The next great pro­gres­sive hope?

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The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Car­los Lozada

In early 2014, be­fore Fer­gu­son, be­fore Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Wal­ter Scott, be­fore Emanuel AME Church, Ta-Ne­hisi Coates got caught up in a skir­mish over who should be deemed Amer­ica’s “fore­most public in­tel­lec­tual.” Coates nom­i­nated MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry; Politico’s Dy­lan By­ers dis­sented. Rapid-fire posts were ex­changed, ac­cu­sa­tions of racism and anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism traded. As Twit­ter wars go, it was a Gre­nada.

The episode is worth re­call­ing now only be­cause, in the year and a half since, Coates has won that ti­tle for him­self, and it isn’t close. In an Amer­ica con­sumed by de­bates over racism, po­lice vi­o­lence and do­mes­tic terror, it is Coates to whom so many of us turn to af­firm, chal­lenge or, more of­ten, to mold our views from the clay. “Among public in­tel­lec­tu­als in the U.S.,” writes media critic Jay Rosen, “he’s the man now.” When the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag on the state­house grounds in Columbia, S.C., seemed the only thing the news media could dis­cuss, my Washington Post col­league Ishaan Tha­roor put it sim­ply: “Just shut up and read @tane­hisi­coates.” These days, you hear many vari­a­tions on that ad­vice.

Coates is more than the writer whose think­ing and fo­cus best match the mo­ment. With his 2014 At­lantic cover es­say on “The Case for Repa­ra­tions,” which ex­plores the bru­tal U.S. history of redlin­ing and hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion, and now with the crit­i­cal rap­ture sur­round­ing his new­book, “Be­tween the World and Me,” he has be­come lib­eral Amer­ica’s con­science on race. “Did you read the latest Ta-Ne­hisi Coates piece?” is short­hand for “Have you ab­sorbed and shared the latest and best and cor­rect think­ing on racism, white priv­i­lege, in­sti­tu­tional vi­o­lence and struc­tural in­equal­ity?” If you don’t have the time or in­cli­na­tion or ex­pe­ri­ence to fig­ure it out your­self, you out­source it to Ta-Ne­hisi Coates.

The struc­ture of Coates’s new­book speaks to this role. “Be­tween the World and Me” is

writ­ten as a let­ter to the au­thor’s teenage son, con­vey­ing the per­sonal and his­tor­i­cal strug­gle to “live free in this black body,” a body that faces the con­stant, ex­haust­ing threat of state-sanc­tioned vi­o­lence. But the book also reads like an open let­ter to white Amer­ica, to the well-mean­ing sorts who at some point might have said, “Yes, things are bad, but they’re get­ting bet­ter, right?” It is to them that Coates is de­liv­er­ing this stern, fa­therly talk. Andthe au­di­ence is rapt. “Be­tween the World

and Me is, in im­por­tant ways, a book writ­ten to­ward white Amer­i­cans, and I say this as one of them,” writes Slate critic Jack Hamil­ton. “White Amer­i­cans may need to read this book more ur­gently and care­fully than any­one, and their own sons and daugh­ters need to read it as well.”

In one of the ear­li­est assess­ments, New Yorker editor David Rem­nick de­scribed “Be­tween the World and Me” as an “ex­tra­or­di­nary” book and likened Coates to James Bald­win. (Ac­tu­ally, ev­ery­one else has, too.) Re­view­ers have hailed it as “a clas­sic of our time” (Pub­lish­ers Weekly), “some­thing to be­hold” (The Washington Post), “a love let­ter writ­ten in a moral emer­gency” (Slate) and “pre­cisely the doc­u­ment this coun­try needs right now” (the New Re­pub­lic). This is more than ad­mi­ra­tion. It is an af­fir­ma­tion of en­light­en­ment. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott went as far as one could go, call­ing Coates’s writ­ing “es­sen­tial, like wa­ter or air.” Yes, we can­not live with­out Ta-Ne­hisi Coates.

What does such ven­er­a­tion — es­pe­cially from a news media that Coates has at­tacked as in­dif­fer­ent to black Amer­ica or in­clined to view black Amer­ica as a crim­i­nal jus­tice prob­lem— mean for Coates’s ar­gu­ments about the en­dur­ing in­flu­ence of white supremacy? Does the praise dis­prove him, or to the con­trary, does it only sug­gest that, in an age when lib­eral elites line up to lament their white priv­i­lege, the struc­tures of in­equal­ity are re­silient enough to ac­com­mo­date, even glo­rify, this most rad­i­cal critic?

In his 2009 memoir, “The Beau­ti­ful Strug­gle,” Coates tells the story of his child­hood in West Bal­ti­more and his re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther, “Con­scious Man,” a li­brar­ian and ex-Black Pan­ther, pub­lisher of ob­scure black texts, fa­ther of seven chil­dren by four women, but a man who “never shirked when his bill came due.” He sought to in­still con­scious­ness in the young Ta-Ne­hisi, aware­ness of a com­mu­nity’s his­tor­i­cal strug­gle. “He cov­ered the crib with Knowl­edge, un­til rooms over­flowed with books whose ti­tles promised mil­i­tant ac­tion and the re­turn to glory,” Coates wrote of his fa­ther. The son ab­sorbed the lessons, lis­ten­ing to Mal­colm X’s “The Bal­lot or the Bullet” on his Walk­man, be­com­ing “a plague” on his fa­ther’s books. “My Con­scious­ness grew, un­til I was ob­sessed with hav­ing been birthed in the wrong year,” Coates wrote in the ear­lier memoir. “All the great wars had been fought, and I was left to rum­mage through the­myths ofmy fathers.”

Coates has found his new wars, mainly by re­al­iz­ing that the old ones never re­ally went away. And now “Be­tween the World and Me” seeks to im­part that con­scious­ness not just to his son but to all of us: that the vi­o­lence done to black Amer­i­cans is not ac­ci­den­tal but by de­sign, “the prod­uct of demo­cratic will”; that white Amer­ica’s dream of nice houses, good schools and Me­mo­rial Day cook­outs is built on cen­turies of plun­der of African Amer­i­can bod­ies, through lynch­ing and redlin­ing, bul­lets and choke­holds; and that “sen­ti­men­tal firsts”— the first black this or that — are lit­tle con­so­la­tion. “Never for­get that we were en­slaved in this coun­try longer than we have been free,” he writes.

The more rad­i­cal Coates’s cri­tique of Amer­ica, the more tightly Amer­ica em­braces him. Chal­lengers are soon shouted down, whether Politico’s By­ers or New York mag­a­zine’s Jonathan Chait, who last year de­bated Coates in a se­ries of thought­ful posts on cul­ture, poverty and per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity, and was deemed the loser. Those who posit any short­com­ings in Coates’s anal­y­sis— as when Buz­zfeed’s Shani O. Hil­ton ar­gued that in his world­view, “the black male ex­pe­ri­ence is still used as a stand in for the black ex­pe­ri­ence”— do so al­most lov­ingly. Even con­ser­va­tive crit­ics, such as Na­tional Re­view’s Kevin D. Wil­liamson, spend nearly as much time prais­ing Coates as tack­ling his ar­gu­ments, or like Shelby Steele in an em­bar­rass­ing ap­pear­ance on ABC’s “This Week,” they seem to ca­pit­u­late even be­fore the bat­tle has been joined.

So it feels al­most blas­phe­mous to note, for in­stance, that the prose in “Be­tween the World and Me” can stray from over­whelm­ing to over­writ­ten, with sen­tences such as: “Po­etry was the pro­cess­ing of my thoughts un­til the slag of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.” Or to sug­gest that “The Beau­ti­ful Strug­gle,” the book Coates wrote when no one was watch­ing, is a more brac­ing, more in­ti­mate work than “Be­tween the World and Me,” which for all its power feels writ­ten with the pre­sump­tion of a high Ama­zon rank­ing.

“Our media vo­cab­u­lary is full of hot takes, big ideas, take­aways, grand the­o­ries of ev­ery­thing,” Coates writes in his latest book. “But some time ago I re­jected magic in all its forms.” His fol­low­ers have not. If racism is Amer­ica’s old­est sin, read­ing Coates has be­come its new­est ab­so­lu­tion. It is of no con­se­quence that he thinks lit­tle of his white read­ers. “When peo­ple who are not black are in­ter­ested in what I do, frankly, I’m al­ways sur­prised,” Coates told Ben­jamin Wal­lace-Wells of New York mag­a­zine. “I don’t know if it’s my low ex­pec­ta­tions for white peo­ple or what.”

Wal­lace-Wells con­cludes that Coates is that rare rad­i­cal writer who “rad­i­cal­izes the Es­tab­lish­ment.” But if so, how last­ing might that rad­i­cal­iza­tion prove, and to what ef­fect? The ac­claim for “The Case for Repa­ra­tions” came not just de­spite the un­like­li­hood of any repa­ra­tions ac­tu­ally com­ing to pass; as with many causes, its very im­prob­a­bil­ity may have made it es­pe­cially easy to em­brace. All con­scious­ness, few de­mands. Per­fect for a white Amer­ica that Coates di­ag­noses as “ob­sessed with the pol­i­tics of per­sonal ex­on­er­a­tion.”

The de­ci­sion to move up the pub­li­ca­tion of “Be­tween the World and Me” is in­struc­tive. Orig­i­nally slated for early Septem­ber, the book was re­leased in July in­stead, be­cause of the surge of out­rage and in­ter­est that fol­lowed the Charleston, S.C., mas­sacre. “It spoke to this mo­ment,” Christo­pher Jack­son, ex­ec­u­tive editor of Spiegel & Grau, told the Wall Street Jour­nal.

The irony is that, if you read this book and take it se­ri­ously, it is ob­vi­ous that the mo­ment for “Be­tween the World and Me” is far more than July 2015. It is also last sum­mer. And last cen­tury. And long be­fore then, and long to come. There is no “mo­ment.” Racism re­quires no news hook; it al­ready has too many. Yet the move by Coates’s pub­lisher seems to be­tray a worry that there is some­thing fleet­ing or merely fash­ion­able here, that even a writer with the reach and tal­ent of Coates may have dif­fi­culty re­tain­ing his ap­peal. Or worse, I fear, he will grow in­creas­ingly rad­i­cal­ized be­fore a lovely, en­light­ened au­di­ence that con­tin­ues to read, con­tin­ues to ap­plaud and con­tin­ues to do noth­ing.

And there’s lit­tle beauty in that strug­gle.

If racism is Amer­ica’s old­est sin, read­ing Ta-Ne­hisi Coates has be­come its new­est ab­so­lu­tion.


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