to call our people to ascendancy; to participate in the democratic process our Old Ones fought and died to pass to us? To call us to be more than victims?

How dare you reduce this President down to your myopic, short-sighted ideals of retribution and ideological purity? How dare you ignore the realities of our Struggle and project the foolish rhetoric of your individualistic nobility for the cheap benefits of your insipid brands? How dare you proclaim us as broken, helpless and frail, then leave this foolishness you call a Narrative hanging in the air as though we should lie down and wait for our destitution to come?

Are we not more than our circumstances? Is a lifetime of squalor and broken windows to be our eternal portion?

Yeah, you tried it.


But you will not get away with it this time.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that to a number of Black writers and “Thought Leaders”, the presidency of Barack Obama has become an existential threat. As President of the United States, Obama stands as the greatest example of what can actually happen when hard work, discipline, and luck come together to create success. Because these falsely so-called “progressives” need helplessness and malaise to sell clicks and Nielsen ratings–since apparently the wailings of the Right tend to actually put these peoples’ jobs in jeopardy (looking at you, Melissa)–joining in the chorus of bashing Obama for failing their lofty, imaginary goals becomes a fashionable way to remain relevant and “objective.” But since these people are not truly interested in defeating racism (Coates has said so, as has Mychal Denzel Smith), their brands flourish, and our people failed.

Had Obama actually quoted Charles Murray’s discredited, racist nonsense to explain away the problems of the Black community, or even as reasoning why My Brother’s Keeper exists, I would have nothing to say. But what makes Coates particularly disingenuous is that he has contradicted himself on his own feelings about Black culture in a previous piece that blogger Nancy LeTourneau pointed out:

My confusion stems from the fact that, in addition to those he listed as supposedly sounding like Rep. Ryan, I would add one Ta-Nehisi Coates – who once wrote one of the most powerful articles I’ve ever read on this topic titled: A Culture of Poverty. He begins with a story about how he, as an adult, almost came to blows with someone who challenged his writing. Later he reflects on what triggered that response.

Here’s the quote LeTourneau was referring to:

I thought about all of this yesterday while reading this Times’ piece on return of the culture of poverty. When we talk “culture,” as it relates to African-Americans, we assume a kind of exclusivity and suspension of logic. Stats are whipped out (70 percent of black babies born out of wedlock) and then claims are tossed around cavalierly, (black culture doesn’t value marriage.) The problem isn’t that “culture” doesn’t exist, nor is it that elements of that “culture” might impair upward mobility…

If you are a young person living in an environment where violence is frequent and random, the willingness to meet any hint of violence with yet more violence is a shield…once I learned the lesson, once I was acculturated to the notion that often the quickest way to forestall more fighting, is to fight, I was a believer. And maybe it’s wrong to say this, but it made my the rest of my time in Baltimore a lot easier, because the willingness to fight isn’t just about yourself, it’s a signal to your peer group…

I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture.

So there you have it; even Coates believes that there is something about Black culture that may be wrong. This was one of the main points of New York’s Jonathan Chait’s response to Coates fallacious piece:

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

So what exactly is the problem here?

The problem is that people like Coates, Smith, Harris-Perry, Jelani Cobb and other Black “intellectuals” do not in fact have the constant ear of the President. These people, like Smiley and West before them, ironically believed this President to be the “Magic Negro” that would finally whisk away every ill of the Black community. Put another way, Bruh Prez ain’t in #nerdland on the weekends, which of course offends these peoples’ sensitivities and their platforms. Because these people cannot argue against what Obama actually does, as blogger @root_e pointed out, they can only prattle on about what they think this President says, which as usual, keeps The Conversation rolling right along.

To these charlatans, I ask as Uchendu did of Okonkwo in Achebe’s magnum opus, Things Fall Apart: Do you think you are the greatest sufferer in the world?

I don’t.


One Reply to “Foolish False Equivalence and the Black Progressive “Brand””

  1. Powerful, again, if I’m correct in my interpretation. You are explaining the need to complicate, problematize criticisms in race. Our discourses on race have great impact on & are impacted by current events – for lack of better phrase.
    Keep commenting analytically & critically to keep the thoughtful conversation going. Love the Achebe quote-timely. We stand on some powerful intellectual & spiritual shoulders.
    P.S. How great would a conference panel of the above authors et al. mediated by Baldwin, Achebe & … be? Who else should we invite?

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