Ta-Nehisi Coates Disagrees With ‘Jonathan Chait,’ and So Do I

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27:  U.S. President Barack Obama (R) delivers remarks about his 'My Brother's Keeper' initiative with students from the Hyde Park Academy in the East Room at the White House February 27, 2014 in Washington, DC. As part of his 'Year of Action,' Obama announced a $200 million commitment from nine foundations to bolster the education and employment of young men and boys of color.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ta-Nehisi Coates and I started having a fascinating debate about the beliefs of President Obama. Coates has turned it into a less-fascinating debate about my beliefs, or what he calls my beliefs. The trouble is that I share almost none of the beliefs he ascribes to me.

I write “almost” because there’s one exception, which Coates places at the end, but I’ll place at the beginning. Coates and I disagree about racial progress in America. Coates sees the Americas' racial history as a story of continuity of white supremacy. I see the sequence (I’d call it a progression, but that term would load the argument in my favor) that began with chattel slavery and has led to the Obama administration as a story of halting, painful, non-continuous, but clear improvement. Coates associates himself with a quote from Malcolm X: "You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress."

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The analogy defines out of existence the very possibility of steady progress. People who subscribe to this way of thinking won’t agree with measures that reduce but fail to eliminate racial discrimination, or those that reduce but fail to eliminate poverty, or reduce but fail to eliminate medical deprivation. I have written before, for instance, about how slavery continues to poison white minds in ways white people are often unaware of. One can believe in the continued existence of racism and still think that the scale of the evil has fallen enormously since the 19th century. This is an important debate, but also an old one that has many better advocates than me.

The parts of Coates’s piece that precede that consist, in their entirety, of him debating a person he calls “Jonathan Chait” whose views I do not agree with. I am willing to accept some of the blame for this. I did not explicate every point as clearly as I could have; I did not pin down every definitional ambiguity; I did not include at every step caveats renouncing every possible direction in which my arguments could be taken. But it’s also impossible for even the most careful writer to survive the method Coates is applying here, which is that of a hostile prosecutor combing the evidence for every shred of possible guilt.

I quoted a classic Coates essay called “The Culture of Poverty,” in which he described how he threatened assault against another journalist and nearly derailed his own career. I described it as an example of how “the cultural mores he learned growing up in a heavily poor, heavily black neighborhood can become utterly destructive to career advancement.”

Coates summarizes my takeaway like so: “Chait chooses to assume that I was responding to some inscrutable call of the wild.” I did not use the phrase “call of the wild,” or anything like it, nor did I arrive at any conclusion remotely like it. Coates proceeds to reiterate his conclusion from that episode — some learned behavior that is appropriate for navigating a poor, threatening neighborhood is deeply harmful to middle-class advancement.

I concluded that people raised in concentrated poverty often need to be taught middle-class norms. Coates retorts — or writes in the guise of a retort — “No, they need to be taught that all norms are not transferable into all worlds.” Yes, of course. You can teach middle-class norms without teaching children to make themselves targets on the street. I omitted a caveat, and Coates filled in the omitted caveat with hostile meaning. We agree on the central lesson of the story he told: the fact that a person like Coates would attempt to settle a professional dispute by threatening assault, and thus nearly incinerate his career, indicates that what he called “the culture of poverty” is, in some important sense, a problem. Coates is now taking readers on long detours of semantic outrage that avoid the basic fact of our agreement — or, at least, my agreement with circa-2010 Coates.

More perplexing to me, Coates devotes a huge amount of space expounding upon the premise that, as he puts it, I “believe ‘black culture’ and ‘a culture of poverty’ are somehow interchangeable.” That would be a completely ridiculous thing to believe. Black culture, like Italian-American culture and Jewish culture and Texan culture, is a combination of values and music and food and language and tone. It is a completely different thing from the culture of poverty. Most cultures have their own pathologies, too. (Here is a brilliant 2002 diagnoses by Leon Wieseltier of the explicable but self-destructive Jewish habit of seeing new Hitlers everywhere.)

Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

I am trying to figure out how he arrived at this belief in the first place, especially since I never wrote the words “black culture.” Here is my reconstruction. Originally, Coates wrote a column arguing that Obama and Paul Ryan believe essentially the same thing about the roots of poverty in black communities. I disagreed. Coates replied, and in that reply, he wrote that Obama and Ryan’s worldview has “common roots — the notion that black culture is part of the problem.”

I quoted Coates writing this. Why? To me, the important passage was “part of the problem.” I was clarifying that Obama (and Bill Cosby) see the culture of poverty as a part of the problem of poverty, as opposed to its entirety, as Ryan sees it, and also opposed to zero percent of the problem, as Coates sees it.

Now, Coates was also accusing Obama and Cosby of blaming “black culture.” I considered this a rhetorical cheap shot. Obviously, to me, Obama and Cosby do not blame “black culture” for poverty. (I don’t know as much about Cosby as Coates does, but I do know that he venerates black culture, and that the distinction between black culture and the culture of poverty is central to his worldview.) I didn’t bother pointing out the cheap shot. So now Coates has written thousands of words assailing me for quoting his own line in disagreement, on the assumption that, by failing to call it out, I agree with his framing.

The only case Coates could make here is that I left myself open to this aggressive misreading by failing to use the necessary caveat. So let me explain what I do think.

The culture of poverty is not solely or even primarily a black problem. It is a problem arising from concentrated poverty, and — as a result of both historic and ongoing racism — concentrated poverty disproportionately afflicts African-American communities. Obama understands that he commands prestige that can make him an inspirational figure in say, poor black neighborhoods in Chicago that he lacks in, say, poor white towns in West Virginia. As I've said, I understand Coates' practical objections to this tactic.

The reaction I’ve seen online to this debate suggests a lot of readers on both sides investing a great deal of broader meanings into it — identity, authenticity, yet another endless iteration of the meta question of How We Talk About Race. I have no interest in playing a role in that drama. What interests me is a real and vital public-policy debate over the relationship between culture and poverty. In his previous reply, Coates asked me to supply empirical evidence of the culture of poverty, which I duly did, but which he chose not to pursue or mention in his most recent post. We need to understand this question to help design better anti-poverty policies.

But of course this requires one to be predisposed to the task of designing incrementally more just and effective policies in an unjust world. Some of us think of that task as the strong and slow boring of hard boards. Others of us think of its as merely pulling the knife slightly farther out of a man’s back.