Keith S. Wilson
I’ll take it as a windfall that in this pervasive and demoralizing news cycle, I’m still able to muster disgust at the title of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recent piece in the New York Times: “How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power.” There is no recovering from a title this reckless, and while I will not blame the author for a title he may not have control over, what follows is a moral framework that asks us to consider the possibility that systemic injustice is both real and in the hands of the victim. I take it back. The title is his fault.
Williams’s essay focuses primarily on Ta-Nehisi Coates and his cultural and political essays from the recent collection We Were Eight Years in Power. Coates’s essays span the eight years of Obama’s presidency, and are interwoven with historical analysis and personal reflection. Perhaps most troubling to many readers, Coates makes eye contact with whiteness, never averting his gaze. Williams, in response to these essays, posits that America’s philosophy on race has calcified racism into a forgone conclusion. He takes Coates to task—and to a degree, other black Americans, and even himself—stating that a “greater complexity” than race alone explains white supremacy.
Williams would have us believe that an attempted dialogue about race initiated primarily by black liberals is fatalistic, that to be aware of race is to be fetishistic about race. I would say that if you bare your teeth at our children, and then spend over 200 years not wanting to talk about it, it’s not fatalistic for me to believe that murder looms in our shadows. The fetish is in controlling black lives. The logical conclusion of a life under supremacy is death.
White supremacy built a thoroughfare. It is ludicrous to accuse black citizens of soliciting traffic merely because they openly acknowledge—talk about, walk across, protest in—the streets. That white folks don’t choose to wander through a forest they are unfamiliar with is a feature of the empire, a feature of the road. It is long past time we quit advocating for the good intentions of whiteness in the face of the realities of blackness. And bless his heart if Williams doesn’t recognize where his argument places him: as a white knight on the left side of the multi-faceted road that leads to Charlottesville.
Following Williams’s article, I found myself in an argument with a coworker. Give him the benefit of the doubt, my coworker said. Williams is saying that black people contribute to the problem. That factors other than race contribute to the issues at hand. Isn’t Williams arguing for nuance?
What is Williams saying that isn’t true?
Williams speaks about how he and TNC (whom Williams mistakenly asserts is a millionaire) have, as black people, contributed to gentrification. He notes that Richard Spencer is thrilled that the left insists upon reckoning with “identity epistemology” in the public sphere (take now, for a moment, a look at how many white supremacists are thrilled in the comment section of Williams’s article). Again and again, Williams wants to remind us that black folks are doing quite a bit of bad themselves: Williams writes that “[Coates] abandons any pretense of class-based analysis.” Williams further notes that in 2014, Coates wrote that “today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything,” a statement that Williams describes as “jaw-dropping.” Rather than Coates’s statement being seen as a prediction of what would follow from the lack of calling a spade a spade, it is presented as emblematic of how the “white” of white supremacy is too complicated an animal to speak about directly.
I am a poet. I am a black poet with a white mother who consistently finds himself writing about love, about ambiguity, and about race. I often find myself rejecting the two popular given labels for contemporary poetry; my poetry is neither primarily lyrical or narrative but rhetorical. If I write about my father’s hands, my concern is not in telling the story of them working even when I lay asleep, or expressing the feeling of them swinging me like laugh or helicopter above the lawn. My concern is with him, and with lives living under the shadows of a slur, or with children who have had fathers like mine, and what can I say to make them know change is possible?
All of this is to say I understand nuance. I understand that what I mean by nuance is akin to prayer, and that on the other hand, whenever it is spoken of in public discourse, it is as a blunt weapon that the secure use to further their securities. I am all for due process, but the news is filled this very day with monsters who have committed their monstrosities in the open light. And they are asking for us to consider not what we have seen, but what we might convince ourselves we would have seen in a world where they were wholly innocent.
Again and again, Williams argues that we need nuance. To the extent that he seems to mean it, I disagree. We need care.
Toward the end of the article, Williams reflects on a conversation he had with Richard Spencer, who called America’s discussions about white supremacy a “profound opportunity” to “flip” white liberals toward his ideology. Of course white supremacists cite writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates as giving them a coherent white identity. It’s a rhetorical strategy that places the blame for racial strife squarely on the shoulders of the people who suffer the most for racial categories they themselves didn’t invent nor do they have the power to enforce. Williams’s lack of actual engagement with class in the article pretends away the fact that in America, class and race practically overlap and are socially indistinguishable. See: Trayvon Martin, shot in his own middle-class neighborhood by a middle-class man for being out of place. To cite rich black folks as the source of a gentrification problem is equivalent to Trump saying that both sides of Charlottesville are to blame. The problem isn’t that we aren’t talking enough about the outlier cases where minorities take advantage of the power holders in our society. The dominant narrative is the problem: that despite maintaining a fraction of the power to elicit meaningful legislative change, despite de facto segregation policies that push minorities further and further from white middle class life, and despite the fact that crimes committed by the rich ruin exponentially higher numbers of people’s lives, minorities are still blamed for creating the majority of the problems facing this nation.
“How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power” is not a discussion that deepens the narrative. It’s not an insight that complicates it. The article’s title may have been intended as clickbait, but there’s more than a drop of white complacency in it, and while the argument presents itself as a lens from which to examine the gradient of oppression in America, Williams’s argument functions as a dog whistle blaming a single black man for white supremacy—a system that predates America, never mind one African American. Trump operates under this same model every time he invokes Obama’s name. But the manner of this discussion isn’t useful. And picking the little gems of truth from a premise that is even potentially in danger of coming across as anti-black is irresponsible in the best of times. These are not the best of times.
A pervasive (and extremely popular) discussion point among a huge portion of white America is that there has never been a more “racist” president than Obama, an argument largely based on him having the nerve to speak about race at all, under any circumstance. This is because it’s also a popular assumption (by many of those same white folks) that if we stopped talking about race, it would not be a problem, since a) the problems that black people talk about are not actually problems/don’t arise from race and b) those problems that DO arise from race are the fault of black people’s “obsession” (“fetishizing?”) with race; that if, for instance, Sandra Bland happens to die, if Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott happen to die, focusing on whether or not they were black only incites violence against the police that killed them, which emboldens criminals, which then encourages police to act with deadly force. And as a result, the argument goes, black people die. Some version of this ecosystem of violence with the police as apex predator is being outlined constantly via Breitbart, Fox News, or Twitter.
And so readers might convince themselves: what could possibly be partisan, or biased, or wrong, with opening the discussion of oppression and violence beyond those of race? For one thing, Williams mentions no factor other than social class, and doesn’t investigate social class itself except as an idea worth investigating. Instead, Williams focuses his attention on taking down Coates, on calling into question the power of racism in America (with the promise that a discussion of social class could very well share its place); on defending George Packer, who Coates called “tribalist” for writing an article that suggested we focus our attention more on the white working class; and in finally in putting the onus of racial strife on those who speak most about it (read: the victims of racism). The result is that Williams speaks precious little about class, and his primary action is to crack the argument of race (or the notion of Coates as worthy of his current intellectual standing) and puts nothing substantial in its place. And since he does so with statements which might be argued as ostensibly factual—assertions like gentrification being not “a straightforwardly white phenomenon”—there’s a portion of the audience (beyond those who are clamoring to hear any black person discredit the existence of racism or white supremacy) who are being persuaded to discredit the realities of white supremacy for unworked minor truths.
And importantly, a lot of people seem to believe that so long as we are focusing on facts, a discussion cannot be destructive. This is fundamentally not true. This administration is notorious for its defense of blatant lies (alternative facts) but even when the truth is actually the truth, it has often been used to dominate and silence. What is defended as true is actually false when we look, not at a razor-thin edge of case studies, but the lived lives of millions?
In the early ’60s, Ronald Reagan championed the concept of the Welfare Queen, a seemingly classist idea that nevertheless became strongly attached to black women. Is it demonstrably true that some women on welfare are taking advantage of the system? Yes. But that simple, supposedly neutral fact ignores a hierarchy of realities above it: 1. That the percentage of people doing this is minuscule. 2. That if we are concerned about the budget over compassion, attacking black women on welfare makes zero sense, since there are more white people on welfare than black people and Latinxs combined. 3. That the supposedly logical conversation had about welfare queens was a stand-in for feelings of fear and resentment for the poor and for black citizens. 4. That black folks have largely been forced into welfare by a system that took advantage of them for generations before America’s welfare system was even established (in 1935). 5. That being poor is always expensive: how can someone on welfare pay for a root canal or cancer treatment? Spoiler: they can’t.
So. Let’s say that I am a writer in a position of power to write about welfare. I can decide to only stick to the strictest of facts. But if I decide to report on black women on welfare, I should ensure that my reporting is not destructive. Shouldn’t the New York Times, a publication and platform able to initiate dialogue or proliferate ideas, ensure that those ideas are not destructive? In fact, what is claimed to be nuance is often a case of someone’s power depending upon the recognition of a particular of their identity, something they’ve pretended was invisible their entire life. Abigail Fisher can feign that she is not white in any meaningful way and reap all the benefits of that whiteness until it fails her, and then attempt to strong-arm herself into the college of her choice because of “reverse racism.” Trump can choose to allude to race only when it incites his base. Let’s say that I was willing to agree that these situations open up nuanced discussions of race in America. Let’s say I could create a lie big enough that I’d believe it was a discussion about anything other than the preservation of fundamentally unfair power structures. I still cannot imagine making myself properly care. Rather than charging forward to capitalize upon a trend, we might attend to our loudness—again, we might care.
Williams might ask himself whether his slender facts rise above the quality of a black activist silenced by someone screaming, “ALL lives matter!” Controlling the conversation is never neutral. Pushing facts is never neutral. Focusing on minutia is never neutral—and make no mistake, the black contribution to white supremacy can never be more than minutia when in 2016, black Americans comprised 37.8% of the prison population and only 1.7 percent of the top 1 percent of richest American households. White supremacists are openly marching the streets and here many of us remain: desperate for a neutral way to fall into the whisper of our graves.
Would Williams have us believe that Richard Spencer’s speaking engagements are substantively a consequence of black folks “fetishizing race?” We’re to believe that Coates or the Left have missed vital opportunities to console whiteness in such a way that white folks feel empowered to—to do what exactly? We have no reason to believe that a comfortable white majority will change for the benefit of this nation’s black citizens, especially when that comfort seems to depend upon a total silence in regards to racial injustice. There is no difference in this regard between satisfaction and silence. We do not have satisfaction and we will not have violence, and this brands us antagonistic. In terms of justice, it is simple enough to say that since white folks created this institution, they ought to be responsible for dismantling it. But practically, in terms of social influence, white folks remain in power to this day: divide us into any number of social classes and every stratum we might call rich is far and away disproportionality white. Even Williams would agree there is nobody with more power in this moment to elicit change, if such change was within their interest.
There’s a strange thing that happens when your country attempts to exterminate you: you become aware of it. Accusing black people who are aware of race of being fetishistic falls directly in line with an administration that doesn’t want to take census data or collect data on racial violence. It feels good to white supremacists to not look at the data. How about we not imply that wanting to look at the data is akin to gross obsession?
None of this is to say, as Williams asserts that we believe, that whiteness is conflated with wrongness, or that debate about forms of oppression other than race are off the table. Nor is it to pretend as if the left is not dropping the ball constantly. Horrendously. And that I defend Coates is not to say that he is indisputable, but that no black man should be made straw while white nationalists openly carry their sidearms, their Tiki torches, and wear their body armor and polo shirts (but never, anymore, their masks). Is this the moment to take down Coates for focusing his attention on white supremacy—when white nationalists feel most emboldened to remove their hoods and pose for the camera? The rhetoric of the savvy racist and the mistaken debater are the same: to inundate the conversation with arguments that are impossible to argue, whether because they are technically true or wildly off topic. In both cases, the argument can be defended by folks who ask, “What is he saying that isn’t true?” I’m not advocating against truth or nuance. Nor am I an advocate for silence but, instead, for care: there can never be a time for saddling the lynched with the lynching. The place of the white ally is not in silence but in contemplation.
Chicago, IL. October 2017.