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Don't Be Fooled By All That Forelock-Tugging -- David Brooks Deeply Resents Ta-Nehisi Coates

In his much-mocked column "Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White," David Brooks makes a great show of deference to his subject, and to black political activists in general...
Don't Be Fooled By All That Forelock-Tugging -- David Brooks Deeply Resents Ta-Nehisi Coates
Image from: DonkeyHotey

In his much-mocked column "Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White," David Brooks makes a great show of deference to his subject, and to black political activists in general:

The last year has been an education for white people. There has been a depth, power and richness to the African-American conversation about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings that has been humbling and instructive.

Your new book, “Between the World and Me,” is a great and searing contribution to this public education. It is a mind-altering account of the black male experience. Every conscientious American should read it.

But I think Corey Robin reads the column correctly:

Listen to this:

I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?

Or this:

If I do have standing, I find the....” [That if I have standing!]

Or this:

Maybe you will find my reactions irksome. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change.

What to make of it? Unsuccessful attempts to disarm his critics? Maybe.

Or maybe we should pay more attention to that tone of aggrieved and bitchy petulance which accompanies these qualifiers: “I suppose...Is my job just...is just silence...” That “just” gives the game away.

"Aggrieved and bitchy petulance"? Yup, that's it. Brooks may say that the book is "great and searing," but he deeply resents the fact that Coates seems vastly more credible than he is, especially at this moment, on the subject of the American Dream as it relates to African-Americans. Coates believes that the arc of history is not bending toward justice for black Americans, and further believes that the essential nature of American society limits black Americans' progress -- and Brooks is just not having it.


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Brooks writes,

If I do have standing, I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.

It's not just that Brooks's syntax is clumsy here. He also misses Coates's point that the racism in our society is ongoing; there may not be lynchings per se anymore, but the violence takes other forms, such as deaths in police custody.

But even if Brooks acknowledged this, it wouldn't matter, because Coates has besmirched Brooks's precious free will, which, in his view, ought to allow any American to transcend any circumstance (if, presumably, the individual is infused with "emotional intelligence" or "social capital" or whatever the hell it is that Brooks regards as America's Get Out of Oppression Free card).

Near the end of the column, Brooks actually seems to blame Coates himself for black Americans' failure to achieve the American Dream:

This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.

Read that last sentence again. Brooks is suggesting that Coates's own book is going to destroy the American Dream for multiple generations of black people -- a dream to which they could otherwise readily gain access.

The opening statements of respect in this column are not to be read literally. They're Brooks's version of "Brutus is an honorable man." Brooks may respect Coates's book as memoir, but, as political and cultural analysis, it's repellent and dangerous, in his view. Don't let the kind-sounding words fool you.

Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog

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