Yesterday I wrote about Professor Jason Hill’s response to Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me. Hill’s piece was a personal defense of the American Dream and a rebuttal of Coates’ claim that the Dream is a delusion. On the contrary, Hill writes, “The world we desired has been won. It exists. It is real. It is possible. It is ours.”
Today, journalist George Packer has written a response to Coates’ most recent essay for the Atlantic (in which Packer is mentioned). Coates’ piece, The First White President, argues that Trump’s election was based on white identity politics and, specifically, a whitelash against President Obama.
To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification.
In response, Packer writes that Coates’ writing has become “oracular” and so focused on “the single cause” theory of American politics that it skips over any and all evidence that something more is going on. To be clear, Packer agrees that racism was a factor in the last election he just doesn’t believe it was the only factor:
When you construct an entire teleology on one cause—even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism—you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis. So Coates minimizes sexism—Trump’s disgusting language and the visceral hatred of many of his supporters for Hillary Clinton—background noise. He downplays xenophobia, even though foreigners were far more often the objects of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policy proposals than black Americans. (Of all his insults, the only one Trump felt obliged to withdraw was his original foray into birtherism.) Coates doesn’t try to explain why, at one point in the campaign, a plurality of Republicans supported Ben Carson over the other nine candidates, all white. He omits the weird statistic that slightly more black and Latino voters and slightly fewer whites went for Trump than for Mitt Romney. He doesn’t even mention the estimated eight and a half million Americans who voted for President Obama and then for Trump—even though they made the difference.
Obviously, Packer doesn’t have a very positive view of Trump but he still believes there is more going on here than white supremacy. Republican voters did embrace Ben Carson and it is true that Trump’s win is partly the result of white Obama voters who chose to vote for Trump instead. Were they all voting for white supremacy in 2016 and if so why did they vote for Obama over Romney in 2012? Something doesn’t add up here. He goes on to criticize Coates’ for failing to grapple with contrary evidence:
…we live in a time of total vindication, when complication and concession are considered weaknesses, and counter examples are proof of false consciousness. This spirit has taken over Coates’s writing. In this essay and other recent work, he’s turned away from the self-examining quality of his earlier writing to a literary style that’s oracular…
But the style of no-compromise sacrifices things that are too important for readers to surrender without a second thought. It flattens out history into a single fixed truth, so that an event in 2016 is the same as an event in 1805, the most recent election erases the one before, the Obama years turn into an illusion. It brushes aside policy proposals as distractions, and politics itself as an immoral bargain. It weakens the liberal value of individual thought, and therefore individual responsibility, by subordinating thoughts and individuals to structures and groups. It begins with the essential point that race is an idea, and ends up just about making race an essence.
This is well said and also, I think, carefully said. Packer is not calling Coates a racist but making race “an essence” seems like a fundamental aspect of racist thought. If race is an essence then a person is not an individual (who could surprise us in any number of ways) but just an instance, a carrier of a group identity. If that’s not quite racism it’s certainly somewhere along the path to it.
Packer also takes particular exception to how Coates characterizes some of his work. He writes, “I don’t ask Coates to read everything I’ve written, but I’ll ask him to stop thinking he can see into my soul and find the true source of my ideas in my white privilege.”
Coates has long been fixated on “the single cause” as an explanation for American society and that means he often isn’t as careful with the facts as he could be. I noticed that in his coverage of the Trayvon Martin case when he claimed he could hear a racial slur in a 911 call. He still sometimes sees and hears what he wants to and fails to see evidence to the contrary which might undercut his point. That really should be a problem for a writer taken as seriously as Coates is these days.