Professor Jason Hill, who teaches philosophy at DePaul University, has written a lengthy rebuttal of Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me. Hill is both black and an immigrant to America but he writes that Coates is doing black Americans a disservice by seeking to convince them the American Dream is either illusory or, worse yet, an enemy to people of color. Hill, using his own life as an example, writes that the dream is real enough. Through effort, determination, and independence, America is still a great place for people of all backgrounds.
I was a black man who had never met any philosophers or real writers, but I was determined to become a philosopher and write books on ethics, political philosophy, and American foreign policy. I was eager to publish poems and novels about the Caribbean—novels that Americans would come to love. I was a gay man escaping the blight of Jamaican homophobia. And I knew that in America I could find peace and true love and be left alone to pursue my dream.
I would make but one demand on my new country: that its inhabitants place no obstructions in my path.
Hill spent years trying to make his dream come true and along the way, he met other immigrants who were also there for the same opportunity. He tells the story of Thai, a Vietnamese man who hadn’t learned much English. Hill encouraged Thai to audit classes as a way to learn. He convinced him the professors would be happy to have him, but he would have to speak up for himself:
Thai took my advice and hesitantly walked into the admissions office alone at Georgia State University. I’d told him that this was America, and that until and unless he asserted his indubitable, sui generis humanity and claimed his place in the pantheon of Dreamers, he’d never make it. Once he asserted himself, all five feet two inches of him, many of us knew (without resentment) that he’d pass us by. We were proud when a year later he determined that college would give him all the language skills he needed to open his own restaurant. Don’t ask me how he did it by stuffing envelopes, but Thai had saved a lot of money and, in his halting English, had convinced a bank to grant him a loan to open his own small Vietnamese eatery. Alone…I later learned that Thai did indeed, 20 years on, earn his baccalaureate, magna cum laude, not because he had to, but because he could and wanted to. That’s the American way.
Hill contrasts this sort of independence and agency with what he calls the “seductive idea,” i.e. the idea that the world owes you something. He cites as an example of that approach, Coates piece arguing for reparations:
If individual rights are currently being violated by states that illegally discriminate against blacks, that is a matter to be redressed in the courts. People who are possessed of self-esteem, who are dignified individuals capable of supporting themselves, do not seek any form of reparations. It is beneath them. Reason indicated that you cannot codify either collective guilt or collective entitlement. And reparations are predicated on the attribution of collective guilt, which in turn is based on the worst form of racism: biological collectivism.
Hill writes that Coates is committed to this collective approach because he is “trading on black suffering to create a perpetual caste of racial innocents.” Hill adds, “the currency of your economic system is white guilt.”
The piece concludes with Hill describing how he has achieved his own version of the American dream. He is now a published professor whose books are taught at other schools, just as he hoped. He writes, “In 32 years of living in this country, the United States has never once failed me.” The entire piece is inspiring and offers perspective on some of what is truly good about America.
But I don’t imagine for a minute that any of this will get through to Coates or his fans. There is a large and growing market on the left for the “seductive idea” and all of the attendant policy prescriptions, from reparations to universal basic income. People who sell to that market often do very well for themselves, which is why committed socialists Bernie Sanders and Michael Moore each own multiple homes.
That’s the final irony in all of this. Coates himself is living what many people would consider the American dream. He has written award-winning books and articles. A comic book fan himself, he had the chance to write a storyline for Marvel’s Black Panther. Last year he bought a $2.1 million brownstone in Brooklyn (which his friend dubbed “the dream”). After the purchase became a story in the New York media he decided it wasn’t safe and sold it (at a small profit). America has been pretty good to Ta-Nehisi Coates. He could maybe write about that once in a while too.