I have little interest in the battles among the left over whether Ta-Nehisi Coates is a useful figure or not, battles that are as much about jealousy than anything substantive. But I found this discussion of his appearance of Stephen Colbert’s show interesting. On the show, he basically said that he had no hopes for Americans to “solve” racism or even really get better. That is based in a realistic look at the world and an understanding of the malleability of whiteness, which is true but I think is slightly overstated in popular conversation on the left.
“You’ve had a hard time in some interviews expressing a sense of hope in this country,” Colbert said toward the end of the interview. “Do you have any hope tonight for the people out there, about how we could be a better country, we could have better race relations, we could have better politics?”
“No,” Coates said, to scattered laughter. “But I’m not the person you should go to for that. You should go to your pastor. Your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope.”
“I’m not asking you to make shit up,” Colbert interjected. “I’m asking if you personally see any evidence for change in America.”
“But I would have to make shit up to actually answer that question in a satisfying way,” Coates explained.
What about the coming demographic change to America, Colbert asked. White people will soon be a numerical minority in America: Won’t things change then?
“Your question presumes that there is a static definition of whiteness,” Coates said. “And that this is the first time that there’s been a demographic change.” The Irish, he argues, weren’t always considered white; neither were the Italians or the Jews. America, by implication, is perfectly happy to change the definition of whiteness if it means the country can remain a majority-white nation.
“In addition to the very definition of whiteness being malleable,” Coates added, “the ability to vote is also a malleable thing. So you might have the possibility of the demographics actually changing, but who has the ability to use those demographics in an electoral system might also change too.”
Colbert took a second to sigh, in frustration or in sadness. “I hope you’re wrong,” he said.
There’s a couple of interesting things going on here. First is the desire by white liberals such as Colbert (but really his audience and the people who looked up so much to Jon Stewart during the Bush years, etc) to think that people are mostly good and that if people are more educated they will start doing the right thing. And there’s just not really much reason to believe this is true. I mean, it’s a nice sentiment but where’s the evidence for this? You can educate people and they aren’t going to learn the lessons you want them to learn (most any professor in a field that focuses on social issues will tell you this). Rather, and Coates knows this, the struggle against racism is not an educated discussion. It’s a knock-down, drag-out fight to the death, sometimes literally. There’s no reason to think that liberals are really up to that fight.
On the other hand, a realistic diagnosis of the pathology eating away at this nation’s soul also can be bad politics if not paired with some way to move forward. Ultimately, throwing up our hands in the face of hate and white supremacy doesn’t do us any good at all. Coates more or less throws up his hands. He’s not involved in the struggles in the United States in any way other than writing, which makes him no different than a lot of people, except that he has a larger platform. This allows him to ignore the hard work people are doing on these issues, even while making a perfectly valid larger point about American society. I think one can be brutally honest about reality while also doing what we can to make the world a better place. I find that a lot of people have trouble with that line, thus the belief that my writing is depressing, which always surprises me. I mean, I don’t have any real illusions either but what’s the alternative? Certainly believing that somehow we are going “solve” racism if we are just rational people having fact-based conversations isn’t going to do it. But ultimately, you have to at least articulate a way forward around race and the many other forms of hate and exploitation in the world instead of indulging in pure pessimism. Not only is that necessary to move forward on any issue but it’s also good politics. And good politics matter, even for great writers.